By MARTIN ESPINOZA
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Beating on drums, pans and blowing on plastic stadium horns, about 150 activists protesting the shooting death of Andy Lopez picketed a re-election event Tuesday evening for Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch.
The demonstration was staged at the Veterans Memorial Building in Santa Rosa, where Ravitch was holding a pasta-feed fundraiser. The action is aimed at putting pressure on Ravitch to bring charges against the sheriff’s deputy who shot and killed the 13-year-old Santa Rosa boy.
“We’re here to send a message to the D.A. that we are not happy how she has addressed this issue,” said Donny Williams, part of a local group called the Justice Coalition for Andy Lopez.
“Essentially, she needs to make this a priority, being that a 13-year-old was killed,” Williams said.
Inside the event, in one of the building’s side halls, Ravitch supporters ate to the constant din of protesters outside. Every now and then, a protester banged on a window or closed door.
Activists have said they chose the protest venue in an attempt to hit Ravitch where it counts and exert political pressure. The demonstration was the first of two actions activists held Tuesday to protest the Lopez shooting.
“It’s not going to work,” Ravitch said of the pressure to reach a decision quickly. She said one of her issues when she sought the District Attorney’s Office was, “Justice, not politics.”
“I will hold true to that and will continue to hold true to that as long as I have the privilege to hold this job,” she said.
But protesters, who at times chanted “Jailhouse for Gelhaus,” insisted that the investigation should not be taking so long.
“If I shot someone how long do you think that investigation would take,” Williams said.
Ravitch is responsible for evaluating the criminal investigation into the shooting to determine whether to file charges against Deputy Erick Gelhaus.
Gelhaus, a 24-year veteran with the Sheriff’s Office, told police he fired at Lopez because he thought the boy’s airsoft BB gun — designed to resemble an AK-47 assault rifle — was a deadly weapon.
Critics, however, question whether Gelhaus gave Lopez enough time to understand what was happening.
The purpose of her analysis, she has said, is not to determine whether police policy or procedures were violated or whether Gelhaus’ actions may be subject to civil sanctions.
Ravitch has made it clear in statements to the public that her task is to determine whether Gelhaus committed a crime. At Tuesday’s fundraiser, she stressed that the case is still being investigated by the Santa Rosa Police Department, and that there is no decision to be made while an investigation is ongoing.
“You can’t rush it,” Ravitch said. “It’s denying justice to rush the results.”
Several times, protesters attempted to enter the veterans building but were escorted — and sometimes pushed — out by what appeared to be plainclothes security guards or police officers.
Later during the event, police in riot gear arrived and stood guard at various entrances to the building. At one point, guards attempted to shut a set of double doors on the left side of the building, but protesters blocked the doorway with their bodies to prevent the door from closing.
“I wasn’t letting them close the door,” said Ramon Cairo, 30, of Santa Rosa and a member of the local Brown Berets. “We cannot allow the police officers to shut the door on us and leave us outside, trying to make us forget, like the death of Andy Lopez has no meaning.”
Ravitch said that she has reached out to Lopez’s family on several occasions and would welcome sitting down with them.
“I think it’s important to keep the lines of communication open,” she said. “I respect people’s right to demonstrate. I ask that they respect what I’m doing, which is to seek justice.”
Rodrigo and Sujey Lopez, Andy Lopez’s parents, attended the protest against Ravitch but would not respond to Ravitch’s request.
“We’re looking for justice for our son,” said Sujey Lopez, speaking in Spanish. “That’s the goal of all of this,” she said, referring to the ongoing protests.
Tuesday’s demonstration was organized by the Justice Coalition for Andy Lopez. Groups that are participating in some way in the coalition include the Second Chance Club at SRJC, the west county-based 100 Thousand Poets for Change, the Peace & Justice Center and county Occupy activists.
Joseph Soldis, a private investigator and retired Sebastopol police officer, said Tuesday he understands the frustration of demonstrators, but said the picketing is “premature and misguided.”
Soldis, who estimated he has worked on 1,000 defense cases and did not attend Tuesday’s fundraiser, said it takes time to conduct a thorough investigation and perhaps re-interview witnesses whose stories can change.
The demonstrators, some with their own agendas, “seem to demand justice in a microwave oven,” he said.
“I applaud the district attorney for demonstrating professional restraint and allowing law enforcement agencies to conduct thorough investigations,” he said.
If Ravitch does file charges, Soldis said she will need to be prepared to go to trial, and pressing a case prematurely can weaken it.
Among about 200 people who came to Tuesday’s dinner were Heidi and Bob Gillen of Sebastopol. Bob Gillen was chief probation officer for Sonoma County for 23 years.
“We support Jill Ravitch because we know she’s going to do a good job in this (investigation) and be very fair,” Heidi Gillen said.
Aside from calling for criminal charges against Gelhaus, the coalition’s core members are seeking a number of other changes, including the creation of a memorial park for Lopez, the formation of a civilian police review board and establishment of the county as a “sanctuary” jurisdiction for undocumented immigrants.
Local police accountability activists said they intend to continue making the Lopez shooting an election issue for Ravitch, hoping that the pressure will overcome her perceived “ties” to the Sheriff’s Office.
Activists often cite Ravitch and Sheriff Steve Freitas’ shared political support and the 2010 campaign contributions Ravitch received from the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff’s political action committee.
A separate protest was held later in the evening at Old Courthouse Square. That demonstration, which was primarily organized by out-of-town activists, drew some of the same protesters who picketed the Ravitch event.
About 40 to 50 demonstrators held a candlelight vigil at the square just before marching to the Santa Rosa Police Department on Sonoma Avenue. The demonstrators walked along the sidewalk until they hit Sonoma Avenue.
They then marched on the eastbound lanes of Sonoma Avenue. Police cars kept their distance behind the marchers, who yelled expletives and chanted, “Whose streets, our streets.”
When they arrived at the police department, they held a brief rally, left candles and a sign and dispersed.
Staff Writer Clark Mason contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.