SANTA ROSA, CA — A new, powerful coalition of Latino, social justice, green, progressive Democrats, student, civil liberties, peace, and other groups has emerged in Sonoma County, California. The killing of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by sheriff’s deputy Erick Gelhaus on October 22 unites them.
Over forty members of diverse groups met–many who had never been in a room together–on November 19 to strategize about how to keep the strong momentum going in response to the slaying of Lopez. Many of those who spoke identified themselves as mothers or fathers, who felt the pain of the parents whose son was taken from them.
Lopez was killed while walking near his home with a toy rifle. This slaying has gotten regular front-page coverage locally and has been widely reported around the United States and internationally. Some compare it to the killings of African-Americans Trayvon Martin in Florida and Oscar Grant by a police officer in Oakland. That police officer is now in jail, one of the few cops ever charged for killing someone. Both those slayings ignited communities to demand justice.
The large, peaceful actions by Latinos and their allies could make changes in how Latino neighborhoods are treated by law enforcement. Latinos make up 25% of the populations of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County; they are the fastest growing group. Their continued mobilization on behalf of Andy indicates the rise of a mass movement.
“The Lopez family wants justice for the killing of Andy Lopez, which would be the prosecution of the law officer,” said the family’s attorney Arnoldo Casillas. Those gathered decided to found a Justice Coalition for Andy Lopez. It would focus on the demand for prosecution, and raise other concerns during the sixty days following the meeting. That date was chosen because District Attorney Jill Ravitch must complete her investigation 90 days after the slaying of Lopez.
Among those at the meeting were representatives of the following and other groups: American Civil Liberties Union, North Bay Organizing Project, Latino Democratic Club, Peace and Justice Center, 100 Thousand Poets for Change, Green Party, Police Accountability, Clinic, and Helpline (PACH), Peace and Freedom Party, students from the Santa Rosa Junior College, and close friends of the Lopez family.
“The vacant lot (where Andy was killed) as a park would mean a lot to the family,” attorney Casillas said. The neighborhood has already constructed a large memorial for Lopez there, where it holds regular prayer vigils. Other demands include the creation of a transparent Civilian Review Board to investigate police accountability and cameras for all police officers to wear to document their interactions with residents.
“The lawsuit is a federal civil rights lawsuit. Andy’s civil rights were violated, as were those of his parents. We will later file a wrongful death suit,” Casillas explained. “We are going to look at the policies and practices of the Sheriff’s Office. Many witnesses are afraid to speak to the police. The investigation is a whitewash. I believe their decision has already been made. The conflict of interest is clear.”
Casillas previously won a $24 million settlement in a lawsuit, which went to trial, for a family whose boy was paralyzed by a Los Angeles police officer with only one shot.
Casillas reported on the physical evidence of an independent autopsy. “The first bullet hit his heart and he fell to the ground immediately.” Gelhaus fired seven more shots, six of which hit the dead boy. “The other officer (present) was an 11-year-veteran of another police force. He did not shoot. One shot and the other did not see a threat and did not shoot,” noted Casillas.
The thousands demanding justice for 13-year-old Any Lopez, slain by combat military veteran Gelhaus, had a busy November; more actions are planned for December and beyond. Numerous large marches, rallies, and prayer vigils have been held, as were Teach-Ins at both Santa Rosa Junior College (JC) and Sonoma State University (SSU).
DA Ravitch admitted at a November 14 meeting with Latino leaders that she considers the sheriff a “personal friend.” According to the National Prosecution Standards, this could be grounds for the DA to recuse herself and appoint a special prosecutor. Ravitch is supported by the sheriff in her reelection campaign, as well as by the Santa Rosa Police Officers’ Association—a cozy relationship likely to lead to the mutual returning of favors.
SRPD’s current police chief is scheduled to resign and be replaced on December 20, according to Taylor Anderson-Stevenson of the Women’s Justice Center. A totally secret selection process for a new chief appears to be happening; not even elected SR City Council members are involved in a closed-doors, out-of-sight process. Yet transparency is essential to democracy, so that citizens, rather than an elite, make decisions, especially when it comes to life-or-death issues.
At the overflow SSU gathering of around 150, Chicano and Latino Studies professor Ron Lopez commented, “Kids do not have appropriate places to play in southwest Santa Rosa.” Parks and libraries do not exist in this area, which has been neglected. “These are forgotten people, seen as ‘the enemy.’ He fired too fast, too many times.” Dr. Lopez added. “May the community be awakened. You have a social responsibility to take action to prevent these things from happening,” he said to the SSU students, faculty, and staff.
“The Andy Lopez tragedy is intimately implicated with the militarization of the police,” SSU sociology professor Noel Byrne noted later. “The culture of this militarized force promotes a perceptual framework akin to that of an occupying force. Most of the general public is seen as like the populations of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan during wartime,” added Byrne.
The JC Teach-In drew around 800 people inside a packed room and outside listening on a loudspeaker, according to a JC staff member. “This shooting had the same significance as Rosa Parks saying she would not give up her seat on the bus,” declared Alicia Sanchez, an attorney and president of KBBF bi-lingual radio. “I am proud of the youth. You have taken this killing up as Cesar Chavez taught us—non-violently.”
“I am disturbed by the ongoing need to further include protection for cops. We need protection from cops, not for cops,” JC trustee Robert Edmond said later. “No cop has been killed here since Deputy Frank Trejo in 1995. On the other hand, during that same period, at least 70 people have been killed in cases in which the Law Enforcement Involved Fatal Incident Protocol has been invoked.”
Prayer vigils are ongoing at the vacant lot near where Lopez was killed. A December 3 protest at a fundraiser for DA Ravitch’s re-election is scheduled for the Santa Rosa Veterans building. Information about pending events is available here. Those events are planned to climax in a January 20 rally on Martin Luther King Day, which would be at the end of the sixty days.
“Andy Lopez is not going to be forgotten,” attorney Casillas noted near the end of the new coalition’s founding meeting. “There is something that resonates deeply in the hearts of people about the killing of Andy.”