San Francisco’s Black Community Demands Justice for Mario Woods
Hundreds of people packed into San Francisco City Hall on Wednesday evening, with scores more gathering on the steps outside the building, to demand justice for a young black man shot dead by police last week in the city’s Bayview district.
Activists and other residents, mostly representing San Francisco’s dwindling black community, spoke out against police brutality and injustice during a heated Police Commission meeting Wednesday evening. Some of those who spoke were related to Woods or had suffered through their own tragedies due to police violence.
“Don’t fire [the officers who shot Woods], jail them,” pleaded an emotional Danny Garcia, whose brother Mark Garcia died in SFPD custody in a 1996 case in which Chief Greg Suhr, the target of much of Wednesday’s ire, was named in a wrongful death lawsuit. “In my brother’s case, they got away with murder. Don’t let them get away with this murder.”
“Why did they shoot?” asked Shawn Richard, who leads the activist group Brother Against Guns. “There were a whole a range of things they could have done to defuse the situation before shooting.”
The room in which the meeting was held quickly reached capacity, with scores of often raucous people lining up and gathering outside within sight and earshot of Suhr and the commissioners. They chanted slogans like “Tell the truth, stop the lies, Mario Woods didn’t have to die,” “Fire Chief Suhr,” and “Black Lives Matter.” They also called on SFPD to release the names of the officers who shot Woods.
Etecia Brown, a Hunter’s Point resident and Last 3% of Black SF activist, released a list of demands on behalf of activist groups #BlackLivesMatter, #BlacknSF and #Last3Percent. These included an independent investigation into Woods’ death, identifying, firing and criminally charging the officers who shot Woods, the termination of Chief Suhr and an end to police abuse of mentally ill people.
“If we don’t protect each other and love each other, then one of our own gets murdered by state-sanctioned violence,” Brown said to a cheering crowd on the front steps of City Hall. “Mario died alone so it’s important that we show up for him and show out for him as a community to let him know his death was not in vain.”
Brown added that the fight against police brutality and racism in San Francisco was part of a wider struggle of “all oppressed people around the world, from Tibet to Palestine, who are being discriminated against and killed because of their black or darker skin.”
Also outside, Bayview resident Jason H., who did not want to give his full last name, stood face-to-face with an SFPD officer while holding a large green placard reading ‘STOP POLICE MURDERS.’ When asked why he was here, Jason pointed to a poster of Mario Woods and replied, “It’s gonna be somebody else on that picture next time. That’s why we gotta stand up.”
Jason said he thanked the officer for serving San Francisco. “Even they’re human,” he said of the police. “Not all cops are bad.”
Police said Mario Woods, 26, was armed with a knife and was a suspect in an earlier stabbing when he was cornered by a large group of SFPD officers in Bayview on the afternoon of December 2. Officers said Woods refused orders to drop the knife before at least five officers fired at least 15 shots, killing him. Chief Suhr said officers opened fire after Woods motioned toward one of them with the knife, but independent analysis suggests police shot the suspect before he extended his arm.
Witness smartphone videos of the incident quickly went viral, including one showing many shots fired after Woods had fallen to the ground.
Suhr called Woods’ death “a tragic loss” but added that his officers had no choice but to fire, and that “I really don’t know how much more you can make it plain to a wanted felon that he should drop the knife.”
The San Francisco Examiner reported Woods was one of at least 19 people killed by SFPD this century who had a knife or other bladed weapon when they were shot. Critics noted that police in other countries, notably Britain, are not so quick to resort to deadly force in the face of knife-wielding suspects, pointing to a viral video of British police subduing a crazed, machete-wielding suspect using shields. Neither the suspect nor officers appear to have been harmed.
Suhr has pledged to equip SFPD officers with shields and said the department would participate in a national de-escalation program. The chief argued during Wednesday’s meeting that Woods’ death could have been prevented if officers had been armed with Taser stun guns. However, the Police Commission has repeatedly rejected Tasers, arguing the stun guns are a lethal threat to people with heart problems and could be confused with handguns, as occurred in the case of Johannes Mehserle, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer who shot and killed Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old unarmed and restrained Oakland man, on New Year’s Day 2009.
Many in San Francisco’s black community said a discussion about what weapons police should use misses the point.
“You don’t need a shield, you need sense,” Amos Brown, president of the local NAACP, said at a Monday night meeting reported by the San Francisco Chronicle. “Not just Tasers, you need trust. And this community does not trust the police.”