I participated in the “Stop Murder by Police” demonstration in San Francisco on Tuesday, April 14. People demonstrated in many cities nationwide on Tuesday in a coordinated effort to stop American police officers’ unjustified violence against our black and Latino neighbors and family members.
Our rally began at Mission Street and 24th Street, in the center of the Mission District. We were about 300 people. Most were local high school and college students. The stated goal of the demonstration was to shut down parts of the city to encourage San Franciscans to pay attention to the frequent murders that reporters for major news outlets have only recently begun to cover.
The family of Alejandro Nieto stood silently holding a banner, while a relative told us about his death on March 21, 2014, at the hands of four SFPD police officers. After the shooting, the policemen said that Nieto had pointed a Taser at them. Nieto worked as a security guard, and so was licensed to carry a Taser. According to an article in the SFGate, the medical examiner reported that Nieto had struggled with mental illness since at least 2011. The officers, however, never claimed that he fired at them or even moved toward them. They found it necessary to subdue him with 59 bullets. The police chief accepted the officers’ account of the shooting. The officers were not put on trial. We will never know whether or not Nieto pointed a Taser at the officers. A Taser, though, is a non-lethal weapon. Should a police officer be presumed to have the authority to fire a pistol at an adversary who is pointing only a Taser?
Michael Lerner spoke, encouraging us all to put aside bitterness and proceed with a loving spirit to overcome racism and stereotyping. As I walked, I met a young unicyclist who believed that the killing of his uncle last year by SF police officers had been unjustified. He had cut off his dreadlocks in mourning. He said that the news, every month or so, of yet another unjustified police killing kept jarring him and his relatives. It made it hard for them to recover.
People who had brought amplified megaphones shared them. We heard from other marchers who had lost a son, a sister, and friends in unjustified shootings by SFPD police officers.
We stopped in front of the Mission District police station, chanting and sharing stories. I expected that after 15 or 20 minutes, an officer would come out to move us along. Instead, a dozen officers came out wearing riot helmets, brandishing three-foot long clubs. They formed a line parallel to the building and, wordlessly, began stepping forward. Here they fulfilled every stereotype of a police force intending to intimidate, prepared to deliver beatings, and uninterested in conversation. Were they frightened by teenagers? Was it the black girls in “Black Student Union” t-shirts from John O’Connell High School? If the police chief has no feel for getting along with the communities his department serves, he should at least hire public relations trainers, so that his officers can fake it.
When we reached City Hall, Alex Nieto’s family and most of the young people went inside. I expect that they did briefly halt our civil servants’ work on the first floor. I was hoping that we were going to march into the Financial District. City Hall clerks have less influence over city policy than the managers of San Francisco’s Fortune 500 companies–McKesson, Wells Fargo, PG&E Corporation, Gap, URS Corporation, and Charles Schwab–who enjoy sparkling views from those office towers. I didn’t speak up, though, to the people at the very front of march.
Will the news coverage and our political work change our police departments? Will we end the “War on Drugs” that gives police officers perverse incentives to find pretexts to stop tens of thousands of black and Latino people to fulfill arrest quotas? Will we find a way to handle real criminals more sensibly than with incarceration? What will it take to uproot American’s racism and throw it far away forever?
It will take lots more people, lots more marching, lots more education, lots more politicking.
My thanks to all the organizers who came together from different groups and points of view, including members of the Revolutionary Communist Party (who still, remarkably, believe in scientific Marxism), Cornel West and his buddies, the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, the National Lawyers Guild (who sent a legal observer), and, especially, all the wonderful, optimistic, and energetic young people.