The five hunger strikers who have gone without food for 15 days to call for the firing of the city’s police chief spoke with the mayor for the first time on Thursday during a five-minute phone conversation.
During the talk, the strikers reiterated their demands that Police Chief Greg Suhr be fired, while Mayor Ed Lee held fast in his support for the chief.
“We said ‘Are you gonna fire Chief Suhr?’ and he said ‘No, we’re not gonna do that,’ ” said Edwin Lindo, one of the hunger strikers and a candidate for supervisor for District 9. “We said ‘Well, then our blood is on your hands,’ and he said ‘Well, that’s your choice.’ ”
“I told him from the gate that we don’t want to talk about reforms,” said Equipto, a hunger striker and rapper whose birth name is Ilych Sato.
Equipto took the lead in the conversation and asked Lee whether he would “hold a press conference tomorrow for the public of San Francisco and say that Chief Suhr is fired,” which Lee refused to do.
“He was saying ‘He’s a good chief, I stand behind him, they’ve made progress,’ ” said Lindo, who added that the mayor said Suhr is “doing a good job” in comparison to “chiefs around the country.”
“We said that’s absurd, you’re defending a person who’s allowing a police department to go with impunity, to not hold people accountable,” Lindo said.
The strikers then repeated their demand before the call ended.
“We said one more time ‘Are you gonna fire Chief Suhr?’ and he said ‘No’ and we just hung up,” Equipto said.
The group has been camped outside of the Mission District police station since April 21 to call for the firing of the police chief. The fatal police shooting of 45-year-old homeless man Luis Gongora in the Mission District in April and a series of other police shootings prompted the hunger strike.
On Monday, Mayor Lee visited the Mission District police station and tried to meet with the strikers, who rejected the meeting because he came unannounced in what they called an “ambush.” The strikers said they would instead meet with the mayor the following day, after a planned march to City Hall.
More than 800 people marched alongside the hunger strikers — who were pushed in wheelchairs — from the police station to city hall on Tuesday, though the group failed to meet the mayor. Strikers did engage in a heated back-and-forth with city supervisors during the weekly Board of Supervisors meeting, however.
Christine Falvey, the spokesperson for the mayor, said the mayor called the group to talk about current efforts at reform of the police department. The mayor initially left a message that the group then returned.
“Mayor Lee contacted the group today to let them know that he respects their right to protest, but hopes they will do so in a way that doesn’t harm themselves,” Falvey wrote in an email.
Falvey pointed to an ongoing “top to bottom” review of the police department by the Department of Justice — which many activists have called toothless — and said the mayor hoped to speak with the strikers about current efforts under way to change the department.
“He let the group know that reforming the police department is bigger than any one chief,” she wrote.
The strikers said the mayor expressed no such concern for their health.
“He never asked ‘How are you guys doing?’ Nothing,” said Maria Cristina Gutierrez, another hunger striker and the 66-year-old mother of Equipto. “In reality we’re winning. He’s a coward, but we’re winning. We’re going to continue the hunger strike.”
“I had to mention [our health],” said Equipto. “He never asked once about our health or what’s going on. His response was just ‘You guys are allowed to do what you want to do, and I hope you take care of yourselves.’ ”
Hunger striker Ike Pinkston, a preschool teacher who works with Gutierrez at Compañeros del Barrio, said the phone call went as expected. Pinkston knew the mayor would not fire the chief, but was still incredulous that Suhr has managed to keep his job throughout the ordeal.
“I can’t believe this dude thinks it’s okay for the chief to have his job when you have a thousand people marching through San Francisco,” he said. “It’s not just the five of us. If everybody felt safe, it would’ve been like 13 people marching.”
The strikers are at an impasse. Now that the meeting with the mayor has occurred and Lee held fast in his support for Suhr, the group has no demands other than the sacking of the police chief — an act that some say would not fundamentally change the department.
Supervisor David Campos — who represents the Mission District — said during Tuesday’s action at City Hall that firing Suhr would accomplish little and that changing the police department required systemic reform.
“We need to change the entire system. It’s not just about who the chief of police is, it’s about how this department sees itself,” he said then.
Lindo, though, said the city would not continue on its current path. Supporters already shouted down police commissioners and the chief at a meeting on Wednesday night and delayed a conversation on use-of-force into the late hours, and Lindo hinted such events could become commonplace.
“This city will not operate business as usual, period,” said Lindo, though he was mum on specifics and said the strikers themselves have no plans for disruption. They will continue to stay camped in front of the police station without food, Lindo said. “As you can tell, we’re here, we don’t leave.”