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Christmas Eve is when many families gather to celebrate and exchange gifts. But what would you do when a beloved child of your immediate or extended family had been killed two months before?
This Christmas Eve a committee of the Justice Coalition for Andy Lopez met to plan a peaceful, dignified action to support the family whose 13-year-old son Andy Lopez was killed October 22 in Santa Rosa by Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy Erick Gelhaus. They demand a halt to cops killing innocent children and then not being indicted and punished.
The nearly dozen who met decided to organize Mothers in White pleading for justice for Andy at the January 7, Tuesday, meeting of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, at 1 p.m. Among those present were representatives of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the Women’s Political Caucus, and radio stations such as KBBF-FM, the United States’ first bi-lingual station, and KPFA-FM, a Pacifica station.
A bi-lingual flyer about the event includes a photo of Andy’s parents Sujey and Rodrigo over his coffin. Mrs. Lopez apparently plans to attend the event and may speak to the supervisors as a mother whose innocent son was killed by law enforcement.
“Every member of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is staring into a moral crisis!” reads the flyer. “What kind of ‘policy’ permits the brutal killing of a 13-year-old child who committed NO CRIME?” it asks. It poses the questions, “To what length would you go if your innocent child or grandchild was brutally murdered?”
The committee reported its intention to “create a dramatic visual impact” of at least 50 Mothers in White, as well as their allies, including men in white and the group Women in Black, which has appeared on street corners around the world to bear witness to those killed by violence.
People are invited to bring mirrors to hold up to the supervisors to examine themselves. Supervisor Mike McGuire apparently said that Andy’s death was a time to reflect in the mirror. This peaceful event intends such a reflection.
The color white was selected because it was Andy’s favorite color. White is not the absence of color, but the mixture of all colors, which is what this mass movement for justice seeks.
Thanksgiving was difficult for the Lopez family, which includes two surviving children. Mrs. Sujey released a letter to Gelhaus, District Attorney Jill Ravitch and others that included the following: “May this day of Thanksgiving be an unforgettable one for all of you, never forgetting my misery and the suffering of my family…you didn’t even give my son time to face you. You murdered him like it was nothing, killed like a bird or raccoon on the side of a road…I comfort myself by hugging my son’s ashes.
“I’ve know too many mothers whose children’s lives were stolen by police,” said organizer and mother Dara McCuistion, who chaired the Christmas Eve meeting. “When I heard about this I thought, ‘My GOD! Not a 13-year-old child.’ I have seen Sujey’s mourning eyes. I have heard about Andy’s father Rodrigo’s cries over his casket. It’s too much.”
The January 7 action will be among dozens of prayer vigils, marches, rallies, and potlucks that have occurred since Andy’s killing. For example, on December 20 a group calling themselves Andy’s Youth marched from the Santa Rosa City Hall to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office without incident. “We’re just trying to be peaceful,” 15-year-old Lisbet Mendoza said. They walked slowly and silently, holding candles and wearing white shirts with images of Andy.
Their demands include the creation of a Citizen Review Board of the police. The supervisors have authorized a task force to study models for citizen oversight of local law enforcement, which could hopefully prevent such killings in the future. Among the 15 seats appointed by supervisors are human rights activists, student leaders, law enforcement officers, an attorney, an academic, and a former supervisor.
“Its members are for the most part the type who are reluctant to stand up to authority,” commented a cautious Coalition activist and mother Karen Saari. “I suspect the intent in forming the task force is to assuage public outcry and make the general public think something meaningful is being done. I would be very surprised if the outcome has any real teeth.”
The community also demands the building of an Andy Lopez Memorial Park on the vacant lot where Andy was playing with a toy rifle when he was killed. Some have suggested that the park also include a garden. Money has also been allocated by the supervisors to build such a park.
Lopez family attorney Arnoldo Cassilas opened a December 18 Coalition meeting attended by 50 people. He announced plans to file a federal civil rights lawsuit by Dec. 27. “The lawsuit will have various claims, including direct negligence in training and retaining Gelhaus by the Sheriff’s Office. They knew they had a powder keg, which exploded,” said Cassilas.
He explained that “the lot where Andy was killed was the park where kids played airsoft war games. Gelhaus, according to a neighbor, had driven by months ago and saw them playing with toy guns.” It is not unusual for boys to play games such as “cops and robbers.”
The community has been particularly disappointed that in less than two months after the killing, Gelhaus returned to duty, at a desk. “Now that Gelhaus is back, we can serve him. We know where he is. He has 30 days to answer. Then the judge requires that we sit down.”
Cassilas revealed some of his research on Gelhaus. The Iraq combat veteran has been teaching at a gun school in Arizona founded by Jeff Cooper, whom Cassilas described as “a white supremist.”
Gelhaus went from the killing fields of Iraq to work in a neighborhood of other dark-skinned people. Some militarized police transfer their military training and instead of serving and protecting they see neighborhoods with people of color as “the bad guys.”
Among the preparations for future actions was a December 28 Street Action Leadership Workshop on non-violence “designed to help people protest as safely and effectively as possible.”
Pending events include a presence at the January 20 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Rally, a voter registration drive, and advocating the annexation of the Roseland and Mooreland areas, where Andy was killed, into the City of Santa Rosa.
The daily Press Democrat has published many letters to the editors, both condemning and supporting Gelhaus. In one, headlined “Gelhaus’ Mistake,” Noah Moore of Cotati wrote, “The death of Andy Lopez was a mistake, but some mistakes you have to pay for.” Gelhaus “should be removed from law enforcement and convicted of a felony that prohibits his ownership of guns.”
Ignited by the killing of Andy, the Latino community and its allies have already achieved a number of victories by their ongoing efforts for justice. They show no signs of lessening their efforts.
Latinos comprise around 25% of both Santa Rosa and Sonoma County’s population and are its fastest growing component. Their strong, ongoing response to Andy’s killing strengthens their political and moral power.
Shepherd Bliss teaches college part time, farms, and has contributed to two-dozen books. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.