The shame of San Francisco

June 22, 2016

In May, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr stepped down after a string of police killings and scandals engulfing the police department--and, crucially, a tide of resistance against police violence led by family and friends of the victims and their many supporters. Since then, the Oakland police have been engulfed by scandal. In a matter of two weeks, three Oakland police chiefs have been forced to resign amid revelations that multiple officers were involved in sexual exploitation of a teenager had sex with a teenaged prostitute, while others exchanged racist text messages.

This epidemic of police violence and abuse, and the prospects for real police reform, were the focus of a meeting sponsored by the International Socialist Organization in San Francisco on June 15. In her presentation, Erica West chronicled some of the recent crimes of the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD). David Whitehouse's presentation on the question of reforming the police will be published next week.

WITH THE rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., there has been substantially more attention paid to police and their actions--specifically their use of excessive and oftentimes deadly force. Even in a "liberal" city like San Francisco, the police have made a name for themselves as a violent, racist institution.

Unfortunately, we don't have to look back very far for examples of reprehensible things that the SFPD has done, the most awful being their frequent murder of people in the city. Since Chief Greg Suhr came into power in 2011, there have been 22 fatalities by the police in San Francisco. A few have gained widespread attention.

Alex Nieto was 28 years old when, on March 21, 2014, when he was struck by 14 to 15 bullets (out of a total of 59 shots) fired by four San Francisco Police Department officers, in Bernal Hill Park. His murder spurred the creation of a group, Justice 4 Alex Nieto. Earlier this year, a jury found that the police involved did not use excessive force on Nieto. His father, Refugio Nieto, accurately called this decision "a shame on the city."

In the San Francisco streets to protest police violence
In the San Francisco streets to protest police violence (Justice 4 Mario Woods)

Amilcar Perez Lopez was a 21-year-old immigrant from Guatemala. He was murdered by police on February 26, 2015, in the Mission neighborhood, while running away from two plainclothes police officers after allegedly trying to steal a bike. He was shot six times. Eyewitness and neighbor accounts of the shooting differ wildly from the police narrative of events, which is quite common with police shootings.

Mario Woods was 26 years old when he was killed by police on December 2, 2015. His murder was caught on video, in what some have described as a "firing squad." His death has arguably been the most high-profile officer-involved shooting in San Francisco, and inspired the creation of the Justice 4 Mario Woods Coalition, whose three demands have been clear for months: Fire Chief Suhr, charge the officers involved with murder, and hold an independent investigation of the killing.

A Justice Department investigation into Woods' murder has begun, and it's expected to take two years. U.S. Attorney Brian Stretch describes the review as examining "whether racial and ethnic disparities exist with respect to enforcement actions taken and not taken by the San Francisco Police Department." Looking at the history of the police, the racial and ethnic disparities of law enforcement and the justice system as a whole are obvious.

Luis Gongora was a 45-year-old, homeless Mexican immigrant who was killed by police. Police alleged that he lunged at them with a knife, but witnesses dispute this. His murder was also caught on camera. Friends said that he couldn't understand instructions given by the police because their instructions were in English, and Gongora spoke primarily Spanish.

Nevertheless, police starting shooting 30 seconds after they arrived on the scene. One witness said, "[Gongora] was not really threatening. He wasn't running at them with a knife or anything like that. They just jumped right out, and 20 seconds later he was dead."

The murder of Jessica Williams in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco was the SFPD's most recent fatality, and what arguably catalyzed the firing of Police Chief Greg Suhr. She was 29 years old and a mother of five. According to the local news report, she "was shot and killed by a San Francisco police sergeant...after she allegedly attempted to flee officers in a suspected stolen car."

Williams was unarmed and pregnant--and the 22nd fatality under the command of Chief Suhr.

AS IF these horrific murders aren't enough, the San Francisco Police Department has been steeped in internal scandal. Again, we need only look back a year or two for evidence of SFPD's racism, violence and contempt toward the poor, mentally ill and people of color.

In March 2016, three sheriff's deputies were charged with running a "gladiator-style" fight club with inmates. Inmates were threatened with physical violence or denied food if they attempted to resist participation in these fights. One of the deputies had previously been accused in a lawsuit of sexually assaulting three inmates.

In another scandal, racist text messages sent by SFPD officers were discovered on two separate occasions. In the first instance in December 2015, text messages came to light after Sgt. Ian Furminger was sentenced to 41 months after being convicted of stealing money and drugs from residents of low-rent Tenderloin hotels.

On the second occasion, texts sent by Officer Jason Lai in 2014 and 2015 included slurs against multiple groups, including Black people, LGBT people and homeless people in the Tenderloin. In one of the more mild instances, Lai refers to Black people as "a pack of animals on the loose." His texts were discovered in April 2016 as part of a police department probe into a sexual assault allegation against Lai.

Note that, in both cases, the texts were only discovered because the officers were being investigated for other crimes.

ALL OF this is in one department, over the course of a few years. But there has been and continues to be resistance in the city. The murder of Mario Woods spurred acknowledgement from Alicia Keys and Beyoncé's backup singers during the 2016 Super Bowl. That same weekend, protesters took to the streets against police brutality in San Francisco in one of the most successful protests in recent memory with the slogan, "No Justice, No Super Bowl."

This spring, the Frisco Five, a group of five local activists and artists in San Francisco, held a hunger strike outside of the police station at 17th and Valencia for 16 days, demanding the firing of Greg Suhr. They were joined daily by dozens of supporters and activists and received national attention.

Through all of this, Mayor Ed Lee publicly stood with Suhr, until last month, when the shooting of Jessica Williams led Lee to ask Suhr for his resignation.

The movement should take this as a victory, but we should also be hesitant about what this move means. The new chief of police is Tony Chaplin, a veteran African American officer, who has been open with his intentions to follow in the footsteps of Suhr with reforms, reforms, reforms. We know that we can't reform our way out of a violent, racist system.

We also know that police violence like this is caused by more than individual police officers and their actions in that one moment. The role of the police is to maintain the status quo. Rather than "protect and serve," they take orders from the 1 Percent and intentionally target marginalized populations.

For decades, San Francisco has been gentrifying, with that process picking up speed with the recent tech bubble of the past few years. As income inequality rises, and as the city caters to tech companies, poor and working-class people and people of color are displaced--and, worse, murdered.

It is important to note where many of these shootings have happened--the Bayview, the Mission, Bernal Heights, neighborhoods that have been traditionally communities of color and are gentrifying quickly. We should understand these police officers not as "bad apples" but as people who are doing their job--making the city safe for the elite and for capital.

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