Ladies and gentlemen: Brooke Jenkins has left the building.
On Thursday night, the District Attorney debate at San Francisco State University took a strange turn when dozens of activists interrupted the event to protest against appointed incumbent DA Jenkins, leading her to walk off the stage and not return. The young activists, led by Black San Francisco State students, denounced Jenkins for her decision not to prioritize the criminal trials of San Francisco Police officers who had shot and killed civilians, and her move to prosecute some minors as adults in specific circumstances.
After Jenkins’ exit, the debate resumed with candidates John Hamasaki, Joe Alioto Veronese and Jenkins’ empty chair.
One protester, Balto, said he demonstrated in solidarity with his friend Keita O’Neil, who was shot dead by San Francisco Police Officer Chris Samayoa five years ago. Samayoa faces criminal manslaughter charges, but O’Neil’s family has accused Jenkins of putting off the trial until after November’s election — after which the matter may be dropped.
“She’s trying to prosecute minors at 16 or 17. She’s also tried to dismantle the Innocence Project, which has been really a big concern,” Balto continued while neatly folding up a banner that called Jenkins a “killer.”
Thursday’s debate was organized by Project Rebound, a San Francisco State program that helps formerly incarcerated people enroll in college. The plan coming in was to ask DA candidates questions about youth, mental health and the criminal justice system.
The moderator had directed the second question of the evening to Jenkins, asking her to explain her controversial decision to pull veteran Judge Anthony Kline from juvenile cases over allegations of bias, as reported by The San Francisco Chronicle.
“Sometimes we have to make very tough strategic decisions based on the need to promote more public safety,” Jenkins replied.
Those would be her last public words of the night.
By then, everyone listening to the debate inside Jack Adams Hall could hear the faint chants wafting from outside. At first, no one budged; it’s not uncommon to find demonstrators heckling candidates, especially regarding the hot-button District Attorney races this year. Ousted former DA Chesa Boudin, Jenkins, and other candidates have learned to power through forums as their critics show up outside and yell taunts through loudspeakers and bang on windows. Just prior to the debate, Project Rebound asked that no one bring signs into the auditorium or interrupt.
That did not stop Thursday night’s protesters, who climbed up the stairs wielding banners reading “Reimagine our future!” and chanting loudly. The debate organizers watched, stunned. As the sound grew, the debate’s moderator, Gaia the Empress, and the hundreds of audience members started eyeing the door instead of the stage. Attempting to maintain composure, the moderator asked Hamasaki how he would have dealt with Judge Kline.
“I’m sorry, can you repeat it?” Hamasaki said distractedly, watching along with the rest of the spectators as the room slowly filled with protesters. Their shouts were unmistakable then: “Sean Moore, Keita O’Neil, Sean Moore, Keita O’Neil.”
“I said, would you please explain how you would handle this situation?” the moderator pressed.
“Well…” Hamasaki said. He needn’t finish.
Soon, nearly 100 protesters stood at the foot of the debate stage, chanting Moore and O’Neil’s name over and over. The chants referred to Sean Moore, an unarmed Black man who was shot in 2017 by San Francisco Police Officer Kenneth Cha, and died of his injuries in 2020.
Prosecuting cops — or not prosecuting them — is another weighty issue for November’s DA race. In 2020, Boudin made headlines for criminally prosecuting an on-duty officer for the first time in city history when he filed felony homicide and manslaughter charges against Samayoa, the rookie cop who shot and killed O’Neil. Boudin made the practice a priority, and charged Cha with manslaughter, too.
After Samayoa’s trial was delayed this summer and Boudin was recalled, O’Neil’s supporters worried a new district attorney would further delay the trial.
After the protesters arrived, the district attorney candidates got up from their seats and lingered, trying to wait it out. Project Rebound executive director Jason Bell took the stage and teetered between encouraging the youth — “I guess the people have spoken” — and telling them to quit it. Everyone on stage looked at each other, unsure what to do. Eventually, Jenkins went backstage and did not return.
“Listen, Brooke is gone, it’s over,” Bell told the activists. “You’re going to do this till you’re hoarse?”
“We don’t have a mic, you dumbass,” a young man in a beanie yelled back.
And then they did. The protesters, who witnesses said consisted of a women’s coalition and anti-police group F12 members and Black and Brown San Francisco State students, climbed on the stage and faced the audience with their signs. One woman took the microphone and delivered an impassioned speech. “Those closest to those experiencing the problem are the best to identify the solutions. We don’t work for you, we work to support the youth,” she said. “One way to improve accountability to the community is to honor our demands.”
The protesters left soon after, along with at least a quarter of the original audience.
“Hella disconnected from the culture,” one protester said to Bell, shaking his head on his way out.
Bell announced the debate would continue with Veronese and Hamasaki, highlighting the need for dialogue. A new moderator took the stage, questioning the candidates in a defeated tone about Collaborative Courts and immigration; the audience appeared checked out as well. Contrarily, Veronese and Hamasaki appeared jubilant over their competitor’s departure, and didn’t pass up any opportunities to bring it up in the forum.
“That’s what you’re seeing with these young kids; people stepping up,” Veronese said, beaming. “You need to look at who’s on stage here, and those who are not on stage.”
“I’m not going to run out the back door if you have issues with me; that’s what being a responsible leader is,” Hamasaki said. “If you’re a leader, you can take the criticism. You can take the heat.”
The remaining spectators, who came to listen to the dialogue, had mixed reactions to the debate. Lisa, a longtime resident dressed in a pale button down, said she “loved” the demonstration; how else will people take them seriously? “They have no choice,” she said. However her friend was frustrated, saying that he wouldn’t know Jenkins’ answers to the remaining questions.
Bell, the debate organizer, agreed. “I understand the space they come from. The pain, the anger,” he said. Bell himself was formerly incarcerated. He even recognized one protester as a participant in an Education and Empowerment program his organization runs at a county jail. “DA’s said vicious things against us,” Bell said. “We wanted to ask questions in a whole different light.”
Project Rebound did get to cap the night with one topical question: Would the candidates pursue criminal charges against officers? “Yes or no, no nuance,” she stressed. Hamasaki and Veronese said yes. Jenkins wasn’t there to answer the question.