On Sunday afternoon I received a text message from Michael Rothenberg of 100 Thousand Poets (100TPC) for Change, “What do you know about Andy Lopez?” I wrote back that English professor and writer Shepherd Bliss and I had written a couple of articles and we planned to follow the story. Andy Lopez is the 13-year-old Santa Rosa boy shot by a sheriff while carrying a replica AK-47 airsoft BB gun down the street.
Rothenberg got onto the phone with me and asked if I wanted to join him on Tuesday for a rally and march to the Sonoma County D.A.’s office. He told me 100TPC had been organizing with other community organizations to keep Andy Lopez’s story on the front pages of the newspaper. He informed me their intentions on Tuesday were to petition Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch to create an independent “Blue Ribbon” panel or a “civilian review board” made up of outside experts and civilians to investigate the circumstances of the shooting.
The day before the protest Andy’s parents Sujey Lopez Cruz and Rodrigo Lopez filed a federal civil right lawsuit accusing Deputy Erick Gelhaus of acting recklessly in the shooting death of their son. According to the local paper The Press Democrat, their lawyer, Arnoldo Casillas, claimed their suit will “ensure critical review of the Oct. 22 shooting. Casillas accused investigators with the Santa Rosa Police Department of accepting the deputy’s version without question”. Casillas is quoted as saying, “It’s a done deal, folks …They have already concluded it was justified. Shame on them”.
Many at the protest on Tuesday had also already concluded the current investigations into the shooting by the Santa Rosa Police, the Sonoma County Sheriffs Department, and the FBI are all going to be simply another example of a government cover-up. They have also concluded Erick Gelhaus is guilty of both racial profiling and murder.
In a fiercely worded petition to the D.A. the protest organizers state, “The so-called ‘investigation’ conducted to date constitutes a negligent white wash, lacks transparency and has accomplished virtually nothing to satisfy the righteous anger of the Santa Rosa community and the nation…It is virtually impossible for the Santa Rosa Police Department and the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department to conduct an impartial investigation of one of their own officers. Such a flawed investigatory process is equivalent to assigning the fox to guard the chicken house”.
According to the most recent addition of the local weekly paper the Bohemian, this is not the first time community activists have called for independent civilian review of law enforcement. In 2000, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission recommended a civilian review board for Sonoma County. Local law enforcement was opposed such a board as unnecessary.
The Bohemian cites police-accountability activist Robert Edmonds who points out that in, “the 26 officer-related fatal shootings that have occurred since 2000 (in Sonoma county) –a number that includes deaths caused by Taser- no officer has been convicted of any wrongdoing”.
Rothenberg and the other community leaders and protesters make a strong argument for at least a civilian review board to add transparence in what appears to by a highly flawed process of local law enforcement departments investigating each other. Clearly conflicts of interest can arise which will inevitably cast doubts among the victims and their communities.
On Tuesday, I marched alongside the community, my community, and listened to the activists working against police brutality and the entrenched racism in the criminal justice system. As we made our way from the Santa Rosa Square to the courthouse and D.A’s office the protested shouted “No Justice, No Peace”, and “Jailhouse for Gelhaus”.
I listened to the dozens of teenagers wearing tee-shirts with pictures of Andy Lopez silkscreened on the front. I heard friends and neighbors of Andy Lopez talk about how Andy was just a kid and the police should have known better. Mostly, I heard the anger and fear in the community. Angry at the fact that another person, a child no less, has been gunned down by the folks charged with serving and protecting our community. And fear that Andy Lopez’s death will be just another shooting swept under the run by yet another whitewashed internal investigation without transparency.
Rothenberg and other community activists have promised not to let that happen. They are organizing another rally this Saturday in Santa Rosa. They are calling on the Santa Rosa City Counsel to purchase the vacant lot where Andy was gunned down and create a park in his name.
Most importantly, the Lopez family, community activists, and the community at large are called for an independent investigation into the shooting. Given the county’s history their demands seem reasonable.