The Brava Theater was adorned Sunday afternoon with a banner declaring “Amor for Alex” during the screening of a new film examining the fatal police shooting of 28-year-old Alex Nieto in 2014.
Supporters of the movement to denounce the shooting walked past a string of highly polished low-riders that sat outside the theater before going in for the entirely volunteer-produced half-hour film. “Low Rider Lawyers: Putting the City on Trial” imagines the jury trial in Nieto’s family’s case against the city, which is set for later this year.
Written and directed by activist and city college instructor Benjamin Bac Sierra, filmed and edited by Peter Menchini, it features prominent community members Edwin Lindo, a candidate for District 9 supervisor, organizer Adriana Camarena and Father Richard Smith. The film retells the events leading up to Nieto’s shooting on Bernal Hill in the form of a cross-examination of witnesses by a crew of “Low Rider Lawyers,” from the Mission. The jury is comprised of neighborhood community members.
The film begins indoors, at what appears to be a courtroom. But the cross-examination moves outdoors, and ends in a lowrider’s car in which Smith, playing an officer, is riding in the back seat behind a chain link partition. As he sits there, Bac Sierra asks him questions including why he killed Nieto and whether he is ashamed for his actions.
“When I get in that courtroom I sure wish I could try this case to that jury,” said Adante Pointer, the lawyer representing the Nieto family in its case against the city of San Francisco, in a panel discussion following the screening.
“When we go to trial in March, it’s not going to look like this at all,” Lindo said. “We have to be unapologetic.”
The half-hour film’s main purpose, Bac Sierra told a nearly full house, was to explain the legal details of Nieto’s case. The District Attorney wrote to the SFPD’s Chief Greg Suhr in February of 2015 that he would not pursue criminal charges against the officers who shot Nieto.
Police accounts of what happen when police arrived at the scene describe Nieto as acting aggressively or erratically and drawing a Taser issued to him for his job as a security guard. When confronted by the officers, police say, Nieto drew and fired his Taser, citing findings by the company that manufactured the weapon.
The Lowrider Lawyers, on the other hand, say Nieto was accosted by a large, aggressive dog intent on his lunch and that he was trying to ward off the dog. After finishing his lunch, Nieto’s advocates say, he encountered police officers who had been called to the scene by someone who saw Nieto’s Taser and assumed it was a gun. There was no confrontation, and police immediately fired on Nieto without him having drawn any weapon, an actor playing a witness testifies.
Bac Sierra said these and other conflicts with the official story were sourced entirely from real witness and police accounts of the incident.
Community organizer Roberto Hernandez expressed frustration with empty promises from police to implement new training and policies.
“What we need is change, and it’s institutional change,” Hernandez said. “Had they made changes when Alex Nieto was killed, you think [Amilcar Lopez-] Perez would have been killed? You think [Mario] Woods would have been killed?”
Pointer also pointed to trouble with the trial process, saying narratives from outside cultural contexts can sometimes be difficult for jurors to understand.
“Convincing a jury is like convincing my two boys…that there’s no Santa Claus,” he said. “It’s hard to understand unless you grew up in our community.”
After some poetry in Nieto’s honor, a few hip-hop performances by local artists Dregs One and Equipto, the screening and panel discussion, the audience gathered in Brava’s lobby for refreshments and some discussion.
“It was a lot to take in,” said Araseli Garcia. “It gave a lot of good information. I knew what happened but I didn’t know all that.”
“It’s nice to see a community come together,” said Ayden Bradley. “How often do you see black and brown people come together like this in a community that’s being gentrified?”
Bac Sierra called for a protest at the trial, which is scheduled to begin March 1, saying supporters would “fill up that courtroom every day” of the trial.
“There is power and strength in unity,” said activist and scholar Thea Matthews, adding that part of the answer to the situation is “for the younger generation to realize that we are all here in this together.”