Protesters close Highway 101 after daylong rally in Santa Rosa

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A daylong rally involving hundreds of people protesting the recent death of George Floyd and others in police custody ranged widely across central Santa Rosa on Saturday, closing Highway 101 twice before police used tear gas to disperse a crowd of several dozen protesters downtown.

The rally, which before dark was peaceful, coincided with others held across the country, which has been wracked for days by protests related to the death of Floyd. He died Monday after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes as he lay on the ground.

A crowd of several hundred people came together about 1 p.m. at Old Courthouse Square before marching several miles to the Sonoma County Sherff’s Office.

“Police brutality has been going on for a really long time, but this is the last straw,” said Ernesto Rosas, a Santa Rosa native who is studying computer engineering at Sacramento State University.

Rosas, who is visiting his parents in Windsor, said he was shocked to see the video of Floyd’s death, where Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck as Floyd said repeatedly that he could not breathe. Chauvin was arrested Friday on suspicion of third-degree murder.

The march caused traffic congestion on Mendocino Avenue and eventually splintered into several groups, with dozens of demonstrators entering Highway 101 at Steele Lane and briefly stopping northbound traffic in the late afternoon. They quickly scattered after a large response by Santa Rosa police and Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies.

Santa Rosa police officials estimated about 300 demonstrators had gathered at Old Courthouse Square. Others who attended the rally put the number at 500 or more.

The demonstrators, most of them wearing face masks, held signs that read, among other things, “Black Lives Matter” and “Racism is a Public Health Matter.” Passing drivers honked their horns as some demonstrators blew whistles and chanted “I can’t breathe … I can’t breathe … I can’t breathe!” a refrain that has come to symbolize Floyd’s death on Memorial Day as well as that of Eric Garner, who died after he was put in a chokehold by a New York City police officer in 2014.

In the video, Chauvin is seen holding his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, including nearly three minutes after Floyd had become unresponsive. The video has sparked outrage across the country and drawn condemnation from the general public as well as law enforcement leaders. It has led to days of both peaceful and violent protests and triggered curfews in some large cities.

For some in Santa Rosa, the rally triggered memories of the marches that followed the 2013 fatal shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy. In their chants, demonstrators often added Lopez’s name to the list of others killed by police or civilians, including Garner, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

Charity Saneholtz, 44, of Santa Rosa walked from Old Courthouse Square to the Sheriff’s Office on Ventura Avenue in the Sonoma County administration complex. She said she was saddened that several decades after the life and death of Martin Luther King, Americans are still protesting the wrongful death of African Americans.

“It’s up to white Americans to join their voices,” she said. “We can’t be complicit.”

Saneholts said that although she didn’t know demonstrators would be marching to the Sheriff’s Office, she thought it was fitting, given the death of Andy Lopez, that of 52-year-old Bloomfield resident David Glen Ward, who died in a struggle with sheriff’s deputies last November and the arrest of Graton resident Jason Anglero-Wyrick, who was subdued by a sheriff’s K9 dog and stunned with a Taser.

“We have work to do in our own backyard,” Saneholtz said, referring to the “use of excessive force.”

The rally at Old Courthouse Square splintered into two groups, with the first making its way to the Sheriff’s Office at shortly before 2 p.m. A second, smaller contingent at the square began marching up Mendocino Avenue sometime before 4:30.

That group also made its way to the Sheriff’s Office and was more confrontational with sheriff’s officials stationed on the roof of the Sheriff’s Office. They yelled profanities and flipped middle fingers at the sheriff’s officials in between refrains of, “I can’t breathe” and “No justice, no peace.”

Shortly after 6 p.m. the crowd left the Sheriff’s Office and dozens of demonstrators made their onto Highway 101 by entering the northbound offramp at Steele Lane. A brief standoff with Santa Rosa police officers, which spanned the northbound lanes of the freeway brought traffic to a standstill, with many drivers hundreds of yards south of the standoff sitting or standing on their cars to see what was happening in the distance.

The freeway was cleared less than an hour later.

Later in the evening, demonstrators at Old Courthouse Square marched to the Santa Rosa Police headquarters on Sonoma Avenue.

Erin Tomilinson, 20, a Sonoma State University student from Pittsburg in the East Bay said it was her first protest and that she was participating to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I’m finally putting everything that I’ve learned from the beginning of my life to now together,” Tomilinson said.

Nayeli Calles, 17, of Santa Rosa said she was protesting police brutality. “We need to have as many protests as we can down here because it’s not just in Minneapolis,” she said. “Because that’s the only way we’re going to get any change.”

Law enforcement officers let off tear gas at least twice Saturday night, once during a confrontation with demonstrators near a Highway 101 offramp at about 9:30 p.m. and again at 10:30 p.m. by the downtown transit mall.

Each time, demonstrators fled the smoke coughing and using milk and water to treat their eyes.

Just before the tear gas was deployed near the transit mall, a sheriff’s sergeant on a loudspeaker declared the gathering an unlawful assembly.

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