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How Militarized Police Are Turning American Communities Into War Zones, Death by Death

When it comes to people of color, the police make San Francisco “Baghdad by the Bay.”

By Rebecca Gordon
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.

Eric Garner Protest 4th December 2014, Manhattan, NYC.
(Photo by The All-Nite Images)
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 onvideo. 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 theAxis 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 awrongful 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.

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