Family and friends of three men shot by police officers visited the sites of the shootings in a Sunday morning procession they dubbed the “River of Sorrows.”
The procession is part of an ongoing effort to keep the shootings in the public eye and to foster a sense of community among their families.
The extended family of Luis Demetrio Gongora Pat, a 45-year-old Mexican – Mayan immigrant and restaurant worker who had been living in a homeless encampment on Shotwell Street when he was shot by police on April 7th of this year, joined a public action for the first time. Though politely reserved with their statements out of respect for Gongora’s wife, two family members expressed their frustration with the situation.
“I’m still not prepared in my head for this, but I am grateful for all of those who are supporting us” said Gongora’s cousin, Luis Poot Pat. “With time, hopefully we will know more about what happened here…The police doesn’t want to give us any information. The only information is what [we] heard from the police town hall.”
Evelyn del Rosario Poot Balam, the 11-year-old daughter of Gongora’s other cousin Carlos Poot Pat, reacted to the news of Gongora’s death with a poem, which organizer Adriana Camarena read aloud on her behalf at the site of Gongora’s death.
“I hope the freaking police are reading this,” she wrote. “The Latinos police have killed also want to defend their lives.”
In her poem, Evalyn wrote that she did not cry the first time she heard about Gongora’s death. At the scene of the death, however, she couldn’t hold back a few tears.
Gongora’s extended family joined Elvira and Refugio Nieto, the parents of 2014 police shooting victim Alex Nieto, and neighbors of Amilcar Perez Lopez, a 20-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who lived and was shot by officers on Folsom Street on Feb. 26th, 2015.
“For me, Amilcar Perez Lopez and Luis Gongora Pat are very connected,” said Florencia Rojo, who was Perez Lopez’ neighbor and a driving force behind the neighborhood’s investigation of the incident and subsequent efforts to push for criminal charges from the District Attorney’s office.
Perez Lopez, an independent autopsy and a city autopsy both confirmed, was shot in the back – a fact which activists say disproves the police claim that he had lunged at officers with a knife.
“When I heard about Luis Gongora Pat and I heard the police version of events, I thought, I’ve heard this story before. It’s not even a different lie – it’s the same lie,” Rojo said.
After the shooting, police said Gongora had been brandishing a knife. Officers had reportedly been called to the scene by members of a Homeless Outreach Team because Gongora had been swinging his knife at a tree. Police said they first shot him with first beanbags, then bullets. Camarena said, however, that security video, an excerpt of which was released to the San Francisco Chronicle, showed the officers shooting Gongora and also showed several unfazed individuals and a police cruiser passing by where Gongora was sitting in the minutes before his death.
Unlike many recent protests calling for major changes in police use of force and demanding criminal charges against officers, Sunday’s action was more of a healing ceremony. Already, protesters and a hunger strike by five activists effectively contributed to Mayor Ed Lee’s decision this month to ask for Police Chief Greg Suhr’s resignation.
Camarena called it the “River of Sorrows” after Mission Dolores Creek, which runs under what is now 18th Street. She compared the creek, now hidden out of sight except for a few places like in the basements of the Armory and Mission High School, to the flood of suffering of those who experience loss, poverty, displacement, and police use of force. The walk from one shooting site to the next further emphasized the metaphor.
“With everything going on, it felt like it was a way to honor Luis, but also to have the families walk together,” Camarena said.
Children rode their scooters or were carried by their parents. A mandolin player led some in the procession in songs. Refugio Nieto, father of police shooting victim Alex Nieto, told the story of the dog his son had left behind, Lil’ Mama – and how he rechristened her, more appropriately in his estimation, “La Gorda,” or Fatty. He thanked supporters and Gongora’s family for joining him again.
“This process will be long, it will take lots of time, but here we are” Refugio Nieto told a group gathered at Bernal Heights Park, where his son had been killed.
At the end of the two-and-a-half-mile procession, and a noon mass at Mission Dolores Basilica, more of Gongora’s family members awaited the group with a Yucatecan feast, with masses of slow-cooked pork known as cochinita pibil as a centerpiece.
“When this happened, I thought we were alone,” Luis Poot Pat said. “At the beginning we didn’t have help from anyone…my family, now, is you all.”