Last week the North Bay Bohemian published an essay that tried hard to trash Gaye LeBaron. The popular weekly tabloid trashed only its own reputation instead.
The article by Peter Byrne, “The Shame of Santa Rosa: Whiteness, and the Culture of Lynching” (March 16, 2022) insinuated LeBaron is a passive racist and a cheerleader for murderous cops and vigilantes. Extraordinary accusations must be backed up with extraordinary evidence, you’d think, but apparently the Bohemian does not agree.
In response I wrote a letter-to-the-editor which the paper did not publish online or in print, so I’m making it available below as an open letter to the Bohemian. I am not allowing comments on this posting because SantaRosaHistory.com shouldn’t be a forum for “atta boy” or “you suck” remarks or flame wars. If you want to comment on my opinions, please do so on FaceBook, Twitter or elsewhere on unsociable media.
This incident leaves me personally saddened. Thirty-odd years ago I wrote often for the Bohemian’s predecessors, The Paper and the Independent, as well as writing a column about the early internet for the current publisher’s flagship weekly, the San Jose Metro. Despite this article I have great respect for the Bohemian; Will Carruthers’ recent series on the eye-popping shenanigans by directors of the SMART rail line represents some of the best investigative reporting you’ll find anywhere.
Some of the things in my letter may not make much sense without reading the original Bohemian article, so read it if you must. But do so with a warning that whiplash injuries may result; the essay careens wildly through all sorts of unrelated points, past and modern, all to deliver a message which seems damning only to its author.
AN OPEN LETTER TO THE BOHEMIAN
Wow, Gaye LeBaron is an accessory to murder as well as a white supremacy propagandist! I’m guessing Peter Byrne’s intention was to link historic lynchings with modern police violence, but his muddled essay comes across mostly as a nasty hit piece against a respected journalist.
Byrne makes an outlandish claim she wrote “hundreds of stories glorifying white men wielding badges, batons, guns, and in some instances, hanging nooses”. Since he must have never seen a Gaye LeBaron column, he might be surprised to learn she wasn’t a reporter or editorial writer. Before mainly focusing just on history, she was the Press Democrat’s “local color” columnist, usually passing on funny items contributed by readers or things heard around town. In the mid-1980s people were saying the Sheriff’s Department was in disarray and she wrote that up as well, leading Sheriff Dick Michaelsen to send a letter complaining that her columns had “done nothing but discredit law enforcement in general.”
THERE WILL BE PRICES PAID
Series on the 1920 lynchings in Santa Rosa
BAD TO THE BONE
THE WOLVES OF THANKSGIVING
A FORESHADOW OF TERRIBLE DAYS
FATEFUL KNOCK ON A COTTAGE DOOR
MOB SIEGE OF THE JAIL
96 HOURS TO HANGTOWN
VENGEANCE FOR SUNNY JIM
CONSPIRACIES OF SILENCE
A WELL-ORDERED MILITIA
Next the Bohemian article jumps to a discussion of the 1920 triple lynching in Santa Rosa. This is a story I know something about, having published a 36,000-word series at SantaRosaHistory.com.
There are a dozen factual errors or unfounded remarks in this section; most are trivial, but one false claim stands out. Byrne wrote “the vigilantes had enjoyed enthusiastic inside help from jailhouse deputies” and later, that a deputy “gladly handed over the keys to the vigilantes”. Testimony given to the Coroner’s jury agreed the deputies were held at gunpoint and did not cooperate in any way. Keys were not surrendered but pulled from the Sheriff’s pocket as he was being searched, likewise at gunpoint.
Another event further showed there was no complicity with the vigilantes. After Sheriff Petray was murdered a crowd of 3-4,000 assembled outside the jail and grew more threatening as the hours passed. Given the overwhelming number of violent rioters it might have been understandable if the officers had stepped aside, but they faced down the lynch mob. Joined with city policemen and some others sworn in as special deputies, they defended the building from attempts to batter down the door. Why did the Bohemian’s author neglect to even mention this siege of the jailhouse, given its significance?
Finally, there’s the issue of the 1985 confession by one of the vigilantes, over which the article makes a great stink because Gaye LeBaron did not turn him in to the cops. She sought counsel from a New York Times lawyer (then the paper’s owner) who predicted there would be no prosecution for such an ancient crime, which was accurate; District Attorney Gene Tunney didn’t even pick up the phone and speak to her, much less convene a Grand Jury.
And as for the notion that she should have refused to hear his account concerning such an historic event, I am gobsmacked. There is not a newsroom in the world where a man who walked in and said, “Hello, if you grant me anonymity I’ll reveal my part in the Kennedy assassination” would be told, “Begone, sir, that could be interpreted as making me an accessory to murder after the fact.”
Much of the article is hyperbole or sloppy research, and the conclusion that Sonoma County has a “culture of lynching” stretching back over a century is an ahistorical syllogism. Yes, it’s valid to make a case that the Sheriff’s Department is too white, too violent and too cowboy overall, and those problems are nothing new. But you can make those legitimate points by sticking to the facts without resorting to exaggerations and cherry-picking data – or using the issue as an excuse to write a hit piece on Gaye LeBaron.
Santa Rosa, Calif.
March 21, 2022