By NICHOLAS BRANNON
— SANTA ROSA, Calif. — On a Tuesday afternoon at 3 p.m., 13-year-old Andy Lopez was walking down the street from his home to a friend’s house, carrying a BB gun that his friend had left at his house, when two Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies saw him while driving around on patrol. Seconds later, one of the cops fired eight shots at Andy, seven of which hit him. Before pronouncing him dead, the cops handcuffed him.
Few details of the Oct. 21 shooting have come out, beyond the police version of what happened, which is too ridiculous to print and has already begun changing, though it has only been a week. It includes the absurd claim that as one cop was yelling at him from behind to drop the BB gun, which was shaped like an AK-47, Andy turned and raised the barrel of the BB gun toward the cops.
In one of the few statements that has not come from the police, a witness, who lives across the street from where the shooting took place, has come forward to say that Andy was on the ground after two shots, after which the cop continued firing several more.
The killing, another of the many incidents in the U.S. of a Black or Latino falling victim to racist police violence, has led to an outpouring of anger and demands for justice from the Latino community in Santa Rosa. On the day after he was killed, Andy Lopez’s family and some friends sat outside Santa Rosa City Hall in quiet protest. Later that evening, hundreds of friends and neighbors marched with his family to the spot where he died and held a memorial there.
For each of the next three days, 200 to 300 people marched each afternoon to the Sonoma County sheriff’s office, located in Santa Rosa, and every night vigils were held at the site of his death. The support has only increased. Over 1000 people attended a memorial service in Andy Lopez’s honor on Sunday. And on Tuesday, Oct. 28, marking a week after his death, well over 1000 people marched and held a rally in front of the sheriff’s office.
Support for the demonstrations has been especially strong among the middle school and high school students who were the popular eighth-grader’s classmates, neighbors, and friends. In the week since the shooting, students have twice walked out of school to march for justice, including in an all-student march to the sheriff’s office on Friday morning, Oct. 24, with 100 participants, which surprised and energized the community. In the planned march on Tuesday, several hundred students walked out of school, and they made up a majority of the mostly Latino crowd rallying in front of the sheriff’s office.
The cop that killed Andy Lopez, Erick Gelhaus, is a weapons instructor and field trainer for the Sonoma County sheriff’s department. He is a frequent contributor to S.W.A.T. magazine and wrote an article in 2008 about the importance of cops’ having a willingness to kill. “If you find yourself in an ambush, in the kill zone,” he wrote, “you need to turn on that mean gene.” He added that one of the things he tells trainees is, “Today is the day you may need to kill someone in order to go home.”
In addition to writing for S.W.A.T. magazine, Gelhaus was also reportedly a “prolific” contributor to its on-line forums. In one thread debating “whether the use of force is justified if someone brandishes or fires a BB gun at another person,” Gelhaus wrote: “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 added, “Articulation—your ability to explain why—will be quite significant.”
On the day after the killing, a police spokesperson said that Gelhaus had told them he “feared for his life, his partner’s life, and members of the community” on account of the BB gun. Police now say that Gelhaus “couldn’t recall” if he had identified himself to Andy Lopez as a cop before shooting him.
But media coverage of the killing, locally, in the Bay Area, and beyond, has predictably focused instead on the supposed danger of BB guns that look “too realistic,” accepting the cops’ premise that Andy was a danger to the cop, rather than the other way around, and that the problems of police racism and violence are caused by a child having a BB gun.
These claims are belied by the frequent police shootings of Black and Brown people who have nothing in their hands at all. This is not to mention shootings such as one in San Jose in 2011, in which four cops shot more than 20 bullets into a Latino man who had a gold-colored toy revolver tucked into the waistband of his Halloween costume. So much for “realistic-looking.”
But still, the mainstream press, in the name of “not letting this happen again,” focuses on how people—including children with toys—can make themselves less threatening to the police, casually diverting attention from the actual threat.