Marchers young and old parade down Mendocino Avenue in downtown Santa Rosa, California on their way to the Sonoma County Sheriffs' Office to protest the shooting death of Andy Lopez, the 13-year-old boy gunned down by Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff Erick Gelhous on Tuesday. October 29, 2013. Photo: Erik Castro/for the Press Democrat.

Large, peaceful protest of Andy Lopez killing winds through Santa Rosa

One week earlier, at almost the identical time of day, sheriff's Deputy Erick Gelhaus shot and killed Lopez on a sidewalk in southwest Santa Rosa. The teen was carrying an airsoft gun, which shoots plastic BBs. Police said the deputy mistook the gun for an AK-47 assault rifle.

Protesters said criminal charges should be levied against the deputy.

"This officer should be prosecuted for murder," said John Burris, one of the Oakland attorneys who negotiated a $1.5 million settlement for the family of Oscar Grant, the man killed in a 2009 shooting by a BART police officer.

Burris said the deputies approached Lopez incorrectly, leading to his death.

"To tell him to put the gun down was confusing, because he did not have a gun," he told the crowd at a rally outside the Sheriff's Office. "Clearly this is murder."

The death has prompted almost daily vigils and protests. Tuesday's demonstration was advertised on social media and fliers posted in Spanish and English around Santa Rosa.

An odd disquiet permeated the city's heart around lunchtime as some businesses closed amid fears of an outbreak of violence. A TV news helicopter circled high overhead, joined by the sheriff's helicopter, Henry-1.

Rochelle Rutherford brought her son, Alex Cordero, a junior at Elsie Allen High. She'd given him permission to miss school for the march. She also brought her 3-year-old son, Darrian Rutherford, who rode in a red wagon painted with the message, "Justice for Andy."

"It's unbelievable the amount of grief I feel, and it's not even my child," Rutherford said of Lopez.

Demonstrators initially set off on the sidewalk and observed pedestrian signals as they began the 2?-mile route from Old Courthouse Square to the Sheriff's Office. But by the time they reached Fifth Street a block away, the crowd had spilled onto Mendocino Avenue. Organizers attempted to keep people out of harm's way from oncoming traffic, assisted by Santa Rosa police officers on motorcycles.

There was very little obvious police presence anywhere along the route.

That was not the case at the county administration complex, where a contingent of CHP officers and sheriff's deputies awaited marchers.

Law enforcement agencies from around the Bay Area — including Lake, Napa, Marin and Solano counties — sent personnel to help manage the crowd. All nonessential Sheriff's Office staff were told to leave the building at noon.

Sheriff Steve Freitas said he was grateful the protesters were largely peaceful, although his office had planned for a large event with the possibility for vandalism and violence.

"There was no damage and most importantly no injuries, so we are very, very thankful for that," Freitas said late Tuesday.

Still, some protesters threw water bottles and spit at deputies, the sheriff said. Freitas said he instructed deputies to show restraint "unless people get injured or unless they storm the Sheriff's Office and break windows."

Former county Supervisor Ernie Carpenter, who participated in the protest, was critical of county officials for "shutting the door" to county business Tuesday. And he had harsh words for Freitas.

"It's not a coincidence that black and brown people are getting killed. The sheriff needs to do better recruiting — we don't need war veterans shooting everything that moves," Carpenter said, referring to the deputy who fired the fatal shots, who is a military veteran.

Santa Rosa school board member Laura Gonzalez also was critical of officials after she took the microphone at the rally, saying some leaders had incorrectly portrayed Tuesday's event as one led by outside groups and one that might put students in danger.

Santa Rosa City Schools issued automatic phone calls, emails and fliers Monday warning parents that students would need parent participation to attend the march.

"I'm really disappointed in our so-called leaders who did a lot of fear mongering," Gonzalez said.

But board member Jenni Klose, who met with Sonoma County Supervisors Shirlee Zane and Efren Carrillo, as well as other leaders Sunday night to work on a strategy for Tuesday, defended the district's efforts to keep students in class.

"I don't think it's fear mongering to encourage families to accompany their kids to a protest and I don't think it's fear mongering for us to maintain the message that we maintain every day that it's good to be in school," Klose said.

On Tuesday, as it did for students at a previous demonstration on Friday, the school district provided buses to transport students back to Elsie Allen High School after the rally. Superintendent Socorro Shiels, who was present for Tuesday's march, said the two buses were meant to keep kids safe and were not an endorsement of the event.

"The message has always been about safety," Shiels said. "There has never been a message that they should go."

Also joining the crowd was Santa Rosa City Councilman Gary Wysocky, defying advice from City Attorney Caroline Fowler and City Manager Kathy Millison not to comment on the case.

"It's a terrible tragedy for his family and the community; they're reeling from it," he said. "I hope they are able to mourn and heal ... My god, a 13-year-old died."

The Sonoma County courthouse and county administration center closed at lunchtime. Santa Rosa shuttered City Hall at noon and sent workers home, prompting the cancellation of the afternoon City Council meeting.

"Better to err on the side of caution on this," Mayor Scott Bartley said.

Mary Moore, a longtime Occidental activist on social justice issues, said she was stunned by the mobilization of law enforcement personnel and aircraft for a bunch of chanting kids.

"I'm just outraged that they would do this overkill thing," Moore said. "It's so silly and a waste of money and resources."

In a rally at Santa Rosa Junior College along the march route, speakers were loud and fiery, with some claiming the shooting of Lopez was racially motivated and the system for reviewing police shootings is deeply flawed.

But they also exhorted demonstrators to remain peaceful and cited the nonviolent traditions of Cesar Chavez and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr..

Speakers said the shooting of a 13-year-old boy carrying a BBgun would not have happened in a more affluent neighborhood in Santa Rosa.

"It's us being black and brown and poor. We are marks for these police," Sellassie Blackwell, an SRJC pre-law student and "hip hop activist" told the crowd, which grew to about 800 to 1,000 at its height, according to campus police.

"In a rich neighborhood they would have done everything they could to make sure he had a chance to put the gun down," Blackwell said.

Others said the boy's death reflects inequalities in the community, including a perceived disparity in the education that students on Santa Rosa's east side receive compared to what is available to them on the west side.

Robert Edmonds, an SRJC student trustee, called for a civilian review board for officer-involved shootings to hold police accountable, similar to what the California Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission recommended more than a dozen years ago for Sonoma County, Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park."

He said there's "something wrong" with police agencies investigating officer-involved shootings and then turning over their findings to the local district attorney.

"We give them the ultimate power in this society to take the life of another individual and walk away," he said.

Edmonds acknowledged the presence of anti-police groups from other parts of the state at Tuesday's protest, including Oakland, Sacramento and the Central Valley, saying it was natural because they have had officer-involved shootings that "mirror problems in our community."

Groups represented Tuesday included ANSWER — Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, BAMN — By Any Means Necessary, and the Berkeley-based Revolutionary Communist Party.

Dionne Smith-Downs, whose 15-year-old son was killed by officers in Stockton in 2010, traveled to Santa Rosa as part of a caravan from Stockton and Oakland. Smith-Downs said the deputy who shot Lopez "should be charged with murder."

One speaker at the SRJC rally, Sonoma County law enforcement chaplain Janet Cabezud, offered a different message, asking people to not rush to judge about what happened. Despite being booed and interrupted with chants of "No justice, no peace," Cabezud continued talking.

"The reality is law enforcement is out there to protect us and they are under constant threat of their lives," she said.

One woman, however, held aloft a sign that had a photo of Gelhaus, the deputy at the center of the controversy, and the words, "Killer Cop." A man at the SRJC gathering shouted out, "The only good cop is a dead cop."

Piner High School junior Erika Martinez was one of several people who carried a sign that said "F... the sheriff."

"I feel like it's the sheriff's fault," she said, referring to the deputy who shot the boy. "He didn't give Andy time to drop it."

She said the deputy should be fired and sent to jail.

T-shirt vendor John Cook said his wife was Lopez's fourth-grade teacher. Cook made about 100 T-shirts that read "Justice for Andy Lopez" with the image of a fist. He sold them for $15, saying all proceeds would go to the family.

"We're just trying to get a little community awareness, hopefully get a little change," Cook said.

Staff Writers Sean Scully, Randi Rossmann, Julie Johnson and Kevin McCallum contributed to this story.

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