Santa Rosa, California – Mothers in White plan to converge on the regular meeting of the governing Sonoma County Board of Supervisors for a peaceful, dignified action on January 7, Tuesday, at 1 PM. They demand justice for 13-year-old Andy Lopez killed October 22 by sheriff’s deputy Erick Gelhaus, who claims he thought the boy’s toy rifle was a real gun.
A front-page “2013 in Review” by the daily mainstream Press Democrat ranked the killing of Andy as last year’s number one local story. Many feel that it is the most important local story in this county of some 500,000 people in decades. A large picture of Andy’s father Rodrigo and his mother Sujey clutching their son’s coffin spreads across the top of the paper.
“An enraged community staged near-daily marches in the street,” reports the PD. “The incident raised pointed and painful questions about race and class and political power in Sonoma County,” the article continues.
The Latino population comprises about 25% of both Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, as well as being its largest-growing component. The first-born baby in 2014 in Sonoma County was named Diana Zarate. “Mi reina” the mother describes her daughter, which translates from Spanish to “my queen.” But what sort of world is this youngest Latina born into?
The numerous rallies, marches, prayer vigils, and letters to editors represent the political coming-of-age of Santa Rosa’s Latino community. Among those planning to come on January 7 are Andy’s mother and the family attorney Arnoldo Cassilas.
“We are witnessing a dramatic shift in population in California and the country, which threatens the existing political and cultural paradigm,” said Jonathan Melrod of the Justice Coalition for Andy Lopez. “There is a ‘Brown Revolution’ occurring in America and the Justice Campaign is a component of that larger civil rights movement. Widespread anger exists over government’s failure to deliver on immigration reform and other electoral promises that dissolved over the past 6 years. This shift in the political paradigm is and will continue to be a dramatic factor in future elections.”
Andy’s Killing as Part of a Bigger Picture
“The murder of Andy Lopez is an example of a bigger plan by the oppressive, right-wing forces which control our government and devalue the lives of our children, especially our children of color,” said African American Elbert “Big Man” Howard. “These wanton, outright murders are wrapped in veils of lies, secrecy.”
“In this atmosphere of devaluing our children, the courts, law enforcement officers, and school officials have been given the power to destroy young lives by labeling them gang members and by criminalizing them,” Howard added. “Racial profiling, coupled with this view of our youngsters as ‘menaces to society,’ and the distinct message of no accountability, has led to accelerated killings of our children at the hands of law enforcement. These murders, as well as those of the mentally ill and others, are termed ‘justifiable homicides.'”
Youth from the eighth grade, as Andy was, from high school, and from Santa Rosa Junior College have been leading the charge. They hold signs expressing solidarity with words like “I Am Andy.” These youth are getting an applied political education that is likely to forever change their lives, as well as awaken the Latino community and Sonoma County.
Known as “Wine Country,” this area is dependent upon Latinos, documented and undocumented, to work in agriculture. A group of what is being described as “kids on scooters” will be at the action.
On Christmas Eve, a committee of the Justice Coalition began planning the January 7 direct action, proposed originally by Elaine Holtz. Among the dozen who met were representatives of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the Women’s Political Caucus, and radio stations such as the bi-lingual KBBF-FM, and KPFA-FM, a Pacifica station.
A bi-lingual, multi-cultural flyer promoting the event reads, “Every member of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is staring into a moral crisis! What kind of ‘policy’ permits the brutal killing of a 13-year-old child who committed NO CRIME?” it asks. It poses the question, “To what length would you go if your innocent child or grandchild was brutally murdered?”
The intention is to “create a dramatic visual impact” of Mothers in White, as well as their allies, including men and the group Women in Black. It was founded in Palestine in the l960s to stand in silence 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. Outside the meeting seven posters with images of the 9mm bullets that killed Andy will be displayed.
“I’ve known too many mothers whose children’s lives were stolen by police,” said Dara McCuistion, the mother 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.”
What Would Justice for Andy Mean?
The Justice Coalition’s demands are summarized in a letter by the bi-racial Zac Britton, published December 27 by the Press Democrat. He said that he has “experienced prejudice and racism first hand here in Sonoma County.” Headlined “Explaining Justice,” he writes:
“When people ask what justice for Andy Lopez means, tell them it means re-training all officers trained by Deputy Erick Gelhaus.
“It means a memorial park at Moorland and West Robles avenues dedicated to Andy Lopez and all victims of police brutality.
“It means the de-militarization of local law enforcement. It means beefier pre-employment screening standards for law enforcement.
“It means the establishment of a Citizen Review Board. It means lapel cameras on every law enforcement officer. It means the annexation of Andy Lopez’s neighborhood into Santa Rosa.
“It means local elected officials who are actually involved in our community instead of those who couldn’t care less.”
Among the 15 seats appointed by supervisors to a task force to study establishing a Citizen Review Board are human rights activists, student leaders, law enforcement officers, an attorney, an academic, and a former supervisor.
“Its members are for the most part reluctant to stand up to authority,” commented a cautious Coalition activist and mother Karen Saari. “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 Civil Rights Lawsuit
Lopez family attorney Arnoldo Cassilas filed a civil rights violation lawsuit in federal court November 4. He plans to amend it before January 7. That complaint includes “Three Claims for Relief:”
1. Unreasonable Seizure vs. Erick Gelhaus
2. Municipal Liability for Unconstitutional Customs and Practices vs. Sonoma County (and unnamed other defendants)
3. Interference with Family Integrity + Substantive Due Process Violation vs. Erick Gelhaus and Sonoma County (and unnamed defendants)
“The amended complaint will shift the narrative to focus more on Gelhaus, his history, his writings, his participation in firearms training at a white supremacist compound,” according to activist Melrod.
Cassilas opened a December 18 Coalition meeting attended by 50 people. “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.
“The lot where Andy was killed was where kids played airsoft war games,” Cassilas explained. “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 desk duty. 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 supremacist.”
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.”
Allies From Around the Bay Area Coming
The Mothers in White action has captured the imaginations of people from around the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond, as one can tell from photos from throughout the world on the Facebook page below. The name evokes the groups Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina and Chile, who held events against military violence.
Santa Rosa activists attended the Fifth Year Memorial for African-American Oscar Grant in Oakland on January 1 to recruit people. Grant was killed by a police officer at a subway station, for which he was found guilty. The feature film “Fruitvale Station,” about Grant, won first place awards at the 2013 Canes and Sundance Film Festivals, as well as elsewhere.
“Dearest Andy’s Dream Defenders,” Evelina Molina of KBBF—FM recently emailed Coalition members. “If Andy were alive, he would have some amazing dreams for his future. We must insure that other young dreams live and prosper in Peace and Security.” She reports that Fresno Brown Berets and BAMN activists from Oakland plan to come. Others have made contact with groups such as the Pacific Asian Americans and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. A genuine multi-cultural, multi-generation coalition seems to be emerging.
Pending Coalition events include a strong presence at the January 20 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Rally and a voter registration drive.
Galvanized by Andy’s killing, 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 and Anglos are being united “as the 99%” by “the ongoing economic crisis,” said Coalition member Dave Ransom. He describes the “shadow of the nearly jobless future cast across all youth.” He concludes, “A unity of the 99 % is growing in Sonoma County.”