Justice for Andy Lopez

Tara Kaveh, Center Spread Editor

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Santa Rosa Junior College student leaders and organizations continue to pressure for transparency and justice for 13-year-old Andy Lopez, shot by a deputy of the Santa Rosa Sheriff’s Department. By organizing massive rallies and meeting with local elected officials, SRJC students and leaders are using their voices to stand up for a cause that has left a tragic effect on the community.

The community has pressured the local government to demand accountability for the death of Lopez through their freedom of speech and assembly, rapidly organizing meetings, protests, marches and campaigns joined by members of outside counties and even states. SRJC student leaders from Second Chance Student Club, 100,000 poets and the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanista de Aztian (M.E.Ch.A.) de Santa Rosa Junior College organized a massive rally on Oct. 29, with an assembly of more than 1,000 people.

People of all ages, races and incomes marched side-by-side from downtown Santa Rosa to the sheriff’s office with the streets cordoned off by the Santa Rosa Police Department (SRPD) in the name of the cause: “Justice for Andy Lopez.” Organizations from as far away as Occupy Oakland bussed members over to attend the Santa Rosa rally.

A demonstration was held under the oaks at SRJC where SRJC Student Trustee Robert Edmunds opened up the mic to allow community members to speak about the cause from all kinds of perspectives, including a local musician rapping about Lopez. The assembly then marched to the sheriff’s office where friends of Lopez, family members affected by police brutality and concerned community members spoke. The “us vs. them” mood was set with deputies dressed in full protective gear, with gates barricading off the area around the front of the sheriff’s office, with snipers on the roof and a helicopter hovering above. The speaker opened with, “Andy Lopez died on Oct. 22. Ironically that is also national anti-police brutality day.”

John Burris, the lawyer that represented Oscar Grant’s family in a similar case, also spoke at the rally in support of prosecuting Gelhaus.

Sandy Mondragon, a mother at the rally with her son, said, “We’re here supporting the parents of the boy. We have kids and it’s really scary that they can’t play with toys because they can be killed or something.”

Vanessa Ventura, a Ridgeway High School student at the protest,  said, “We get called names and these kinds of things because of the way we dress and the neighborhood we come from. Andy was an honor roll student and a boxer; he had dreams. Now his parents have to know that the person that was supposed to protect them killed their son.”

After numerous rallies, protests and vigils, leadership groups organized a national day of protest to demand justice for Andy Lopez on Nov. 9. Supporters from Oakland, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Sacramento, San Francisco and New York City participated in protests and solidarity actions in honor of Lopez.

At a meeting  Nov. 7, community members and SRJC leaders met with Supervisor Shirlee Zane and Sheriff Steve Freitas in an open dialogue between the groups for Q&A. “Everyone knows the inequities exist,” Zane said. The question is whether annexation would or would not make a difference in the development and improvement of the fifth district of Santa Rosa.

Assistant Sheriff Lorenzo Duenas explained, “I grew up in Roseland. I remember when the annexation took place and the community asked for sheriffs to patrol the area rather than police… Now it seems like a police state, even I get the feeling. Would annexation stop that?” Nevertheless, the annexation of the fifth district—the district that Andy Lopez lived in—is currently in the works with the city council and board.

The major question in this quest for justice for Andy Lopez, his family and the community is: what does “justice for Andy Lopez” entail? Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanista de Aztian (M.E.Ch.A.) de Santa Rosa Junior College has placed forward five demands to ensure justice for Andy Lopez’s family and the community. The M.E.Ch.A. proposal presented at the Nov. 7 roundtable meeting includes the following demands: transparency during the investigation, a community Review Board with subpoena power to be created in order for transparency to exist, community involvement in educating our youth and families about their rights when dealing with the law enforcement, the continuous training of law enforcement agencies when dealing with diverse communities and a memorial park created for Andy Lopez at the site of his death.

Addressing the issue of training law enforcement agencies when dealing with diverse communities, Sheriff Freitas explained that in this past year every sheriff in the department has undergone a state-required 24-hour racial profiling and cultural sensitivity training. Since Freitas has been sheriff, he created a Latino Advisory Committee with members self-selected by the Latino community to consult with on immigration changes and policy progress.

The last time Rodrigo Lopez saw his son Andy Lopez was on Tuesday morning; “I told him what I tell him every day: behave yourself.” On Tuesday, Oct. 22, two deputies spotted 13-year-old Andy Lopez walking along Moorland Avenue. The boy, wearing shorts and a blue hoodie, was holding an Airsoft gun that resembled an AK-47 and was missing the orange tip that signified it as fake. The deputies’ car came up from behind and Lopez was told to “put the gun down” twice.

Deputy Erick Gelhaus, who was training an officer that day, told investigators that he was afraid the youth would shoot after he did not comply with commands to drop the gun. The deputy stated he “couldn’t recall” if he identified himself as law enforcement when he called out to drop the gun. Gelhaus claimed he believed the replica gun that Lopez was holding was real and that the barrel “was rising up and turning in his direction.”

Gelhaus fired at Lopez eight times, killing him on the spot. The officer-in-training did not fire, according to authorities. It took 10 seconds between the deputies calling in to report a suspect and then calling again to report the boy had been shot. According to the autopsy, some of the bullets hit Lopez in the back, before he had the chance to fully turn around to face the deputies. Witnesses’ perspectives are that Gelhaus kept firing after Lopez hit the ground and that the deputy proceeded to handcuff his body.

Lopez’s parents, Rodrigo Lopez and Sujey Cruz, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court of San Francisco against Gelhaus and the county of Sonoma, claiming that Gelhaus has a history of reckless behavior and “shot without provocation or cause.” The SRPD is conducting an independent investigation of the homicide, and the FBI is looking into the shooting.  Gelhaus is currently on paid administrative leave.

Gelhaus is a 24-year veteran of the office, an Iraq War veteran, firearms instructor and contributing writer to gun publications.
In 2006, Gelhaus replied to an online discussion about being threatened by someone with a BB or pellet gun, “It’s going to come down to YOUR ability to articulate to law enforcement and very likely the Court that you were in fear of death or serious bodily injury,” he wrote. “I think we keep coming back to this, articulation—your ability to explain why—will be quite significant.”

Officials said up until the Oct. 22 shooting of Lopez, Gelhaus had never shot at a suspect before. Nevertheless, area resident Jeff Westbrook came forward a few weeks ago to say that Gelhaus had pointed a pistol at him twice when he pulled Westbrook over for a traffic violation. He pointed the pistol when Westbrook offered to move his car to give Gelhaus more room on the road shoulder and when Westbrook lifted his shirt to show that he was carrying no weapons.

The Santa Rosa Police Department is conducting an independent investigation on the homicide case involving Andy Lopez and the FBI said it also is looking into the shooting. FBI spokesman Peter Lee said, “What the FBI is investigating is whether there were any civil rights violations. Did somebody commit a crime based on race, sexual orientation, age and things like that.”

Since the incident happened in an unincorporated district, it has brought light to the inequities that exist in unincorporated districts in Santa Rosa, that receive inefficient delivery of services, such as sewer, water and public safety. In some areas, ditches run along the side of the roads instead of sidewalks.

In a TV news interview with Arnoldo Casillas, the Lopez family’s lawyer, spoke about what justice means for the Lopez family, “They are optimistic that a critical eye will be used and that justice will be served. They hope that the officer will be prosecuted.” In 2012, Casillas won a $24 million jury verdict in Los Angeles Superior Court against the Los Angeles Police Department after one of its officer’s shot and paralyzed a 13-year-old boy who was playing with a pellet gun similar to the one Lopez was carrying.

The demands of the community have pressured local government to resolve the case of Andy Lopez. It is clear that the social inequities that exist in unincorporated districts of Santa Rosa and the mistrust of local officers by the community have surfaced through this incident.

Although Lopez is no longer here to see justice carried out, community involvement and the perseverance of family and friends have created a demand for the improvement and implementation of prevention measures like officer training and community training programs between the community and those whose jobs are to serve them.

 

For a photo gallery of the Oct. 29 rally and march, visit https://www.theoakleafnews.com/news/2013/10/29/oct-29-andy-lopez-protest-gallery/

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