Report from California on the Fight Against Police Brutality

Stolen Lives in Sonoma County

Revolutionary Worker #948, March 15, 1998

Sonoma County lies along the Northern California coast about 60 to 90 miles north of San Francisco. It is part of the area that is known as wine country. The vineyard-lined region is a popular weekend getaway for the well-to-do, who drive through the beautiful countryside and go wine-tasting or dining at posh restaurants.

But there is another side of Sonoma County. "You have beautiful wineries and less than a block away you can see where the workers live," an activist with the October 22nd Coalition Against Police Brutality told the RW, describing the stark contrasts of wealth and poverty that exist in this area. The fastest growing section of the population in the county is immigrants. And the brutal enforcement of social inequality in Sonoma has been brought to light by a sharpening battle against police brutality--there have been 13 murders by the police in the last two and one half years.

On February 20, there was a special all-day public hearing by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights--called in response to the growing outrage at the epidemic of police killings. Hundreds of people, including many families of those murdered by police and sheriffs in Sonoma County, crowded into the State Office Building in Santa Rosa. The Asian Law Caucus organized a bus from San Francisco so that Chinatown residents who have been protesting the murder of Kuanchung Kao by the Rohnert Park Police could attend.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is an official government body organized by the U.S. Department of Justice--and its role is to try and put a lid on people's anger by channeling it into appeals through the legal system. But activists against police brutality were able to seize on the commission hearing to mobilize people to speak out about their experience with the police and to further expose the epidemic of police murder.

Outside the commission hearing there was a very lively scene. Activists from the October 22nd Coalition set up the "Stolen Lives Wall"--which has the names of victims and descriptions of the many police killings in Sonoma, Northern California and around the country. The wall was adorned with wreaths for those murdered by the Sonoma police. Chalk silhouettes were drawn on the sidewalk immediately outside the door of the building to symbolize those killed, not able to be present to tell their story. There were tables and banners from the Purple Berets, Copwatch and Sonoma Food Not Bombs. Many people wore white and black ribbons for those killed by the police. Several of the main television stations and newspapers in the SF Bay Area covered the hearing and the protests and featured statements by parents and relatives of victims killed by the police.

A group of students from Sonoma State University set up a table in front of the commission hearing. They were from two ethnic studies classes that had taken up the issue of the police killings. For many of these students studying police brutality had been a real eye-opener, compelling them to get involved in the struggle. The professor estimated that about 30 to 35 out of 40 students in the two classes voluntarily attended the hearings.

"We are doing a lot of community service as well as research on this issue," one of the students told the RW. "We've been providing day care and providing any help possible to these people. For example, there is the Kuanchung Kao case. His wife is left with two twins that are very young and a five-year-old daughter. She's having a hard time dealing with the situation on her own, emotionally, financially, and physically. So we are helping out with day care, and in other ways, these victims of police brutality. We're also doing research on the demographics of the police departments. We realize through our research that 85 to 90 percent of the police officers are white."


During the lunch break there was a speakout/press conference in front of the Stolen Lives Wall. Many of the families of victims of police murder were present at the rally or sent statements. Kathleen Cooley, whose son Dustin Clark was killed by the police, sent a statement that was read by a friend. A representative of the Salomon Hernandez Justice Committee read a statement from Maggie Hernandez, whose husband Salomon Hernandez was killed by the police. Max Kai, a friend of Joanie Holmes (who died in police custody), read a statement remembering Joanie. A statement was read from Peggy Ferrell, whose nephew Damon Lansing was killed by the police. Damon's aunt and mother, Delores Williams, were both at the rally. Cornelius Hall, whose son Jerrold was murdered by BART (rapid transit train) police, read a statement from Pat Baldridge, whose son, Kevin Saunders was killed by the Santa Rosa police. Larry Shinagawa, a professor from Sonoma State read a statement from Ayling Wu, the widow of Kuanchung Kao (who was at the hearing earlier in the day), Daniel García Jr., nephew of Mark García who was killed by the SF police, also spoke.

The statements by the families expressed the deep loss they feel for their loved ones whose lives were cruelly snatched away. The statement from Ayling Wu said, "One little callous bullet and I became a widow at age 33 with three young children. It destroyed our American dream. We worked so hard in the last eight years. We've bought a nice house in the best area of Rohnert Park. We created three beautiful children. In our career we both were climbing to the top. This is all over now. My boys will never have a chance to say daddy.... My daughter's childhood stopped at the moment of the gunshot.... It is a terrible mistake to migrate to America."

Pat Baldridge, the mother of Kevin Saunders who was killed by the police, wrote in her statement, "He's my son. I think that he's always with me. I go down the street and think that I see Kevin. I keep thinking that I see him. I haven't gotten over it yet and don't think that I ever will."


There was also powerful testimony inside the hearings from two panels of community representatives. The speakers in the community panels were Judith Volkart of the American Civil Liberties Union, Sonoma; Elizabeth Anderson of the Sonoma County Peace and Justice Center; Larry Shinagawa, Professor at Sonoma State University; Tanya Brannan of the Purple Berets; Steven Campbell of the Homeless Coalition; and Karen of the October 22nd Coalition Against Police Brutality.

Steven Campbell of the Homeless Coalition told the panel, "Sonoma County has bestowed its officers with the discretion to target, detain, prostrate, search and arrest young African Americans and Latinos on their own porches and front yards, for congregating with their own families, sometimes for returning eye contact with an officer, sometimes for not initiating eye contact with an officer. It should be realized that for each person unreasonably killed by the police, scores are tortured, maimed and disabled for life -- many simply to provide entertainment and stress release to sadistic cops. Furthermore, within our jails prisoners are routinely assaulted by various police agencies. These in-house assaults often involve numerous officers brutally beating one inmate. Even though these beatings are done in the open view of the entire jail staff, during investigations no officers or support staff persons have the heart to stand up for justice and speak out on the criminal actions of their peers. I personally have been physically assaulted by the police in Sonoma County on two separate occasions..."

Karen of the October 22nd Coalition gave very important testimony about the cases of police murder. She started her testimony talking about the Stolen Lives Project and then painted a picture of the 12 murders that have taken place in Sonoma County. Her testimony told of three people dead in the Sonoma County jail because the guards did not provide medical care, of an unarmed man shot and killed by the police with his hands in the air, of a naked man high on drugs who was beaten, pepper sprayed, had a police dog sicced on him and later died of his injuries. She told of Salomon Hernandez, who was shot by the police when he returned to a gas station after forgetting to pay $5. The police shot Salomon three times in the chest and justified the shooting by saying that Salomon was carrying a screwdriver... The list of police atrocities continued until it was cut off by the commissioners.

Karen talked with the RW later about her work with the Stolen Lives Project, explaining what it takes to uncover the truth about the cases of police murder. Karen has spent hours looking through newspapers to find references to police killings and has found that articles in mainstream newspapers just parrot the lies of the police. Karen has developed ties with progressive reporters, attorneys and community organizations, sharing information to get at the truth behind the police lies. And she said one of the most important facets of her work has been with the families of the victims.


The Commission also heard from several panels of police, including Rohnert Park Police Chief Pat Rooney, Santa Rosa Police Chief Mike Dunbaugh, Sonoma County Sheriff Jim Piccini, as well as District Attorney Michael Mullins.

About 200 police attended the hearing in response to a call by two of the killer cops. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported that the police demonstration was organized by Officer Jim Carlson who killed Dale Robbins in 1996 and Officer Eric Goldschlag who killed Kuanchung Kao in 1997 and Damon Lansing in 1989. Police wore yellow ribbons in opposition to the white and black ribbons worn by the community activists.

The police angered many people by arriving real early and packing the small meeting room, which could only hold about 80 people, far fewer than the hundreds that came to attend the hearings. When the commissioners asked people to give up their seats after several hours, many of the police refused to comply. Because of this many of the family members of the victims of the police could not even get into the meeting room and had to listen to the hearing over loudspeakers in the lobby of the building.


The actions at the Civil Rights Commission hearing is only one part of the opposition to the police killings that has taken place in Sonoma County in recent weeks. A two-year memorial and candlelight vigil for Dale Robbins was held on January 30. A memorial is also planned on the one-year anniversary of the murder of Kuanchung Kao.

An important part of the resistance has been a tour of the Stolen Lives Memorial Wall to many locations throughout Sonoma County in February. A leaflet from the October 22nd Coalition in the SF Bay Area describes the wall: "The Stolen Lives Wall, a memorial for a secret war, is a 6-foot tall, shining black wall listing the names of those killed and the circumstances of their deaths. It is a way to reach out to people--especially those who are shielded from the epidemic of police violence...It will memorialize not just the few victims you may have heard about but the thousands who were unjustly killed. The media talks about a homeless street person with a long criminal record or a threatening, `mentally disturbed' person or a young person with an attitude. Often people of color, these are our brothers and sisters. It's similar to how the public has been conditioned to accept nameless charred bodies on foreign battlefields. Our wall honors and humanizes these victims."

The tour of the Stolen Lives Wall was sponsored by the Salomon Hernandez Justice Committee, the Sonoma County Free Press, and the Stolen Lives Project of Sonoma County. In addition to being outside the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, the wall also traveled to other places in Sonoma County: Sonoma State University, Santa Rosa Junior College, the California Museum of Art at Luther Burbank Center, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Windsor, Peace and Justice Center, and the Annual Dinner of the Sonoma County ACLU.

At Santa Rosa Junior College the Stolen Lives Wall was sponsored by a student group called Global Awareness In Action (GAIA). The RW talked with a student in the group who had sat about 10 hours with the wall. She said that the wall was set up right outside the busy main entrance to the school cafeteria where it was seen by many people. She was particularly moved by the response of two family members of victims who came to see the wall on display. The daughter of a man murdered by Sacramento police thanked her for displaying the wall and for getting the stories of the victims out to the people.

The student also told the RW about the controversy generated by the wall. Santa Rosa Junior College is the site of Sonoma County's academic police training program. The head of this "Administration of Justice" Department freaked out when the group brought the wall on campus and tried to pressure the school administration to shut it down. He argued that the wall was "irrelevant" to the campus and that 90 percent of the people on the wall deserved to be killed. The campus administration threatened the wall and said that activists had to be with the wall constantly while on campus--a "rule" that is not enforced against other campus groups. Some of the police officers in training came up to the wall in a very threatening manner.

The students in GAIA did not back down in the face of the threats. The student that the RW talked to said that she told the administration that the wall represented a side of the story that was not told in the media or in police reports. She said, "I wanted this to be out there. We have to increase awareness of this issue."

The situation in Sonoma County with 12 police killings in 2-1/2 years is intolerable. Unfortunately, the situation in Sonoma is not unique. It was only through mass struggle that the police murders there were brought to the light of day. The struggle in Sonoma County is part of a developing nationwide movement against police brutality that's making it known that there are many people who will not stand by while the cops murder our sisters and brothers.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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