At Parque Niños Unidos on 23rd and Treat Streets, Sala-Haquekyah Chandler delivered an impromptu call to action last Wednesday about gun violence in the city that has left her without her son and a police investigation that has so far failed to apprehend those who took his life.
“I have paid my dues to stand and speak for the people who cannot speak for themselves,” she said. If the tables were turned, she asked, what would you do?
“I bet you would take a stand,” she said.
“Everybody stopped, everybody just stood still,” said Linda Lagunas Atwood, a witness at the park that day. She recalled a man feeding a baby who tried to hush Chandler, but another woman told him to let the grieving mother speak.
Chandler often takes her 3-year-old granddaughter to Niños Unidos strictly to play. But in the wake of her son’s death, business as usual does not exist for the mother, an activist and performing artist who has lived in San Francisco for 30 years. She is speaking up about her son’s fate wherever she can these days, trying to engage people.
More than two months have passed without any arrest in the January 9th quadruple homicide that killed Chandler’s son, Yalani Chinyamurindi in Hayes Valley. She wants the city to offer a reward soliciting information. “We’re requesting a poster reward equal to four young men being murdered,” she said. “They’re looking at these kids as gangsters, so they don’t offer a poster reward.”
Police spokesperson Officer Albie Esparza said the department is doing all it can to solve the case. “This is a homicide investigation, regardless of the circumstances,” he said. “It’s in the best interest of the department to solve it. It is high profile. We want to make sure we get those responsible apprehended.”
Esparza urged members of the public with any information on the January shooting to call the department’s anonymous tip line. Expressing uncertainty that offering a reward would help, he said it wouldn’t hurt, but is up to the mayor’s office. While offering a reward demonstrates that police are still pursuing a case, rewards have not proven effective at inspiring potential informants to come forward.
Chandler described that she wants to change the system — for the city to take murders more seriously, to share greater resources and communication with victims’ families, and to increase violence prevention activities in schools. “These children have nowhere to go that’s safe,” she said. “Everyone needs to take on accountability.”
Chandler is working on creating a foundation in Chinyamurindi’s name, called “Justice 4 Yalani.” At the same time, she is searching for a place to stay in the city she hopes to improve.
Sitting in the front yard of her home of 12 years in the Bayview— a duplex she is being evicted from this month — Chandler said that violent deaths of people from her neighborhood and other communities of color are “not talked about — it’s treated like it’s normal.”
“We are losing our children, we are losing our sheroes and heroes,” she said. “And everybody is walking by like everything is fine.”
Overall the homicide rate in the city has been falling, matching a trend in the rest of the Bay Area and the nation. San Francisco suffered from 69 homicides in 2012, 48 in 2013, and 45 last year. But there have been 14 homicides so far this year, with the quadruple homicide that took Chinyamurindi’s life getting 2015 off to an unsettlingly violent start. Just fewer than half of the deaths as of the end of March have taken place in the Bayview. Police have made three arrests in connection with two recent cases, but none for the Bayview shootings.
As neighbors passed her duplex late Monday morning, Chandler called out to them. Did you know my son died? she asked. No, they would say softly, their faces stricken. Chandler would quickly recite the story she’s shared many times over the past months.
On January 9, Chandler’s 19-year-old son, Yalani “Mighty Born” Chinyamurindi, was on his dinner break from his job as a host at Japantown’s Benihana restaurant. “He called me and said, ‘Mommy I got my check,’ ” Chandler recalled. He was saving money to buy a car, but — because she had found him the hosting job — Chandler said he felt it was important to share his paycheck with her. “He was anxious to go cash it.”
She said Chinyamurindi walked with a coworker along Fillmore Street, searching unsuccessfully for an open check-cashing place. When Chinyamurindi spotted a friend, Chandler said he asked for a ride back to work.
At Laguna and Page streets around 10 p.m., the black 2005 Honda Civic he rode in with three other young men was riddled with bullets.
Chinyamurindi was found in his uniform, “with his check in his pocket,” Chandler said a police sergeant told her. “He was the only one who had a heartbeat when the paramedics tried to resuscitate him.”
Chandler said she wants that heartbeat to become the drumbeat for a national movement for justice and violence prevention; for her son “to be the poster child to bring attention to all the unsolved homicides in this country.”
She was informed that there are allegedly two shooters in her son’s murder. “I was told they were children, not 18,” she said. “You can’t find two children who committed murder? (The police) don’t care.”
Chinyamurindi’s sister, 23-year-old Takeyah Chandler, fears he and the other three men who died beside him “are about to get added to a pile of unsolved cases.” In 2013, the Bay Area News Group reported that San Francisco solved only 44 percent of its homicides between 2006 and 2012. Nationally, the homicide clearance rate is 64 percent.
Reflecting on perceived apathy about losses that’s provoked movements like “Black Lives Matter,” Chinyamurindi’s mother asserted both the violence and the silence around it “is unnatural.”
“There needs to be a national state of emergency, and I want to make sure San Francisco is the leader of it,” she said. “Before Obama is out of office.”
His family feels much of the interest in Chinyamurindi’s murder stems from its occurrence in the Hayes Valley. “They died right next to the Zen Center,” said his sister. “That’s a peaceful place.”
Chinyamurindi had been concerned about his safety, living in the Bayview. “He wanted to move out of the city, but there was nowhere for him to go,” said Sala-Haquekyah Chandler. “He couldn’t afford a little old room with his paycheck.”
Now, Chinyamurindi’s mother is fighting to stay in San Francisco, to pursue justice in his murder. Two months after her son’s death, an accident in Chandler’s Bayview duplex would make her future in the city uncertain.
“I had a small fire,” said Chandler, who had stacked laundry she was folding on her television. It was not on, she said, but it was plugged in.
The laundry atop the TV caught fire on March 11, burning the carpet and the wall by a bedroom door at the house she has lived in for a dozen years. Her landlord initially told her she had three days to repair the damage from the fire or to move out. After she negotiated with him about the undated notice she received, he is allowing 30 days for her to move her family.
Days later, PG&E found a gas leak in the house, but Chandler does not know if the two incidents could be related.
She said her landlord told her she was a good tenant, but wants to convert the property to housing for veterans to avoid dealing with the housing authority. Chandler has a Section 8 voucher for a 4-bedroom apartment.
She feels the fire is an excuse to evict her, saying the damaged carpet and paint in the apartment already needed to be redone after 12 years of tenancy without repair. “‘You’ve been an activist,’” she recalls her landlord questioning her. “‘Don’t you know somebody? Don’t you know where to go?’”
“They’re taking advantage of our strength,” she said.
Between pursuing the investigation of her son’s murder and welcoming a new life — her daughter Takeyah’s second child is due this month — being evicted from their home has Chandler feeling immense pressure. “The fire inspector said, ‘How could the landlord want to put you out after 12 years, after this?’ ” recalled Chandler. “I gotta focus on making sure justice is served (for Chinyamurindi), and now I have to go find an apartment? Give me a break.”
Instead of worrying about how she will house her family, Chandler would like to be figuring out a way to hire private investigators to examine her son’s case. Chinyamurindi’s family is unhappy with a police investigation that has yet to produce an arrest and has not, Chandler said, questioned anyone about the Honda the victims rode in — which authorities identified as stolen and containing two firearms.
Because police have said the shooting was likely gang-related, Chinyamurindi’s family and friends feel compelled to defend his character. “He was no gangster,” Chandler said. “Children were drawn to him, like he was a moonbeam.”
She describes Chinyamurindi as a serious student in the Gateway to College program at City College, and part of the All Stars Project — an aspiring artist and leader following in his mother’s footsteps.
When he was younger, she took pride in homeschooling him and having him tutored on Valencia Street.
He loved old-school music, she said, like The Temptations.
“If me and him had one thing in common, we were walking around with our headphones on,” said Takeyah Chandler, Chinyamurindi’s sister. “He never had to fight. He could talk his way out of any situation.”
Sala-Haquekyah Chandler keeps close at hand a recent letter of praise from one of her son’s teachers, and a photo of him with former mayor Willie Brown. “Just think how he could have changed the world if he lived into his 30s or 40s,” she said.
A lack of outreach and support since the shooting has troubled Chandler. “Everybody comes in for two weeks, and then everybody’s gone,” she said.
But she likened the situation to a tapestry burnt in the bedroom where her TV caught fire. The left edge of the cloth was scorched to shreds, but the family depicted was not destroyed. Even after his death, “I’m going to keep my child alive,” she said.
The family of Yalani Chinyamurindi has a memorial Go Fund Me drive. They are setting up a foundation in his name, Justice 4 Yalani. The San Francisco Police Department’s anonymous homicide tip line can be reached by calling 415-575-4444 or texting TIP411 with SFPD at the beginning of the message.