Gullixson: Why we ran that Lopez letter — you know the one

Several readers have written asking why we ran a certain letter this week. You probably know the one I'm talking about. It came with the headline "Catering to protesters." It begins with the supposition that the death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez "has been co-opted by self-interest groups with an obvious grudge against law enforcement officers." And it goes downhill from there.

Where the writer really hits a nerve is when he questions whether Andy was even attending school given that "the shooting occurred during school hours." He further questions whether Andy "was a problem child" and whether his family was in the United States legally. "Your silence and your catering to the protest groups makes me wonder," the writer states.

Of course, this letter is so full of holes, it struggles to retain any logic. What possible relevance does any of this have in the shooting of a 13-year-old boy who was walking along the sidewalk carrying a BB gun?

It's not as if these factors were on the minds of the two deputies as they pulled up on Moorland Avenue at 3:14 p.m. on Oct. 22. Is it reasonable to expect that they would be saying to themselves, "I can tell this is a problem child by the way he walks." Or, "The clothes he's wearing suggest that his family is not in the United States legally, so we better be careful."

Of course not.

Moreover, even if those aspersions were true and the officers knew certain facts about Andy — which they didn't because, the official line is that they did not even recognize this 5 foot, 4 inch, 140-pound individual as a youth — what difference should it have made?

The inference is plain and repugnant: If he was a bad kid, he had it coming.

As I said, the letter had more gaps in it than the Titanic, and, similarly, should have sunk to the icy depths of our communal discourse, joining so many other pronouncements that don't hold water. But some have emailed us not to torpedo the letter but to condemn us for running it.

"I cannot believe or understand how (this) opinion seems fit to publish," noted one writer. "It's racist garbage."

Said another, "I believe the PD needs to print a retraction — or an apology — not only because you have published a fact-less letter but also because you have published a hateful letter at a time when Santa Rosa needs citizenship and understanding."

Still another noted, "It would be helpful to me ... to hear an explanation as to why you would decide to publish such a letter."

Fair enough. Here's my short answer: Because our fundamental belief in the importance of airing and confronting objectionable ideas — and our confidence in a reasonable public to properly engage the writer's sentiments — outweighed our desire to protect readers from dissent.

That's the gist of it.

That's not to say this was a simple decision. It wasn't. Yes, this was a borderline call. We take seriously our role in picking the letters we publish. We also agree with the person quoted above that Santa Rosa needs connection and understanding. We just question the assumption that understanding begins with screening out certain types of perspectives and questions.

Frankly, we have received letters on this same subject that were worse than this one. The question for us was whether it was better to continue to screen these types of letters or get the ideas out there for the community to discuss.

Again, I think the letter contains unfortunate innuendo. But I disagree that it was full of factual errors. The only presumption I directly challenge is the contention that Lopez was out during "school hours," given that many schools get out by 2:45 p.m. — earlier on minimum days. More to the point, it was a time of day that officers should have expected to see children walking the street. Should have.

But beyond that, the letter focuses on questions, not facts.

Maybe we shouldn't have run the letter. I don't know. You tell me. But it seems to me if we really want to get somewhere in our communal dialogue, we can't be afraid to walk the razor's edge — and risk having a conversation about what people really are thinking and asking. Even if we don't like what some have to say.

<i>Paul Gullixson is editorial director for The Press Democrat. Email him at paul.gullixson@pressdemocrat.com.</i>