Police Killing of Teenager Andy Lopez Ignites Latino Community and Youth
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/arindambanerjee
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
The killing has outraged Latinos and the broader community here of 160,000, located in California's wine country one hour north of San Francisco, where thousands — many of them teenagers in middle school like Lopez — have streamed into the streets in recent days calling for new police laws and the swift punishment of officer Erick Gelhaus, an Iraq war veteran and former sergeant who was a known advocate of using deadly force in conflict situations.
Gelhaus was on a routine patrol through Southwest Santa Rosa's predominantly Latino neighborhood on Tuesday, October 22, when he saw Lopez carrying what he believed to be an AK-47. After phoning in a "suspicious person report," Gelhaus ordered Lopez to turn around but within seconds, before the boy had a chance to react, Gelhaus shot him with seven rounds, including one in his buttocks.
The second deputy traveling with Gelhaus, who never fired a shot, said he didn't even have time to get out of the vehicle before the boy lay fatally wounded on the ground.
Prayer vigils, a funeral, daily marches and rallies for the slain Lopez have now overtaken the city and show no sign of abating. At least two of the marches were attended by over 1,000 people, and the steady patrols and surveillance by helicopters have added to the tension in the city. More events are scheduled as the community's cry for justice mounts.
"Sheriff Wanted 4 Murder" read signs posted on fences in Latino neighborhoods, and held at rallies. "Andy, Andy, Andy!" chanted the mourners, and "Andy Lopez did not have to die!" The boy's handsome young face has covered the front page of newspapers for days and is now showing up on sweatshirts and t-shirts around town.
"Andy was nice and kind. He tried to make everyone laugh," a classmate testified at the rally's open mic. "He loved basketball and boxing," said another student from his school, who vowed to follow the court case against the deputy to see that justice is served.
Before Wednesday's march, a trio of teenage Latino boys stood in sweatshirts emblazoned with Lopez's image. "He was our age, I've never seen anything like it," said Jaime, 15, who knew Lopez. "He was a good person to be around, he was never causing problems."
"It's the police's fault," he added. "I'm here to get justice — to stop police brutality."
The largest march, held Tuesday, was attended by mainly Latino middle school, high school and junior college students, who took over all four lanes of central Mendocino Avenue, stopping downtown traffic. Later, children along with their parents and hundreds from the community convened at the Sheriff's Office — which had been "Closed Until Further Notice" — to air their anger and grievance.
Armed deputies surrounded the building, standing in full riot gear with helmets and shields. Snipers on the roof held assault weapons while a helicopter circled overhead. Additional tactical squads were waiting to be bussed in, if necessary. No arrests were made of the peaceful demonstrators, indicating once more an overreaction by authorities to what they perceived as a public "threat."
On the Wednesday march, dozens of low-rider cars followed the police escort as people of diverse cultures and ages walked together slowly, shoulder-to-shoulder. Truck drivers honked in support, eliciting cheers from the crowd. Teresa Carrion from 100 Thousand Poets for Change, and one of the organizers, described it "more like a ceremonial procession than a march."
A KBBF bi-lingual radio station announcer reported that the Wednesday march was one of the most ethnically diverse marches he had ever seen in Santa Rosa, the largest city in Sonoma County. About 30 percent of Sonoma County is Latino, which is its fastest growing population. However, many communities here remain segregated. Whereas Lopez's killing was potentially racially divisive, the tragedy has sparked a sense of multi-cultural unity that appears more than anything to be connecting people.