Nearly three weeks after an unidentified motorist drove through a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters marching in Santa Rosa, basic details about the Santa Rosa Police Department's investigation into the matter remain unclear, angering protesters who say the driver’s actions threatened their lives.
On June 20, a motorist in a white Porsche Cayenne drove through a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters marching along Santa Rosa’s Sonoma Avenue. Since then, dozens of protesters who witnessed the incident have reported it to the police, alleging that the motorist drove recklessly with intent to injure protesters.
At least three witnesses submitted video of the event along with their police reports. The driver, whose identity has not been revealed by police, reported the incident, too, alleging protesters attacked her.
SRPD’s Violent Crimes Investigation Team (VCI) conducted an investigation and turned their findings over to Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch’s office on Tuesday, July 7, according to Santa Rosa police lieutenant Jeneane Kucker, a department spokesperson.
“This case has been sent to the DA at this point for a decision on prosecution. Our VCI team thoroughly investigated the case and interviewed more than 25 (plus) [sic] people involved,” Kucker told the Bohemian in an email.
On July 8, Brandon Gilbert, an assistant to Ravitch, confirmed that the prosecutor’s office is reviewing the case.
“We just received the investigative report and it is under review,” Gilbert said. “We will be reviewing all digital media as well.”
Still, it’s not clear yet who the police actually investigated.
Lt. Kucker twice did not respond to questions asking whether the VCI investigated the driver, protesters or both as possible perpetrators.
That lack of clarity and publicity seems appropriate for the case given that the SRPD’s initial public statements about the incident seemed slanted in favor of the driver, in contrast to multiple videos of the event circulating online.
A press release issued by SRPD the day after the June 20 event created alarm among protesters that the driver was described as the victim. The SRPD press release described the motorist as a nurse who had gotten off work at a local hospital, and multiple news websites wrote articles that relied only on the SRPD release as a source.
According to the release, the motorist alleged that she was followed by someone on a bicycle who punched her in the face when she stopped her car. Protesters who witnessed the driver accelerate through the crowd doubt this claim.
The Bohemian asked Lt. Kucker, “How did SRPD determine that the driver was punched? What evidence supports that?” Lt. Kucker did not answer these questions either.
Alleging that police and media dangerously misrepresented protesters in their reporting, a group of about 20 witnesses gathered on two occasions to demand justice from SRPD and the DA’s office.
Sophia Grace Ferar, one of the organizers of these follow-up actions, said that the event’s media coverage frustrated her deeply. She noted that SRPD issued no subsequent press releases about the event, despite telling a witness that they had received 60–70 statements from protesters.
“We were almost run over and the only difference between us and Summer Taylor, who lost her life [during a protest in Seattle], is that we had security in front of us who gave us a heads-up,” said Ferar. (The King County Prosecutor charged the driver who killed Taylor with vehicular homicide, vehicular assault and reckless driving on Wednesday.)
On July 7, Ravitch and six deputy DAs came to Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse to meet with a group of protesters. Though prompted by the investigation into the incident between the motorist and protesters, the meeting was broader in scope.
Delashay Carmona Benson, a local Afro-Latina activist and community organizer, spoke with Ravitch before and at the meeting. Carmona Benson says that she will be assembling a committee of Black and Indigenous community members who will meet with Ravitch every two weeks.
“Everything starts with dialogue,” Carmona Benson said.
When asked whether she feels optimistic about her interaction with Ravitch, Carmona Benson said, “I felt she was listening and that she was responsive.”
Carmona Benson told Ravitch she wants to meet with judges, parole officers, probation officers and people from the family law division. She says Ravitch has already begun to put her in touch with those people, as promised.
Regarding the meeting, Gilbert said, “[Ravitch] plans to continue to engage with all members in the community she was elected by and lives in. She believes strongly that all voices should be heard and that dissent should be respectful and not dismissive. She believes this is an important time for all of us, and we need to focus on working together for positive change. She has pledged to be part of that effort.”
Carmona Benson said, “It’s her job to work for the people. We elected her. I think she knows I’m not afraid to tell the world if she’s not doing it.”