At the center of the hunger strike now entering its eighth day are five individuals now known as the “Frisco Five” (#frisco5). Others come and go, either fasting or staying at the station in a show of support, but the core five are the stalwarts determined to unseat Police Chief Greg Suhr.
Who are they?
Maria Cristina Gutierrez, 66
In her native Colombia, Gutierrez’s father proved an ideal role model, organizing one of the first labor unions in the country. But it was tough – she and her little brother often had to go without food for the day, or make do with one meal a day. The family of four lived in a one room home.
At 17, Gutierrez joined her mother in the United States to pursue education and opportunity. Here, she said, she quickly confronted stereotypes and racism.
“I came here, and was in shock. I would be talking in Spanish to my mom and she would tell me, don’t speak so loud, people don’t want to hear that,” Gutierrez remembered. “Until you experience [racism], you don’t realize.”
Already politically active in student movements in Colombia in her teens, Gutierrez didn’t let up once stateside. She attended the City College of San Francisco and San Francisco State University to study social work, though she eventually dropped out to become more active in the Chicano movement. She continued to be part of political groups advocating against human rights violations in Colombia.
She married, had a daughter, and was widowed. A few years later she married again, had her son, Ilyich Sato, and divorced.
“I’ve been by myself, because being politically involved, it’s very difficult to have a partner.”
But there is room for teaching.
Gutierrez supported the Compañeros del Barrio preschool as a parent when she first brought her children there some 40 years ago. She began working at the state-funded nonprofit school, and became committed to working with immigrant and low-income families. Now, she is the executive director.
“I’ve dedicated my life to the education of the children and the parents,” she said “The system even takes away from parents the right to educate or enjoy their children. They have to work every day two or three jobs.”
She said she tries to empower the children to pursue their dreams, and coaches the parents to spend time with their children as much as possible rather than fixating on providing for them in a material sense.
What she wants for the children, she said, is for them to “show the world that they are excellent.”
Ike Pinkston, 42, and Ilyich Sato, a.k.a. “Equipto,” 42
Pinkston and Sato were part of a hip hop group called Bored Stiff in the early 90s. The group of 12 contributors became influential in the Bay Area hip-hop scene, and eventually internationally known, with some records becoming collector’s items in Europe, Sato said.
Sato too dropped out of high school to pursue music.
“I was careless. That was the age where no one could tell me anything.” he said. “Hip hop to us wasn’t a business. It was becoming our love and our passion.”
His parents offered different kinds of support – his mother allowed him to stay with her for some time, encouraged him to follow his dreams, but led him toward entrepreneurial work ethic by example, opening her own cafe at one point. His father, Art Sato, had pushed for him to apply himself more academically but also inspired an enduring passion for music, himself a DJ and radio host on KPFA for many years.
Sato also credits the 90s in San Francisco with shaping him and his music.
“The 90s had a lot to do with shaping hip hop culture,” he said. “That’s something I cherish a lot. We’re cut from a rare cloth.”
Bored Stiff had begun to drift apart in the late 90s with the arrest of some members and others going to college. Another contributor, Jo Jo White, Sato’s closest friend, was killed in 1997.
“That changed everything,” he said. “He died in my arms.”
“He was pretty much the reason why the group even formed,” Pinkston said.
White, though he didn’t rap, was one of the most politically active contributors to Bored Stiff.
“The thing me and him had in common is both of our families came from resistance,” Sato said. “We would be on acid or weed and just talk all night about how we could change things…When he left, it was like I didn’t have noone to share that with no more.”
White was shot, by “some fake gangbanger,” Sato said. His death sparked a national conversation about gun violence and the death penalty. For Sato, it meant the loss of his innocence.
“That’s why I always tell youngsters to appreciate your life and your innocence,” he said.
Sato is still making music. Pinkston, now a father of two, has a book deal worked out with Ex Libris to publish a compendium of poetry. But both now work at the Compañeros del Barrio preschool that Sato’s mother, Maria Cristina Gutierrez, runs. Pinkston, who had cut his computer science studies at the City College of San Francisco short to work, had always had a “hidden dream” of teaching.
Hidden, he explained, because it never looked like it was in the cards.
“In sixth or seventh grade, I came home and was super excited, because I figured out what I wanted to be. I came home, busted open the door like any excited kid,” and told her his plan. “My mom said, you’re never going to be a teacher with the grades that you get.”
Yet here he is.
Selassie Blackwell, 39
Blackwell grew up all over the city, though he was born at St. Luke’s hospital and started out in the Fillmore, later moving to Lakeview (now Ingleside). His mother worked two jobs and he often went days without meals.
“I didn’t grow up poor, I grew up broke,” he said.
By 17, he was more or less fending for himself.
“I’m a Capricorn, I’m a leader. I blaze my own trail.” he said. “I’m a goat. A goat can go weeks without eating. He’s got perseverance.”
He also, he said, kept clean – no drug-slinging, no jail time.
“It was a lot of luck, but also being a leader, not a follower,” Blackwell said. “I walked away many a time. A lot of people I walked away from, they’re not here anymore.”
He dropped out of school at 17 and began his music production and hip hop career. Politics, he said, has always been an interest and his music always had a political message. He also calls himself an entrepreneur – his production work, primarily centered on a rap competition show series, took him around the nation and it sustains him financially.
“I’m a San Francisco tastemaker,” he said. “I provided hip hop shows for years, then started producing my own shows, they became very popular.”
Along with fellow hunger striker Edwin Lindo, Blackwell became very involved in activism and after the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant by BART police officers.
“It’s music, it’s business, and then there’s activism,” he said. “It’s not like a fly-by-night thing, this is how I present to the world – as a black freedom fighter for equality and justice.”
Edwin Lindo, 29
When Edwin Lindo’s parents divorced, his father made sure his seven-year-old son would stay with him.
“He sold everything he had to hire an attorney and fought for custody,” Lindo said. “I don’t think he knew what he was doing, because he was like, shit, I have a kid now. But he did his best.”
The pair spent roughly five years of Lindo’s early life living on his grandmother’s floor, rolling up their sleeping bags every morning to go to school.
Education was not to be trifled with as far as his father was concerned.
He went to school with his son and sit in the back of class. If he didn’t like how the teacher taught, he’d take his son and put him in the next available school, Lindo remembered. Sometimes Lindo would spend less than a day at a single school – in one case, he visited two in a day.
Self-sufficiency, too, was instilled at an early age.
“He was stern, he laid the ground rules, but he was giving me a lot of leeway to explore,” Lindo said.
Something about the emphasis on education must have clicked. Lindo graduated from the University of Washington with a law degree, ready to diversify the field of law. After working for some time at Amazon and Microsoft, the 29-year-old is now an adviser to the San Francisco Unified School District in program designed to help students of color succeed. He has also been active in the San Francisco Latino Democratic Club before starting his bid this year for District 9 supervisor.
His father has been a frequent visitor at the hunger strike. Eventually, his mother also visited.
“That is telling of this bringing people together,” Lindo said. “My mom, who I haven’t seen in a decade, came out.”