Standing united against the SFPD’s murders

April 6, 2016

David Russitano and Ares Geovanos report on a town hall meeting to demand justice for Mario Woods and Alex Nieto, two victims of the San Francisco police.

"THE SAN Francisco Police Department has woken a giant!" The speaker's words rang out to the 200 people who packed the Joseph Lee Recreation Center Gym in San Francisco's Bayview neighborhood to hear about the struggle for justice for Mario Woods.

The March 24 town hall meeting marked four months since Woods, a 26-year-old resident of the African American neighborhood of Bayview, was shot more than 20 times by what has been described as a "firing squad" of San Francisco police.

Members of the Justice 4 Mario Woods Coalition joined in solidarity with activists in the Latino community in Bernal Heights, who are organizing around the case of Alex Nieto, killed by police in 2014. The Justice for Alex Nieto Coalition and Alex's family were dealt a blow on March 10 when a federal jury cleared the officers who killed him.

Speakers from the two coalitions highlighted the fact that both Black and Brown communities suffer from targeted policing, and they referred to the SFPD as a "machine" for eliminating minorities from San Francisco.

A San Francisco meeting brought together two campaigns for justice
A San Francisco meeting brought together two campaigns for justice (Justice 4 Mario Woods Coalition)

Frank Williams, director of the Senior Ex-Offender Program, said that during the current wave of gentrification, the Black population of San Francisco has been reduced to 6 percent, down from 13 percent in the 1970s. Yet Blacks account for 56 percent of the San Francisco County jail population.

One of the many important moments of the night was the symbolic marriage of the two historically isolated communities, as ordained by Archbishop Franzo King of the St. John Coltrane Church.

Members of the Alex Nieto Coalition described their recent time in court and emphasized that these movements are "marathons, not sprints," and that despite the recent setback in court they would continue to stand with the Justice 4 Mario Woods Coalition.

Phelicia Jones, a member of the Justice 4 Mario Woods Coalition and of Service Employees International Union Local 1021, also emphasized solidarity. "We are not asking, we are demanding! We can move mountains, we can shake up this city if we continue to stand in unity!" she said.

She also reiterated the three demands of the coalition: charge the police officers who fired on Mario with murder, hold an independent investigation into the racist practices of the SFPD that will carry the weight of law in regard to its findings, and fire Police Chief Greg Suhr.

AS A result of these police killings and multiple scandals over racist text messages passed among officers, Suhr has been under extreme scrutiny.

The town hall meeting was the latest in a string of actions since the coalition, which is comprised of over 40 activist groups, was formed. The movement drew national press for its mass protest during the kickoff weekend earlier this year of "Super Bowl City," the lavish corporate celebration that cost the city millions of dollars and resulted in the forced relocation of the area's homeless.

The protest shut down Market Street for several hours and influenced Alicia Keys, who was performing downtown, to make a statement about the murder. Black Lives Matter Bay Area were later involved in Beyoncé's backup dancers showing a "Justice 4 Mario Woods" sign after their halftime performance--a message that was viewed by millions of people.

The coalition has also maintained pressure on both the blue-ribbon panel and the COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services reform initiatives) meetings that were convened in the wake of the first of two racist SFPD text-messaging scandals, also known as Textgate. The first set of racist messages were discovered during an investigation into plainclothes members of the SFPD who were stealing from suspects, and the latest batch came to light during the investigation of rape accusations against a police officer.

These panels, which cannot actually enforce their findings, are viewed as attempts at hollow pacification of the community and the coalition, and rejected as satisfying the demand for a legitimate independent investigation into the department's use of violence and accusations of institutional racism. "They've sent us the dog and pony show!" said the Nation of Islam's Minister Christopher Muhammed.

During the town hall, the minister also identified the lack of establishment support for the movement, despite San Francisco being a Democratic Party stronghold. Nonetheless, pressure from the coalition and community on this establishment is beginning to have an effect.

Mayor Ed Lee, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and Chief Suhr, along with the Police Officers Association, are currently involved in a public war of words, blaming one another for dissatisfaction among their base of support and for being uncooperative with the various investigations.

While those in the power elite bicker among themselves, a mother still suffers and seeks justice for her son. Gwen Woods, Mario's mother, had powerful words for the town hall audience:

My baby will never tell his side of the story. They executed him. He was the best of me...I will never stop saying that. How can the city say he's a thug? No matter where you came from, from The Hill, from Double Rock, you are not what they call us. We are a beautiful people, we have a beautiful community, we are not animals. You cannot shoot us down like we are animals, it is unacceptable. Not on my tax dime.

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