COURSEY: Celebrating change for the good
Published: Wednesday, May 8, 2013 at 12:29 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 8, 2013 at 12:29 p.m.
On the day after Cinco de Mayo in 2005, the Press Democrat featured a Page 1 picture of a 17-year-old boy hurling a piece of concrete at police officers in Roseland. Other pictures showed phalanxes of cops in riot gear using smoke bombs and tear gas to disperse crowds of angry youth.
On the day after Cinco de Mayo this week, the Press Democrat featured a Page 1 picture of a 2-year-old girl playing with a borrowed trumpet in Roseland. Another picture showed a sea of happy, laughing faces reacting to the antics of a clown.
What a difference a few years can make.
It's important to remember that, not so long ago, Cinco de Mayo was a dangerous, violent night in Santa Rosa. It's important to know that today it is a celebration in which 10,000 people gather peacefully in the streets to celebrate culture and community.
It's important to remember that the change came about because the mob of good people in our midst outnumbers the mob of bad ones.
None of this happened easily.
In 2002, the “celebration” of the fifth of May had evolved into a night of cruising, drinking and fighting along Mendocino Avenue that attracted several thousand people, including many gang members, and left six people injured – three with gunshot wounds, two with stab wounds and one with a broken jaw.
In response, local law enforcement turned out in force in 2003, essentially shutting down Mendocino Avenue and making Cinco de Mayo miserable for anyone breaking the law. Members of the Latino community afterward complained of racial profiling on the part of police.
Tensions were wound even tighter in 2004, when 150 police officers descended on Roseland to crack down on cruising and other street infractions. The cops used smoke bombs and pepper-spray pellets to move the crowds; some in the crowds responded by throwing rocks and bottles and vandalizing businesses.
Cinco de Mayo, which celebrates a military victory by the Mexican army over the occupying French in 1862, had become an annual war in the streets of Santa Rosa. What happened in 2005 was predictable: The cops, dressed for battle, showed up in Roseland to disperse the crowds. The crowds, largely composed of young men, pushed back. Smoke bombs and pepper pellets were countered with rocks and bottles. The cops said gang members and hooligans were to blame. Some in the community responded that the heavy police presence instigated the violence.
It all could have gone on forever. But good people took charge. Community leaders proposed that, instead of making the celebration of Cinco de Mayo in the streets of Roseland a crime, it be turned into a festival. And the county's top cop agreed.
“Shame on us if we keep showing up and doing the same thing every time,” said then-Sheriff Bill Cogbill. He became the loudest voice for a different kind of Cinco de Mayo in Santa Rosa.
The cops showed up in Roseland on May 5, 2006, but they let kids pet their police dogs instead of siccing them on the crowd. The gang members showed up, too, but they were so outnumbered by the moms and dads and kids and politicians in the crowd of 5,000 that they hardly made a dent in the festive mood. Hundreds of citizens volunteered to act as “security” for the festival, tamping down tensions between police and revelers.
Make no mistake: People still get drunk and get in fights on Cinco de Mayo in Santa Rosa – just as they do on St. Patrick's Day and New Year's Eve and Super Bowl Sunday.
But that's no longer the headline on May 6. This week, when 10,000 people came from all over Sonoma County and beyond to gather in the streets of Roseland, they enjoyed music and food and dancing and fun. The air smelled of pupusas, not tear gas.
On May 5, 2006, the young man who a year earlier had been photographed in the act of hurling concrete at police took to the stage in Roseland and sang a song: “If you want to change.”
The Roseland community wanted to change, and good people made it happen.
Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.
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