It is easy to draw comparisons between Ferguson, Mo., and Santa Rosa, Calif.
In both cities, two teenagers were shot and killed by local law enforcement officers, leaving communities torn apart, grief-stricken and angry.
Calls for police accountability and justice rose from neighborhoods, though 2,000 miles apart, where cries of discrimination and economic and social injustice were frequent refrains. In both places, people took to the streets.
“When you have that kind of lack of diversity (on the Ferguson police force) . . . and you have the other statistics about who gets arrested the most, who gets charged the most when you go to court, who gets longer sentences, and you add the lack of jobs, lack of investment, then, yes, of course it’s going to explode in your face,” said Francisco Vázquez, a Sonoma State University professor and a member of the county’s Community and Local Law Enforcement Task Force.
But despite the similarities, the aftermath of the tragic shootings has played out very differently on the streets of Ferguson, where 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed Aug. 9, and Santa Rosa, where 13-year-old Andy Lopez was slain in October.
In Ferguson, protests turned violent, businesses were damaged, looted or destroyed and numerous people were arrested. In Santa Rosa, the many protests and demonstrations that took place since Lopez was shot 10 months ago have been for the most part peaceful, with minimal property damage and few arrests.
There is no one reason for these very different outcomes, and it’s clear that it is more than just distance that separates the two communities, even as they share similar grief and anger.
The fury and chaos in Ferguson has led local law enforcement officials, community leaders and police accountability activists to take a fresh look at the Lopez protests and the many efforts made in Sonoma County to prevent them from exploding into violence.
Many point to the legacy of the Cinco de Mayo street clashes that erupted annually in Santa Rosa’s Roseland neighborhood, until a 2005 riot prompted law enforcement and the Latino community to search for new ways to deescalate tensions and attempt to address problems that divided the city.
In the days that followed the Lopez shooting, emotions ran high and many feared the demonstrations would turn violent. At one point, Santa Rosa officials canceled a City Council meeting and shut down City Hall because of a protest two blocks away at Old Courthouse Square.
But early on, many who participated in the protests made efforts to avoid violence. This included the Lopez family, who frequently pleaded through social media websites like Facebook to keep the demonstrations peaceful, and liberal activists, who quickly adopted the family’s cause and counseled protesters on strategy and tactics. In addition, local law enforcement agencies applied lessons from the 2005 clashes and worked to keep a tense situation from escalating.
During the first protests, parents Sujey and Rodrigo Lopez often wore white shirts to honor their son. Later, when outside activists organized a late-night demonstration in downtown Santa Rosa and asked participants to wear black and cover their faces, local Lopez activists feared the event would be dominated by anarchists and become violent, endangering the young students who marched in outrage at the slaying of a fellow teen.
Outside organizers eventually withdrew their request for people to wear black, out of respect for the Lopez family.