Rainbow flags disappear in Guerneville

  • by Charlie Wagner
  • Wednesday May 9, 2018
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Guerneville residents gathered to raise another rainbow flag in the town's plaza last week, after previous ones were apparently stolen.

[Updated 5/11/18:The flag was reportedly stolen again since the Bay Area Reporter went to press.]

[Updated 5/13/18:The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office announced Saturday that an arrest has been made in the case.

Vincent Joseph O'Sullivan, 55, of Guerneville, was taken into custody by deputies from the Guerneville substation and booked into the Sonoma County Main Adult Detention Facility. His bail is $50,000.]

Members and supporters of the Russian River LGBTQ community gathered Thursday, May 3, to once again add a rainbow flag to the U.S. and California state flags flying from the flagpole on Guerneville Plaza.

The flag has been stolen about a half dozen times since it was first put up in June 2017, according to straight ally Beth Streets. Her unofficial Flag Supporters group at its own expense has replaced the flag each time. Streets lives in Santa Rosa but said half of the supporters are Guerneville residents.

The flagpole itself was funded by donations from the local Rotary Club and erected on the plaza in May 2006 with the U.S. flag on top and the California State flag below, as flag etiquette dictates. The plaza is Sonoma County property and the county agreed to manage the flags. The flags are illuminated at night and fly 24 hours a day.

The flagpole was dedicated to veterans, but as Streets pointed out, "Not all veterans are straight."

The inspiration for adding the rainbow flag happened the night after the June 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, according to Streets.

"We had a vigil in Guerneville and someone asked, 'Why don't we have a flag here?'" Streets recalled. "The flag is about diversity and love, and represents a lot more than just the LGBTQ community."

Streets' group received permission from the county to add the rainbow flag to the pole, flying it in the third position, closest to the ground.

"There was resistance from some groups in the community," according to Streets, "but we pushed and were granted permission."

Streets explained that, "The Rotary people passed responsibility to us" for maintaining the rainbow flag.

"We've seen no problems since October 2017," she noted. "There were times the flags needed to be lowered for a particular date, such as when people died, and people did not always put the rainbow flag back up," she said. "But I don't think it was done with malice."

In the latest flurry of incidents, Streets said, "I noticed the flag was missing on Monday, April 23, and it looked like somebody had tampered with the box containing the halyard. On Friday, April 27, I put a new flag up. I got a call Saturday mid-day that it was gone. Tuesday, May 1, a friend and I went and put another one up. That was down by May 2."

In a Facebook post dated May 3, Russian River Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence member Sister Sparkle reacted strongly to the latest incident and wrote, "Most folks supported the idea, while a few very clearly and loudly HATED it. Someone has been stealing the flag during the night and leaving threatening letters with the Chamber [of Commerce]."

Russian River Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Elise Van Dyne confirmed part of that statement when she said the chamber had received notes asking it to take the flag down and the notes included messages like "Second warning" and "Third warning."

"I threw out the notes and gave a report to the sheriff," Van Dyne said.

Van Dyne described how the last time the flag was removed without authorization, it was pushed through the chamber's mail slot and so "became a chamber issue."

"We called Susan Upchurch in [Supervisor] Lynda Hopkins' office to tell her what happened and because we thought Susan could contact those who put up the flag," said Van Dyne.

A spokeswoman in Hopkins' office confirmed the chamber reported the incident to the supervisor and told the B.A.R. that Hopkins has asked the sheriff's office to investigate the alleged thefts as a hate crime. The investigation is going on now, she said.

Staff in the Guerneville substation of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office referred the B.A.R. to the press officer for the county sheriff, but no one from that office returned a request for comment.

Streets said the supporters group contacted the sheriff after one flag theft, thinking it might qualify as a hate crime. They were told it was not, but the sheriff's office told supporters it planned to investigate further.

There are security cameras pointing at the plaza but Van Dyne said she could not discuss where they were aimed. She categorized the idea that the sheriff was reviewing recordings from those cameras as "rumors." The chamber office is adjacent to Guerneville Plaza.

On May 3, Flag Supporters members gathered once again to re-erect the flag but, this time, they added a halyard lock inside a heavy-duty box to discourage further vandalism. On the morning of May 8, Van Dyne confirmed all three flags were still flying.