Four activists arrived at the Mission Police Station Thursday morning to begin a hunger strike to protest police shootings. They came with a class of preschoolers in tow, leading them in a chant of “Queremos paz,” or, “We want peace”.
Organizer Maria Cristina Gutierrez said she brought the children to show officers who she wants to protect from future run-ins with police. Gutierrez, 66, is the executive director of Compañeros del Barrio preschool on 16th and Valencia.
Gutierrez, her son Ilyich Sato, also known as the rapper Equipto, Edwin Lindo, currently a candidate for District 9 supervisor, and Ike Pinkston, a preschool teacher at Compañeros del Barrio, officially began their hunger strike on Thursday, though some have not eaten since Wednesday.
Each of the hunger strikers said they would hold on for as long as they could – ideally until they achieve their goal of unseating Police Chief Greg Suhr.
Gutierrez said she could not fathom justifications for the deaths of San Francisco residents Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez Lopez, Mario Woods, and most recently, Luis Gongora. All were shot and killed by officers.
“It can not go on like this. They cannot be murdering people like it’s nothing,” she said. “So I said, I’m ready to do everything I can, something to soften the hearts.”
Pinkston, in tears, said he worries about his own children being targeted by police officers due to their race. He dismissed the health risk of the hunger strike as trivial compared with the health risk of encountering police.
“My children are 10 and 8 and I’m thinking, am I even going to see my kids grow up to be 18?” he said. “I know I’m crying, but that’s just how much it is paining me…I’ll stay out here for as long as it takes.”
Sato, Gutierrez’ son, attributed the whole idea to his mother. Gutierrez said she has participated in one hunger strike previously, a human rights protest in her native Colombia. She has lived in San Francisco for some 40 years.
“I knew that something radical needed to be done,” Gutierrez said. “We march, we go to meetings, they don’t care. They keep on going like nothing.”
Her son, Sato, balances his rap career with his time teaching at Gutierrez’ preschool.
“We’ll be sitting here because this is no joke, this is not some publicity stunt,” Sato said. He asked that others support the hunger strikers’ cause by going to City Hall to protest.
For the next few days or perhaps weeks, none of the four will go to work or eat, instead posting themselves outside of Mission Station until they get a reaction. If arrested, they said, they will continue their hunger strike in jail.
“The reason I ran is to raise issues that have always been swept under the rug,” Lindo, the candidate for supervisor, said.
He, too, said he sensed that other methods of protest were not having any effect.
“Protests don’t work, letters don’t work, so I guess we’ll put our own blood in their hands,” he said.
Lindo said his focus is on the chief and not the police commission, officially the authority to which Suhr answers, because it seems to him that Suhr calls the shots.
“They haven’t done a very good job either…but to us, they follow [Suhr’s] lead,” he said. “Suhr has a lot of dirt on his hands – text messages, lawsuits, being the highest paid police chief in the country, and four executions of people of color.”
Given the chance to speak with police officers, Gutierrez said, she would encourage them to join her cause.
“If they really believe that the police department is here to protect us, they should be against these officers that made the text messages, and ask for the chief to be fired,” she said. “They have a very important job, to protect people. But they’re not doing it. They can take a stand themselves.”
Homeless Press Conference
Hours later and across the street, some 70 people gathered at Clarion Alley to hear from homeless and formerly homeless speakers who decried the recent shooting of Gongora, who lived in an encampment on Shotwell Street.
“When I heard about this shooting, it broke my heart,” said Shira Noel, who works at the Homeless Youth Alliance and was homeless when she was young. “It brought back so many memories of police brutality, of just trying to survive.”
Mary Howe, the executive director and co-founder of the Homeless Youth Alliance, called on housed allies to film police interactions with the homeless and “be a witness” to any brutality they see.
“Never allow what happened to Luis to continue happening,” she said. “Exert your privilege and do the right thing.”
Chief Suhr faced a contentious town hall meeting in the wake of the April 7 shooting, where speakers called for his resignation and pushed for use-of-force reform within the department.
Immediately after the shooting, Mayor Ed Lee pledged to crack down on homeless encampments city-wide. In the days after Gongora’s shooting, city workers and police officers visited the Shotwell Street encampment where he lived and moved some residents to shelters while destroying other residents’ tents.
Eyewitnesses to the shooting said they were being harassed by the police for what they had seen.
At Thursday’s press conference, Noel addressed the crackdown on encampments and condemned the atmosphere surrounding homelessness in San Francisco.
“The sweeps are not okay, the killings are not okay, and the destruction of property is not okay,” she said.