There are two ways to look at the town hall meeting that Police Chief George Gascón held Tuesday night in Bayview. That it brought residents closer, or it divided them.
That’s not to say it couldn’t have done both, and regardless of the good or bad taste it left, everyone seemed to have sustained energy to continue talking about violence in Bayview.
Hundreds of people packed the event in the community room at City College’s Southeast Campus in Bayview, and it was well attended by Asians and African Americans, the media and a large contingent of those running for District 10 supervisor.
The police – and they were all there, police commission, the commanders, captains from all over San Francisco, and lower ranking police – gave a presentation aimed at calming the waters. It did not.
And while many District 10 candidates and Sophie Maxwell, current District 10 supervisor, attended, residents wanted to know where the rest of the stakeholders were, like the school district, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, and the Recreation and Parks Department.
After the police gave their speeches, they allowed anyone who wanted it, two minutes at the microphone, resulting in an unprecedented outpouring of pent up anger, grief, resentment, and also a lot of love, pleas for peace and understanding, and a strong thread of community and friendship across races.
One woman – to much applause – asked for Mitchell Katz, the director of the Department of Health, as she pointed to the cycle of trauma and violence that has to be overcome in Bayview.
Some who spoke heatedly were approached afterwards by those of another ethnic group to share a hand or hug.
Many African Americans stood up and blamed themselves, calling on their own people to do more, to be better and to stand up against anyone who’s starting trouble.
But there were also those who added to the division.
“Are we really concerned with all of the people,” asked Amos Brown, a former supervisor and well-known pastor. “I’m not blaming you, [Chief Gascón], you just got here,” he said, but he added that there had never been a $100,000 reward offered for a black person killed in Bayview.
That isn’t true, as one policeman was quick to correct. However, like the Asian residents who feel that they’re being victimized and no amount of statistics are going to make them feel otherwise, some African Americans responded to Brown’s tact because it reflects how neglected they feel. Most of those who spoke up during the public comment were African American.
Some residents said:
“If we are going to sensationalize this event, we need to sensationalize every murder.”
“You would have thought we killed the whole Chinese community.”
“When a crime happens to black people, it doesn’t matter.”
“Stand up and take care of your children…I don’t want my child to be a statistic and that’s why I moved away…because of Katrina I’m back.”
“The problem is the youth have no hope.”
“Where are the pastors?”
“Where are the truants’ mothers?”
“Young people need to respect the police, and the police need to respect us.”
“We need to be policing our own children…when I looked at the problem I saw me.”
A significant proportion of all of the speakers said something in condolence of those lost before launching into their two minutes.
Many wanted to stop talking about policing and start talking about the rest of city government, what was going to happen this summer as kids get out of school, how to bring more jobs to Bayview, how to give people the time to cool down and work together.
“It’s not all on the police department,” said resident Mary Harris, who added that the criminals were “victimizing other people because they have nothing.”
“There’s no expiration date on murder,” said Paulette Brown, who’s son was shot and killed by a drive-by shooter. “We’ve got to keep our children alive.”
“Let’s tackle this problem together,” said Sophie Maxwell, District 10 supervisor.
Roger Tan chastised Asians for not coming up and talking and was angry at the candidates campaigning at such a meeting. “This is not a political game,” Tan said.
“We’re one family in San Francisco and we know better than this,” said Sharon Hewitt, who begged residents to “listen to stories of those who haven’t had access,” regardless of their race.
“Turn this into real solutions,” said David Chiu, supervisor for District 3, who arrived late with Supervisor Carmen Chu from District 4. He admitted it wouldn’t be easy considering the budget shortfalls. “It’s not a very good time to be an elected official,” he said. He encouraged residents to reach out to their neighbor.
“We all bleed red, we all have hearts of gold,” Chiu said.
The town hall meeting was held at City College’s Southeast College, around the corner from the Oakdale-Palou T-Third Muni stop, where the now extremely well-publicized incidents of violence occurred this year.
Police try to soothe the Asian residents
The police department’s approach, outfitted with Powerpoint, fell short of its goals. They brought in an investigator, who said the department was doing its utmost to find the killers of Huan Zhou Chen, the 83-year-old man who died in March after being hit on the back of the head during a January robbery.
There was also Victor Hwang, a district attorney and self-titled “prosecutor for civil rights.” He talked about how difficult it was to classify the crimes as a hate crime. Nevertheless, he said, he was doing everything possible to label the crime as a hate crime in the case of the teenager arrested for throwing a 57-year-old woman off the Muni platform.
It’s still being determined whether or not it’s “right to charge this person as a juvenile,” said Hwang.
It’s unclear that the updates on police activity soothed Asians, and it definitely didn’t soothe many African Americans, who were already feeling neglected before the meeting started.
“Crime in the Bayview affects all people,” said Marvin Robinson before the meeting started. Robinson owns a store along Third Street. “The meeting should have been called a long time ago.”
“City and county of San Francisco has not addressed the social issues in terms of how you get them off the streets,” Robinson said.
Bayview resident Edward Powell sat along the wall watching the speakers, waving in support of those he knew and listening carefully, though he decided against speaking himself.
When asked if he could identify one of those who had spoken recently, he replied, and then he pulled out a folded piece of newspaper out of his coat pocket. On it was a short article about his 20-year-old nephew, Stephen Powell, who was murdered in April here.
He said the young man had been “straight” and was killed in cold blood, leaving behind a three-month-old baby.
Then he said his own daughter, Annie Marie Powell, a student at City College, was also killed two blocks away in 2004. And two other nephews had been killed in years past. All unresolved crimes, he said.
“We need a healing circle,” Powell said.
Police try to put it in perspective
Gascón also brought out pie charts and data showing that Asians, unlike Latinos and African Americans in the region, are victimized proportionally less often when compared to their race. See the text box for more details.
These statistics annoyed everyone. For those on the more riled ends of the spectrum, it made them more upset, regardless of race. It made the African Americans feel more underserved. It made the Asians feel that they police weren’t listening when they said crimes against them were more underreported. Even when Gascón pointed out that the Latino community was also afraid to report crime, Asians were unhappy.
“They don’t know how hard it is to report it,” said Teresa Duque, director of the Asian Pacific American Community Center. “The statistics are wrong.”
Simultaneously many felt it wasn’t productive to single out victims by race, any murder is deplorable.
People who said this, regardless of their race, received cheers, albeit with a slight delay, perhaps reflecting the fact that many Asian attendees didn’t speak English and were patiently listening for translation through headsets.
“We have an obligation to deal with these crimes regardless of the breakdown,” Gascón said. “We recognize there is a history of concerns.”
Community members of all ilk said it was noteworthy that so many Asians – mostly Chinese – are speaking out.
“This is almost unprecedented, that there are this many people,” said Greg Suhr, Bayview’s police captain. Asians were “not inclined to being engaged.”
After the chairs were stacked and most people went home, a few lingered, unable to stop talking about how to remedy such a complex and convoluted situation. Some, like Marlene Tran, spokesperson for the Visitacion Valley Asian Alliance, felt hopeful. “I think this is the nucleus of the whole thing.”
And others weren’t quite sure, worried that a competition for who’s been hurt the worst isn’t productive and that some of Bayview’s leaders are too inflammatory.