The most pressing issue on the agenda for the May 23 Rohnert Park city council meeting concerned Abatement Activities at the former State Farm Office Site, so the fact that every seat was filled and people were standing against the walls was a hint that there was going to be a lot more going on than what was printed on the agenda.
Anywhere from 10 to 15 people were clutching two separate sheets of paper with printed statements in their hands, one was green, reading “BRANCH WROTH ANOTHER NEEDLESS DEATH AT THE HANDS OF LAW ENFORCEMENT” and the other was yellow, reading simply “COMMUNITY OVERSIGHT OF LAW ENFORCEMENT NOW.” There was one woman who stood at the back of the room with a much larger sign with a drawing depicting two policemen and a person crouched over on the ground – one of the officers was shown to be striking the individual with a club, while the other was using an electric Taser.
This drawing was in reference to the death of Branch Wroth, a Cotati construction worker who had died in a Rohnert Park hotel room Friday, May 12, after being tased by police officers who had been called to the hotel room to check on reports of a man “acting strangely.”
During the first parts of the meeting, whenever someone was finished speaking, each individual would silently hold the two papers up, facing the council members. It wasn’t until the Public Comments part of the meeting that the true intensity of the protestor’s feelings became clear.
The first person who addressed the council was Mary Semish, who wanted to speak about the SMART trains and the noise they created. However, she ended her statement on the train by saying, “I noticed that people here are demonstrating against police brutality, and so I want to stand with them as well. I’ve always called the police and they’ve always helped me, but now I’m scared. I see on the T.V. a homeless lady laying on the ground, and they’re beating her half to death because she wouldn’t stop. If they had me down, they’d probably beat me half to death.”
She continued, commenting that she believes police need to be trained on anti- shooting tactics. Her voice had become choked from holding back tears, and she received applause from the audience members. Next up was Susan Lamont, and she set the tone for the rest of the protestors making their public comments. She began by stating that she was good friends of the parents of Branch Wroth, and made a point to state that Wroth wasn’t simply a construction worker, he was a son, and that there could be nothing worse for a parent than losing a child. She said, “The son of my friends was in distress, and instead of being helped, he was killed.”
One of the most impassioned statements came from Thomas Bonfigly, who placed a banana and a can of iced coffee on the podium. His example was of an instance where police had come to a supermarket after receiving a call about a crime in progress, and proceeding to pull their guns on a group of three Latino men who were in the checkout lane buying snacks after work. He exclaimed, “Now, I don’t know about you, but if I got done committing a crime, I sure as heck wouldn’t make the mistake of wasting my precious time to pay for my damn groceries at the checkout counter. That’s poor police work and you know it.”
The words being repeated the most often were “cruel,” “heartless” and “cold.” The protestors who came up to speak each had a story about how they felt the police had treated them, or someone they knew, badly. The room quickly became overheated with so many upset individuals making their case. But, while the emotions were high, the discourse remained civil. There were no raised voices, no fingers being pointed, and no threats being made. Rohnert Park Police Chief Brian Masterson was in attendance, and though much of the discourse had been acrimonious, when Barbara Mackenzie came up to talk about the update to the library hours, the protestors all got up and left quietly, with one of them stopping to shake Chief Masterson’s hand.