After day two of a hunger strike aimed at unseating Police Chief Greg Suhr for a lack of reform to a police department that has seen four controversial police shootings in the last two years, a group of four protesters camping outside of Mission Station has gained one member.
Sellassie Blackwell, a San Francisco native and political hip-hop artist, joined fellow rapper Ilych “Equipto” Sato, his mother, Maria Cristina Gutierrez, District 9 supervisorial candidate Edwin Lindo, and a teacher at Gutierrez’ school in the hunger strike.
Neighborhood activists led protests against the police earlier this month after the fatal shooting of 45-year-old homeless man Luis Gongora, and the hunger strike is just the latest in a line of actions seeking use-of-force reform within the police department.
“Equipto and I have collaborated in the past on actions to get our points across,” said Blackwell. “Not eating is a trip. We may be hungry, but we are not starving. Being out here, I think about people who are really starving and that I’ve been blessed my entire life with food.”
But before joining the group in their hunger movement, Blackwell challenged the support of a city supervisor on Twitter last night.
As an “Ally” in office it’s YOUR responsibility to find out and speak with the community. Why is it our burden? https://t.co/HJVcINUmTY
— Sellassie (@Sellassie) April 22, 2016
@Sellassie Got it. I am rearranging my schedule to stop by this morning.
— John Avalos (@AvalosSF) April 22, 2016
After being called out on social media, John Avalos — who represents the Excelsior — sought to make amends and met Blackwell personally in front of Mission Station this morning. He drove him and another protester to buy a tent for the hunger strikers, hoping to shield them from the rain.
“I stopped by to say hello. I also heard from the Mario Woods Coalition and they had some concerns [about communication] and I did too,” said Avalos, referring to the tweets. “I went [there] so we can communicate face to face and hear about what’s going.”
As a supervisor, Avalos said he has no authority to meddle in police personnel affairs such as the hiring and firing of staff, but came to stand in solidarity and open the lines of communication with protesters in terms of the support they expect from City Hall.
Avalos said that he views the strike as an opportunity to strategize along common goals by bringing together “the expertise of members of the board” with the “experience of people on the streets.”
“How do we get real reform in form of restricting use of force in the police department? How do we make sure there is real training and de-escalation? Those are worthy things to collaborate on together,” said Avalos.
On Thursday night, the protesters slept on camping chairs in front of the station. Equipto’s mother — whom he described as the impetus for the strike — was the only one to escape the rain by returning to a nearby van around 4 a.m.
“Perhaps the concern now is more about hypothermia than about hunger,” said Lindo, smiling while pointing to his wet shoes. Though he is in the middle of campaigning for a seat on the Board of Supervisors, Lindo said police shootings and the hunger strike are his immediate concern. And while “thoughts of food slip in here and there,” he said he plans on holding out as long as he can.
“I want to make it clear that this is serious,” said Lindo.
The elements have posed a challenge for the protesters. Last night, about 20 supporters gathered in front of the station with ponchos and drinks for the group. But the lack of nourishment is troubling Equipto’s mother, Maria Christina Gutierrez, who is 66 years old and said she worries about her health.
“I’m not happy about doing this per se, because I know my health and my life will suffer. But I felt there no other choice for me to give a statement to our young people,” she said, breaking out in tears. “I hope I can fulfill the expectations that people have of me.”
Whether the hunger strike will accomplish anything tangible is an open question. Gutierrez was doubtful that the mayor would take the strikers seriously.
“I don’t think he will respond. He has enough evidence to fire [Police Chief Greg Suhr],” she said. “If something happens to us, he’s responsible.”
Equipto said that despite an outpouring of support, some passers-by have shown adversity to the group. Around 2 a.m. on Friday, two men walked by the campers and shouted “Fuck all of you here” while walking past.
“They told us that everyone has equal opportunity in this city and that we should stop complaining and ‘Do something with yourselves,’” said Equipto. Though the group was alarmed at first, Equipto said the strikers were not in the mood to pick a fight.
“Mom said ignore them,” he added with a smirk.
At around 3:30 p.m. on Friday, a woman named Abigail Smith stopped by the campsite at the entrance of the police station to challenge the group’s motives.
“My question is, why don’t they camp outside of Chief Suhr’s office and stop harassing these officers?” asked Smith. “They’ve been out here for 48 hours and I think they are bullying these officers.”
But for the most part, Lindo said that interactions with police officers entering and exiting the station have been amicable — even eliciting a nod from Captain Daniel Perea of the Mission Station.
“He respects it,” Lindo said.
Captain Perea did not comment on the statement.
Liam McStravik, a member of the Justice for Mario Woods coalition, is not on hunger strike but joined the group’s campsite on Friday in support. McStravik said that some officers told the group yesterday that they were in violation of the city’s sit-lie law.
“They said technically what they are doing is illegal because of the sit-lie law. But the exception is when it is done in protest,” said McStravik. “They can’t take our right away to protest.”
A rally in support of the hunger strikers is planned for 7 p.m. in front of Mission Station.