Hungry for Justice: Brave Black and Brown San Franciscans Attempt to Rein in its Rogue Police Department by Hunger Strike

The hunger strikers have had enough. They want change before another black or brown San Franciscan is killed by SFPD. They feel they have exhausted every avenue.
04/26/2016 06:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

2016-04-25-1461568036-2075018-13076945_10153782959460756_6319209911064698631_n.jpg
Ilyich "Equipto" Sato, his mother, Maria Cristina Gutierrez, and Ike Ali Pinkston announce their hunger strike in front of the San Francisco Police Department Mission Station, 630 Valencia, April 21, 2016 photo by Karen Fleshman

A group of black and brown native San Franciscans launched a hunger strike on April 21, 2016 demanding that Mayor Ed Lee fire San Francisco Police Department Chief Greg Suhr or resign.

Bay Area hiphop legend Ilyich "Equipto" Sato; his mother, Maria Cristina Gutierrez, director of Los Compañeros del Barrio Preschool; Edwin Lindo, candidate for Supervisor in District 9; political hip hop artist Sellassie; and child development professional Ike Ali Pinkston have pledged not to eat until Mayor Lee accedes to their demands. To date, Pinkston and Lindo have both passed out and received care and returned to the strike. Other protestors have joined them in support.

The hunger strikers sit and sleep in front of the Mission Police Station at 630 Valencia, a street that symbolizes the polarization of San Francisco, a city with a 3.4% unemployment rate where thousands sleep in the streets every night. A city that young white and Asian men move to from across the country and the world to earn six figure salaries while the San Francisco Police Department shoots and kills black and brown young men with impunity.

A Large and Growing Body of Evidence Shows SFPD is Out of Control

Since 2011, when Mayor Ed Lee appointed Greg Suhr to be chief of police, SFPD has killed 21 people, the most recent, Luis Demetrio Gongora Pat, on April 7, 2016.

2016-04-25-1461568422-9924515-12987144_10153758781325756_801418778805315772_n.jpg
San Francisco Police Department in front of protest of shooting of Luis Demetrio Gongora Pat at Mission Police Station April 7, 2016 by Liam McStravick

Coalitions have united to demand justice for Alex Nieto (shot 59 times on March 21, 2014), Amilcar Perez Lopez (shot 6 times in the back on February 26, 2015), and Mario Woods (shot 20 times on December 2, 2015).

SFPD officers routinely send racist and homophobic text messages mocking the community; and overpolice San Francisco's communities of color to the extent that the racial administration of justice in San Francisco is worse than Ferguson's.

Mayor Ed Lee's Calls for Moderate Reform Insufficient

Under mounting pressure, in February, 2016 Mayor Lee and SF Police Department Chief Greg Suhr invited the U.S. Department of Justice Community Oriented Police Services (COPS) office to "collaboratively review" SFPD. The review process will produce recommendations that are unenforceable.

Mayor Lee and the SF Police Commission proposed changes in use of force policies on February 22, 2016.

But the San Francisco Police Officers Association, SFPD's union, is intransigent, refusing to comply with the proposed policy and issuing its own proposed use of force policy on April 6, 2016.

Recognition that SFPD Requires Reform is Widespread

The Northern California American Civil Liberties Union has petitioned U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to launch a civil rights investigation, citing SFPD's history of distorting evidence, opacity, and violating its own rules.

District Attorney George Gascón, who himself previously served as Chief of SFPD, has called SFPD "systemically racist" and commissioned a Blue Ribbon Panel to investigate SFPD racism that has been met with stonewalling.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi has requested that California Attorney General Kamala Harris investigate SFPD racism.

2016-04-25-1461568756-2387316-13001191_10153767042820756_3893185042344073527_n.jpg
Public Defender Jeff Adachi, District Attorney George Gascón, Supervisor Malia Cohen, Supervisor David Campos, Supervisor John Avalos, Benjamin Bac Sierra of the Justice4AlexNieto Coalition, Father Richard Smith of the Justice4AmilcarPerezLopez Coalition, Northern California ACLU Senior Counsel Alan Schlosser, and Reverend Christopher Muhammad and Phelicia Jones of the Justice4MarioWoods Coalition call on California Attorney General Kamala Harris to investigate SFPD, April 13, 2016 at San Francisco City Hall, photo by Karen Fleshman

Attorney General Harris, who is running for U.S. Senate in the November 8, 2016 election, responded with a tweet that her office would "monitor whether local officials are cooperative" in the USDOJ COPS review. "If investigators face resistance and the implementation of reforms falls short," she said in a statement, "I intend to launch a civil pattern and practice investigation."

By the time USDOJ COPS issues recommendations Harris will likely be well into her first term as Senator.

Despite the growing body of evidence that SFPD needs dramatic reform, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee continues to support Chief Greg Suhr and believe that current oversight is sufficient. I expressed my concerns about SFPD to Mayor Lee on April 17, 2016 and he reiterated his support of allowing current investigations to run their course and of providing tasers to SFPD.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who visited the hunger strike on April 24, 2016 commented that "the strike is an expression of the frustration activists feel -- the latest group of racist texts and the shooting death of Luis Gongora have only added to the feeling that reform efforts have failed to change the culture at the SFPD."

Hunger Strikers Exhausted Peaceful Protest

The hunger strikers have had enough. They want change before another black or brown San Franciscan is killed by SFPD. They feel they have exhausted every avenue.

Like many native San Franciscans, Ilyich has been angry about the transformation of his hometown for a long time, writing songs about it and helping his friends campaign for Mayor. Ilyich first confronted Mayor Lee October 2015.

Mayor Ed Lee won a second term in November 2015 in an election in which less than 25% of San Franciscans voted.

Ilyich and his friends disrupted Mayor Lee's inauguration; booed him off the stage at the 2016 Northern California Martin Luther King Day celebration; and protested the Superbowl. They scored a major coup when Alicia Keys said "I want you to know that I salute everyone that has the courage and conviction to stand up for what is right. I want to thank you for your commitment to making sure justice is done for Mario Woods" at her pre Superbowl concert.

Ilyich says he is motivated by the families of Alex Nieto and Mario Woods. His message to Mayor Lee is that he needs to "speak with the community, represent the community or stop being selfish and step down."

Striker Sellassie echoes Ilyich, adding that firing Chief Suhr is a first step, and that he wants to see "real, tangible reform of SFPD and of the Mayor's interaction with the people of San Francisco- all the people, not just the rich." He urges San Franciscans of all income brackets to confront the Mayor and demand SFPD reform.

Striker Ike Ali Pinkston says "I should be able to feel safe regardless of the color of my skin when a police officer approaches me regardless of the situation and currently that is impossible."

Ilyich's mother, Maria Cristina Gutierrez, also on hunger strike, urges San Franciscans to call the Mayor, call their Supervisors, hold press conferences, walk out of school, do whatever they can to pressure the Mayor to fire Chief Suhr or resign.

Striker Edwin Lindo says the goal of the hunger strike is to "stop police impunity for extrajudicial killings of people of color in poor communities. We want a police force that lets us live.
We are going hungry for justice."

Strikers urge San Franciscans who feel the same way to call Mayor Lee 415-554-6141, tweet at him @MayorEdLee, email him mayoredwinlee@sfgov.org and demand he fire Chief Suhr.