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Community discovering new unity after Andy Lopez shooting


The fatal shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez by a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy has galvanized the Moorland Avenue neighborhood in which the teen lived and played, local residents and community leaders say.

It also appears to have strengthened a sense in Sonoma County's substantial Latino community — at least a quarter of the county's population — that they have the numbers and power to command the attention of government officials, and even affect policy.

"What (the shooting) is doing is bringing the community together, showing that we stick together no matter what," said Rosie Meraz, 15, a friend of the boy and a student at Elsie Allen High School who gathered with hundreds of others Friday night to mourn Lopez on the Mexican Day of the Dead holiday.

Meraz and other young people who have taken it upon themselves to look after the memorial that has sprung up at the site of the shooting are "trying to show the sheriffs and the cops and everybody who is watching this that we can stick together when it comes to something serious," she said.

As daily marches and vigils continue nearly two weeks after Lopez's shooting by Deputy Erick Gelhaus, who reportedly mistook the boy's BB gun for a deadly weapon, that sense of solidarity seems to be the overriding theme of comments from residents, organizers and local officials reflecting on the shooting.

People interviewed in the neighborhood and across the county said Lopez's killing will be remembered as a pivotal moment.

"I don't think I've ever seen so much action taken by different community groups over one incident. The shooting of Andy has sparked a lot of interest even with people I've never heard of before," said Leticia Romero, board president of the North Bay Organizing Project, a coalition of neighborhood, immigrant, religious and environmental groups and activists. "You've got students marching, human rights groups marching, faith-based communities coming together. It's just amazing to me."

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will take the unusual step of carving out time to discuss the shooting at Tuesday's meeting. They will start with an invocation by a local clergyman, though it is not yet clear who, and then open a wide-ranging discussion in which supervisors and members of the public can comment.

Chairman David Rabbitt said he hopes the discussion won't just be a forum to vent grief and rage, but also to discuss specific changes that might prevent something like this from happening again.

It will also show the public, particularly the Latino community, "that they're invited to the table to talk about what that change should look like," he said. "And that is a good thing."

Lopez was walking past the field just after 3 p.m. near his home on Moorland Avenue, in an unincorporated area of southwest Santa Rosa. He was carrying an airsoft BB gun designed to look like an AK-47 assault rifle. Two sheriff's deputies confronted him, reportedly thinking the weapon was real.

After telling the boy to drop the gun, Gelhaus fired eight rounds at Lopez as the boy turned to face the deputies, said Santa Rosa police, who are investigating the shooting. Lopez was hit seven times, according to a preliminary autopsy report.

Santa Rosa police, other local law enforcement agencies and the FBI are investigating the incident to determine whether Gelhaus acted reasonably in opening fire.

As the investigation continues, Lopez's family is preparing to file a federal lawsuit Monday. On Thursday, an attorney for the family filed a claim against the County of Sonoma seeking unspecified damages.

The killing has spawned a series of protests, memorials and vigils, and turned the field where the shooting took place into a makeshift shrine, with piles of toys and notes, and lately a huge altar-like platform topped by a tall cross. At Friday night's event, dancers in traditional Mexican costumes performed to the accompaniment of singers and drums as smoke from hundreds of sacramental candles and bundles of burning herbs swirled around them.

"It's brought a lot of people together, a lot of new faces ... it's a sense of coming together," said Melissa Gonzales a UPS driver from Sonoma whose longtime route includes the neighborhood. "I think it is a horrible situation, but I think there are a lot of caring people here, a lot of good hearts here."

The shooting has changed the community "in that the minority, the black and the brown, are getting together and saying that this has hurt the community pretty bad," said neighbor Rene Luna as the crowd surrounded the memorial.

Many say the killing could be a turning point in the county's Latino community, which has largely been on the sidelines in county politics.

"It's pulled back the scab and exposed the wound of social injustice that's been there for a long time," Supervisor Shirlee Zane said.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo, the only Latino on the board of supervisors, agreed.

"As tragic as Andy's death has been, he has left the community a significant gift, that of coming together around community change," he said.

It's too early to say what specific policy changes might stem from the shooting, supervisors say, but issues could include an independent review panel to investigate shootings by law enforcement, annexation of unincorporated fringes of Santa Rosa by the city to provide better urban services, and more investment in infrastructure and education in largely Latino neighborhoods.

"I think we need to look at all existing policies and existing conditions," Carrillo said.

The effect of the killing, however, goes beyond the Latino community, many say.

Former NAACP board member Sherman Blackwell linked Lopez's death with the fatal shooting, also involving sheriff's deputies, of Sebastopol teenager Jeremiah Chass in 2007.

"I think the communities of color are going to be aligned now," he said, referring to the "horrific fatalities" attributed to law enforcement.

Lopez was the child of Mexican immigrants and Chass, 16, was biracial with a black birth father.

The racial alignment will give new impetus to the call for a civilian review board to evaluate such cases, Blackwell said.

"I think it shall come to pass; enough is enough," he said. "The community is pretty raw on this one."

The North Bay Organizing Project plans to turn today's annual meeting, set for 4 p.m. at Sonoma Academy in Santa Rosa, into a multiracial discussion of specific policies and issues that the newly energized community can pursue, from local matters such as transit funding to national causes such as an overhaul of immigration laws.

"The energy and anger that has come out of this event has to be channeled into enduring organizations and enduring coalitions," said Marty Bennett, a member of the project's leadership committee.

Santa Rosa Mayor Scott Bartley said local elected officials need to take time to listen to such grass roots calls for change.

"We'll have time to lead, but at this point we need to be listening. ... Believe it or not, that's a hard thing for politicians to do sometimes," he said. "But by listening, that will inform how change happens. Change will happen. Change has to happen."

An even worse tragedy, he said, "will be if we don't learn from this."

One of the remarkable features of the protests since the shooting is the substantial participation of young people, many of them Lopez's friends and classmates. Of the hundreds who turned out for a protest march through Santa Rosa on Oct. 29, many appeared to be youths from city schools.

"My personal hope is that our young people, who have now become ignited for equality and justice, stay involved in our participatory government and remain involved throughout their lives," Santa Rosa City Council member Julie Combs said.

Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Socorro Shiels did not return messages left for her Friday, but school board trustee Larry Haenel commended the way school staff, particularly in the schools in Lopez's neighborhood, have handled the event and the students' reaction.

"It is an opportunity to open the lines of communication where they have previously been closed," he said.

Trustee Laura Gonzalez called Lopez's shooting death a "tragedy of errors."

"I think again it brings up the elephant in the room of the issue of race and class in our city," she said. "I don't believe what happened was racially motivated, but I think it picks at that wound of feelings of inequality, disenfranchisement of the Latino community, right or wrong."

Former Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Ihde, now CEO of Goodwill of the Redwood Empire, said he hopes the killing will focus public attention on the pervasive culture of violence in the United States.

"I think in society, overall, we've become more violent," he said. "Look at the issue of school shootings. Twenty years ago, we never thought about that. Today's youth are desensitized to violence and guns."

Moorland-area resident Mario Barragan puts more blame on law enforcement, saying deputies often came into the neighborhood to "harass" residents. Since the shooting, he said, it has been quiet and peaceful, all without much presence by deputies.

"Since they haven't been here, I haven't seen any problems," he said. "To me, it seems like they're the problem."

Several students and residents said they saw greater harmony within the community. Even groups and individuals who formerly were at odds seem united, Rosie Meraz said.

Before, she said, the talk at school would be about which groups were having a disagreement, which neighborhoods weren't getting along.

"Now it's like 'Andy,' you know," she said. "It's all about Andy now; I mean, it's good."

(Staff writers Kerry Benefield, Matt Brown, Guy Kovner, Kevin McCallum and Brett Wilkison contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.)