Eight Nights in the Streets of Santa Rosa

Gianna Louis-Jacques, 17, born and raised in Santa Rosa: 'In the past 4 days... I’ve had a firework blow up on me, I fought, I was jumped, I’ve been tear gassed, I was arrested, and I would do it all again if it meant we were closer to justice. I LOVE MY PEOPLE.' (Gabe Meline/KQED)

Santa Rosa, my hometown, is a relatively serene place. You may know it as the home to Peanuts, Pliny the Younger, and a tourist-friendly food and wine scene. When Alfred Hitchcock needed an all-American small town in which to set Shadow of a Doubt, he chose Santa Rosa, quiet and idyllic.

But like most cities across America, Santa Rosa has looked and sounded a little different these past 10 days. I’ve been out in the streets until after midnight on almost all of those nights, walking and talking with an incredible uprising of people, mostly young, demanding an end to systemic racism and police brutality in the aftermath of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. I’ve lived in Santa Rosa my entire life and I have never seen anything like it.

What’s happening here is remarkable, not just on an aesthetic level—Santa Rosa can always use a little more chaos, in my humble opinion—but for the important, deeper work of necessary change. Racial oppression and acute injustice that’s long simmered under the surface here has now boiled over into public view. Ideas previously dismissed as unfeasible are being taken seriously.

And the kids—of course, it’s always the kids—are leading the way. And I’ve been following them.

Protesters face off with police near a downtown freeway offramp in Santa Rosa on Saturday, May 30.
Protesters face off with police near a downtown freeway offramp in Santa Rosa on Saturday, May 30. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

Here are a few things I’ve seen and heard while reporting and live-tweeting from the front lines of the protests in Santa Rosa.

I’ve been tear gassed twice. I’ve had rubber bullets fired in my direction. I’ve watched a young woman of color wrestled to the ground by four officers and pinned to the asphalt, screaming, with a knee in her back. I’ve seen an 11-year old girl in zip ties, being led away by an officer.

I’ve seen people tumble down a hill, their scrapes bleeding, when the police chased them away for blocking the freeway. I’ve heard from a small business owner whose window was broken from a rubber bullet fired by police, which the police denied doing until shown video evidence. I’ve talked to a building manager whose roof was commandeered without his permission by police, who cut open the fence around the roof, and who left it that way without telling him, leaving it exposed to trespassers.

I’ve seen the police chief take a knee with young demonstrators and, later that same night, seen his officers shooting tear gas into a crowd, in addition to rubber bullets that hit a local tribal leader in the mouth and smashed his teeth out.

I’ve talked with a reporter wearing clearly visible credentials, just after he was detained, during which police ordered him to put his arms up, zip-tied his wrists, asked for his Facebook page and if he’d been engaged in the perfectly legal practice of livestreaming the protests.

I’ve also seen people hurl bottles toward police, both plastic and glass. I’ve seen people warn police “You saw Minneapolis burn up, you may be next.” I’ve seen people shout all sorts of threats, insults and provably false accusations at police. I’ve heard of people shooting fireworks toward police. I've seen department store windows smashed, and large brawls, and graffiti galore.

A line of protesters blocks the intersection of College and Mendocino Avenues in Santa Rosa on Friday, June 5.
A line of protesters blocks the intersection of College and Mendocino Avenues in Santa Rosa on Friday, June 5. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

But here’s what I want to say, and after eight nights in the streets I can say it with authority: The ones doing these things constitute a very small number, relative to a larger, focused group that cares passionately about dismantling systemic racism, and which by and large polices itself.

Each time I’ve seen something thrown at police, the majority of the crowd castigates them. When a sideshow turned rowdy with fighting on the periphery, protesters pushed the few troublemakers away while others took over the intersection and knelt, reclaiming their space and refocusing the protest on the issues at hand.

And as for the single case I witnessed of someone stealing store merchandise, through the broken windows of an athletic store in the mall? The man who ran past me with an handful of clothes was swiftly intercepted by a group of young women, who took the clothes away from him and actually walked back to the store to return them.

For the most part, I have seen joy and determination. I’ve watched people dancing in the streets. I’ve witnessed a rap video against police brutality filmed in the middle of an intersection. I’ve seen kids popping wheelies on bikes. I’ve walked alongside people carrying heavy stereo systems on their backs to play YG, Biggie, Boosie, E-40, Nipsey, Tupac, Mozzy and so much Mac Dre. I've met a five-year-old boy who keeps encouraging his mother to bring him out to march. I’ve seen neighbors cheer on marchers from their porches, and marchers hug neighbors who are scared.

On the last night I was out, I met a guy who’d had a rubber bullet shot into his forehead by police, piercing his skin. Did it stop him? No. There he was, a few days later in a downtown intersection, cooking hamburgers and hot dogs and serving them to protesters off the back of his truck, free of charge.

A car of protesters drives beneath the downtown mall in Santa Rosa on Saturday, June 2.
A car of protesters drives beneath the downtown mall in Santa Rosa on Saturday, June 2. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

At age 44, I’ve learned a lot about political action from these young protesters. I’m really into this feeling that political action doesn’t have to be traditional political action, standing around and carrying earnest signs. Political action doesn’t have to hold you by the hand and constantly tell you how political it’s being.

Political action can be blocking freeways, smoking blunts, dancing to “Get Stupid,” hanging off open car doors and lighting fireworks. The kids I've walked with and gotten to know aren’t fighting for the right to do those specific things, but they are creating a tangible energy. Doing these things creates the space in which they can feel freedom, in a society that constantly stifles them, and tells them they’re too young to understand the way things work. That space, that energy, that freedom created by their chaos is undeniably a political act.

When you spend time with younger people and understand their language, these things come into focus. I may not understand why one would get in their car and spin donuts in circles dangerously close to a bunch of strangers. But in my own experience, freedom through chaos has come from hardcore shows, in the pit, flailing dangerously, enmeshed with a bunch of other strangers, around and around in a circle. How is a sideshow much different?

A swarm of lefty progressives standing around and holding signs that say “This is what democracy looks like”—that doesn’t make me feel free. If anything, it makes me feel trapped, by the chains of tradition, by the drudgery of the way it’s always been done. And after 30 years of watching protests I can tell you it doesn’t work. It’s why the police allow you to stand around and hold signs: it doesn’t change a system which benefits them.

There are other things the kids are teaching us. How donations can be made via Venmo and CashApp directly to individuals, instead of 501(c)(3) charities with salaries and overhead. How mutual aid can replace traditional fundraising. How you don’t have to hold endless meetings to plan a protest, and can simply post a notice on Instagram stories and watch people come.

I’d like to believe young people could learn something from my generation, too. But they’ve already learned a lot, because of something that happened in Santa Rosa in 2013. It shows up in graffiti and signs at protests here, and in moments like last Tuesday’s march, when the crowd stopped at an intersection and sang “Happy Birthday” to a 13-year-old kid who should have had the chance to live, named Andy Lopez.

Kamari Houston, 5, helps serve food in Santa Rosa on Friday, June 5. He’s talked his mother Onjelle into coming out each night: "He seen it on the news and told me ‘Mama, I have to go out there, I have to be a part of that.'"
Kamari Houston, 5, helps serve food in Santa Rosa on Friday, June 5. He’s talked his mother Onjelle into coming out each night: "He seen it on the news and told me ‘Mama, I have to go out there, I have to be a part of that.'" (Gabe Meline/KQED)

In 2013, Lopez was walking with an airsoft gun made to look like an AK-47, with the orange tip indicating it as a replica removed. Two sheriff's deputies spotted him and stopped their car, and one, Erick Gelhaus, got out and told Andy to put down his gun. As Andy moved to turn around and face the deputy, Gelhaus fired at him and struck him seven times, killing him on the spot.

By the SRPD’s admission, Andy hadn’t fully turned around to see who might be calling to him before he was filled with bullets. According to the autopsy, he was struck, among other places, in the right hip and right buttock—from behind.

The protesters I’ve walked with in Santa Rosa this past week are largely between the ages of 18 and 25. These are the kids who went to school with Andy. They haven’t forgotten.

Sponsored

Andy Lopez’s killing, and its aftermath, is an object lesson in things that are fundamentally wrong within law enforcement. A deputy knows he only has to say he feared for his life to get away with a fatal shooting. The department will put him on paid leave while an investigation gets underway—not by an independent oversight committee, but by the local police. The district attorney will report that the boy had smoked marijuana and that the deputy acted within the law. The grand jury, made up primarily of older white people, will decline to review the report. Somewhere in all the aftermath, the deputy will return to work, and be given an award, and a promotion.

This is the way the system works. The kids in Santa Rosa know this. The cops are now arresting them.

We have a policing problem in this country. That’s not a radical idea anymore, and neither is the notion of reducing police budgets and redistributing funds to other departments. In Santa Rosa, where our mayor is the former police chief who routinely votes in favor of police funding, the police budget currently accounts for 32% of the city’s general fund expenditures. Fire receives 24%; transportation and public works 15%; community engagement and recreation 6%.

Housing, in dire shortage here since the 2017 wildfires, receives 1%.

But the current protests in Santa Rosa and across the county aren’t just about law enforcement and inequity. They’re about hundreds of years of sick, systemic racism. In Santa Rosa, that stain goes back over 100 years, to an influx of early settlers from Missouri, and to the town's support of the Confederacy during the Civil War, and to the second-to-last known lynching in the West. It goes back to a Nazi rally in 1978. It goes back to the 1920s, when a giant sign spanned the corner of Fourth and Mendocino, above the intersection in the heart of Santa Rosa, that read “The Chinese Must Go.”

I think of the kids protesting in the middle of that very same intersection now—kneeling, dancing, hanging off car doors, blaring music, chanting, fighting for a better future—and I hope to God they never stop.

Sponsored