SAN RAFAEL, Calif. (CN) — Amid an ongoing dispute over whether statues viewed by some as symbols of racism and oppression should be taken down, five protesters were charged with felony vandalism this week for toppling an 18th century Spanish missionary’s monument at a Catholic church north of San Francisco.
The Marin County District Attorney’s Office filed charges Thursday against five people accused of splashing red paint on a 6-foot statue of Junípero Serra before knocking it down at St. Raphael Church in downtown San Rafael. The incident took place during an Oct. 12 demonstration on Columbus Day, which is celebrated as Indigenous People’s Day in nearby Berkeley and San Francisco.
The protest was organized by members of the Coast Miwok Group, an alliance of indigenous people native to the San Francisco Bay Area. The demonstrators say they view Serra as someone who forced Native Americans to convert to Catholicism, subjected them to violence and exploitation and made them abandon their way of life.
Last month, San Francisco’s Catholic Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone urged the Marin County DA’s Office to charge those who toppled the statue with a hate crime for committing vandalism in a house of worship.
“In our view, this attack on a cherished religious symbol on our own church property is not a minor property crime, but an attack on Catholics as a people,” Cordileone wrote in a letter to DA Lori Frugoli on Oct. 26. “If the perpetrators of this crime are not brought to justice, small mobs will be able to decide what religious symbols all people of faith may display on their own property to further their faith, and they will continue to inflict considerable spiritual suffering on ordinary Catholic people who would see our sacred spaces as unprotected by law.”
Frugoli’s office filed charges against Victoria Eva Montanopena, 29, of Oakland; Melissa Aguilar, 36, of Novato; Mayorgi Nadeska Delgadillo, 36, of San Rafael; Moira Cribben Van de Walker, 25 of San Anselmo; and Andrew Lester Mendle, whose age and place of residence could not be immediately ascertained on Friday.
This was not the first time protesters targeted a statue of Serra. In June, a group of demonstrators toppled a 30-foot replica of the Spanish missionary in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, along with monuments depicting Francis Scott Key, writer of “The Star Spangled Banner,” and former U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant, both of whom owned slaves before the Civil War.
Serra, who founded 21 missions across what is now California in the 1700s, was canonized as a saint by Pope Francis in 2015, despite criticisms of the Spanish missionary’s legacy.
The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, comprised of members of several indigenous groups native to the San Francisco Bay Area, opposed canonizing Serra at that time, arguing that “sainthood should not be accorded to those persons who participated in Colonial systems of conquest and coercive conversions such as practiced by the Hispanic Empire in partnership with the Catholic Church.”
On the night Serra’s statue was toppled in San Rafael, the local police department made a mutual decision with the church to watch the demonstration and not intervene to avoid potential physical altercations with protesters, San Rafael Police Sgt. Justin Graham told the Mercury News last month.
Five suspects, four of whom were charged with felony vandalism this week, were cited and released by officers after the demonstration on Oct. 12, according to the police department.
Jan Potts, a spokesperson with the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco, said no one asked church officials to remove the Serra statute before it was knocked down on Oct. 12.
In a statement Friday, Archbishop Cordileone said “mobs” should not be allowed to trespass on holy ground and destroy sacred symbols without facing punishment.
“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,” Cordileone said.
Lucina Vidauri, an organizer of the Oct. 12 rally with the Coast Miwok Tribe, did not immediately return an email and phone call seeking comment Friday.
If convicted, the protesters face a year in jail and a fine of up to $10,000 or the value of damaged property up to $50,000.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.