West Marin joins protests spurred by police killing

David Briggs
Anguish over the killing of George Floyd and support for the Black Lives Matter movement rippled through the region this week. On Sunday, around 300 people walked from Inverness Park to Point Reyes Station, where speakers read the names of recent victims of police brutality. Demonstrations took place in Inverness, Bolinas, Stinson Beach and Woodacre, and a surge of commenters attended the county supervisors meeting this week to press for changes in policing.  

Hundreds of West Marin residents joined the nationwide movement against police brutality and systemic racism this week, as political pressure mounts for Marin to address its racial inequalities and decrease funding for the sheriff’s office.

Marin is the most racially disparate county in California, according to Race Counts, a project that tracks outcomes by race in seven areas. The disparities show up in almost every area of research: White people make more money, live longer and receive a better education compared to people of color. Diversity in teachers, politicians, managers and police do not align with the population. Rates of business ownership and health insurance are higher for white people, and rates of foreclosures and incarceration are higher for people of color.

Dozens of commenters voiced their opposition to a proposed increase of $3.2 million for the sheriff’s office budget at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday. The increase would bring the budget to $76 million, the third largest county budget item representing 12 percent of total spending. The county is facing a $10 million budget shortfall this year, mostly due to the loss of sales tax revenue. County administrator Matthew Hymel is proposing to spend reserves, cut costs and reduce salaries through attrition to cover the gap. No services would be cut. 

The sheriff’s budget increase does not reflect more positions or supplies, but rather would keep up with inflated costs of living, pension costs and overtime. Still, commenters said the money would be better spent on social support and mental health services. 

Their tone was urgent, and they called out the supervisors for empty words. 

“Everything that you said—I stand with justice, we need to address this, blah, blah, blah—it means absolutely nothing if you give money to the sheriff’s department, who works with [Immigration and Customs Enforcement],” said Samantha Ramirez, a program coordinator for the Youth Leadership Institute.

Over 400 people signed a letter to the board from ICE Out of Marin opposing the budget proposal. The call for Sheriff Robert Doyle to stop exchanging inmates with ICE has been ongoing throughout the Trump regime. The office exchanged 72 inmates with ICE in 2018, and, after modifying the policy to only notify ICE if an inmate had been charged with a serious or violent crime, it exchanged about 20 last year. ICE Out of Marin says Sheriff Doyle has continued to transfer inmates during the shutdown, despite dire conditions in ICE facilities. 

“There is racial disparity in many agencies across our county, and I think the supervisors hold a lot of, not only responsibility, but opportunity to lead the way in showing how to address those issues,” Point Reyes Station resident Maggie Levinger said on Tuesday. “What are the issues, what needs to be done, and how do we do it?”

Commenters requested that Sheriff Doyle provide a more detailed account of how his office is spending. Currently, the budget is broken down into 15 categories, which show that the bulk of the money is spent on salaries and benefits, and the vast majority of employees work in the jail or on patrol. Mr. Hymel agreed to provide more details before county budget hearings on June 22 and 23.

Another point of contention has been the sheriff’s use-of-force policy. The sheriff sent out a press release after an online campaign aimed at changing eight use-of-force policies, called #8CANTWAIT, included the county in its database.

Marin’s use-of-force policy bans chokeholds, but carotid restraints—in which officers use their arms to apply pressure to the sides of the neck, restricting bloodflow to the brain and rendering someone unconscious—are allowed. Governor Gavin Newsom announced his intent to ban the neck restraint last week, and the state assembly is authoring legislation to do so. Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick banned the restraint last week.

Sheriff Doyle was not available for an interview this week, but in an email, he said his office is in the process of reviewing its use-of-force policies. “I’m sure we will be making modifications,” he said. “I ask you not to take the broad-brush approach that if it’s happening in Minneapolis, New York, Georgia and Kentucky, it must be happening in Marin.”

The sheriff wasn’t the only target at the meeting. Commenters also asked for Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to be renamed because its namesake traded slaves, and they called on supervisors to implement more diversity training for themselves and their staff.

“I’m supportive of everything that everyone is saying, and it demonstrates the need to have a continued transparent and open conversation, including with the sheriff,” Supervisor Dennis Rodoni told the Light after the meeting. He said he is happy with how deputies do their job in West Marin because they make an effort to understand the communities, but department leadership needs to improve communication. 

The protests in West Marin this week were about showing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The mood was hopeful, and the makeup of the crowds was mostly white, with a wide range of ages.

In Stinson Beach last Wednesday, about 100 residents gathered at sunset and took a knee for eight minutes, the length of time that former police officer Derek Chauvin pressed a knee into George Floyd’s neck. On Friday in Point Reyes Station, a crowd of 30 gathered in front of Wells Fargo and people read the names of victims of police violence. In Bolinas, a crowd of surfers paddled out as part of a nationwide mobilization of surfers to honor Mr. Floyd and show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter cause.

The largest demonstrations took place over the weekend. Ellie Jackson, a Nicasio resident and recent graduate of Marin Academy, organized a protest in Point Reyes Station along with Nima Heffelfinger and three of her family members. Over 300 people showed up, meeting in Inverness Park and walking in a line to Point Reyes Station. Drivers waved and honked along the way. 

When the crowd gathered downtown, Ms. Jackson used her megaphone to invite people to take a knee. “The entire town, it was wild, got down on their knee, and it was just dead silence,” she said. 

Two of the march leaders read the names of 100 people who lost their lives to police violence in the past five years, and they concluded with information about how to continue working for racial justice.

Later that day, about 80 people marched in Inverness, kicked off by an address by Rev. Vincent Pizzuto, the priest at St. Columba’s.

In Woodacre, an unprecedented crowd of some 400 people took to the streets. The fire department donated an amplification system that organizers Carolina Balazs and Cory VanGelder used to set the tone. They acknowledged that the gathering was taking place on Coast Miwok land, reminded the crowd of the need to continue speaking out about racial justice after the march, and then looped through town.

After the march, Ms. VanGelder told the Light that she shares the perspective of the people who spoke out at the Board of Supervisors meeting.

“Funding the Marin County sheriff department with a huge budget, prioritizing it over human services to Marin City, the Canal area, and Latino communities in West Marin is immoral and institutionalized racism,” she said.