Members of a prayer circle in front of City Hall hold hands on Wednesday evening. Photo by Laura Wenus

Religious organizations in San Francisco and Oakland continue to organize small but persistent actions to express their support for police reform and dismay at police shootings. Two consecutive vigils were held Wednesday evening to commemorate police shooting victims and call for action from city officials.

Father Richard Smith of St. John the Evangelist church on 15th Street, along with some 30 supporters, stood in front of Mission Police Station to demand that District Attorney George Gascón bring criminal charges against the officers who shot Amilcar Perez Lopez in 2015.

Since hunger strikers left the encampment there at the end of last week, police have erected barricades in front of the station.

The vigil is the fifth consecutive weekly event of its kind. Smith and other supporters, many from his church but some from other activist groups, had also been organizing monthly “night walks” from the church to the station to keep Perez Lopez’ death in the public eye.

Gascón’s office is expected to make a decision on charging the officers in the coming two weeks. Police shot Perez Lopez to death nearly a year ago, but recently two witnesses to the shooting, who spoke with Mission Local immediately after the shooting,  were convinced to come forward and give statements to investigators. Previously the two witnesses, who are undocumented, feared coming forward.

Smith’s church, in affiliation with an organization named Faith in Action, is one of many spiritual organizations that have added their voices to the movement toward reform and accountability in the police department. The Archdiocese of San Francisco has also held several prayer ceremonies to honor the victims of a variety of violent deaths on San Francisco streets.

A small altar honoring victims of police shootings and the hunger strikers known as the Frisco Five set up in front of City Hall. Photo by Laura Wenus
Refugio and Elvira Nieto, the parents of 2014 police shooting victim Alex Nieto, stand at a vigil for Amilcar Perez Lopez in front of Mission Station. Photo by Laura Wenus

In another show of support on Wednesday evening, religious leaders arranged for a prayer circle of some 18 people to meet in front of City Hall and honor the Frisco Five hunger strikers and recent police shooting victims. Participants of the prayer circle said a group of Buddhists had demonstratively meditated in front of City Hall the evening prior, also in protest of police use of force.

“I’m here because as a person of faith it is not okay with my god for me to be silent,” said Vanessa Riles, an organizer with the faith based activism group Second Acts. “Five people went hungry for justice and the mayor and chief of police allowed them to starve until they were in the hospital.”

Both vigils, though organized by practicing Christians, were diverse in their representation of faiths – many at Wednesday’s prayer circle said they did not adhere to any particular religion, or drew from teachings in Buddhism or other traditions.

Gerardo Marin, for example, is an Aztec dancer and one of several people who attended both vigils. As members of the prayer circle spoke in front of City Hall, with only some addressing a deity, Marin coaxed deep, haunting tones from a shell horn he sounded in the four cardinal directions. He said he attended the vigil in part as a healing for himself to express his gratitude that his friend and hunger striker Edwin Lindo had ended and survived his strike.

Healing was a theme shared across the vigils.

“We pray for healing, healing and wellness and wholeness for those who gave up their food,” Riles prayed.

Reverend Harry Louis Williams II told a story of his encounter with NYPD officers in which he said officers drove up onto the curb and exited their car with guns drawn, then kicked and searched Williams.

“That was an awakening for me,” he told the circle. “We have seen so much suffering…it seems that people don’t care in power.”

“My neighbors’ blood is on my hands. I know that my salvation comes with collective liberation,” prayed Alex Haider-Winnett, a student at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.

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