San Franciscans Go On Hunger Strike Against Police Chief

“I’ve reached 48 hours now. After the 24-hour mark, you kind of get over the pain of hunger. We get distracted, kind of, with the people that are visiting. We’re trying to stay dry. It was raining last night,” Edwin Lindo told ThinkProgress by phone Friday morning. “I’m hanging in there.”

Lindo is one of six hunger strikers currently sitting in front of the Mission Police Station in San Francisco, alongside local rapper Equipto, preschool teacher Maria Cristina Gutierrez, local resident Ike Pinkston, and two others. Lindo, who is also running for District 9 supervisor, is one of the four people who initiated the action on Wednesday in protest of Police Chief Greg Suhr, the embattled leader of the San Francisco Police Department.

Under Suhr’s leadership there’s bee a spate of fatal police shootings of residents of color, including Mario Woods, Alex Nieto, and Amilcar Perez-Lopez. Last year, racist and homophobic text exchanges between officers were made public, and similar messages were revealed earlier this month.

Activists believe Suhr has failed to discipline the officers and allowed police violence to remain the status quo. In addition to Suhr’s resignation, they want the community to have a hand in vetting prospective officers and holding cops accountable. Lindo, Gutierrez, Pinkson, and Equipto wanted to take drastic action, seeing no other way to get the city leadership’s attention.

“Hundreds of people throughout the night [were coming] back and forth, dropping off blankets, water, tea, sleeping bags, chairs,” Lindo said of the strike thus far, police sirens blaring behind him. “It’s been a huge community outpouring of people just coming [and] sitting with us. We had 20 people staying until 2 in the morning with us.”

Ever since Woods’ shooting, black and brown San Franciscans have joined forces in an unprecedented way to fight police brutality in their neighborhoods, namely the Mission and Bay View. In recent months, residents have rallied outside of City Hall, circulated petitions, issued demands for justice, and worked to build a strong coalition of invested community members to bolster the movement.

The strikers wanted to ramp up those efforts.

“I knew that something radical needed to be done,” Gutierrez told Mission Local. “We march, we go to meetings, they don’t care. They keep on going like nothing.”
Although police brutality in San Francisco is a systemic issue involving countless perpetrators, the group is targeting Suhr specifically for routinely failing to hold his officers accountable.

Following Woods’ shooting and early calls for Suhr to resign, the chief and Mayor Ed Lee announced police reforms in February. As in other parts of the country, policy changes include de-escalation, firearms and implicit bias training, as well as the creation of an oversight body called the Bureau of Professional Standards and Principled Policing. Every patrol car will be stocked with batons and helmets.

“This comprehensive package of police reforms will help our sworn officers strengthen their ties with the community and keep our city safe through a cultural change in how we handle conflicts on our streets,” the mayor said at a news conference.

Based on Lee and Suhr’s response to the strike, Lindo thinks that’s an empty promise.

“He hasn’t responded to us at all. The mayor hasn’t stopped by,” he said. Members of the press informed the strikers that everyone in the leaders’ offices is aware of what’s going on. When KTLX asked Lee to comment, he responded that the strikers could send him an email or letter about their grievances.

“The dismissive attitude, the belief, in his eyes, that this is somehow not serious and not real shows, very blatantly, how he views and feels about this situation,” Lindo said. “We literally have folks that are tired or fatigued. Someone almost passed out as they were walking. This is serious.”

Mission residents, on the other hand, have flocked to the police station to lend their support out of necessity.

“It’s gotten to a point where people are fed up, having seen what’s happening around the country, having seen what’s happening locally,” Lindo said. “What the community is saying is we’re not gonna take it anymore. We can’t allow another killing, because it’s already been four in the past year and a half and they’ve all been people of color.”

Born and raised in Bernal Heights, a section of the Mission, Lindo noted that his personal fear of the police extends all the way back to his teenage years. When he was 17 years old, he was with a group of six other friends — all boys of color — who were targeted by police for simply standing in front of a bank.

“They swing the doors open, come out, and tell us to sit on the curb and that we have to show them our ID, tell them why we’re there, where we plan to go, and what we were doing,” he said. “[The officer] said, ‘Well, you’re lucky because I could charge you with loitering as a gang and it would become a federal offense, because you’re doing it in front of a bank.’ This has been the culture and the nature of SFPD through my entire experience. They will find things, or they’ll make it up.”

Similar encounters occur all the time, and the community is mobilizing to stop them from worse incidents in the future. And minorities in the city, particularly black and Latino residents, are making sure to find common ground in their fight. When Woods, a black man, was killed, activists with the Justice for Alex Nieto Coalition banded with the Woods supporters — and momentum has picked up since.

“The African American population has been choked out of this city. It’s less than 3 percent of the population. Just in the past 10 years we’ve lost 10,000 Latinos from the Mission alone,” Lindo said, pointing to additional struggles the two groups groups share besides police brutality: unemployment, poor education, and gentrification in their neighborhoods.

“Historically I believe the police, the schools, [and] the systems of government have purposefully disenfranchised these communities and relegate them to different corners of any metropolitan city… In San Francisco we’ve realized our unity is where our strength in organizing and the change is going to come from. We have to be honest with ourselves.”

The strikers are willing to forgo food to inspire change in the city. And Lindo anticipates that the group of strikers will grow, because college and graduate students nearby pledged to join the strike.

“We have no choice but to stand together. We need to link arms,” he said. “This is a coalition that says we can’t divide among ourselves. We hope to set an example for the rest of the country, because our struggles are synonymous.”

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