Healdsburg mayor faces critics at police accountability rally

A protest rally in Healdsburg turned confrontational, as city leaders came under fire for appearing to downplay racism. 

Almost 300 demonstrators filled the downtown plaza Thursday evening.

Some sought out city council members to scold them directly. 

"You said racism is not an issue," charged Tomas Morales, 41, speaking to Mayor Leah Gold. 

"I never said that," Gold responded, as other critics chimed in. 

Healdsburg, in the heart of Sonoma County's wine country, has about 12,000 residents. 

It's not known for crime or heavy-handed policing. 

But the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and resulting unrest, has exposed longtime tensions 

Morales, a Healdsburg native and father of two, says the council's insensitivity brought him to the protest. 

"If you're black, brown, yellow, if you're anything but white, you will be mistreated in your life even in the small town of lovely Healdsburg," he declared.  

The community has been in an uproar since a council meeting on June 1, in which one member suggested they explore "use of force" issues by getting a report from the police chief at a future date.

Mayor Gold response: "My reaction to that is, we don't have that particular problem in Healdsburg."

She was referring, she says, to police brutality.

Her fellow council members agreed a deeper discussion was unnecessary.  

"To me it's like a solution looking for a problem," continued Gold. 

Her words prompted a petition on Change.org, with 1700 signatures so far, demanding her recall.  

"These people on the council, they've been part of the community for so long, and are just now realizing racism is a problem and that's not okay," said Cristal Perez, a college student who said she was hurt and angered by the council's indifference. 

Perez and Guadalupe Lopez, both in their 20's, are collecting handwritten notes and displaying them in the town plaza.

During the protest, residents wrote and posted notes, describing their personal experiences of racism, which both women describe as pervasive. 

"Within the school district or just walking down the street, or in your jobs, anywhere and everywhere in Healdsburg," said Lopez.  

Healdsburg's population is 66 % white and 33% Latino. 

"People calling them names, telling them they're ugly and stupid," recounted Vice-Mayor Evelyn Mitchell, after viewing the testimonies. 

Mitchell said she was shocked and saddened by what she was learning. 

"Police following them in their cars as they were leaving Safeway or leaving work and following them to the edge of town, those stories were pretty frightening too."

Mitchell was contrite that the council rebuffed a discussion of racial issues. 

"I think we got it wrong and we're going to fix that." 

Mayor Gold was more measured in her remorse. 

"I certainly apologize for not being in touch with the way people were feeling at the moment, that was certainly a misstep," Gold told KTVU. 

The mayor insists her comments were not meant to minimize injustice, but to express confidence in the police chief, who she describes as progressive. 

"My statements were mis-characterized, and a false image perpetrated on Facebook," said Gold. 

"It was to rile people up who were already riled up, and that is not really me." 

During a 9 minute moment of silence, Gold and the other council members knelt alongside protesters. 

The council has changed course and will hear from the chief and community on issues of race and policing at a virtual meeting next Monday June 15. 

But detractors find the reversal insincere.

"Gold is simply blind, blind to everything going on, her and the council members," said Morales. "We do represent Healdsburg and we want her out."