Dear White People – Shopping in the Vicinity of People of Color in Petaluma

Petaluma Latinx couple unjustly labeled kidnappers

Over eighty activists and supporters (by the Argus-Courier reporter Kathryn Palmer’s count), as well as journalists from several Bay Area media outlets gathered at the Michael’s arts and crafts store in Petaluma on Friday, December 18 for a press conference in support of Sadie and Eddie Martinez and their family. The event there, organized by Petaluma teacher and activist Kinyatta Reynolds and other community organizers with Indivisible Petaluma, was billed on social media as a Dress to ImPress Conference, with the invitation, Dear White People, you are cordially invited to experience racial profiling.

The Martinezes, a Latinx couple who are 15-year residents of Petaluma, active in the community, and parents of five children, have been the victims of an ongoing case of racial profiling over the course of the previous eleven days after a social media ‘influencer’ and Sonoma mother, Katie Sorensen, falsely accused them of the attempted kidnapping of her two stroller-bound children on December 7 at the Michael’s store. Sorensen initially reported the couple’s “suspicious behavior” to the police that same morning, and only later, on social media, made the attempted kidnapping allegation. 

The Martinezes appear to be the victims of Sorensen’s overwrought and vivid imagination, with her publicization of the incident on social media having brought international media attention to the affair, and the family feeling they’ve been publicly labeled kidnappers. Sorensen’s actions and the response of the Petaluma Police Department (PPD) have caused outrage amongst the North Bay’s BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) community, who feel targeted due to their race for, in this case, having done little more than gone shopping in sweatpants near a white woman at the local arts and crafts store.

The Incident or: Shopping in the Vicinity of People of Color

According to the PPD, on December 7, Sorensen “reported being followed inside the store by the couple as she shopped while pushing her two young children in a stroller. The woman said the couple made comments concerning the appearance of the children. The couple was said to have followed the woman to her car, where the couple lingered near the stroller as the woman placed her children in the vehicle.”

Further, the PPD reported that “the woman said she did not want anyone arrested but wanted to draw attention to the concerning behavior exhibited by the couple.”

One week after Sorensen first reported the incident to the police, the PPD  “became aware of a social media post made by the reporting party in which she recounted and elaborated upon the aforementioned incident; this post included information that had not been initially presented to the Petaluma Police Department on December 7, 2020.”

That new information included “an assertion that the male who had followed her around the store and out to the car had approached the stroller and tried to grab it,” according to the PPD. 

The PPD continued,

In an effort to seek corroboration of this account, the Petaluma Police Department issued a press release advising the community of the incident and asking for members of the public with information or who witnessed the incident, to come forward.  This included a photograph of the couple, whose statements would needed [sic] to get to more information regarding the alleged incident.

We received information about the identity of the couple and contacted with them [sic] via a private message to their social media.  They promptly responded, agreed to be interviewed, and have fully cooperated with the investigation.  While acknowledging they had shopped at Michael’s and were the couple shown in the photograph, they denied the allegations being made against them by the reporting party.

To date, the investigation has produced no evidence or witnesses corroborating the account provided by the reporting party.  Evidence gathered has served to support the account provided by the couple from the store.

This investigation is now considered closed, absent any additional evidence or corroborating statements from witnesses. [Emphasis added -RR]

Thus the investigation into the “attempted child abduction” was closed.

More details added by Katie Sorensen at @motherhoodessentials and to KTVU 2 Fox News

Sitting in her car, speaking to the camera at some point after her December 7 report to the PPD, Katie Sorensen recorded her first video about the incident, which she posted to her Instagram account, @motherhoodessentials.

Monday, of this week, my children were the targets of attempted kidnap, which is such a weird thing to even vocalize but it happened and I want to share that story with you in an effort to raise awareness as to what signs to look for and to just encourage parents to be more aware of their surroundings and what is going on around them,’ she began.

I think right now that we are so distracted by everything that’s going on in the world that we are kind of, have our guards up so much about masks and wanting to keep our children safe that way that we’re forgetting the most important way to keep them safe and that is with us and to not have them taken.

So I’m going to share a story, um….. in an effort to raise that awareness but it’s, I’m not ready, this is hard for me. I’m not ready to share this story but I know it’s important and I would rather be uncomfortable and awkward and get the message out sooner than wait until I feel composed because I don’t know if I’ll ever feel composed talking about this.

According to a December 14 interview with KTVU Fox News, Sorensen said that “a man and woman followed them in the store. The same man had looked at her in the parking lot. She then heard them describing what her kids looked like, possibly to a third person on the phone.” 

“I heard them talking about the features of my children, but I was totally paralyzed with fear. I just couldn’t bring myself to say anything,” Sorensen told KTVU.

The KTVU story continued:

They waited in line behind her but then followed her into the parking lot after not buying anything. That’s when she noticed a white van had parked right next to her SUV.

She thought that was strange because she usually parks far from a store entrance, not wanting to inconvenience people over the time it takes to load or unload her stroller.

The man and woman took two steps forward, then two steps back.

“Very awkward,” Sorensen said. “There is no other explanation as to why they were doing that besides they were just building the courage.”

Then the man reached out, as if to grab the stroller. But Sorensen said she saw an older man nearby.

“The gentleman looked at me, and his eyes were huge. He saw what was going on, and I just yelled for help,” Sorensen said.

The man and woman took off in a car. But that’s when another rushed up to her from behind, after apparently getting out of the white van.

“And he acted like he was trying to help me and just got in the van and drove off,” she said.

Sorensen wishes she had been more assertive.

“I saw these people, they didn’t look necessarily clean cut,” she said. “I felt uncomfortable around them, and instead of making them uncomfortable with my discomfort, I chose to remain in my discomfort.”

Communities of Color Once Again Feel Unjustly Targeted

Sadie Martinez became aware the police were interested in speaking with her about the incident Sorensen reported when one of her children showed her an image the Petaluma Police Department (PPD) publicized. The image was of Eddie and Sadie, a screenshot taken from the Michael’s store’s video feed. 

“My kid came to me and showed me the picture, and said, ‘Mom this looks like you’,” Sadie Martinez said to the gathering on Friday. 

Here are the comments of Sadie Martinez to supporters and the press gathered at Michael’s on Friday, December 18:

Hi, thank you everybody for coming today. I want to start with thanking everybody for coming today. Yes, it’s been an unpleasant circumstance, but the support in this community has been something amazing. The village in which I live, I thank all of you. Every single one of you children that has come out to support me today and their parents. 

This is kind of hard for me. I’m a pretty laid-back individual. I’m a mom of five in Petaluma. My husband’s a local UPS man. We’re just an everyday family. So to get up and go shopping one day and then be accused of trying to abduct somebody’s children is heartbreaking. In my home on a typical day I have numerous kids in and out of my house. I have kids sleeping in my home. I know more kids in this town than I know adults, so my heart was broken. My heart is broken. 

The Katies of the world, it stops here. I’m sorry, it’s not going on anymore. I think Katie thought that she could just pick on somebody or make up a story about people because she didn’t like what they looked like, and I don’t know if anybody’s been paying attention the last four years but there’s been a lot of racism going on, and well Katie’s following suit. So, am I shocked? No, but will we stand for it? Hell no. So, today I stand in front of everybody in a fight to prosecute Katie. That’s why I’m here. 

I ask everybody in my community and around the world that Katie has – hey, invited everybody to this wonderful story of hers, to step up, do your homework, go ahead [do] the research, follow through. Call your local police department. Call Facebook, Instagram, everybody, because do you really think it’s okay to go online and be racist and make [up] stories about a family? It’s hard enough to be a Latin family in a white community, that I don’t need white people coming around and telling me that I look like a criminal because I decided not to put my makeup on that day or because I decided to wear sweats to the craft store. 

Sadie Martinez speaking at the Friday Dec. 18 event

With that being said, I hope that everybody around us will stop and look at the people around them and have that conversation, that uncomfortable conversation that nobody wants to have. Yes racism is alive and well in 2020. This is a perfect example of it. I feel like I’m sitting in Central Park like the bird-watcher. I don’t have any other comparison except that. I thank everybody for the support, I hope everybody will pursue Katie, because I think it’s time that Katie and all her followers are finally shut down and they realize that this is a world for everybody, and we will fight for ourselves. Once again, I thank every single one of you for coming, especially all the kids in town. Our lives are permanently affected, forever. The police did not touch on the fact that it was a racial situation and unfortunately we have targets on our backs because we were labeled [with] this regardless of what’s true or not. So I do hope that people take the time and look at the facts and see what really happened, instead of going around and bashing a longtime family of Petaluma. I thank all of you again for coming and I appreciate all of your support. 

In a follow-up question from a reporter, Sadie Martinez added that she hoped Katie Sorensen would, at a minimum, be charged by the police with filing a false police report, though she believed the police could file additional charges.

Organizer Kinyatta Reynolds assured the gathering that the efforts of community activists to convince the Petaluma Police Department to file charges against Katie Petersen would continue. 

PPD Chief Ken Savano issued a press release later Friday night with clarifications, stating that on “Thursday, December 17, 2020, based upon the evidence gathered to date, PPD launched an investigation into whether this incident was potentially falsely reported. That investigation is active and ongoing.”

The Petaluma Political Backdrop

So we’ll see where this goes. It occurs at a pivotal point for the City of Petaluma, its police department and leadership, as a city council featuring arguably the most progressive majority in decades will be seated in January. It is also very likely that the city will continue to be challenged to adequately fund city services, due to the economic climate related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Perpetually understaffed since the Great Recession, which began in 2007, innovations or reforms at the PPD which reduce costs and improve its relationship with our minority population are likely to be very appealing. Yet the city and PPD are currently showing resistance to community input already given.

The city has just emerged from a deeply polarized and bitter political campaign in which a trio of liberal Democratic councilmembers up for re-election sent out a false and deeply misleading hit piece mailer suggesting council candidate Dennis Pocekay wished to eliminate and “defund the police,” explicitly manipulating the fears of the electorate in an echo of President Donald Trump and many of his white nationalist followers. 

One councilmember, Dave King, endorsed the trio of incumbents with a related swipe at progressive candidates who would represent “merely political activists with narrow political agendas.” 

During the recent council campaign, for a brief period of time, unknown persons apparently created out of thin air a fictitious African-American resident of Petaluma named Keisha Jones, who proceeded to repeatedly echo the views of sitting Councilmember Kathy Miller, and defend Miller from attack from her political left. We do not yet know who created the Keisha Jones persona, but for a white liberal like Miller, who joined colleagues Mike Healy and Gabe Kearny in stoking fears of radical leftwing challengers and their supporters, having a Black supporter and purported Black Lives Matter activist on her side on social media proved useful, as the vast majority of “campaigning” this year occurred online.

The Petaluma Argus-Courier, meanwhile, punched left hard, joining unsuccessful efforts to paint council challengers as radical leftists suffering from their “rigid ideology,” though it was unwilling or unable to describe what that ideology was, thus rendering its point fairly obvious bullshit, no surprise for the A-C. The incumbents were “liberal Democrats,” while their opponents were “self-styled progressives.” This was political fear mongering in the Trump era, deployed by liberals at the local level to scare moderates, conservatives and the far right-wing.

Look for considerable commentary on the subject of racial profiling and race relations at the last Petaluma City Council meeting of this year, on Monday, December 21. Neither the city nor the PPD have responded yet to the recommendations of last summer’s Community Forum on Racism & Interactions with the Petaluma Police Department, which occurred on July 18 and 19, 2020. 

We’ve post those unanswered recommendations separately here.

Meanwhile, the PPD, which has been overwhelmingly populated by white English-only speakers throughout its history, continues to create valuable press for itself, having earned laudatory national coverage for its recent sit-down for an Uncomfortable Conversation with a Black Man, hosted by former NFL veteran Emmanuel Acho. Although this was a fascinating and likely beneficial event that PPD officers appeared to genuinely appreciate, its value to the community beyond PR remains to be seen.

To provide comment and/or observe the December 21 meeting of the Petaluma City Council, you can find the agenda and a link to view the meeting – all city meetings open to the public are still being held remotely – here.

The Chronicle’s Steve Rubenstein, who’s recently had some fun writing about the Haas House project in Petaluma, has just weighed in on this story here.

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