A protest outside of San Francisco City Hall kicked off early Monday morning with more than 100 picketers marching around the building while dozens of others congregated near the main entrance, which was barricaded and guarded by a dozen sheriff’s deputies.
The action — called in support of the so-called Frisco Five hunger strikers, who camped in front of the Mission District police station for 17 days without food to protest police shootings and call for the firing of Police Chief Greg Suhr — was the first in a planned 17 days of protest in support of the hunger strikers, one action for each day the strikers didn’t eat.
“We plan to circle around the entire building. We will do a perpetual motion, all against police killings, brutality, and police racism,” said Benjamin Bac Sierra, a lead organizer with the Justice for Alex Nieto Coalition. Bac Sierra said the tactic of a general strike was the latest in a line of strategies — including a federal trial for the Nieto case and various complaints with the Office of Citizen’s Complaints, the city’s police watchdog — that have failed to produce results.
“All of us here today have given up our job, our schooling for the day,” he said. “We have promised not to eat or purchase things at corporate retail stores. Since they don’t value our lives, we are going to hurt them in their pockets.”
— Mission Local (@MLNow) May 9, 2016
Though the action involved groups like White Coats for Black Lives and various coalitions formed in support of police shooting victims, there were no labor unions involved and no groups with large memberships. A general strike usually involves a significant portion of the labor community of a city and halts private businesses, city agencies, transit, and other entities.
Instead, picketers marched in front of City Hall chanting “Fire Chief Suhr” and “No justice, no peace, no racist police,” saying they would be joined by “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of people in marching around the building all day. They often broke out into song or drew with chalk in front of the building in between bouts of picketing.
Some supporters brought water bottles, while others set up a poster screen printing table, printing patterns that read “Stop SFPD, Solidarity w/Frisco 500!!!” and “It’s time for warriors to rise.”
By early afternoon, the front of City Hall had an almost festive atmosphere, with people handing out balloons and ribbons and others seated in lawn chairs or playing ukuleles.
The picket followed a spate of violence at City Hall on Friday night in which sheriff’s deputies struck protesters with batons and manhandled at least four journalists, leaving some of them injured. Thirty-three people were arrested when they disobeyed dispersal orders to leave the building and deputies moved against the crowds, forcing them out of the door.
On Monday, protesters joined the picket throughout the morning, growing it from an initial 40 picketers to more than 80 by 9:45 a.m. Dozens of individualized signs called for the firing of Chief Suhr and expressed solidarity with the victims of fatal police shootings, namely Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez-Lopez, Mario Woods, and Luis Gongora.
Refugio and Elvira Nieto — parents of police shooting victim Alex Nieto, who was shot and killed in Bernal Heights in 2014 — joined the picket line and said such actions bring together different communities in the city.
“It’s very important to do this because it brings various people together,” said Refugio. Both have been regular sights at rallies in support of the hunger strikers and against police shootings, and said the non-violent nature of the action was crucial. “Everything is done with respect.”
James Sword, a native San Francisco resident, said he was disappointed more people “from all walks of life” don’t become involved in such actions.
“I think it’s important for everyone, whether it’s for one hour, eight hours, or 17 days to show solidarity with those whose lives are being taken away,” said Sword. He singled-out newcomers and said they tend to be “apathetic” and “don’t have the time to think about society.”
— Mission Local (@MLNow) May 9, 2016
— Joe Rivano Barros (@jrivanob) May 9, 2016
A contingent of some dozen medical students with the student-led organization White Coats for Black Lives joined the picket line early on. Members of the organization have been involved in the hunger strike throughout, providing medical assistance and pushing the hunger strikers in their wheelchairs during last week’s 800-strong march to City Hall.
Students said the issue of police shootings is a matter of public health.
“The violence against individuals, especially individuals in this community, is a public health issue,” said Walid Ashneik, a first-year medical student at the University of California at San Francisco. Ashneik said a disproportionate number of the trauma patients admitted to the university hospital were black and brown, a face he said put responsibility on the shoulders of doctors. “I think physicians in this community should respond.”
Dean Preston, executive director of tenants group Tenants Together and a candidate for District 5 supervisor, said such actions help push the needle on much-needed police reform.
“It draws attention to the problem,” Preston said. “[Police shootings] occur, they’re in a news cycle, and then they’re gone. This forces people to pay attention.”
Preston said he was “disappointed” that not more city supervisors have supported the hunger strikers in their call for the firing of the police chief, a position he supports. Firing the chief would send a message to the rank and file, Preston said, and is an issue of accountability for the department.
“When you have a department with the number of scandals and police shootings that Chief Suhr has presided over, it’s a matter of accountability,” he said.
By 9:30 a.m., protesters moved to Van Ness Avenue and began a second picket line there that grew to more than 30 people chanting “The people, united, will never be divided” and “Si se puede.” Sheriff’s deputies there guarded the City Hall entrance, but it was not barricaded off like the entrance on the other side of the building.
At 11:30 a.m., the two picket lines began marching around the entire building together, accompanied by drummers and more chants. Some 90 people marched around City Hall while another 30 stayed near the main entrance, sitting on the lawn and chatting.
Inside, dozens of sheriff’s deputies could be seen in the basement, guarding entrances to the building and sitting in staging rooms. Many wore riot helmets, carried batons, and had zip ties on their belts.
By 2 p.m., more than 100 people had marched around City Hall 18 times — one for each day the hunger strikers went without solid food, counting the day after they ended their strike — before taking a break and resting on the outside lawn. A little while later, a smaller group began picketing outside the building again, listening to music as they walked in circles before the City Hall steps.
By 5 p.m., the planned conclusion of the action, protesters ended their picket but stayed on site, collecting posters and mingling on the lawn in front of City Hall.