Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Community groups demanding reform of the San Francisco Police Department and city government declined on Thursday to accept their awards from the San Francisco Human Rights Commission.

At least half of the 16 the coalitions slated to receive the award – those recognized for organizing against police brutality – walked out of the City Hall chamber mid-ceremony. Many called the award “insulting.”

The annual award seeks to “honor communities organizing for justice,” and this year recognized police brutality and racial injustices as human rights concerns in San Francisco.

“There’s been a lot of pain in all of our communities,” said Susan Christian, the commission’s chair, adding that the point of the award was to “acknowledge and celebrate the role of advocacy for justice” while moving along the “fight for equality.”

Since 2014, 12 black and Latino men have been killed in police shootings. Benjamin Bac Sierra, a leader in the Amor for Alex Nieto Coalition, a group of family, friends, and Mission community members that organized after the 2014 police shooting of Alex Nieto, called the award a “sham.”

“The city should be ashamed of itself for offering us these [awards],” said Bac Sierra, repeating the demand for criminal prosecution of the officers involved in the recent shootings.

So far, no charges have been brought against any of the officers involved, and a jury recently ruled that the officers who shot Nieto did not use excessive force.

“The [District Attorney] has not charged a single officer. We are up against a rigged system that favors the police and dismisses the stories of our young people,” said Richard Smith, a vicar at a Mission District church and primary advocate for Amilcar Perez Lopez, who was shot and killed by officers in 2016. The Justice For Amilcar group was also presented with the award, and initially accepted, but had planned to return the award during public comment.

The 2016 deaths of Luis Gongora Pat, a homeless man living in the Mission District, and Jessica Williams Nelson, a Bayview resident, led to the formation of two more coalitions demanding that the officers involved face criminal charges. These groups were also selected to win Hero Awards from the Commission and also declined them.

“I don’t want any award, I want justice for my cousin,” said Luis Poot Pat, Gongora’s cousin.

Luis Poot Pat addresses protesters on the steps of City Hall. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

Even before the ceremony for the Hero Awards, many of the local organizers voiced their dismay.

“The irony is palpable [in that] the Human Rights Commission is giving an award to [these] groups, which validates that SFPD is committing human rights violations,” said Edwin Lindo, one of five activists who called for the ouster of the then-police chief Greg Suhr or Mayor Ed Lee by undergoing a 17-day hunger strike in April. “We will feel rewarded when [the] HRC finds [the police department] in violation of human rights.”

Many of the activists present at Thursday’s ceremony called the eight-member commission “toothless” and pointed to the irony of being rewarded by a government body whose members are appointed by Mayor Ed Lee. Many activists hold the mayor partly responsible for police shootings.

“All of these coalitions are basically doing the work that [the commission] should have done and didn’t,” said Chiedza Kundidzora, a member of the Frisco 500, a group that grew out of the hunger strike.

That group was formed at City Hall in early May, said Kundidzora, after sheriff’s deputies clashed with protesters during a Frisco Five march to the mayor’s office, arresting 33 and allegedly injuring several, including four journalists.

“[The commission] invited the Frisco 500 back to the building where I had my ribs broken by a sheriff for fighting police brutality,” Kundidzora said. “I don’t know if there is anything more ironic than that.”

Although the meeting room was packed to capacity, the ceremony was orderly as a total of 26 students, individuals, and organizations were distinguished one-by-one for their achievements in areas like violence prevention, youth services, and working towards economic and racial justice.

The plan was upended, however, when organizers of Amor for Alex Nieto accepted their certificate touting signs that read “Jail Killer Cops” and activists for the Justice for Mario Woods Coalition refused to accept their award. Instead, they addressed the Commission, interrupting the ceremony despite instructions to save their speeches for public comment once all awards were handed out.

“We are not here to accept an award,” said Daniel Muhammad, a member of the coalition. Instead, Muhammad said his coalition had come to express their disappointment with the Commission, which “up to today has not taken any position on the execution of Mario Woods, Alex Nieto, Amilcar Lopez, Jessica Williams Nelson, and the many more” killed by the police.

Some of the groups awarded by the Human Rights Commission tore up their certificats in protest. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

After the walkout, the coalitions gathered on the building’s front steps, where members of the Frisco 500 conducted an awards ceremony of their own.

Community organizer Christina “Krea” Gomez held up a piece of paper that “honored” Mayor Lee with the “Iconic Villain” award.

District Attorney George Gascon, Police Commission President Suzy Loftus, and the Police Officers Association were also among the faux-award recipients – their paper certificates were printed on top of portraits of the men and women that have been killed by police.

“We want folks to remember that [their job] is to fight for these people,” said Gomez. 

Benjamin Bac Sierra, of Amor for Alex Nieto Coalition, addresses protesters and reporters on the steps of City Hall. The group is calling for a permanent memorial for the man, who was shot by police in 2014 on top of Bernal Hill. Photo by Lola M. Chavez
Protesters shamed politicians and police officials for a string of recent police shootings in San Francisco. Photo by Lola M. Chavez
Protesters created a memorial on the steps of city hall with photographs of the men and women who have been shot by police in recent years. Photo by Lola M. Chavez

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  1. After reading texts exchanged in recent months btwn Father Richard Smith and corrupt DA Gascon, who has no indicted a single killer cop, I believe he’s served as a buffer for the DA.

    In his texts, Smith kowtows to Gascon and writes about how he’s keeping a lid on the anger of the activists. In some texts, Smith indicates he’s a mouthpiece for the DA’s office.

    I’ve posted their texts and ask that folks read them, then ask if it’s time to go around Smith and that sustained pressure must be brought on the DA to indict killer cops.