On the first anniversary of Alejandro “Alex” Nieto’s death, more than a hundred people took to the streets of the Mission with his family and friends, to show solidarity with Nieto’s kin and remember him by the things he loved: lowriders, music, and dance.
A crowd that began as 20 praying at Bernal Heights Park quickly swelled on Saturday afternoon, as Nieto’s family and community members walked in the 28-year-old’s final footsteps, from the bench where he ate dinner on March 21 last year, down the hill where he was shot and killed by police officers. His family is still seeking answers and accountability.
“Before Alex died we trusted in the police and the City government,” Nieto’s father, Refugio Nieto, wrote in a statement for the anniversary of his son’s death, read by Adriana Camarena. “But after Alex’s death and seeing the lies they told of him, we lost all trust.”
Nieto’s family filed a federal civil lawsuit against the city in August. In their statement from Friday, they advocated for police reform, to allow unbiased investigation of police actions and improve accountability.
Laurie Valdez, whose partner Antonio Guzman Lopez died in a February 2014 shooting by the San Jose State University police, echoed that push for police accountability in a short speech at Bernal Heights Park. She stood by Nieto’s memorial altar, urging the Nieto family and supporters to keep talking about their cause, even if others shy away from listening.
Nieto and Lopez had “so much to offer our world,” said Valdez. “It has been altered because (the police) took these people from us.”
Also beside Nieto’s family was Juan Rodriguez, Nieto’s uncle on his mother Elvira’s side. Rodriguez said Nieto was like a son to him.
“He’s supposed to be 29 right now,” said Rodriguez. “(Nieto) was born March 4 — he would say, ‘March Forth!’”
So the family and supporters did march forth for Nieto, as they have in the past.
After sharing the Buddhist chant, “Nam myoho renge kyo,” Aztec dancers led the procession down Bernal Hill, across 24th Street toward the Mission Cultural Center. There, events would continue with music, movies, and speeches about Nieto’s life and death.
“This hill was virgin, until the police spilled blood here,” said Orlando Galvez, who lives below the park. “I didn’t hear the gun shots, but you couldn’t miss all the police coming up here.”
Still, Galvez did not learn the details of Nieto’s death until days later. “(The police) kept it a secret.”
Galvez came to the 3 p.m. prayer service, led by Father Jose Corral of St. James church, because “an assault on Nieto is an assault on every single individual in this community,” he said. “The police never have been kind to us up here. It comes as no surprise that they would kill one of us eventually.”
On their march toward Mission Street, the procession paused occasionally to remember other victims of violence. One was Rashawn Williams, the 14-year-old who was killed by another teenager in September on the corner of 25th and Folsom. The marchers held a moment for Williams citing Nieto’s unrealized ambition to work with youth as a probation officer.
Nieto supporters were of all ages, and both new and old to the neighborhood. “I moved here a year and a half ago,” said Lisa Ganser, a 45-year-old artist and activist. “I showed up at the first town hall. It’s how I became committed to the neighborhood.”
Nieto’s march also drew attention to the ongoing controversy over Amilcar Pérez-López’s death in an officer involved shooting in February. There were ‘Justice for Amilcar’ signs sprinkled throughout the events.
Other community members who showed up in solidarity said they had personal experience with police brutality. “I’ve had cops draw guns on me three times,” said Khafre Jay, the executive director of Hip Hop for Change. Jay, who’s from Hunters Point, said he was once slammed on the hood of a police car because an officer said he looked “like a gang member.”
“I’m not sure we’ll get justice in a tangible sense, but people coming together like this is the most important thing,” said Jay. “I wish I didn’t have to have my heart beat when I see a police officer. I wish I didn’t have to put my hands up when they pull me over, so they don’t shoot me.”
Outside the Mission Cultural Center before the film screenings, Benjamin Bac Sierra, a friend of Nieto’s who has rallied for the family, yelled to address the noisy crowd. Alex Nieto, he shouted, “was killed by the San Francisco Police Department.”
“He was a lowrider, homeboy, a son, brother,” he hollered. “Tonight we honor his life.”
Inside the Mission Cultural Center, a poster asking for “Justice for Alex Nieto” was featured alongside similar posters for Ayana Jones, Mike Brown, Jessica Hernandez — who all died in police-involved shootings elsewhere in the nation — and Trayvon Martin, among others.
Around 7:18 p.m., approximately the time of Nieto’s death, Bac Sierra led a moment of silence in the theater while a recording of the shooting played.
Following musical performances, San Francisco’s poet laureate, Alejandro Murguía, performed a poem for the occasion. “There’s some hard knocks on this block,” said Murguía, “where everywhere you look, there’s heavily armed cops. And a body or two, like Alex Nieto, that never had a chance to scream, ‘Stop.’”
Films on Nieto were screened; first home movies, including footage of him in his lowrider with Bac Sierra’s son. There was footage of last year’s march following Nieto’s death, and a movie that takes Nieto’s perspective in his final moments in Bernal Heights Park, overlaid with the voices of his parents sharing memories and remarking on life since the loss of their son. “Sometimes I ask, ‘Why God, why?’” Nieto’s mother said in the film. “No answer.”
In the movie, Nieto’s mother said he “loved music, and to dance so much he sometimes would dance alone.“
Last came the premiere of “Amor for Alex” by Green Eyed Media, a reenactment of the police incident that took his life. Before the screening, Bac Sierra clarified that, although the film shows Nieto eating a burrito for dinner to reflect original information, it has since been said Nieto was eating chips. “But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t eating a burrito,” Bac Sierra explained, “because we still don’t have the police report.”
In “Amor for Alex,” a walker at Bernal Heights Park calls the police after seeing Nieto’s Taser in its holster and fearing it was a gun. Nieto is depicted as gunned down by police immediately — unlike the police’s account of the incident, which alleges Nieto aimed the Taser he carried for security guard work at the officers.
The movie concluded with spoken word alluding to problems from gentrification in San Francisco, “strangers to our land,” and the rallying phrase, “brown lives matter.”
The event ended with panel of filmmakers, scholars and activists discussing gentrification, police violence, and activism through art.
As late as 9:12 p.m., people were still walking into the Mission Cultural Center to ask about what was happening. Across the street, eight police officers stood, watching the building and the crowd lingering outside the sold out memorial event.
Mission Street was lined with shiny lowriders in Nieto’s memory. One 1964 Impala was brought by Roberto Guardado, of the Inspirations car club. Guardado said he had nothing against the police, and was simply present “because our boy passed away.”
“Whatever happened, I don’t really care,” he said. “We gotta support our community.”
At Bernal Heights Park that afternoon, Nieto’s uncle Juan Rodriguez remembered his nephew putting the finishing touches on his own beloved lowrider. It was a 20-year-old Impala he had worked on for five years, and completed last year. “He fixed it up real nice,” said Rodriguez. “He was so proud. He hugged me.”
That car was not spared in the tragedy that followed. After Nieto’s death, “the police ripped it all apart,” said Rodriguez. “They didn’t even ask.”
For his family, the lowrider is not the only reminder of Nieto’s life that has been violated since his passing. His family visits his memorial site at Bernal Heights Park daily, and Rodriguez said they frequently find Nieto’s cross and flowers have been tossed down the hill. “My sister would cry and cry, and say, ‘Why do they do that?’” said Rodriguez. “I said, ‘They destroy it, we’ll put it back.’”
The incidents helped to prompt a “Go Fund Me” campaign to get Nieto a real headstone. It was announced at the Mission Cultural Center that the campaign was successful. More than $2,000 had been raised.
Video of Alex Nieto memorial ceremony in Bernal Heights Park in which Adriana Camarena reads a statement written by Alex Nieto’s parents.