A group of Mission District-based activists — freshly enraged by District Attorney George Gascón’s recent decision not to file charges against officers involved in two controversial police shootings — shut down a blue ribbon panel organized to talk about police accountability.
The panel included the dean of UC Berkeley’s Law School, Erwin Chemerinsky, and Commander Peter Walsh from the SFPD.
The scene in the basement of Grace Cathedral Wednesday evening was as ironic as it was tragic: Police accountability activists shut down a meeting aimed at spreading the message of greater police accountability.
When Gascón introduced himself, the audience, which sat through the earlier introductions, erupted. “Asesino!” 15 to 20 activists shouted and successfully heckled Gascón off the stage. After he and the other panelists walked off the stage, the protesters recited the names of more than two dozen other men and women who had been shot and killed by the SFPD. “Presente!” they yelled after each name.
The point of the panel was to discuss police use of force and a potential state law that could make it easier for prosecutors to bring cases against officers involved in controversial shootings.
The activists, however, were determined to make their point that Gascón had not fulfilled his duty as the city’s top prosecutor when he declined to indict the officers who fatally shot Mario Woods and Luis Gongora Pat — incidents that prompted enormous public outcry and a federal review of the San Francisco Police Department.
The protest came despite pleas by the event’s moderator, San Francisco Bar Association Executive Director Yolanda Jackson, to allow the meeting to proceed in what panelists and audience members saw as a constructive form of civic engagement and progress on the issue.
“Trust me when I say I am here to talk about things that can legally change the problem,” she said, standing alone on the stage, mainly speaking to the protesters. “I’m going to ask you to be open-minded. Your yelling is not going to change what has happened up until this point.”
“If you’re here, that means you must want to hear something,” she continued.
“I want to hear Gascón’s resignation!” one of the activists responded.
After Jackson asked the demonstrators to leave — and after they made it clear that was not going to happen — Jackson gave up and ended the event. “It looks like this program will not work,” she said, exasperated.
The audience, which included Public Defenders Jeff Adachi and Matt Gonzalez — as well as lawyers, law students, and others interested in police reform — were then herded out.
Among them was Father Richard Smith, a Mission-based police reform advocate. He did not partake in the disruption but understood the protesters’ motivation. “Unfortunately the organizers of the event were completely out of touch with the amount of pain and anger in the community right now — especially in the wake of the decision Gascón made about Mario Woods and Luis Gongora Pat,” he said. “That was not the right time to have a rational conversation.”
“People have an open wound here,” he continued. “And [the organizers] are jabbing a stick at it.”
He said he — and, perhaps, the protesters as well — recognized that the law prevented Gascón from prosecuting the officers involved in the shootings. But he wanted Gascón to engage in what he termed “faithful disobedience … where you recognize the law is not adequate to the human situation.”
Sometimes, he continued, “you have to go against the law for the sake of humanity.”
Police shootings are, to put it mildly, very difficult to prosecute. A district attorney, like Gascón, must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an officer did not use force “reasonably” when defending themselves or others. That burden of proof relies heavily on an officer’s perception of the danger.
Gascón in May said he had insufficient evidence to charge the five officers who fatally shot Woods and the two officers that shot and killed Gongora Pat for that precise reason.
Adachi derided the decision, saying that “citizens are charged with crimes every day despite prosecutors being unable to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Nevertheless, the planned topic for the evening was AB 931, California legislation that would change the law so that police would only be allowed to use deadly force when there are no other reasonable alternatives — essentially, only when force is absolutely necessary.
Up against powerful law enforcement lobby, the law passed unanimously on the Assembly floor on May 11, a few weeks before Gascón — an AB 931 supporter — made his decision not to charge the officers.
The legislation, now being amended in the Senate, was introduced by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, and Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego. Weber was scheduled to speak at Wednesday’s event.
Rapper Equipto (Ilych Sato), a member of the Frisco 5 hunger strikers and among the loudest of the protesters Wednesday evening, said he understood this panel could have been beneficial for audience members and the community, but he also wanted audience members to understand the community’s efforts and frustrations.
“That’s why I tell the people in the crowd, if you have a concern with the use-of-force topic, then get involved with the community,” he said. “We’re at 850 Bryant every day.”
Outside the cathedral, defense attorney and police reform advocate Frank Z. Leidman said he had come to watch the panel, as he has been involved in advocating for AB 931, as well as the SFPD reform effort. Still, he understood why the evening transpired as it did.
“There’s pain,” he said. “And we have to respect that pain.”