A group of five wheelchair-bound hunger strikers and hundreds of their supporters marched from the Mission District to city hall on Tuesday hoping to meet Mayor Ed Lee and call on him to fire Police Chief Greg Suhr. The mayor, however, was elsewhere.
With a crowd of some 800 people supporters at city hall, some 100 went inside with the hunger strikers and congregated outside the mayor’s office, where Diana Oliva-Aroche, a mayoral aide, said the mayor would be unable to meet the protesters because he was in the Bayview.
That prompted scorn from Maria Cristina Gutierrez, 66, who said the aide — who is Latina — should be ashamed to “serve such an administration, the people that have been having our people murdered” because she is a person of color.
Christopher Muhammad, a minister with the Nation of Islam and an organizer with the Mario Woods Coalition, said the mayor should return to city hall and meet with the protesters.
“Why don’t you call the mayor, tell the mayor that the hunger strikers are at his door, since Bayview is only 10 minutes away, he can come here out of respect?” he said to loud applause.
Shortly before she left, Oliva-Aroche replied that she did not have the mayor’s phone number, which drew much criticism from the crowd as well as the strikers.
“How can you tell me that you don’t have your boss’ number?” Ike Pinkston, one of the five original hunger strikers camped out in front of Mission police station at 17th and Valencia streets since April 21, asked in disbelief.
Pinkston said that while he and the other four strikers did not think that Lee would get behind their demands of firing Chief Suhr on the spot, he did believe that the mayor would meet the strikers, who have been fasting for almost two weeks. “I thought that he at least would hear us out and that we could express to him how we feel. He’s a coward.”
The day before the protest, Lee attempted to meet with the protesters by coming to the Mission District police station unannounced, a move that drew scorn from strikers who said they would not meet him. Strikers said they would rather meet with Lee in city hall after their march.
“He’s got to do better than that slippery sliding act,” said Pinkston. “He wants to avoid the media and we know that this is why he pulled that stunt.”
As the doors to the mayor’s office remained shut, the hunger strikers then opted to address the Board of Supervisors, who were simultaneously in session. Flowing into the board’s meeting chambers, protesters shouted at supervisors and called them sellouts while the supervisors defended their record of police reform.
Supervisor David Campos, who represents the Mission District, and hunger striker Edwin Lindo, who is seeking to replace him, had a testy exchange.
“The idea that you fire Chief Suhr and that solves things, I’m sorry, that’s not what I believe,” said Campos to loud jeers from the crowd. “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.”
“David, we’re not stupid, we understand how policy works,” retorted Lindo, a former intern for the supervisor who is running against Campos’s current chief of staff, Hillary Ronen. “David, you never came to us, you never asked us what we were doing—”
“I came to you, I have come twice, and the difference is this, that I’m fighting for police reform ever since I got to San Francisco,” responded Campos. “Where have you been?”
“He’s been on hunger strike! He hasn’t eaten in 13 days!” shouted Benjamin Bac Sierra, an organizer with the Justice for Alex Nieto Coalition, as the crowd booed Campos.
— Mission Local (@MLNow) May 3, 2016
Hunger striker Sellassie Blackwell, standing up from his wheelchair and yelling at Campos, blamed him for not responding strongly enough to the police shootings in his district and said the strikers understood that firing the chief would not solve the police department’s systemic issues.
“We’re not idiots, we know that the police department needs reform,” he said. “But it’s a symbol for the people to get that racist piece of shit out of office.”
Speakers continued the back-and-forth with supervisors for some 30 minutes as the hunger strikers sat in their wheelchairs before the supervisors, sipping water and visibly exhausted. At 4:30 p.m., they were wheeled out as a few dozen protesters continued addressing the supervisors, calling for the firing of the police chief.
The Hunger Strikers
The five hunger strikers — known as the Frisco Five — have been going without solids for almost two weeks and say they’ll continue until the mayor fires Chief Suhr. The group drinks water, juices, chicken broth, and a daily dose of vitamins for sustenance and have had blood work and vitals monitored by different doctors.
The hunger strike was sparked by the fatal police shooting of 45-year-old homeless man Luis Gongora in the Mission District last month and a slew of other scandals, including the finding of racist text messages sent by police officers. They chose to stage the strike at Mission Station because three of the four most controversial recent police shootings have occurred in or near the neighborhood.
On Tuesday, Ilych Sato — a rapper and hunger striker better known by his stage name Equipto — said he was angry at the mayor for causing his mother to suffer. His mother — 66-year-old Maria Cristina Guiterrez — is also on hunger strike with him outside the police station.
“The more the mayor makes my mother upset, the angrier I get,” he said. “We are going there in wheelchairs to preserve our strength because we know that whether or not the meeting happens, the strike will continue.”
The crowd gathered outside of the station at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday. Police Captain Daniel Perea said officers would clear the roadways to city hall, before hunger strikers and their supporters addressed the crowd.
“We still believe that it’s possible to meet with Mayor Lee,” said Gutierrez. “Your strength has made us be able to go without eating. We are cleaning ourselves of the dirt and hate they have put on our community to murder our children.”
“I feel like we are being terrorized by the biggest gang in California,” said Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Anti-Police Terror Project.
The five hunger strikers were then put in wheelchairs and pushed by medical students from the University of California at San Francisco, who were there to monitor the strikers’ health.
“Our role as physicians in training is to support the overall health of the community,” said medical student Joshua Connor, who is a representative of the organization White Coats for Black Lives. “San Francisco is hurting and we are here to support the strikers in their physical health and in their movement.”
Connor and others pushed the five strikers throughout the entirety of the march, ensuring that they remained “hydrated and in good spirits.” Their supervisor, Dr. Rupa Marya, later addressed the Board of Supervisors at city hall, calling the combination of “racism, police violence, and impunity” a public health hazard in need of immediate attention.
“We have vaccinations for the flu, but there is no reliable public health data on police killings,” said Marya. “I urge you to see every police shooting as a public health issue. Police, like doctors, have lives in their hands.”
The march started northbound on Valencia Street and veered onto Mission Street near 1:30 p.m., headed towards city hall.
— Mission Local (@MLNow) May 3, 2016
— Doctor Popular (@DocPop) May 3, 2016
Chants of “Fire Chief Suhr” and “No justice, no peace” accompanied the crowd as it moved down Mission Street with a police escort. A human chain formed around the wheelchair-bound hunger strikers as protesters began chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!”
“I’m holding hands with people I’ve never met out of solidarity and to protect the Frisco Five,” said Mike Evans, who, by linking hands with other marchers, shielded the strikers as they were escorted down one of the city’s busiest streets. “This is the best day of San Francisco history.”
At city hall, the hundreds-strong march meet other protesters amassed in front of the city hall steps and grew to more than 800. Long lines of protesters created a walkway for the hunger strikers leading up to the front steps, where banners were held and the crowd continued to chant for the firing of the police chief.
— Mission Local (@MLNow) May 3, 2016
Outside city hall after the march, the five strikers addressed some 100 remaining supporters and pledged to continue without food until the chief loses his job. Gutierrez said the lack of action from the Board of Supervisors convinced her that the time for talking was over.
“They did not respond, so there will be no more negotiation, no more talking to these people, but only a constant struggle not only by those who are not going to eat, but all of those are who are going to follow the mayor…and tell him that he has to fire that chief of police,” she said.
— Joe Rivano Barros (@jrivanob) May 3, 2016