As Captain Paul Chignell of the Bayview Police Station walked up to the microphone, the sound of booing filled the auditorium of the Bayview Opera House. So did the sound of clapping.
The crowd of 300 Bayview residents, police officers, protesters, cameramen and journalists at tonight’s town hall meeting ran the gamut from polite to enraged. And so the clapping and the booing continued, simultaneously. The noise was deafening.
Chignell went ahead and introduced SFPD Police Chief Greg Suhr anyway. The chief had agreed to participate in the meeting, organized by community activists, to explain the events that led to the death of Kenneth Harding Jr. of Seattle. He had come equipped with a PowerPoint presentation.
“I love the Bayview,” he said. The boos grew even louder. “No you don’t,” someone shouted.
“We’re sorry,” he said. The booing got even louder.
He stepped away.
The preacher who had said a prayer before the meeting returned to the microphone. The first slide of the presentation — the SFPD logo — remained projected on the stage behind him. In the last few days, police had issued press releases stating that Harding was wanted in connection with a murder in Seattle, that he had attempted to pimp out a 14-year-old girl, that residue from firing a gun had been found on his right hand, that a gun linked to Harding had been found in the house of a person near where the shooting had occurred. None of these disclosures were doing anything to endear police to the crowd.
The story of Harding’s death as it appeared in the neighborhood newspaper, the San Francisco Bayview, is that Harding was shot while running away from a police officer who had asked to see his Muni transfer.
“OK,” said the minister. “You want to say something? Come to the microphone.”
“We are being dehumanized by the police department!” said a man with dreadlocks, who had been at the protest march from Mission to Powell the day before. “The ambulance should have arrived to treat the man who was shot faster. He deserved medical treatment no matter what.” He was referring to a video posted on YouTube several days earlier, of police standing with their guns trained on a wounded and struggling Harding as he lay on the pavement.
“Police are the enemy!” shouted a man with a shaved head.
“I don’t want to hear police speak!” yelled a man in a white hoodie. “I know exactly what they’re going to show us. They’re going to show us that he fired at police. But they’re lying. They’ve lied before.”
“Liars!” chanted the crowd. “Killer cops!”
Suhr stepped forward again. “We’re sorry you feel that way.”
The crowd surged forward and Suhr backed away. A man reached out from the crowd and grabbed the microphone. “Who told the police to bring machine guns?” he yelled.
The crowd struggled for control of the microphone. “I was arrested by four officers four years ago,” said one woman. “Why did they arrest me?”
“I don’t have an answer to that,” said Suhr. Someone had found him another microphone. Behind him the PowerPoint presentation had gone dark, and the officers were packing up their audiovisual gear. “I wasn’t the chief back then.”
The other microphone kept on moving through the crowd. “My son was killed by police seven years ago,” another woman said. “I want to know why he was shot 35 times.”
“I remember that case,” said Suhr. “I wasn’t the chief back then, and so I don’t have that information. I can talk with you about that later, privately. But tonight I can only talk about this case.
Another man wrested control of the microphone from the crowd. “When I was arrested,” he said, “I had handcuff marks. Why were the police so rough with me?”
“I am not prepared to answer those questions. I am prepared to answer questions about the Saturday shooting,” said Suhr.
A group of officers stepped up and began conferring with Suhr. “I think it is necessary,” said the chief to his aides. “They have to say what they gotta say.”
The crowd continued to struggle for the microphone, shouting over each other. “Why are there so many cops in Bayview?” yelled one person. “Why do we have to pay for Muni?” yelled another. “We don’t have jobs. Two dollars is a lot of money for us. People are killing each other. You should worry about gang violence more than checking the fare. Muni should be free, and then you can take care of gang members.”
Other people said things, but it was almost impossible to hear anything over the sound of the crowd.
“I understand if you disrespect me,” said Suhr. “But you should not disrespect the people who are trying to speak.” The meeting had been going on for almost two hours.
Suhr turned toward the door of the Opera House and started walking. As he left, the reporters and video cameras trained on the crowd turned and followed him out of the building.
“You know, we got a bad guy,” Suhr said to the cameras once they were outside the building. Police had put themselves between a dangerous criminal and the public, he continued.
“They didn’t know who this man was before they shot him!” yelled a woman from the crowd.
“There has been aggression all this time against our community,” said local filmmaker Kevin Epps. He and community activist Geofrea Morris had spent much of the meeting trying to quiet the crowd. “It is unfortunate that this event was a wake-up call.”
Morris was clearly disappointed by the meeting. She had come, she said, to get answers from a police force she is having a hard time trusting. “We want an outside entity to investigate. I know what they are going to show us. He shot this and that. But they have lied before.”
After Harding’s shooting, the street filled with 20 cops carrying semi-automatic weapons, she said. “Nobody burned anything or caused civil disobedience. Why would they send so many cops?”
She said she was happy that people had gathered in the Mission District on Wednesday. Even though the protest led to 43 arrests, police in the Bayview are much harder than cops in the Mission, she said.
“I am glad they did that in the Mission,” she said. “They are not scared, like us.”