Some 150 people gathered at Buena Vista/Horace Mann Community School Thursday evening to build momentum in a joint movement involving several activists groups who are challenging police practices and narratives in at least three other officer-involved shootings.
Earlier that day, police had shot and killed a Mission District homeless man armed with a kitchen knife. The April 7 town hall meeting had been scheduled weeks before, but the shooting still featured strongly in the evening’s statements.
Officers said the man had been threatening them with a knife, an account that witness testimony disputed.
“The Chief’s story is that [the officers] shot him in self-defense,” said Father Richard Smith, community advocate and vicar at the Mission’s Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist, reference to the shooting at the homeless encampment. “Stop me if you’ve heard this before.”
Smith compared the shooting of the homeless man, identified by residents of the encampment where he lived as “Jose” or “Luis,” to the 2015 officer-involved shooting of Amilcar Perez Lopez in which an autopsy report contradicted initial police accounts claiming that the man, armed with a knife, had lunged at the officers.
Eyewitness reports said that the man had never brandished his knife and, according to one witness, lay face-down on the ground during the confrontation with the officers.
“The word on the street is always quite different,” said Smith. “The problem that we keep running into [with the police] is that we can never get the truth.”
“The police narrative is the same, the difference is that the knife keeps getting bigger,” said one member of the audience as video footage that captured the December 2, 2015 shooting of Mario Woods was projected in the school’s auditorium.
Advocates have also accused the police department of acting with impunity – none of the officers involved in these most recent shootings have faced criminal charges.
“Enough is enough,” said Phelicia Jones, an organizer with the labor union SEIU 1021 and the Woods Coalition, named after the man police shot and killed in the Bayview in December 2015. “The Alex, Amilcar, and Mario coalitions are coming together to move as one to put pressure on this city for change.”
“I’m in mourning,” said Oscar Salinas, an organizer with the Justice for Alex Nieto Coalition. A jury found the four officers involved in Nieto’s 2014 shooting death not guilty of using excessive force in a civil trial last month. “They keep doing this to us over again. We don’t even have to try to prove anything anymore because this just keeps happening.”
Christopher Muhammad, minister of the Nation of Islam, said a “marriage” between the three coalitions is necessary in seeking reform of police practices.
Edwin Lindo, one of six candidates for the seat of District 9 Supervisor, called the shooting at the homeless encampment “the straw that broke the people’s back.”
“My heart is in my stomach right now, because that’s four people of color in the past year-and-a-half killed at the hands of police,” said Lindo. “It’s not inherent, it’s not implicit racism. It’s very, very clear.”
Police officials were posted in front of the school throughout the two-hour meeting, and two officers who briefly entered the auditorium where met with adversity from some members of the crowd.
“You don’t belong here,” someone told them.
After the meeting concluded, Muhammad led a crowd of more than 100 people down Mission Street to 19th Street and then to the scene of the earlier shooting. Holding banners calling for justice and chanting forcefully, the group prompted conversations among bystanders and bar-goers on Mission Street.
Anne Peterson, an immigration attorney, had been discussing the homeless man’s shooting with a friend as protesters passed by.
“Law enforcement in this city has this privileged fear of being under attack, ” said Peterson. “These shootings are very reactionary. I feel that this excessive force is a backlash against the attention that police practices are getting, facilitated by social media.”
Adrianne Brown, a Mission resident, said that she sympathized with the marchers and was shocked when she heard about Thursday’s shooting.
“What broke my heart when I saw the news reports was that this man was told to drop his knife, but only spoke Spanish.”
A small memorial marked the spot where the man had been shot. During the march’s pause at the site, someone covered the spot where he died in red paint.
“We must remain focused. We must have coalition discipline,” said Jones. “In a moment we get anger…but a movement takes time…It’s about coming out, being heard, putting the pressure on, and not allowing anyone to get in our ear and keep you off focus.”
After a brief moment of confusion over whether the march would continue or end, the protesters moved on to make their way toward Mission Police Station.
Upon their arrival at the station, protesters again took to the megaphone. Muhammad called on officers within the SFPD to oppose police violence from the inside, and said many officers owed their jobs to community efforts to diversify the police force.
“We need you good officers to help us reform your department. We need you good officers to stand up and say that the chief and the POA does not speak for us,” Muhammad said. “We want you to say to your commanders and your leadership, ‘not on my watch.’ ”
One officer, Lieutenant Con Johnson, joined a small group of marchers in a lengthy discussion after many had already made their way home, saying he wanted to have a dialogue.
The group included rapper Equipto, candidate Lindo, and a local member of the Franciscan Society, Brother Damien Joseph.
Brother Damien, whose legal name is Brent Richards, is a former corrections officer. He works with the homeless often and told Johnson he would not call the police if he encountered an upset homeless person with a knife.
“You got divine intervention,” Johnson joked.
“No I don’t, because we die too,” Richards responded. “Today, if I feel like I’m in a situation with a homeless person in distress and is a genuine risk to himself and others, if I call you, I’ve signed his death warrant.”
Johnson made an attempt to diplomatically explain how officers perceive an encounter with a suspect after having been called to the scene of a stabbing or a person with a weapon.
“Now, I’m just giving our perspective,” Johnson said. “Officers now [are] gonna respond, based on the premise that there’s a crime committed.”
“Right, a non-deadly crime,” Lindo responded.
Despite a few argumentative moments, the exchange remained peaceful.
“What I’m saying is that we all have to have dialogue we all have to respect the others’ view,” Johnson said.