“Shamann fucked up.”
There, in three words, is a longtime Black San Franciscan’s terse summation of a June 24 incident in which Board President Shamann Walton and a Sheriff’s Department cadet working security at City Hall engaged in an angry, early morning back-and-forth.
Walton, displeased at the cadet asking him to remove his belt — and claiming a history of being singled out by this cadet, Emare Butler, which Butler denies — lit into him. An extended verbal back-and-forth ensued — and, an eyewitness tells us, Butler “was giving as good as he got.” Walton does not deny that, during the exchange, he used the word n****r, or one of its variants, to express his displeasure. Both he and Butler are Black men.
The board president subsequently called in Undersheriff Joseph Engler to report the incident. A writeup from Engler notes that he admonished Walton for his language, spoke to the cadet and, essentially, that was that. A Human Resources report administratively closed the file and life went on.
One month later, the story was leaked to the press and it was front-page news — on multiple days and multiple outlets’ front pages. And it’s not going away: Butler said he is appealing HR’s ruling. Mayor London Breed weighed in, stating that Walton owes Butler an apology. And Walton’s “racist” behavior has been latched onto by partisan actors; fervent backers of embattled school board member Ann Hsu have wielded it to deflect from Hsu’s written statements, in which she claimed that “one of the biggest challenges” facing Black and brown children is “lack of family support” and “lack of parental encouragement to focus on learning.”
This interaction between two Black people has been reported and analyzed — and, now, weaponized — by almost exclusively non-Black people. For the city’s dwindling Black population, even those with little patience or sympathy for Walton, this is galling.
“It’s important for you to acknowledge up front that the translation of this conversation is happening through white people’s lenses and understanding,” a Black San Francisco native tells me.
“I have no interest in defending or absolving Shamann of his tone and words,” she continues. “His hostility, for lack of a better word, is unacceptable. But, to me, it’s that this is being caught up in so many other racialized conversations — that makes it a bigger thing.” The Walton situation, she says, is being exploited to “fan the flames between Black and Chinese people in San Francisco. And that’s what no one is talking about.”
“To pretend this is equivalent to the Asian school principal saying ‘n****r’ or the Asian school board member saying Black people come from bad households? That’s very transparently partisan,” says Bay Area political writer Darrell Owens, a Black man who grew up in East Oakland. “When you’re a supervisor, to dress someone down like that is not okay. I don’t care what the issue is. But this is a conversation among Black folks. It’s not a racial issue, and the people making it one are part of the problem.”
“It’s very transparent how bad racial strife in San Francisco has gotten.”
When it comes to L’affaire Walton, “I only care what Black people think about this,” summed up a longtime Black San Franciscan.
With that in mind, I reached out to more than 20 Black men and women — old, middle-aged and young, most all of them San Franciscans, many of them current or former city workers. Some spoke on the record and some did not. Walton and Breed are on hostile terms, and not everyone desired to step between them.
Regardless, they had a lot to say.
“It doesn’t bother me. Because Shamann is my n***a,” sums up filmmaker Kevin Epps, who produced and directed “Straight Outta Hunters Point” in 2003. “I don’t even know who the other Black dude is. He might be one of my n***as, too.”
“In the context of that conversation between two Black people, I don’t see the racism,” Epps continues. “There are a lot of layers in that word. A lot of complexity.”
And, in some ways, what went down between Walton and Butler was complicated. But in some ways, it wasn’t. While it has been reported, now nationwide, that Walton “berated” Butler, there was apparently more to the interaction than that. The eyewitness we tracked down, who worked on the first floor of City Hall and was heading out to get a cup of coffee when the confrontation took place, described a minutes-long, heated back-and-forth. Butler, as noted above, purportedly gave as good as he got.
“I was struck by how disrespectful the officer was being toward President Walton,” the witness recalls. “After it happened, I told the person I was getting coffee with, ‘I just saw a cop yell at President Walton.’ … I hold law enforcement to a different standard.”
That’s fair. But Butler isn’t a cop. Or law enforcement. Sheriff’s cadets do not have peace officer powers. They do not carry guns. And Walton was being disrespectful, too. The president of the Board of Supervisors initiated a loud public argument, in which he has admitted to using wildly inappropriate language, with a cadet doing building security.
“If we take Shamann at face value, he was feeling debased. And that’s why he reached for that word which has been used as a cudgel to debase us by white people,” said a longtime Black San Francisco political observer. “But you’re in City Hall! You’re at work! You’re the president of the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco, California! If something happens to the mayor, you’re next in line to lead our city! You have to manage yourself, period.”
Multiple media outlets on Friday published surveillance videos of the encounter obtained via public records request. More videos are forthcoming, but sources familiar with City Hall security measures told Mission Local that public cameras do not record audio — and, clearly, audio is the most vital factor here.
So, just what was said may never be revealed — not by the Zapruder-level public footage, anyway. It may never be clear just how Walton used the terms he used, nor if he threatened to whup Butler’s ass, as the cadet claims.
That allegation, incidentally, was not included on Undersheriff Engler’s contemporaneous report.
Walton has stated that the Sheriff’s Department has long had it in for him, due to oversight legislation he successfully passed. And, while he has claimed that the interaction between himself and Butler was not as “colorful and salacious” as the narrative reported in the press, he has declined repeated requests to explain how.
“My statement is what I am providing,” he texted to me.
And yet, in conversations with his City Hall colleagues, the salaciousness gap in Walton’s narrative and the version printed in the papers seems to hinge on just how the word “n****r” was used (it is not clear if Walton used the term “n****r” or “n***a” — a number of Black people stressed to me that there is a distinction, and the former would be taken as a far more grievous insult).
In conversations with his colleagues, Walton has stated that he used the word generally and self-directed it — as in, why are you treating me like a n****r? — but did not call Butler by this epithet.
This does not appear to be Butler’s recollection, as a parsing of Engler’s report reveals.
In the report, Engler states that Walton admitted to describing the onerousness of being made to remove his belt — and, it seems, his perception that he was being singled out — as “some N-word shit.” Butler also recalled Walton using the term “N-word shit.”
The term both men claim Walton said simply means “some petty, low-class, beneath-me stuff,” said James L. Taylor, a University of San Francisco political science professor with a focus on religious, racial and ethnic history.
Butler, meanwhile, told Engler that Walton said “It is N-words like you that looks like me that is always the problem.”
The phrase Butler claims Walton used — which directed the epithet at Butler — is more complicated. “Shamann was talking to him like that because he recognized him as a Black man behind a badge [whom he perceived as] giving him a hard time,” says Owens.
Here’s Taylor’s read: “One of us is wrong and one of us is right. One of us is authentic and one of us is fake. One is a real Black man and the other is not a legitimate Black man in terms of commitments to the Black community.”
So, there’s a lot going on here. Walton’s use of this language is not the same as if it were used by his non-Black colleagues, let alone shouted from a pickup truck decorated with Confederate flags and Truck Nutz. But even if it isn’t racist, it’s still insulting.
“It’s rude and disrespectful, no matter what color you are,” Butler told the San Francisco Standard.
No Black person I spoke with felt this is the kind of language Butler should endure at work. “There is a power dynamic here,” said a longtime Black city worker. “If I am your supervisor or if I am an official, I cannot use that word. Because we ain’t boys.”
Nobody, a longtime Black city resident tells me, would be entitled to address him like this at the office: “I don’t care if it’s Morgan Freeman.”
And the courts agree (although Morgan Freeman was not involved).
In 2000, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals found in favor of former jail guard Odis Ross, who had sued his erstwhile employer, Douglas County, Nebraska. Ross was belittled by his former supervisor, Larry Johnson, who repeatedly called him “n****r” and “black boy” and referred to Ross’ white wife as “whitey.”
Both Johnson and Ross were Black. The duration and severity of the issues in the Ross case would seem to far exceed the reported goings-on in San Francisco but, yes, a Black person can create a hostile work environment via racial language for a fellow Black person.
Black City Hall workers I talked to, meanwhile, are disappointed that this situation has been reduced to an interaction between Walton and Butler. A number of them say they’ve long felt more heavily scrutinized by building security than their non-Black counterparts (though none mentioned Butler). Several told me they’ve ceased entering City Hall through the front door, and instead come in via the loading dock, because it’s less likely they’ll be subjected to “extra ‘precautionary’ steps.” That’d be taking off belts. That’d even be taking off shoes. That’d be taking off your belt and shoes while a non-Black person, wearing a belt and shoes, is whisked through.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin told the Chronicle that never, in 22 years, had he been made to remove his belt by security. “And I set off the metal detector — not often, but every fucking time, because I have metal in both of my hips,” he tells Mission Local.
One day after the Chronicle article, he says, he was wanded and made to remove his belt. The sheriff’s deputies, it seems, read the paper.
“As a Black person who works at City Hall, have I been harassed by sheriffs? Yes,” says a veteran city worker. “When I walked through the Goodlett side or, when it was open, the Van Ness side, did this happen to me? Yes. The beeps go off, and they make you keep taking things off until you don’t beep anymore. Those standards are not consistently applied. You do see people walking in ahead of you subjected to a different screening standard.”
“The behavior Shamann is describing is not unheard of. Whether he handled the encounter properly…” he lets his voice trail off.
So that’s frustrating. As is the use of Walton’s situation to deflect from Ann Hsu’s woes. That rankles, even for Black San Franciscans irritated by Walton’s behavior.
“To me, it’s a totally different conversation,” says a longtime Black city employee who accused Walton of “grasping at straws” to “back himself out of a corner.”
“One is a hostile work environment issue. The other is someone who is supposed to be overseeing education for children who does not have respect for her customers.” Conflating these two issues is “cynical and lazy.”
But that’s how San Francisco rolls. Every situation is rife for hacks and partisans to exploit to score short-term points.
“My big takeaway from all this is, I’m disgusted by the types of people, especially in the San Francisco moderate camp, who have been willing to weaponize these race wars for political ends,” sums up Owens. “There is an unwillingness to understand how Black people live in San Francisco … There doesn’t seem to be any empathy for Black people living in the worst neighborhoods and having no economic or institutional power. And, it turns out that, when one SFUSD official does talk about it, what does she do? Blame our families. Blame our culture.”
“To be Black in San Francisco is to be very lonely.”
Additional reporting by Eleni Balakrishnan.