The Laborers Local Union 261 on 18th Street was full of angry people last Wednesday at high noon. Six days earlier, on April 7th, Luis Demetrio Gongora Pat, a slightly built 45-year-old Yucatec Mayan, was shot and killed by San Francisco police officers after staff from the Homeless Outreach Team had summoned them to nearby Shotwell Street. Within 30 seconds after police arrived, Gongora had been shot. He died later that day. In the SFPD bulletin distributed at the meeting, such shootings are described as “lawful and awful.”
Police Chief Greg Suhr had convened the town hall meeting, which included a panel of police officers to discuss the case. Accordingly, people crowded into the hall of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which describes itself as “the most progressive, aggressive and fastest-growing union of construction.” The grins on the faces of the union workers portrayed in the posters that hung on the walls contrasted sharply with the grim faces of the people sitting in folding chairs or leaning against the wall, arms folded or thrust into the air holding signs. No one was smiling. Some participants were holding black-and-white flyers with Gongora’s only known photo. His face, gaunt and spectral, hung in the air.
Adriana Camarena was querying the police, politely but pointedly. They know her; she knows them. She’s an attorney, author and human rights activist who became involved with police shootings after the death of Alex Nieto on March 21, 2014, one day after the vernal equinox. Before going to his job as a security guard, Nieto was eating a burrito on Bernal Heights when a man walking his dog decided he was “behaving erratically” and called 911. Police arrived and shot him 59 times. Camarena helped his parents mount a civil suit, which they lost this year. Almost a year after Nieto was shot and killed, Amilcar Perez Lopez, a 20-year-old Guatemalan immigrant, was shot four times in the back by the police on Folsom Street, about four houses down from where Camarena lives.
Camarena visited the homeless encampment on Shotwell Street three days after the Gongora shooting and filmed the police and a worker with the Department of Public Works as they dismantled the camp at night, smashing candles and ripping tents. As she filmed them doing this, a police officer began shining his flashlight in her face. Later, she described her encounter with the SFPD: “While I was filming, one of the officers flashed his flashlight on me. When I questioned him, he said he was doing so because … he was concerned for his safety because I was pointing an object at him. In other words he used the SFPD General Order language that would justify him shooting me to death.”
At the meeting, she was focused and imperturbable, impressive for someone who’d been threatened four days earlier. She quizzed the police: What prompted officers to go to Shotwell Street? Did they describe the person as Latino and possibly a Spanish speaker? What is the crisis intervention protocol followed by the police station in confronting escalated individuals? Did the SF HOT Team refer to a person with a knife or a person brandishing a knife? And, importantly: What exactly did they say about the presumed weapon?
“Chief Suhr, one of your men threatened me last Saturday,” she said calmly. “Are you going to investigate this threat? I have the badge number.” Suhr said he would. The small noises in the labor hall suddenly coalesced and became one noise, a roar of anger. “Fire Chief Suhr! Fire Chief Suhr!” A woman wearing a red baseball cap yelled, “You have blood on your hands!”
A man in a green sweater turned to me. His eyes were bright. “I can’t believe so many people are here,” he said, almost conspiratorially. “What do you think they’re thinking?” He meant the police officers. They looked carefully impassive, resting their hands on their massive belts and rocking back on their heels. Chief Suhr, with the fierce and fixed gaze of a hawk, looked at the roaring crowd and waited. The man in the green sweater said bitterly, “I think this is all a bunch of bullshit. Nothing’s going to change.”
If that’s true, it’s not for lack of trying. District 9 Supervisor David Campos referred to Chief Suhr’s town hall meeting as a mere press conference, an inappropriate forum held at an inconvenient time. When it was his turn to speak, Campos, in whose district the killing took place, was visibly annoyed. “Chief, I have to tell you: I’m very disappointed. If this town hall meeting is so important, why wasn’t my office informed?” The crowd erupted. “If the objective,” Campos went on, the sternness in his voice increasing, “is to maximize community involvement, why would you have a community meeting at noon?”
“Supervisor Campos, when we have these town halls, they are in the area and at the time that’s close proximity to the officer involved shooting,” Suhr replied flatly.
“I’m sorry chief, but if someone gets shot at two in the morning, I doubt you’re going to have a meeting at 2 in the morning,” Campos replied.
Angry shouts of “liar” rang through the hall. Campos pressed on, in sentences that were increasingly staccato, compact and pointed. Suhr, he charged, was presenting carefully selected witness statements to the public before a thorough police investigation had been completed in an effort to manipulate public opinion.
“You’ve had a number of press conferences where you are already prejudging what happened in this case,” he told Suhr.
The audience started chanting. Suhr’s eyes widened, and for the first time, he unfolded his arms and put out his hand. “I’m not going to allow that,” he said sharply. Was he referring to the tumult in the audience, or the charge that his department was spreading misinformation? The audience yelled back in disbelief and defiance, you’re fired, murderer, liar.
Campos’s voice, momentarily drowned out by sound sweeping through the halls, became audible again, mid-sentence: “…what you’re really saying is ‘this is what we believe happened.’ ”
Suhr interrupted Campos. “I didn’t say what I believed happened. I’ve given the facts that came from interviews, simply.” He emphasized the word “simply,” as if to say, I’m trying to keep this simple.
“You are prejudging,” Campos responded. A man yelled something, the syllables of his words distorted by the acoustics of the hall. Campos held up his hand. “I want to say this.” The restive crowd quietened.
“I’m saying this as a former police commissioner, and I’ve said this to the president of the police commission. I think that we need to change this policy of having police come out and hold these press conferences. I don’t want you to prove anything. I am not jumping to conclusions about what happened. But I also think it’s irresponsible for SFPD to do that. So I ask you: PLEASE. Stop saying anything until your own investigation is complete.” Clapping, shouts. “And if you are not willing to do that, I ask the police commission and I ask the Mayor to please: Direct the police department to stop trying this case in the public.”
A cheer went up. A woman cried out in ringing tones, the police cannot police themselves!
“We need the Mayor to step up and show leadership on this point. Why isn’t the Mayor calling on the Federal government—not the cops!—but the civil rights division of the Justice Department to come in and actually do a legally binding investigation of this police department,” Campos said.
A policewoman next to him indicated that his time was up. He nodded. “I will end by saying this. Blaming the homeless for what happened, by cracking down on the homeless, is not a solution.” He stepped away from the microphone and walked to the back of the room.
More speakers stepped up to the microphone, more statements of rage, pain, fear and determination. A man described being harassed by the police as he ate a sandwich. “This harassment is nothing new. This has been happening for a long time,” he said, “but now we have video. We deserve to live,” he yelled. “Stop being so trigger happy! C’mon! What happened to batons?”
An organizer with the Justice for Mario Woods Coalition asked that Suhr be fired. The testimony from the speakers sharpened and settled into a theme: You don’t care. You aren’t changing. You’re lying. You are attacking our bodies. We deserve to live.
In less than three years—25 months, to be exact, from Nieto’s death to Gongora’s—six men have been shot and killed by police in San Francisco. All were witnessed by at least one member of the public. One death—Mario Woods—was documented by two bystanders, both forced to witness a killing in broad daylight in their own neighborhood; another chilling moment captured during last week’s shooting is an image of a woman running—as if in a war zone—away from the line of fire that killed Gongora.
There are black-and-white posters of Nieto, Woods and Perez-Lopez pasted to the wall of the Red Poppy Art House on Folsom at 23rd. The posters were created by the Justice For Our Lives, a collective that has immortalized the faces of 49 black and brown men and women killed by police violence nationwide. Gongora will be the 50th in the series. The question is perhaps this: Will he be the last?