A group of some 40 community members, activists, friends and family of police shooting victim Alex Nieto on Tuesday gathered around a makeshift memorial on a slope leading up Bernal Hill – a tarp strewn over a pile of rocks. A photo of Nieto smiling was imprinted on the tarp.
That memorial will soon be replaced with a bench marking the spot where 28-year-old Nieto was shot some 59 times by four San Francisco police officers on March 21, 2014.
“This is the first time in California history that there will be a memorial for a person killed by the police,” said Benjamin Bac Sierra, one of the principal advocates for Nieto over the three-year struggle for justice and police accountability. “This right here is for us, for the people. It’s for the family, community and future generations.”
On December 13, the Board of Supervisors voted 9-1 to direct the Recreation and Parks Department to install a permanent memorial at the site. “That means the ordinance is veto proof from the mayor. It’s because of us being there with constant pressure, constant love,” he said.
The victory prompted those involved and supportive of that fight to trek up the hill in celebration.
“That is an acknowledgement of Mr. and Mrs. Nieto…their struggle for justice for their son,” said Maria Cristina Gutierrez, an educator and one of five activists who led a 17-day hunger strike in front of Mission police station in March, calling for the ousting of then-Police Chief Greg Suhr.
The strike was prompted by Nieto’s death and three more police shootings in the Mission and the Bayview that followed – Amilcar Perez Lopez, Mario Woods, and Luis Gongora Pat.
Suhr eventually resigned when Jessica Williams, a Bayview resident, was shot by police just weeks after the hunger strike ended.
“This memorial is above and beyond Woods and Nieto…it’s about protecting our children, the next generation, our grandchildren,” said Gutierrez, adding that her grandson is half black and half Latino. “I cannot go to bed peacefully, ever, always thinking something will happen to my grandson.”
Others involved in the struggle said the memorial was but a band-aid placed over a wound that remains.
“There is a wound in this place where there used to be ceremony, focus, prayer – and act of violence was committed here,” said Nancy Pili Hernandez, a muralist and youth advocate. “This community has a big hole in it where Alex would be.”
Still, Pili Hernandez called the city’s sanction of the memorial a “win.”
“The bench will provide us a space to chant in his name. This is a place to tell his story,” she said.
Standing next to Nieto’s father, Refugio, who is monolingual, Bac Sierra thanked their community for the years of support and for advocating for justice despite setbacks.
The organizing in the name of his son was “medicine,” said Bac Sierra, in the words of Nieto’s father. His wish, said Bac Sierra, is for the bench to become a place “visited by tourists and students,” to learn about Nieto’s story and the community’s response to loss and trauma caused by police violence.
“He would like an image of Alex [on the memorial] wearing the clothes he had on when he was killed – a red jacket and a black San Francisco baseball hat,” said Bac Sierra.
The activists declared that their fight is not over. “This is momentum building – not so much for us anymore, but for the other cases,” said Bac Sierra.
A jury in a civil trial exonerated the four police officers from wrongdoing earlier this year. Criminal charges have not been filed against any of the officers involved in the four police shootings that followed Nieto’s death.
“This is us putting everything out there and keeping it in the public eye. They can’t hide or skirt away from the real issues,” he said.
One of those issues is holding officers accountable for misconduct. Earlier this month, the Office of CItizen Complaints sustained a complaint against one of the officers involved in Nieto’s shooting, Roger Morse, for making inappropriate comments on social media in reference to Nieto.
Morse may now subject to disciplinary action, but Nieto’s community had a clear and resounding message for the San Francisco Police Department’s newly selected chief, William Scott: “Fire Officer Morse,” they yelled, as the sun set over Bernal Hill.