Indigenous People’s Day is, by its very name, a day for reclamation. In 14 states and 130 cities across the country, what was originally called Columbus Day was renamed in an effort to acknowledge the violent and problematic legacy of the 15th century explorer and recognize the original inhabitants of what is now known as the United States.
But when protestors toppled and slathered red paint on a statue of Junipero Serra outside Mission San Rafael Arcángel last October, local authorities decided it was a step too far.
Five protestors, calling themselves the “Indigenous People’s Day 5” (IP5), have been charged with felony vandalism following the protest by the office of Marin County District Attorney Lori Frugoli. The last of the five will be arraigned on Thursday Feb. 18.
The National Lawyers Guild, members of which are representing three of the defendants, as well as the Anti Police-Terror Project and a newly-formed group calling themselves the Indigenous Peoples Day 5 Solidarity Coalition, hosted a press conference and wrote an open organizational letter to the Frugoli on Wednesday, Feb. 17, demanding all charges against IP5 people be dropped. A petition with the same demand has gathered nearly 75,000 signatures.
“DA Lori Frugoli’s Office has made a political decision and elected to file these felony vandalism charges to target and harm dynamic activists who provide so much support, healing, and justice in their communities,” said National Lawyers Guild member, and lawyer for three of the five defendants, Hasmik Geghamyan. The charges, they continued, call “into question the hypocritical values of the DAs office that sanctions the unrepentant legacy of the Catholic Church in California.” Frugoli ran on an notably progressive platform and recently denounced “symbols of hate” during a town hall discussing antisemitism in the county and the name of the Dixie School District.
On the other hand, some have pushed for tougher charges. In October, San Francisco Catholic Archbishop Rev. Salvatore J. Cordileone, for example, pressured the DA to charge the defendants with hate crimes for vandalizing “religious symbols” at a place of worship (Pope Francis canonized Serra in 2015.) Many local Catholics agreed, and the church held an exorcism to expunge the perceived evil.
Many native activists consider Serra an architect of genocide as a leader of the California Mission system. He founded 9 of the region’s 21 missions, including Mission San Rafael Arcángel and Mission Dolores in San Francisco. Through the mission system, many native peoples were killed, enslaved, raped, and coerced into giving up their languages and religious practices. “Junipero Serra is a symbol to California native people and to many other indigenous people of the genocide that happened on our land when the Catholic Church first came here,” said Corinna Gould, chairperson for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, during the press conference.
The protest took place against the backdrop of a nationwide reckoning with how American history is taught, remembered, and commemorated. Some areas of northern California, like Marin, have been particularly resistant to change: unlike neighboring San Francisco, for example, the county still celebrates the October holiday as Columbus Day.
Despite this resistance, James Burch of the National Lawyers Guild and Anti Police Terror Project says this group of organizations has no intention of staying quiet. “We will continue this campaign until the charges are dropped,” he said in a press release.