Colorful Aztec dancers lead a few hundred chanting, slow-moving people of all ages on a march from the Latino neighborhood of Roseland to Santa Rosa, California’s downtown square on October 30. They demanded justice for the killing of 13-year-old Andy Lopez on October 22 by sheriff’s deputy Erick Gelhaus.
It was the eighth consecutive day of mourning and action. The killing has ignited the proud, long-suffering Latino community in California’s wine-rich, semi-rural Sonoma County. Gelhaus, on a routine patrol, pumped seven bullets into his young body ten seconds after calling in a “suspicious person report.”
“Suspicious?” Because he is a brown-skinned youth walking home in the neighborhood where he was born? Because he was wearing a “hoodie,” as was African-American teenager Trayvon Martin when he was murdered? No one had called 911, but Gelhaus felt the boy was a “threat.” Andy carried a toy rifle.
Iraq War combat veteran sharpshooter and former sergeant Gelhaus claimed that he thought the boy’s toy gun was real. The second deputy did not fire. “Sheriff Wanted 4 Murder” read signs on fences in Latino neighborhoods and at rallies.
Prayer vigils, a funeral, marches, and rallies have all been attended by hundreds and at least two drew over a thousand people. More events are scheduled for the future as an international cry for justice mounts.
“Andy, Andy, Andy” chant the mourners. His sweet face covers the entire front page of this week’s North Bay Bohemian and appears on many of the daily Press Democrat’s front pages, as well as on sweatshirts and t-shirts around town.
“Andy was nice and kind. He tried to make everyone laugh,” a classmate testified at the rally’s open mic. “He loved basketball and boxing,” added another student from his school, who vowed to follow the court case against the deputy and see that justice is served.
The largest march, October 29, was mainly Latino middle school, high school, and junior college students. Andy was an eighth grader. Children, their parents, and allies were met at the Sheriff’s Office–which had been “Closed Until Further Notice”–by armed deputies. They were in full riot gear with helmets, shields, snipers on roofs with assault weapons, and a helicopter circling, as if they were in a war zone. Tactical squads were in waiting to be bussed in. No arrests of the peaceful demonstrators were necessary. Once again, the Sheriff’s Office over-reacted to a perceived threat by the public, whom some say they are treating as “enemy combatants.”
“We don’t need war veterans shooting everything that moves,” former Sonoma County supervisor Ernie Carpenter told the daily Press Democrat.
“A lot of young Martin Luther Kings are being born today,” observed Alicia Sanchez of KBBF bi-lingual radio. “Presente, Andy” chants in Spanish followed. The rallies felt like the birth of an aroused Latino movement.
Mourning and angry mothers, such as Adrianne Desantis, whose son Richard was killed by Santa Rosa police in 2009 were represented by her comments: “How about talking to the person in question, in a nonthreatening manner? The old refrain of ‘I thought he had a gun’ or ‘It was a quickly evolving situation’ just do not wash any more. We pay officers to think on their feet and to be courageous.”
At the October 28 funeral many wore white, Andy’s favorite color, as requested by the family. Andy’s mother Sujey Lopez cradled her son’s face in the open casket for more than eight hours during the overflow visitation. The wail of his father Rodrigo Lopez rose above the pounding Aztec drums.
Most elected officials of both Sonoma County and Santa Rosa have refused to speak out and have even shut their offices and public hearings to constituents wanting to express their concerns about the killing. The Santa Rosa School District also encouraged students not to go to the Tuesday march, where they could witness and practice their constitutionally-guaranteed rights of free speech and free assembly.
The Sheriff’s Office’s buddies at the Santa Rosa and Petaluma police departments are in charge of the investigation and another law enforcement body, the FBI, has also gotten involved.
Many call for an independent civilian review body. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recommended one for Sonoma County in 2000. That has not happened yet; 57 more deaths have involved law enforcement officers since then. A lawsuit against the killing by a sheriff’s deputy of Jeremiah Chass by law enforcement was settled for $1.74 million for the family.
The sheriff’s office is taking “measures to protect Gelhaus,” according to the Press Democrat. Who is taking measures to protect the public from further killings by trigger-happy Gelhaus and others who may be among the 275 deputies whom Gelhaus teaches?
Gelhaus is an instructor of the deputies and at a firearms school in Arizona? He sees law enforcement as a “contact sport,” according to articles that he writes for SWAT magazine. His sporting, which he describes as a “calling,” did make deadly contact with Andy.
“Today is the day you may need to kill someone in order to go home,” Gelhaus wrote in a 2008 SWAT article, where he is a staff writer and contributes many articles and online comments, some of which are disappearing from the internet. October 22 was such a “day,” perhaps not the only one, that military veteran Gelhaus killed someone.
Gelhaus exemplifies the increasingly militarized police forces in the United States, especially as more veterans return from wars and look for work in the poor economy. He seems to have taken what he learned in the killing fields of the American War on Iraq into the streets of Santa Rosa. But who is “the enemy” and who are the “bad guys” here?
Is this the kind of man who should be roaming the streets of Santa Rosa with a badge and loaded weapons, as if he had a license to kill?
District Attorney Jill Ravitch asked for patience in a recent press release. A better time and place for patience was when Gelhaus, on a routine patrol, saw Andy in the neighborhood where he was born and lived, called him in as a “suspicious person” and ten seconds later pumped seven bullets into his body. Fortunately, the other deputy at his side responded appropriately, with patience, and did not fire a single shot.
Sheriff Steve Freitas and Sonoma County Board of Supervisors chair David Rabbitt have expressed “complete confidence in the investigation” by the police departments of Santa Rosa and Petaluma. But might that produce a “code blue” response of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours?”
The public demands more than “patience.” It continues to mount a non-violent campaign for justice. After the killing of African-American children in the South, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was not patient and did not back off. He came forward with more than patience–with determination and peaceful direct action.
The Sheriff’s Office has broken the trust of the community it is supposed to protect, especially its people of color. Many law-abiding residents are saying that they fear law enforcement officers more than criminals.
“What about the corporations that make and profit from deadly toys and a society that accepts this?” asked Berkeley public school teacher Larry Stefl. “What do such modern toys say about our culture? Who benefits? What are we teaching our youth?”
Shepherd Bliss belongs to the Apple Roots Group, owns the Kokopelli Farm, teaches college, and has contributed to two dozen books, and can be reached at 3sb.comcast.net.
[DS added the video report.]
Police shooting of 13-year-old provokes protests
RT America on Oct 31, 2013
More than a thousand people gathered this week in Santa Rosa, Calif. to protest the death of a 13-year-old boy after a county sheriff shot and killed him. Police say Andy Lopez was carrying a pellet gun that looked like an AK-47 when they confronted him. Witnesses say they heard the sheriff’s deputies order Lopez to put down the gun twice. One of the deputies, Erick Gelhaus, opened fire when Lopez turned around, shooting the boy seven times. Ameera David talks to RT’s Ramon Galindo about the controversy surrounding the shooting incident.