Turning American Communities Into War Zones, Death By Death
In the photo, five of Beyoncé’s leather-clad, black-bereted dancers raise their fists in a Black Power salute. The woman in the middle holds a hand-lettered sign up for the camera, bearing three words and a number: “Justice 4 Mario Woods.” Behind them, the crowd at Levi's Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, is getting ready for the second half of Super Bowl 50, but the game’s real fireworks are already over.
The women in the photo had just finished backing Beyoncé’s homage to the Black Panthers and Malcolm X during her incandescent halftime appearance, when two San Francisco Bay Area Black Lives Matter activists managed to grab a few words with them. Rheema Emy Calloway and Ronnisha Johnson asked if they’d make a quick video demanding justice for Mario Woods. “From the look on the faces of the dancers, they’d already heard about the case,” Calloway told the Guardian.
Who was Mario Woods and why did Calloway and Johnson want the world to know that his life mattered? The answer: on December 2, 2015, Mario Woods was executed in broad daylight by officers of the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) and the event was filmed.
Woods was a 26-year-old African American, born and raised in San Francisco’s Bayview district, one of the city’s few remaining largely black neighborhoods. (In 1980, right before I moved to San Francisco, African Americans made up almost 13% of the city’s population. Today, the figure is around 6% and shrinking.) Woods died when police attempted to arrest him because they believed that, earlier in the day, he had stabbed another man in the arm. Like many victims of police violence, Woods had mental health problems. Indeed, his autopsy’s toxicology report showed that, when he died, his system contained a powerful mix of medications (both prescribed and self-administered) including anti-depressants, speed, and marijuana.
But it was the way he died that brought Mario Woods a brief bit of posthumous notoreity. His death was, like Beyoncé’s dancers, captured on video. A crowd of people watched as what CNN described as “a sea of police officers” surrounded Woods and shot him dead. At least two people recorded cell-phone videos of what looks eerily like an execution by firing squad.
Woods, his back to a wall, one leg injured from earlier rounds of non-lethal projectiles, attempts to limp past the half-circle of police. Arms at his sides, he sidles along, until an officer blocks his way and opens fire. Three seconds and at least 20 shots later, he lies in a heap on the sidewalk. Police said he was carrying a knife, although this is not at all clear from the video. One thing is clear, however: Woods was not threatening anyone when he was gunned down.
From Hippies to Hipsters -- Policing the City of Love
San Francisco is known around the world for its gentle vibe, its Left Coast politics, its live-and-let-live approach to other people’s lifestyles -- except when it comes to the police. For many of them, “live and let live” does not seem to apply to everyone, especially not to communities of color, and in the not-too-distant past to LGBT folk either. I remember, for instance, the infamous October 6, 1989, “Castro Sweep,” when police responded to a nonviolent Act Up demonstration for AIDS funding by occupying an entire gay neighborhood called “the Castro” (for its main commercial street). They ran into bars and restaurants, dragging patrons out to the sidewalks and beating them with truncheons.
I was working some blocks away at the headquarters of the “Yes on S” campaign, supporting what now seems like a quaint ballot measure (which failed) aimed at creating domestic partnerships in the City of Love. A bleeding man came stumbling into our office shouting that the police were rioting in the Castro. For once, the SFPD had gone too far and the city ended up paying out $250,000 (a pittance even then) to settle a class action suit by the victims. A couple of police captains were finally disciplined, but Chief of Police Frank Jordan was not penalized at all and went on to serve as mayor from 1992 to 1996. The Castro Sweep might hold a bigger place in the city’s memory and history, had the Loma Prieta earthquake not shaken San Francisco 11 days later.
Once a mostly white department -- at whom demonstrators used to chant, “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, SFPD go away!” -- the city’s police force is now significantly more diverse. Today, women, people of color, and open LGBT folk all wear the blue, but a hard core of the old guard remains. With them remains a still-dominant culture of sexism, homophobia, racism, and impunity. In 2015, a series of text messages involving at least 10 different SFPD members came to light during a corruption case against one of them, Ian Fruminger. Sent between 2010 and 2012, these messages revealed just how ugly the attitudes of that hard core are -- and how entitled they seem to feel to end the lives of people they believe deserve it.
Here’s a sample: Fruminger texted a friend who was an SFPD officer, "I hate to tell you this but my wife [sic] friend is over with their kids and her husband is black! If [sic] is an Attorney but should I be worried?"
He wrote back: "Get ur pocket gun. Keep it available in case the monkey returns to his roots. Its [sic] not against the law to put an animal down."
Furminger responded, "Well said!"
When the city moved to fire the officers involved, a judge ruled that the police department had missed a legal deadline for disciplinary action.
Not the First Time
Mario Woods was hardly the first man shot by the police in my adopted hometown. In fact, in the last couple of years two such killings happened in my neighborhood.
Alejandro “Alex” Nieto died on Bernal Heights. It’s a hilltop near my house where people go to run, often with their dogs, and take in glorious views of the city that San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen used to call “Baghdad by the Bay” to emphasize its exotic character, long before Iraq became part of the Axis of Evil. Alex Nieto, a community college student who made his living working as a security guard, came from the largely Latino and immigrant-populated Mission District.
On the night of March 21, 2014, Nieto sat on a bench on Bernal Heights to eat a burrito before going to work. On his hip was the taser he carried on the job. An anonymous call to 911 reported a man sitting in the park with a gun on his hip and the SFPD responded.
In January 2016, his parents, Refugio and Elvira Nieto, would finally file a wrongful death suit against Chief of Police Greg Suhr, up to 25 as-yet-unidentified police officers, and the city and county of San Francisco. The suit alleges that as their son, having finished his burrito, was “casually” walking down a jogging path towards the park entrance, the police arrived. Two officers took cover behind a patrol car, while several others, carrying what witnesses said looked like rifles, took up positions behind Nieto. One of the officers behind the police car, yelled, “Stop.” Here, in the words of the suit, is what happened next:
“Within seconds a quick volley of bullets were fired at Mr. Nieto. No additional orders or any other verbal communication was heard between the first Officer yelling 'stop' and the initial volley of gunfire that rang out. Mr. Nieto fell to the ground. After a brief pause of just a second or two, a second barrage of shots were fired. The Officers’ bullets struck Mr. Nieto in his forehead and at least nine other places leaving his body grossly disfigured and mortally wounded.”
The police claimed that Nieto pointed his taser at them and they had to kill him. But eyewitnesses say that he never threatened anyone. Instead, as Sergeant Furminger might have expressed it, those police officers evidently decided to “put him down” like a dangerous animal. The SFPD has never even released the names of those involved in Nieto’s death. (In the civil suit, they are referred to as John Doe 1 through 25.) As far as anyone knows, none of them have ever been disciplined in any way. Alex Nieto’s parents continue to tend a little shrine on Bernal Heights where he died.
The Death of Amilcar Perez Lopez
On February 26, 2015, a few blocks from my house, two undercover police officers shot Amilcar Perez Lopez, a 20-year-old Guatemalan man, six times in the back. The Mission District Episcopal church I belong to helped raise money for his family. As the members of my church community would come to understand from them, he was working in the United States without documents, the sole support for his parents and younger siblings back home in Guatemala. Through his efforts, he’d sent them enough money to bring electricity and running water to their thatched roof adobe house.
On the day he died, he was involved in some kind of altercation with a man who may have accused him of stealing his bicycle. After that ended, according to the civil suit his parents brought against the city, he was walking home along Folsom Street when accosted by those undercover police officers, named in the suit as Craig Tiffe and Eric Riboli. The two “surreptitiously rushed at Amilcar from behind.” One of them got him in a “bear hug.” Amilcar spoke very little English. It’s likely he had no idea that they were police officers. In any case, he managed to get free and started running down the sidewalk. That’s when they shot him.
The official police story was that he lunged at them with a knife and the officers had to shoot him to save their own lives. And that story might have stuck, had the family’s attorney not commissioned a private autopsy, which was performed by Dr. A. J. Chapman, a forensic pathologist in Santa Rosa, California. The city had already done its own autopsy when Dr. Chapman received Amilcar’s body, but had issued no report. Chapman found that Amilcar had taken six shots in the back, five to the torso and right arm, and one to the back of his head. If he was shot while attacking the two officers, why did the bullets strike him from behind?
It took the city’s Medical Examiner’s Office five months to release its autopsy, which ultimately concluded the same thing. What might that report have said if activists had not arranged for a private, unbiased report? There’s no way to know.
Public Servants or Occupying Army?
In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, many white people woke up to a reality that was hardly news in most communities of color where death-by-police is all too common. What’s new is that the rest of us are suddenly hearing about the Eric Garners, Freddie Grays, and Sandra Blands who die literally every day in this country.
The rest of the U.S. is beginning to understand what the police already represent to so many communities from Ferguson to Baltimore to Waller County, Texas, to -- yes -- San Francisco. Far from seeing the police as a source of help and protection, many Americans feel the same way about them as people living under corrupt authoritarian regimes feel about their police or armies. They see them as an occupying force, not there to protect and serve but to frighten and extort.
Many Americans are not used to thinking of our police as agents of extortion, but a recent Justice Department (DOJ) report on the police and the municipal courts of Ferguson, for instance, tells a different story. The department found that “City officials have consistently set maximizing revenue as the priority for Ferguson’s law enforcement activity. Ferguson generates a significant and increasing amount of revenue from the enforcement of code provisions.” The Harvard Law Review reported that in 2013, Ferguson issued more arrest warrants than the city has residents -- one and a half for every citizen. The report adds:
”In Ferguson, residents who fall behind on fines and don’t appear in court after a warrant is issued for their arrest (or arrive in court after the courtroom doors close, which often happens just five minutes after the session is set to start for the day) are charged an additional $120 to $130 fine, along with a $50 fee for a new arrest warrant and 56 cents for each mile that police drive to serve it. Once arrested, everyone who can’t pay their fines or post bail (which is usually set to equal the amount of their total debt) is imprisoned until the next court session (which happens three days a month). Anyone who is imprisoned is charged $30 to $60 a night by the jail.”
After the Justice Department released the report, the city spent six months negotiating with the DOJ on a complete overhaul of its police and courts. But when Ferguson’s own negotiators brought this proposed “consent decree” to the city council, the council members rejected it. So now the Justice Department has announced that it will sue Ferguson to force it to make changes that the city insists will cost too much. “There is no cost for constitutional policing,” says Attorney General Loretta Lynch. She’s right. What she didn’t say, because she shouldn’t have to, is that the costs of unconstitutional policing include ravaged communities and a divided nation.
In many places it’s hard to get information about what goes on inside police forces because a thicket of laws protects them. In California, a 1978 law, signed by Jerry Brown in his first go-round as governor, makes it almost impossible to learn anything about the individual police officers involved in the deaths of Alex Nieto and Amilcar Perez Lopez, or whether their records reflect significant prior complaints or charges. The Modesto Bee reports that under this law:
“peace officer personnel records are confidential, including personal data, promotion, appraisal and discipline records, and ‘any other information the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.’ Only a judge can order their release as part of a criminal case or lawsuit.”
This makes it difficult, for example, to know whether a particular officer has a record of brutality complaints, or indeed whether a whole police department has such a record. Civil rights attorney and former justice of the California Supreme Court Cruz Reynoso told the Bee that citizens seeking information about police killings face “a wall of silence.”
Here in San Francisco, we might finally shake some of that information loose. In January, the Board of Supervisors responded to organized grassroots pressure by voting unanimously to request a Department of Justice review of the police department. We can only hope that when the DOJ releases its report on San Francisco’s police, my city will respond better than Ferguson did. We need more than a thorough housecleaning at the SFPD, starting at the top with Police Chief Greg Suhr. The whole community, indeed the whole country, would do well to rethink why we have police and what we really want them to do. Not shooting so many people might be a good place to start.
Maybe Herb Caen was more prescient than he knew when he called San Francisco Baghdad by the Bay. Maybe we should not be surprised when police forces claim impunity for crimes they commit against the communities of color they “serve.” They’re only doing on a small scale what the United States does on the international stage -- when it claims the right to bomb, invade, and occupy foreign countries, without accepting any responsibility for the human misery that results.
Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches in the Philosophy department at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States and the forthcoming American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes (Hot Books, April 2016).
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Copyright 2016 Rebecca Gordon. Reprinted with permission.