Six people accused of tearing down a statue outside a San Rafael church last week could face hate crime charges, police said.

The incident occurred Oct. 12 during an Indigenous Peoples Day demonstration outside of St. Raphael Catholic Church on Fifth Avenue. Police said a small group of protesters painted and destroyed the church’s statue of Junipero Serra, an 18th-century Catholic priest who founded nine of California’s missions.

San Rafael police officers arrested five people at the scene on allegations of felony vandalism. Police Chief Diana Bishop said her department has submitted the case to the Marin County District Attorney’s office for possible prosecution, and has also recommended charges for a sixth person who was later identified by police.

In addition to the felony vandalism allegations, police have recommended a separate charge of vandalism to a place of worship for each of the six suspects, Bishop said. She noted that such a charge is considered a hate crime. Under state law, vandalism is considered a felony if the damage exceeds $400.

Police said about 40 people attended the protest outside of St. Raphael, which began around 5 p.m. on the federal Columbus Day holiday. About a half hour after the demonstration kicked off, two people approached the Serra statue and threw red paint on it, said Sgt. Justin Graham.

Then “additional suspects became involved,” he said. Some spray painted the statue, writing the word “rape” on it. A group of people tied ropes around the sculpture and pulled it down, Graham said.

The organizers of the demonstration never intended to vandalize the statue, said Lucina Vidauri, who helped plan the event. She said the demonstration was a celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day and a protest of the way Native Americans were treated by European missionaries. The demonstrators were also calling for the church to remove the Serra statue, she said. Protest organizers said Serra contributed to the destruction of Native American cultures.

“It just got carried away,” Vidauri said.

Mike Brown, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, said church leaders had not been asked by the protesters to take down the statue prior to the demonstration.

Vidauri said she was not involved with the vandalism. Police cited Oakland residents Ines Shiam Gardilcic, 40, and Victoria Eva Montanopena, 29; Melissa Aguilar, 36, of Novato; Mayorgi Nadeska Delgadillo, 36, of San Rafael; and Moira Cribben Van de Walker, 25 of San Anselmo. Bishop declined to name the sixth suspect because the person was not arrested or cited.

The San Rafael Police Department has faced scrutiny for its handling of the incident. Mayor Gary Phillips said he was initially shocked to learn “there were officers standing nearby” while the demonstrators tore down the statue. But after a meeting with police, he said he felt “comfortable that what was done was appropriate.”

According to Graham, police knew the protest was planned about a week in advance, and knew it might include vandalism to the statue. He said before the event, police met with church leaders, who asked the officers to use de-escalation techniques and to minimize interactions that could lead to use of force during the protest.

“We decided not to get directly involved or interact with the demonstration because we did not want to inflame or escalate the situation,” Graham said. “If there was a violent altercation, a physical fight, we would have intervened, no question.”

Bishop told the City Council she understands why some people are upset about the way officers handled the situation, but she said she was “proud” of the way the department planned its reaction.

“It’s not last year,” she said. “It’s not the year before, how police officers see something and they just run into it and take care of it. That’s how we are programmed. That’s what we want to do. We have to be more thoughtful when a property crime is occurring and a person is not being injured, and that’s what the plan was.”

Bishop said the five suspects who were arrested at the scene of the incident were cited and released because of new coronavirus restrictions.

“If it wasn’t for COVID they would have been arrested and taken to Marin County Jail,” Bishop said. She said police officers captured footage of the incident using body-worn cameras “so we have great physical evidence for the district attorney’s office…”

The above comes from an Oct. 21 story in the Marin Independent Journal.