Protesters carrying banners and candles halted in front of the Bayview Police Station at 201 Williams Ave. on Wednesday evening, their confrontational chants turning into cheers when, approaching from Third Street, a second group emerged underneath streetlights.
The families of Alex Nieto and Mario Woods, two men killed by the San Francisco Police Department nearly two years apart, led two groups of protesters in a “Solidarity Night March.” One traveled from the site of Nieto’s shooting in Bernal Heights, while the other started at the site of Woods’ shooting on Third street and Palou Avenue. At the police station, they met and the mothers of Woods and Nieto joined hands.
The families then shared a Rosca de Reyes, traditionally served in Latin American countries for Three Kings Day.
The march represented the formation of an alliance between the “black and brown” communities, explained Oscar Salinas, an organizer with the Alex Nieto Coalition. “We need to come out and show the unity of both communities that are suffering right now. [The Mission] has their back, just as the Bayview has always had our back,” he said.
“We found it very symbolic today to share this holiday with the family of Mario Woods,” said Salinas. “The mothers’ pain of losing their children is the same. Only the Nieto family understands exactly what the Woods family is going through.”
“We recognize that the African American community suffers exponentially at hands of police, and so has the Mission,” said Mission community organizer Adriana Camarena. “After decades of abuse and no change from the SFPD, we are coming together because we know we are stronger together.”
Since the killings, both communities have decried violence at the hands of the police force, accusing the department of covering up for its officers while denying the victims’ families proper investigations and fair trials. Demanding the indictment of the officers involved, leaders in both communities have formed coalitions to seek justice, and have now joined forces.
Despite periodic downpours of heavy rain that one protester described as symbolic of “the tears shed for the lives that have been taken from us,” the group remained at the intersection in front of the station, where they met shortly after 7 p.m., for some two hours.
Activists, poets, family members and supporters from both communities honored Woods and Nieto. They also repeated a list of demands that included the immediate resignation of Police Chief Greg Suhr, a public apology to Mario Woods’ mother, the firing of the officers that killed Woods, and an independent federal investigation into Woods’ death.
“The SFPD has a system in place and a belief that they can kill our community members without any negative consequences,” said protester Jeremy Miller. “But they have acted with impunity for far too long.”
“No Justice, No Peace!” the protesters chanted while taking over a lane of the Bayshore freeway. Passing cars honked and drivers raised their fists in a gesture of support for the movement, and the protesters’ voices were muffled only by the engines of dozens of police motorcycles that escorted the march.
“The SFPD has zero credibility in the black and brown communities,” said Camarena.
At Third and Palou streets, the location where police shot at 26-year-old Woods more than 20 times last month, an equally sizeable group began their night march with a peaceful rally before embarking to the police station. Bayview protesters called Woods’ killing, which became public through a cell phone video, an “execution.”
Police officials have said that at the time Woods was shot, he was armed with a knife and was the suspect in a stabbing. After attempts to disarm Woods with beanbag rounds and pepper spray were unsuccessful, police say the officers had no choice but to use lethal force.
In Nieto’s case, the police version states that the shooting occurred after Nieto, a security guard who was licensed to carry a taser, pulled the taser and pointed it at the officers. This narrative has been questioned by community organizers and contradicts witness statements. A civil trial is set to begin on March 1.
“The civil trial for Nieto is a step forward, and if that were to happen with Woods, it would be a huge concession from the police department,” said labor activist Michael Madden. “It could have the affect of mobilizing people even more and possibly resulting in firing of the officers.”
In the wake of Woods’ shooting, Mayor Ed Lee has said that police training does not include enough non-lethal alternatives, and on Wednesday outlined a proposed overhaul to the police department’s training, use-of-force, and weaponry policies. He directed Police Chief Greg Suhr and his department to submit additional policy changes by February 15.
With an ongoing federal lawsuit against the SFPD, the agency is prohibited from commenting, said spokesperson Officer Albie Esparza. As far as the police presence at Wednesday’s march, Esparza said it was normal protocol for a demonstration to ensure the public’s safety.
“Don’t let them just tell you that ‘Mario Woods’ was another name on the list of names. This was a life. Alex Nieto, he had a life,” said organizer and longtime Bayview resident Eticia Brown, accusing the police department of “racism.”
Signs that read “Fire Chief Suhr” and “Jail All Racist Killer Cops” lined the intersection where the two groups met and swaths of officers stood guard silently throughout the evening.
“I saw my baby being gunned down 25 times,” shrieked Woods’ mother, Gwendolyn, through tears, in an emotional confrontation with the police.
“They can’t even look at her in her face,” said a protester who stood behind Woods as some of the officers dodged eye contact while others shook their heads in silence.
Though emotions ran high, the protest remained peaceful.
“We’ve been conditioned to think that we can’t fight for struggles that we don’t personally relate to,” said rapper and activist Equipto, who marched alongside Nieto’s parents from Bernal Hill. “But if its right, its right, and that’s what I was taught to fight for.”