About to retire from her long career as a housekeeper in a downtown hotel, Bernal Heights resident Elvira Nieto looked forward to her retirement. She and her husband, Refugio, had plans to surprise their son with a trip to the town of Tarimoro, in Guanajuato, Mexico, their shared birthplace.
But then on the evening of March 21, 2014, that son, Alejandro “Alex” Nieto, died during an officer-involved shooting in Bernal Heights Park. Neighborhood and police versions of the story conflict radically, but what’s painfully clear is that the Nieto family’s course has changed drastically.
Rather than ease into retirement, Elvira and Refugio Nieto have a new job—they’ve become full-time activists against police violence. Today marks the one-year anniversary of their son’s death and, for them, the work is far from over.
“[Alex] would ask me, ‘What are your plans for when you retire?’ I told him the only plan is to rest, but instead this happened,” said Elvira Nieto this week. “It’s all that we’ve done. I never imagined that this is what we’d be doing.”
Elvira and Refugio Nieto spoke in Spanish as Adriana Camarena translated. Over the course of the last year, Camarena, the Mission District writer and activist who also trained as a lawyer in Mexico, has become a close friend of the Nieto family and worked with them to organize through the Justice and Amor for Alex Nieto Coalition.
“They became activists overnight,” said Camarena.
For Elvira and Refugio Nieto, the last year of activism has not taken away the heartbreak. They make almost daily trips to the place on the hill where their son died.
In the hours following his death, police arrived at their house to question Elvira and Refugio Nieto about their son. In a town hall meeting some days later, a community already filled with disbelief and anger gathered to hear the police version of events that portrayed Alex Nieto as an erratic actor who pointed his weapon at officers.
Elvira and Refugio Nieto celebrated Mother’s Day at the District Attorney’s office imploring DA George Gascón to release the names of the police officers who shot their son.
And over the following months, the Nietos led marches to City Hall and the top of Bernal Heights. They also marched to the San Francisco Federal Building to file a federal civil suit against the city.
Eight months after Alex’s death, they learned from news reports that the Medical Examiner’s autopsy report showed Alex died from at least 10 bullets.
For Día de Los Muertos, Elvira Nieto created an altar at SOMArts called the “Twilight of Alex Nieto.” More than an altar, it was a multi-media installation of the Nietos’ living room where visitors could see a side-by-side comparison of Police Chief Greg Suhr’s account and those of witnesses. A video of Bernal Hill played on loop.
“She felt like she made something Alex would have really appreciated,” said Camarena of the altar. “He was so attached to learning about his culture.”
Days before their first Christmas without him, the Nieto family marched during the longest night of the year with other families who had lost their children to police violence.
“Alex struggled against injustice in his life, he would have loved to be at all these protests,” said Elvira.
Recently, the district attorney issued a decision that the four officers involved in the shooting—Sergeant Jason Sawyer, Officer Richard Schiff, Officer Roger Morse and Officer Nathan Chew—fired in defense of their own lives.
The Nietos had to read about a version of their son that didn’t square with their memories. In the report, the DA suggests that Alex was acting erratically and aimed the Taser he used as a security guard at officers who approached him on the hill. It also reported other erratic behavior.
“It’s incredible, this idea of him being erratic,” said Refugio of the DA’s report.
“Alex was very knowledgeable about his rights, if they told him to raise his hands, he would have raised his hands,” said Elvira.
The Nieto family and their legal team has maintained that Alex never pointed his weapon at officers and maintain that they have witness who can verify this.
The year anniversary comes in the midst of severe scrutiny of San Francisco Police Department since an investigation into Sergeant Ian Furminger has revealed a trove of racist, homophobic texts among current officers. Alongside Furminger, Sergeant Sawyer was involved in the fatal shooting of a man alleged to have pinned Furminger to a parking meter.
While Elvira and Refugio say they once trusted the city of San Francisco—a city they both immigrated to as young people, a city where the met and married and raised children—this past year has changed their outlook.
“It’s going to take a long time until we learn why the police department behaves as it does,” said Refugio. “It’s going to take an even longer time to make up for all the lost trust.”
The anniversary also comes just weeks after another young man in the Mission was killed by police. As in Nieto’s case, the police version of the officer-involved shooting of Amilcar Pérez-López drastically conflicts with neighborhood eyewitnesses’ account of events.
“So far this year, the San Francisco Police Department has killed one person a month,” said Camarena, who added that a year of working with the Nietos has made especially clear that people must “not be satisfied with only the police version of events…that version is staged for trial.”
The Nieto family hopes to meet with Pérez-López’s father once he is granted a visa to travel from Guatemala. In addition to raising funds for their son’s headstone, the Nietos plan to continue to rally and march against police violence. They’re also continuing to build their case for their upcoming lawsuit against the city.
“They still have a really tough legal road ahead,” said Camarena. “It’s probably going to be months before any more information from the civil lawsuit is released.”
A sad irony of the Nieto family’s story is that Alex was training for a career in criminal justice, and, as Refugio explained, “he loved to follow the legal justice process. He would have wanted to see the end result of all of this.”
To mark the one-year anniversary of Alex Nieto’s death, family and activists will gather for an interfaith prayer service at 5 p.m. at Bernal Heights Park, followed by a procession to Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, where a short documentary about the shooting of Alex Nieto will be screened at 7 p.m. More details are here.