A Red and Black Column By Agustín Palacios
Sunday, January 5, 2014
“Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”
—Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, p. 274.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore definition of racism as one leading to “premature death” is relevant when discussing the death of 13-year-old Andy López at the hands of sheriff’s deputy Erick Gelhaus. For beyond the individual responsibility of Gelhaus and Lopez, is the larger context of black and brown youth racialization and criminalization. The combined effect of racialization and criminalization devalues the life of black and brown youth and creates a culture of fear and distrust that promotes state-sanctioned violence against them.
From what I have gathered from multiple news reports, here is the case in a nutshell: On October 22nd, 2013, Andy Lopez was shot and killed by Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Erick Gelhaus, who is also a former military trainer. Lopez was walking through a primarily working class Latino neighborhood in Santa Rosa; he was carrying a toy gun that looked like an AK 47. Presumably, Gelhaus ordered Lopez to drop the gun, but before Lopez had a chance to turn or explain that he was not carrying a gun, Gelhaus fired eight times, seven of those shots hit Lopez’s body. After Lopez collapsed, Gelhaus approached Lopez and handcuffed him before taking vitals or giving the boy CPR.
The sheriff’s department has admitted that Andy Lopez never pointed the gun at Gelhaus, that Lopez was approached from behind, and that the encounter between Gelhaus and Lopez only lasted about 10 seconds. It should be noted that Lopez was not hiding, running, or in anyway threatening the deputies. Also, there had been no calls to the police regarding a gun in the area. The handcuffing of Lopez’s wounded body suggest that even at this point he was still seen as a threat by Gelhaus.
Although self-defense is legitimate and lawful, to frame Lopez death within a self-defense argument ignores the specifics of Lopez’s case, as well as the structural context that informed Gelhaus seeing Lopez as a threat in the first place. The death of 17 year old Trayvon Martin is another case in point. Although both Lopez and Martin did not pose a real threat, both of their assailants have been able to justify their use of deadly force and avoid prosecution. The underlying logic seems to be that given the presume criminality of black and Latino males, it is easy for a sheriff’s deputy or a self-appointed neighborhood watchman to mistake a black or brown youth as a threat.
There seems to always be an excuse, a reasoning used to justify the attacker, this is only after the victim has been found to have been innocent. In the case of Oscar Grant, the claim was that Johannes Mehserle mistakenly reached for his gun instead of his taser. In the case of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman had to “stand his ground,” despite him being responsible for instigating the physical confrontation with Martin. In some way, so was Gelhaus responsible for structuring a situation where a boy would not have the opportunity to explain that he was not carrying a real weapon. Civil and human rights attorney John Burris, makes the claim that the police officers did not had to shoot Andy Lopez or approach him as they did, that they were in a position of safety in their patrol car: “The worst part is the police officers, both of them, were in a position of safety…They jumped out of their car, stayed behind the doors, in a position with a hard object, and could have had some communication with this kid as he was turning around, such as what was he doing, why was he there, what did he have in his hands. But they did not. So within 10 seconds of stopping him, this young man was shot to death” (Burris via Berstein).
The protestors, many of them Andy Lopez’ classmates, are dismissed as trouble makers, irresponsible, our too angry and therefore irrational. Instead of genuine dialogue and serious investigation, the sheriff’s and police departments seem to opt for confrontation with the community. What seems to irk observers of the protest, is that some youth chanted “fuck the police,” and they hone on this legitimate expression of anger and discontent against an institution that is supposed to serve and protect them.
Why we need to talk about Race
Although Latinos are not one race, collectively they constitute a social group that has historically been racialized as non-white. This racialization is evident when one takes a look at public discourses on crime and Latino immigration. Unfortunately, the death of Lopez and Martin are not anomalies in U.S. society. Their deaths have a lot to do with a long history of racial violence that includes the lynching of blacks in the South, the violent practices of the Texas Rangers, and today’s deaths at the border at the hands of vigilantes or border patrol officers.
Despite some claims that we now live in a post-racial and “color-blind” society, the disproportionate deaths of black and Latino youth to gun related violence suggests otherwise. The number of gun related deaths of black and brown youth, whether at the hands of state authorities or civilians, should be cause of alarm. For example, according to a 2012 Children’s Defense Fund, “Black children and teens accounted for 45 percent of all child and teen gun deaths in 2008 and 2009 but were only 15 percent of the total child population.”
The cases of Andy Lopez and Trayvon Martin make evident that race relations continue to structure not just life opportunities but even life expectancy. Certainly, race matters a whole lot when it comes to who is likely to get shot by the police. In his book, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys (2011), Victor Rios demonstrate how Oakland’s police and criminal justice system overtly targets black and brown youth for punishment; but does not provide adequate protection or support. In a sense, the police exists in impoverished parts of Oakland mainly to punish and control the bodies of the residents. Although Rios focuses on Oakland, one can argue that what Rios calls the “youth control complex” is at work whenever there is a concentration of low income black or brown youth of color, who are policed by cops who are not from the communities they police. I presume that had Gelhaus comed and lived from the same type of community as Lopez, he would not have been so quick to shoot him.
There is a double standard when it comes to the value of children’s lives. For example, it took the killing of twenty children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut to re-start a national dialogue on gun control; so far this debate has not yielded significant results. In contrast, in 2011, the FBI reported that 1,668 blacks under the age of 22 were killed with a gun. Of course the lost lives of Newtown children were precious, and the fact that so many of them were killed at once is shocking. My point here is that the large number of black and brown youth that lose their lives to gun violence every year does not seem to be enough to cause as much debate. It seems that the large number of gun related deaths in cities like Oakland, Chicago, and DC are not sufficient to cause an outcry.
This is a time of disinvestment in California’s youth. In the 1970s, California was one of the states with the highest pupil spending in the nation, but today occupies the 49th place. California spends per student less than half of what the state of Wyoming spends ($8,482 compared to $18,814). There seems to be a correlation, as the percentage of student of color increases, the less money state officials are willing to spend on public education. We should also remember that if California were it’s own country, it would be the 8th largest economy in the world.
Instead of investing in our youth’s education, the state invests in their criminalization and the incarceration of their bodies. According to California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, the state spends about $47,000 per prison inmate. This is a system of incarceration and punishment disproportionately targets poor people of color. One only has to look at the percentage of incarcerated black and Latinos, compared to whites.
Latino youth are further criminalized by an anti-immigrant discourse aimed to cause a moral panic and identify Latinos as public enemies. The racism prevalent in much of anti-immigrant discourse is obvious when one reads the work of academics like Samuel P. Huntington and Jason Richwine, or the cries of hawkers like Patrick J. Buchanan, Bill O’Reilly, and Lou Dobbs. Their calls to “repel the invasion” of the “illegal aliens” is saturated with military violent language. It is hard to prove a causal relationship between the xenophobic and racists language hurled at Latinos, and Gelhaus decision to shoot Andy Lopez, but how else do we explain that a 13th year old child would be read as a threat so easily?
The Community Responded with Peaceful Rebellion
It is worth noticing that the community (parents, Andy’s classmates, community activists and many Santa Rosa residents) reacted in protest. There was an immediate sense in those who protested that the system of law would not react unless pressured to. This reaction stems from the awareness that police/sheriff’s deputies do not always acts properly, to say the least.
These forms of rebellion, either involving direct action or less confrontational tactics like silent vigils, are expressions of resistance as well as resilience. Without the mobilization of the youth, and the support of adults, these youths would have been led into despair and a sense of defeat.
In the first marches, the police accused the protesters of violence and vandalism and made some arrests. This heavy-handed police response is an attempt to silence the community. Against this silencing and repression, youth of color respond with action and dignified defiance. The community has some specific demands, among which are: that Gelhaus be put on trial, a change in the rules of engagement so as to prevent the use of deadly force, greater police accountability to the community, and a park in honor of Andy Lopez. The meeting of these demands would be a good starting point to bring about the justice that Andy Lopez and his parents deserve.
 “I define this ubiquitous criminalization as the youth control complex, a system in which schools, police, probation officers, families, community centers, the media, businesses, and other institutions systematically treat young people’s everyday behaviors as criminal activity” (Rios #).
 “Gunning down a boy with a toy gun” Dennis Bernstein. 6 Nov. 2013. http://consortiumnews.com/2013/11/06/gunning-down-a-boy-with-a-toy-gun/
 See “Protect Children Not Guns.” The report can be accessed at http://www.childrensdefense.org/child-research-data-publications/data/protect-children-not-guns-2012.pdf.
 As reported by USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham. “Gun violence threatens young blacks.” http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2013/02/11/dewayne-wickham-on-blacks-and-gun-violence/1906819/
 See EdSource report at: http://edsource.org/today/2013/california-drops-to-49th-in-school-spending-in-annual-ed-week-report/25379#.UsoX-3k6JuY
 This according to a report by the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy. See http://www.ccsce.com/PDF/Numbers-July-2013-CA-Economy-Rankings-2012.pdf
 An example of the double standard of the criminal justice system is the recent sentencing of 16 year old Ethan Couch who, while drunk, rammed his pickup truck into another vehicle, killing four people. Texas Judge Boyd accepted the defense claims that Ethan Couch suffered from “affluenza” and only sentenced the teenager to 10 years probation and mandatory treatment for his “affluenza” affliction. Source: http://dfw.cbslocal.com/2013/12/10/teen-sentenced-to-probation-for-deadly-dwi-crash/