Petaluma park becomes flashpoint for racial tension

A park in Petaluma has become a flashpoint for racial tension.  

Posters supporting the Black Lives Matter movement have been torn down repeatedly. 

Residents have confronted the man doing it, but say police let him go. 


Monday afternoon, Petaluma's mayor got involved, coming to the park for a listening session with parents and children. 

"You have to wonder what kind of person would tear things down like that," said Mayor Teresa Barrett, who has seen numerous cell phone videos of the incidents. 

In the most confrontational episode, the man wears a hoodie pulled up over his head and a mask, and stays on his bicycle, as he tries to rip down posters, while people object and try to block him. 

"We tried to stop him but he was really aggressive and really angry," said Rebecca Carpenter, who lives near Leghorns Park, on Sonoma Mountain Parkway. 

The back-side of a tennis court fence has become an ad-hoc art gallery thanks to some middle-school girls. 

Calling themselves "The Kindness Committee," they began posting uplifting signs on the fence and in other locations around town. 

More recently, messages about racial inequity joined the display, and that's when the man appeared on several occasions, objecting to them as "illegal."

"It seems pretty clear to us it was a racist event," said resident Leah Brosio, who said she was elbowed in the face by the man as he tried to reach above her to grasp a sign.  

Police were called, but allowed the man to ride away on his bike. 

"The officer said we were provoking this gentleman and violating his rights by not allowing him to tear down the signs," said Brosio.

Residents told Mayor Barrett how frustrated they were with that response. 

"There's an issue going on in our nation and it's affecting our community too," said one woman, among a few dozen speaking out. 

The man has been identified on social media as a 59 year old landscaper and sometime tennis instructor who has a previous criminal record for assault.

KTVU knocked on his door twice Monday, but no one answered, and neighbors said he had left town. 

Petaluma residents who met with the mayor fear that he is not alone in his views, and that others may intend to destroy the posters as well. 

Late at night, neighbors report seeing suspicious vehicles in the vicinity. 

"Kids wearing camo, black masks, hoodies, and backpacks, so what were they doing here at night?" posed another speaker. 

The mayor says she fully supports the teenage artists and their activism. 

"It's pretty impressive and I think these are the steps that build leadership," said Barrett. 

She admits she's concerned about the man's motivations and mental stability. 

"That is clearly not a healthy thing to do so why is he doing something so wrong and so anti-social?" wondered Barrett.  

Carpenter says the man tried to wrestle her phone away from her.

"He was yelling at the children and the children were sobbing, and it's just disgusting," said Carpenter. 

But she applauds the student's determination. 

"To their credit, they and their parents just keep coming back and signs keep going up, so kudos to them." 

Supporters are determined to protect the signs, and preserve their message, despite the lack of police support.

"It was disheartening to have the police officer accuse us of being in the wrong," said Nicole Reyes, who said she has two biracial daughters, both teenagers. 

Reyes believes the incident has opened a dialogue about racism in Petaluma, long overdue. 

"I would like to see more people talking about this but it does make me nervous because I'm worried something is going to happen here in the park." 

Mayor Barrett believes the solution might be to make the art display a city-sanctioned installation. 

A public art committee will consider that idea on Thursday, and she encouraged residents to express their views. 

Petaluma has had one virtual town hall on race and policing in recent weeks.