Five protesters who helped topple a statue of Father Junipero Serra in San Rafael last month have been charged with felony vandalism, the first major charges for protestors destroying or knocking over statues this year.
Destruction or toppling statues of controversial figures in California, as well as removals by governments to ensure that they aren’t damaged, have been on the rise across California this year since the George Floyd protests erupted in late May.
Calls for racial justice and system reform also led to the removal of Christopher Columbus statues, such as the large one in the Capitol rotunda in Sacramento, as well as statues of other figures, like former Governor Pete Wilson, being taken down.
Most notably, statues of Junipero Serra, an 18th century Spanish priest who helped create the first missions in California who has also recently become controversial due to his treatment of Native Americans, were torn down by protestors in numerous cities across the state.
While most were torn down or removed in June, the Serra statue in San Rafael had survived into October, where it was finally torn down by angry protestors on Columbus Day, now also called Indigenous Peoples Day in many parts of the county.
Melissa Aguilar, Mayorgi Nadieska Delgadillo, Andrew Lester Mendle, Victoria Eva Montano Pena, and Moira Van De Walker were all arrested the following day due to their vandalism of the statue. For weeks, many have been calling on authorities
to charge them with felonies as a response to the numerous other statue incidents that saw no arrests. San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone has been a leading voice for prosecution since the arrests, due in part to some of vandalisms occurring on or near church property, and because of the vandalism happening against a saint of the Catholic church.
In late October, Archbishop Cordileone even wrote a letter to Lori Frugoli, the Marin County District Attorney, urging her to “press charges to the full extent of the law.” Hispanics and Catholics across the state rallied with the Archbishop, resulting in charges finally being issued against the protestors over the weekend.
Response by the Archbishop, others around the vandalism
“This is a breakthrough moment for Catholics. Marin County District Attorney Lori Frugoli’s decision to prosecute on the charge of felony vandalism represents the first time that any of the lawbreakers attacking statues of St. Junipero Serra and other acts of vandalism on Catholic Church property across California will be held accountable for their actions in a court of law,” said Archbishop Cordileone in a statement.
“The crime was caught on video. The lawbreakers came prepared with ropes, chisels and spray paint, clearly indicating forethought in committing this crime. If crimes like these are not punished, then the government is telling mobs they get to decide what symbols Catholics and other faiths may display.”
“Given that this was vandalism at a house of worship, the San Rafael Police Department understandably recommended that the perpetrators be charged with a hate crime. Indeed, to vandalize a house of worship to express one’s views is not a mere property crime: it is an attack on the identity and rights of a whole faith community.”
“In a diverse society we may debate and disagree about many things, including St. Junipero Serra’s legacy. But mobs do not get to trespass on other people’s holy grounds to destroy their sacred symbols. While a hate crime was not charged in this case, let us hope that this prosecution will nonetheless contribute to putting an end to attacks on all houses of worship.”
Others outside the Church also agreed with the Archbishop.
“You know, they went in without permission and destroyed something that wasn’t theirs,” San Francisco-area lawyer Mitchell Yates told the Globe. “Protesting is one thing. That’s legal. But doing this is against the law. It doesn’t matter what you think of the guy, you destroyed property.”
However, many people supported the five people charged with the statues destruction.
“It’s like destroying a swastika or burning a Confederate flag,” Marin County Black Lives Matter protestor Roberta Haskell said to the Globe. “Serra was okay with treating native peoples like slaves and didn’t care that he was actively destroying people’s lives there, even killing them.
“Yeah, this is destruction. But it’s destruction of something bad. Something evil.”
The prosecution of the protestors may also start up other investigations and arrests of other statue destructions across the state.
“Whenever there is something like this, it usually is followed by similar cases that weren’t tried before,” added Yates. “It’s likely that the Church or others will get empowered by this and ask for LA and other cities to arrest protestors there.
“Honestly, it’s only a matter of time.”
The trial of the five protestors is expected to commence in Marin County in the near future.
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