Push To Fire Chief of SFPD Continues As Hunger Strike Enters Day 15
Three of the Frisco5, Ike Pinkston, Maria Cristina Gutierrez and Edwin Lindo as they approach San Francisco's City Hall flanked by supporters
"We won," said Maria Cristina Gutierrez, from the steps of San Francisco's city hall on Tuesday afternoon. Gutierrez, her fellow hunger strikers, the Frisco 5 (Ilyich "Equipto" Sato, Sellassie Blackwell, Ike Pinkston, and Edwin Lindo) and nearly one thousand fellow San Franciscans embarked on a march to Mayor Ed Lee's office to demand the firing of police Chief Greg Suhr, leader of a department rife with racism and responsible for the executions of four San Franciscans in two years. Though the mayor, who had been made aware of the march, was at a meeting across town, the Frisco 5 and their followers proceeded to the Board of Supervisors meeting where they used public comment to demand their elected officials stand with them and resolve to fire the chief.
"This is the beginning of the struggle on so many fronts," asserted Gutierrez at the end of a long day of protest and nearly the end of the second week of starvation in the name of ending police violence and the long arm of over-gentrification. Citing the efforts by Gandhi and Cesar Chavez, Gutierrez says she was moved to hunger strike following the death of Luis Gongora, an immigrant from Yucatan who recently lost his housing and was living homeless on Shotwell Street until he was shot 11 times for allegedly brandishing a knife. Witness accounts of the killing varied widely though one certainty is that once again, it doesn't look good for SFPD who in a two-year period killed four men. Alex Nieto in March of 2014 was shot 59 times when police mistook his taser (he was employed as a security guard) for a gun. Not quite one year later, Guatemalan immigrant Amilcar Perez-Lopez was shot six times in the back. Mario Woods was shot 20 times in December and the incident was caught on video in its entirety. The April 7 shooting of Góngora was the event that prompted Gutierrez to say, "No more," taking matters into her own hands.
A native of Colombia and a San Francisco resident for over 40 years, Gutierrez is the executive director of the Compañeros del Barrio pre-school in the Mission District. When it was announced she would wage a hunger strike, her son, Equipto, a teacher at the school, vowed to join her. Last year, Equipto a hip hop recording artist, became involved in the cause to oust Mayor Lee somewhat accidentally when a run-in caught on video caused him to declare the mayor "a disgrace to Asian people." On Tuesday, Equipto's father Art Sato, known to the Bay Area as a jazz DJ on Pacifica radio station KPFA, stood on the steps of City Hall, and extolled a bit on Equipto's political education. Born in a concentration camp during World War II, Sato also referred to Lee's term as a "disgrace," and the SFPD texting scandal involving Asian officers, while underscoring the importance of Asians becoming involved in the fight for racial justice. He noted that Asians 4 Black Lives were holding things down at 17th and Valencia in the protesters absence. Sato who said he is normally a very reserved and private person added, "This strike has taught me a lot. To be a little less private, and to express my pride for my son."
Also in attendance were Refugio and Elvira Nieto, parents of Alex Nieto, who just weeks after a judgment clearing the officers who killed their son, are still on the frontlines for justice. Gwendolyn Woods, mother of Mario Woods, was there; she awaits the results of the Department of Justice's probe into her son's death at the hands of SFPD, while the officers who shot Woods immediately returned to their jobs. Overseeing the proceedings on the steps of City Hall comedian and activist Yayne Abeba passed the mic to singers and activists, including poet Tony Robles who read his piece, "It Took A Hunger Strike." Speaker Larry Dorsey poked holes in the idea of the Bay Area as a progressive bastion. "San Francisco is so racist, it thinks that racism doesn't exist," he said.
"People say San Francisco isn't Ferguson, it's not Baltimore. It's not. It's worse," hunger striker Edwin Lindo told AJ+ last week. The police violence that sparked uprisings in those cities were based on years of police abuse culminating in the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray but here in San Francisco, the high profile cases of the last two years, are fairly damning evidence that time for police reform is long overdue. Lindo who intends to run for the District 9 seat on the Board to be vacated by David Campos in the fall told me it was the book The Radical King by Dr. Cornel West that inspired him to join the hunger strikers. Ike Pinkston, who works at the school with Gutierrez, is also a friend of Equipto's as is hip hop artist Sellassie. All of the Frisco 5 have been aided by close friends, family, and community members during their fight, which at this point in addition to seeing the firing of Chief Suhr is about staying alive. Volunteer student medics from UCSF, have been attending to the hunger strikers though were not at liberty to disclose information about their health. However one of the medics assured me that though everyone is concerned about the well-being of the protesters, they are being closely monitored and hydration is of top concern. For nearly two weeks now, the strikers have subsisted on a liquid diet of water, coconut water, broth, and ginger tea. (By Wednesday afternoon, Bay Area journalist Davey D broke the news that Blackwell had been taken to UCSF medical center; he has since returned to the occupation at SFPD's Mission Station).
"I don't want to die. I want to go home, eat some good food… " said Gutierrez, pausing at the thought of food. "We have to be willing to give our lives to this, for our children," she said. Inspired by the sight of so many Black and Brown faces working in solidarity, she said she would proudly wear her new nickname "Mama" of the movement for police reform. "They will never divide us again."
DJ Art Sato, father of hunger striker Ilyich "Equipto" Sato, speaks in defense of his son and Asians 4 Black Lives and against Mayor Ed Lee
As of Friday afternoon, the Frisco 5 were hospitalized so their weakened conditions could be more closely monitored.
By evening a group of citizens dubbed the Frisco 500 had occupied City Hall, chanting their one demand, to fire Chief Suhr. By 10 PM, the sheriff's department and riot police began to forcibly clear journalists and protesters from the building, resulting in arrests and injuries in the double digits. Organizers of the movement to end police violence have called for a general strike in the City of San Francisco on Monday, May 9.
Denise Sullivan is the author of Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop. She writes from San Francisco on gentrification and the arts.