San Francisco’s thugs in blue

February 6, 2013

Clayton Plake reports on the angry response to a video, released online, of San Francisco police assaulting an African American college student.

SAN FRANCISCO police have sparked anger and outrage after officers were caught on videotape carrying out a vicious, unprovoked assault on Kevin Clark, a young African American man, in the city's Mission district.

Footage of the attack on Clark was captured by what appears to be an anonymous bystander, using their cell phone camera. The video was posted to the Internet by activists from the Idriss Stelley Foundation--a leading organization in the struggle against police brutality in the Bay Area.

Over four minutes in duration, the video opens with an unidentified motorcycle cop riding his bike up onto the sidewalk near the 24th Street BART station and approaching a pedestrian now identified as 18-year-old Kevin Clark, a student at City College of San Francisco. The first cop was followed closely by another officer, also on a motorcycle. Neither cop appears to deliver a command for Clark--who was peacefully walking on the sidewalk--to stop walking or otherwise obey directions.

In the video, one cop uses his motorcycle--the front wheel pointed squarely at Clark's body--and alternately accelerated and decelerates, seemingly to terrorize Clark. The terrified Clark yells, "Are you going to run me over?" Then the other officer, having stepped off his bike, grabs Clark from behind and throws him to the asphalt with staggering force, pushing him face first into a gutter.

Video footage from a cell phone captures San Francisco police brutalizing an unarmed man
Video footage from a cell phone captures San Francisco police brutalizing an unarmed man

Both cops then throw themselves on top of Clark. Each grabs one of Clark's arms and pulls them up and back, and one cop digs his knee into Clark's back. Clark's screams of pain become interspersed with frantic pleas to be left alone. One cop, still keeping Clark's arm in a locked position, starts to push the man's face into a sewer grate.

In short order, a squad car arrives, as do a host of other police officers--no less than 10 officers were deployed to the scene, despite the fact that the victim appeared unarmed and was not resisting arrest. Comments from off-camera eyewitnesses reveal that this is the second African American man the police had stopped in the area in less than 10 minutes.

THERE WAS nothing random about the events that transpired. Regular visitors and long-term residents alike have noticed a dramatic uptick in police activity in and around the Mission in recent weeks, and community activists say that heavy police activity has been a norm in the Mission for several years.

What you can do

A rally and march against police brutality has been planned for February 7 at 5 p.m. at 24th and Mission Streets. Visit the Facebook event page for information.

Those who have resided in the Mission the longest say it isn't just police activity that's on the rise in the neighborhood. In a city where rent averages $3,100 a month, large parts of the Mission have remained relatively affordable, with asking prices ranging from about $1,700-2,400 for a two-bedroom unit, according to data from the city's Planning Department. But that may not be the case for long.

A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle highlighted a "newly renovated" set of condominiums located on the Mission's Valencia Street with an asking price of nearly $750,000. Exorbitant, to be sure, but just one example of the gentrification that began with the dot-com boom in the late 1990s and continues today, though at a slightly slower pace. As rents and the overall cost-of-living continue to rise in the Mission, so has police activity.

The persistent gentrification and higher police presence are taking a toll on some residents. Poor and working-class individuals, many of them people of color, are being pushed out of the Mission due to San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee's intention to capitalize on the boom.

While there have been slight increases in the Latina/o population almost across the board in the Bay Area according to 2010 census data, there was a dramatic drop in the percentage of Latinas and Latinos living in the Mission. Though they still comprise roughly 39 percent of the Mission's population, historically, that percentage has ranged to over 50 percent. The same data also shows an increase in the percentage of whites living in the area.

According to the San Francisco Examiner, a recent Brown University study found that the Bay Area, and the city of San Francisco in particular, remains one of the single-most heavily segregated parts of California. In some districts, the African American population was so small that its percentage of the population as a whole could not be calculated.

While the most recent census found that the African American population of the Mission District grew by 5 percent, this rise is the result of the way in which gentrification has continued to push African Americans out of other parts of San Francisco. Given the SFPD's propensity for harassing people of color--particularly African Americans--it is unsurprising that, as more African Americans arrive in the Mission, there has been a corresponding rise in police brutality.

Mayor Lee and Police Chief Greg Suhr recently floated the idea of bringing "stop-and-frisk" police programs to San Francisco. Such programs, pioneered in New York City, overwhelmingly target African Americans and other people of color, simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The vast majority of those stopped by police were guilty of no crime.

It was only after an outcry from community activists that Lee and Suhr dropped plans for the program--but the SFPD remains undeterred in its efforts to harass innocent people of color. According to the Chronicle, Lee still plans to rely on "targeted police enforcement and crime-tracking software," among other "crime deterrents." Such enforcement will undoubtedly primarily target communities of color.

The Mission District has a history with roots deep in working-class struggles, including those demanding immigrant rights and the global justice movement. Today, the neighborhood remains a vital center for activism and grassroots organization.

The pervasive attacks on people of color in the Mission are a symptom of the city government's efforts to push poor and working-class people of color out and invite corporate investors in.

But the police assault on Kevin Clark has sparked an angry response. Activists are demanding justice and planning to rally at the spot where Clark was attacked to send a message to the mayor and the thugs in blue: We will not tolerate police violence in our community!

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