Man with a Message "People are scared and frightened," says Greg Sarris. "This country is on the verge of a war between people of color and law enforcement, and the White House seems to be spurring it on."
The mariachi band stops playing and the lights come up as the last peals of trumpet shoot through the big ballroom. An emcee strides out onto the stage at the Graton Rancheria Casino and grabs a mic. It's Friday night and almost 10pm—and people are partying.
The emcee tells the capacity crowd to hang on: There's a really special guest about to take the stage. Reporters gather in a secure media area roped off from the crowd. Everyone waits in anticipation for the special guest.
Moments later, Graton Rancheria chairman Greg Sarris walks onstage and announces Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick is in the house—and that he has a message for the crowd of about 2,000 gathered for the casino's popular monthly Latin baile, or dance party.
As federal immigration raids mount around the country and tear families apart, Essick is on hand, at Sarris' request, to soothe nerves and reassure the well-dressed crowd. Cowboy hats bob in the audience and women balance on stiletto heels as Essick promises the audience the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office will protect their rights.
He reiterates his department's guidelines for dealing with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, in light of recent roundups and intense public scrutiny of conditions at detention centers along the southern border.
He tells the audience the SCSO will not turn anyone over for traffic infractions, driving without a license or insurance, or for any minor misdemeanors, including petty theft or public intoxication. Nor will his department assist ICE in conducting raids, nor will his officers ever ask anyone for their immigration status.
And, most important of all, Essick notes, no one who comes forward to report a crime to the agency he oversees will be turned over to ICE. In a county with a large undocumented population, these are important words.
The crowd cheers, Essick completes his remarks, and he and Sarris retire to the green room to join family, friends and the county officials in attendance.
Sarris describes it as a historic event for the sheriff's office, which gave Essick the opportunity to address a large crowd of mostly Latinos, some of whom are undocumented, he says, but safe from ICE because Graton's located on Native American soil and, as such, is sovereign territory.
Sarris says the event came together following a dinner he shared with Essick at the casino's steakhouse a few months ago. He says he wanted to give Essick, who took his post as Sonoma's top cop in January, the chance to "face the people and tell them himself" that his agency won't target undocumented immigrants on behalf of ICE.
Sarris grew up in Sonoma County, he says, and says lingering community bitterness over the 2013 shooting of Andy Lopez, as well as rising tensions over what's going on in Donald Trump's White House, motivated him to reach out to Essick.
"Latinos are afraid to go to work," he says, before launching into a litany of concern and frustration over their treatment. He says he's working to "love and protect" a local population that's lost faith in SCSO because of fallout from the Lopez shooting.
Over the course of the evening, Sarris reminds reporters on several occasions that he's staking his reputation on Essick keeping his word. "I'm putting myself on the line by walking out there with the sheriff," he says, an hour or so before walking on stage with Essick.
He says he's appalled at Trump's family-separation policy at the border and with conditions at the detention centers, and he's made direct calls to Gov. Gavin Newsom about it.
"I also called after he took the National Guard off the border," says Sarris, whose casino opened in 2013. "My love and feelings for the Latino community continue," he says, when asked why he decided to step into this contentious political moment, "and I thought, I have this opportunity, in the shadow of the Andy Lopez event and in the wake of the White House policy [which is] scaring the shit out of immigrants."
Inasmuch as the casino's mission is to separate visitors from their cash, Sarris highlights that Graton Rancheria tribe's mission includes social justice and environmental stewardship, and that his mission, by extension, is to do what he can to bridge a divide that grows by the day over immigration policy. "People are scared and frightened," he says with characteristic passion—and a few deleted expletives at his request. "This country is on the verge of a war between people of color and law enforcement, and the White House seems to be spurring it on."
Enter Essick, a family man and the elected sheriff of Sonoma County, who told the Bohemian last year that he left the Republican Party several years ago because of Trump's language about, and conduct toward, women.
Sarris and the North Bay activist community grapple with an ICE phenomenon that's created some internal friction over whether law enforcement agencies should interact with ICE at all. Sarris says that's a foolish strategy, even as he describes himself as being "to the left of the left" on most issues.
For example, Marin County Sheriff Robert Doyle faces critics who say he shouldn't hand any inmates over to ICE—even those who commit violent felonies. That viewpoint held sway with Supervisor Dennis Rodoni at a recent Marin County Supervisors meeting, who said he'd be more comfortable housing undocumented felons in local lockups than turning them over to ICE for deportation.
Sarris rejects that approach, saying "I have no sympathy for a high level felon," especially one involved in crimes against children. He blasts the liberal mindset that can't appreciate that protecting violent felons from ICE raids only serves to put the majority of law-abiding undocumented immigrants in danger. "Don't conflate grabbing wanted felons with what's happening down there," Sarris says with an animated wave of his arms. "We must come together on facts."
Sarris says he's committed to helping build a better relationship between law enforcement and the region's Latino community, which, he recalls, lived in an apartheid-like divide between white and brown when he was growing up in one of the county's poor neighborhoods. "We were frightened of them" he recalls, and a big driver of that fear was a lack of communication between the agency and the people they're sworn to serve.
Sarris says he hopes his effort will be a model to communities in the Central Valley dealing with the same fear and tension that exist locally. He repeats that he's taking a risk by standing side by side with Essick, but says he hopes the sheriff and his men will stick to these policies.
When he takes the stage, Essick's wearing simple blue jeans, a tucked-in flannel shirt and work boots. "He has agreed to protect you from ICE," the emcee tells the crowd. "I have the sheriff here to tell you this from his heart," Sarris says.
He briskly details the policies in place at SCSO, and the men exit the stage to applause that's not quite thunderous, but appreciative. Essick's here tonight with Misti Harris, the SCSO's community liaison, and a representative from Sonoma County who organizes Sonoma's rapid-response network, a local effort to stem deportations and keep families from being separated because of immigration status. Immigration issues are hitting home: Sonoma County Supervisors have also agreed to look in to activists' demands that the county divest from banks and corporations tied to ICE-contracted detention facilities. Those have lately been increasingly referred to as "concentration camps" in some corners of the media.
Asked to weigh in on the larger national framework responsible for driving the fear and tension locally, Essick passed on commenting on conditions at ICE border facilities at the southern border. "I'm not going to wade into the national debate about the border," he says. He's here tonight to provide a reassurance to local Latinos that "clearly spells out when we should interact with ICE," based on state law and not national politics.
The party music kicks in again in the big Graton ballroom, and before long, the dance party is back in full swing. It's a beautiful, celebratory scene.
Sarris, seated on a couch in the green room, looks up from his phone and says his security guys have spotted ICE lurking around the perimeter of the sprawling casino complex.
Happens all the time, Sarris says with a grin. But he's not amused.