<i>"If a free society can't help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich." — the inaugural address of John F. Kennedy, January 20, 1961.</i>


For too long, community leaders looked the other way while Santa Rosa was becoming a city divided between those who have more and those who have less, between those who have access to local government and those who do not. Issues of income, ethnicity and class are never easy, and so the path of least resistance led to less difficult issues.

Last week, community leaders learned what happens in a city where tens of thousands of people feel ignored and disrespected.

After a 13-year-old Latino boy was shot and killed by a sheriff's deputy, there was no reservoir of trust and understanding to help the community navigate the confusion, grief and anger.

For many, the death of Andy Lopez becomes only the latest reminder that the city's leaders didn't want to listen to their concerns, or otherwise acknowledge the changes all around us.

People will continue to disagree about whether the shooting could have been avoided. The youngster was carrying a BB gun designed to look like an assault rifle, and investigators say the deputy mistook the BB gun for the real thing. These arguments will go on for a very long time.

But we can hope that the shooting and its aftermath become a moment in which Santa Rosa leaders move beyond the drift and inertia of recent years.

It's in nobody's best interest that there are two Santa Rosas — one east and one west, one enjoying the best of what California has to offer and the other struggling to survive.

Unfortunately, the first response from City Hall only made the week more dispiriting. City Council members said they couldn't speak to their city's grief and pain because the city manager and city attorney instructed them to keep quiet.

At a moment when leadership was critical, the city's elected representatives were silent. (One may ask, what's the purpose of an elected council if it is willing to cede its authority to others?)

Members of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors managed to speak actual words and to attend Andy Lopez's funeral, but this seems to have been too much to ask of the City Council.

Yes, communities all over the world struggle with issues of class, income, race and ethnicity.

But it's not smart for city leaders to sit on the sidelines. They can do better. We all can do better.

It's not OK that west Santa Rosa continues to be a hodgepodge of incorporated and unincorporated areas, some with city improvements, some unimproved and neglected.

And it's not OK that after 20years of talking, the city has done almost nothing to increase west Santa Rosa's representation in city government.

Two years ago, the council appointed a Charter Review Committee that was supposed to find a solution to these historic inequities. What happened? Three-quarters of the appointees were residents of the same exclusive, northeast neighborhoods that have always dominated city government. Anyone with an ounce of self-awareness would have been embarrassed.

In 19 days, Americans will observe the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy. Kennedy was outspoken in urging Americans to find ways to help the poor and disadvantaged.

In recent years, those ideals seemed to have faded into the background. Rightly or wrongly, politicians have decided that voters don't want to hear about it.

In Democratic and supposedly liberal Sonoma County, political leaders expend their time and energy debating big-box stores, public pensions, bike lanes and more.

Folks living on the margins, kids dropping out of school, the multiple disparities that exist from one neighborhood to the next? Not so much.

Compassion and a sense of justice should motivate us to do better. But this is not just about compassion and justice.

In his inaugural address, John Kennedy, who would become a revered figure among Democrats, reminded us that we're all here together.

A community where tens of thousand of people don't have hope for a better future soon becomes a place with more social ills than can be listed here.

In that way, efforts to build trust, respect and a better life for every neighborhood in Santa Rosa become a simple recognition of our mutual self-interest.

In the anger, suspicion and distrust of the past week, we are reminded that indifference is not an option. Yes, there will always be haves and have-nots, and there will be tragedies that we cannot explain.

But we can make a difference, if it's important to us. If not, we only have ourselves to blame.

<i>Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.</i>