Swans Commentary » swans.com December 16, 2013  



Perspectives: A Review of 2013


A Life And A Death In A California Town


by Jonah Raskin





(Swans - December 16, 2013)   This fall, in Santa Rosa, California, Erick Gelhaus, 48, a sheriff's deputy and an Iraq War veteran, shot and killed a thirteen-year-old named Andy Lopez Cruz, who had no police record, and who was not breaking the law, though he was carrying a BB gun without bullets. Now, a few months later, it's still hard for me to forget about Cruz and his death, though I never knew him or anyone related to him. Sometimes it's the far-away slaughter of civilians that touches me most -- such as the slaughter caused by drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan -- and sometimes, as in this case, it's the slaughter of someone close to home.

Andy Lopez Cruz lived a ten-minute drive from my house in a neighborhood where I once lived, close to 101, the highway that slices through California. He had a mother and a father, friends and neighbors, teachers and fellow students who night after night turned out to protest his death. Citizens from all around Northern California joined them, raised their voices, and called for justice.

At thirteen, Cruz wasn't a boy anymore and yet he wasn't quite a man, either. He inhabited that dangerous territory that makes teens vulnerable to police bullets all over the United States, from California and Texas to Florida and New York. I think of Andy Lopez Cruz and I think of all the young men, mostly black and Latino, mostly poor, who are shot and killed by white police officers with guns in a culture that's gun crazy and trigger-happy. I also think of all the young men who are stopped in the street, their civil rights violated, then arrested, and tossed into jail mostly because of the color of their skin. This pattern of racial injustice is not new, as anyone familiar with our history knows.

In the 1930s, nine young African American men were falsely charged with raping two white women on a train in Alabama. They came to be known as "The Scottsboro Boys" in an age when grown black men were still routinely called "boys" -- and worse. The nine Scottsboro defendants were put on trial again and again -- they appealed their convictions -- though all but one of them was sentenced to death. Their case went to the US Supreme Court and their lives were spared, in part because of worldwide outcry.

Not long after the death of Andy Lopez Cruz, the Alabama parole board granted posthumous pardons to three of the Scottsboro defendants: Charles Weems, Andy Wright, and Haywood Paterson, who wrote his own story, with the help of author Earl Conrad. I read Peterson's autobiography, Scottsboro Boy, when I was just a boy in the 1950s, and I have never really been the same since. Most of all, Scottsboro Boy woke me to the brutality and the inhumanity of segregation in the South, where black men were systematically exploited in prisons, which were plantations operated by the state with slave labor.

The old southern plantation no longer exists, but plantation-style rules and mentality still operate in the South, the North, the East, and the West, as my youngest brother explained to me one afternoon when we were talking about, and trying to understand, the murder of Andy Lopez Cruz. From my brother's point of view, California is one big plantation. He insists that the job of policemen such as Erick Gelhaus -- the veteran Santa Rosa sheriff's deputy -- is to patrol the plantation and to make sure that the field workers and their families don't get out of line and act like genuine first class citizens of the U.S. In the eyes of the law, Andy Lopez Cruz was an "uppity" Latino. Erick Gelhaus shot him in the back and killed him before he could open his mouth and say a word. Gelhaus's bullets sent a message to every Latino kid in California, though Latino kids in Santa Rosa and elsewhere have refused to be intimidated and refused to accept the reign of terror imposed by the police.

What kind of year was it for me? The year that Andy Lopez Cruz was killed, the year that his friends and family refused to be silenced, the year that the field workers on the big plantation known as California gathered with signs and with speeches, much as the friends and supporters of the Scottsboro defendants rallied to their defense in Alabama eighty years ago. Hopefully, it won't take eighty years for justice in the case of Andy Lopez Cruz.


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About the Author

Jonah Raskin is a professor emeritus in communication studies at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine, The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, and For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published December 16, 2013