After the Police Killing of Mario Woods, SF is “That Kind of Town”

In the video, the man shuffles and lurches uncertainly against a nondescript garage door. Bystanders scream. A group of police officers — at least ten — surround the man, weapons raised, in an arrangement that at least one elected official has compared to an old-fashioned firing squad. The man takes a few steps. The camera pans away. Screams and a barrage of gunfire follow.

Mario Woods, a 26-year-old man whose appearance matched the description of someone suspected in a stabbing earlier that day in the native Bayview, was shot dead.

The San Francisco Police Department has released few details about the Dec. 2 shooting, which outraged many in the city and elicited calls for Police Chief Greg Suhr's resignation. Woods was armed with a kitchen knife, and police say that, after failing to subdue him with beanbag rounds and with pepper spray, he was shot after approaching them in a life-threatening manner.

A KQED analysis of audio from the bystander video, posted to Instagram within an hour of Woods' death, suggests that 19 shots were fired.

The day after the shooting, Dr. Terence Candell, an East Oakland educator, stood a few feet from the spot where Woods died and asked the question that was on the minds of many: “They shot him 20 times. At what point do you think he was dead?”

One Latino and two black men have been shot and killed by San Francisco police officers since Oct. 15, 2015 — less than 60 days ago — but only one of those shootings has entered the canon of the United States' ever-expanding library of video-recorded black death at the hands of police. Only one prompted Mayor Ed Lee to hold a press conference, to declare publicly that “black lives do matter,” and to announce the city would immediately review and potentially “fundamentally revis[e]” the police department's protocols for using force.

“This country has seen far too many incidents where conflicts between police and young men of color result in the death of a young person,” said Lee, flanked by the police chief, the director of the Office of Citizen Complaints, and the president of the Police Commission. “In San Francisco, we're not this kind of city. That's not our values.”

That's a nice sentiment, and one that plays into a common strain of self-deluding San Francisco exceptionalism, but the mayor is wrong. “That” may not be our values, but San Francisco is sure as hell that kind of town.

Next week, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on a proposal to build a new jail. As the jail's opponents point out, 56 percent of the occupants of San Francisco county jails are black, a startling statistic when you consider that African Americans make up 5.8 percent of San Francisco's population, according to Census estimates. Some peg the figure even lower: Black Lives Matter Bay Area activists have begun organizing with the slogan, “the last 3 percent.”

A 2015 study by the W. Haywood Burns Institute, commissioned by the city's Reentry Council, found that in 2013, “a disproportionate number of Black adults [were] represented at every stage of the criminal justice process.” Black adults were 7.1 times as likely as whites to be arrested, and comprised 40 percent of all arrestees in the city. For African American women in San Francisco, the disparity in arrest rates is even greater — they are 13.4 times as likely to be arrested — according to a 2015 report by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

Both studies found that the disparity in treatment of African Americans was significantly worse in San Francisco than in the rest of California.

Meanwhile, the median black household income has fallen to just $29,500 (a 5 percent decrease since 2011) while the figure for whites has soared to $104,300. African American homeowners were hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis. Thirty-six percent of the city's homeless population — according to the 2015 “point in time” survey — are black. And earlier this year, court filings revealed that fourteen SFPD officers had exchanged text messages that referred to black people — citizens as well as fellow police officers — with racist slurs.

Not that kind of city, indeed.

Access to information in cases of police killings is lopsided by design. The medical examiner might release the name of the deceased within a few hours or days, giving reporters a head start on digging up criminal records, while the names and records of the police officers involved are withheld for weeks or months.

Since Mario Woods was identified, we've gleaned the rough contours of his life. He was the youngest of three brothers, raised in the Bayview by his mother, Gwendolyn Woods, who says that “he was the kid who, if the back fence was broken, he would fix it.” A classmate at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School called him a “total sweetheart” who “always liked people to be happy” but seemed to have difficulties at home. Those troubles, according to Gwendolyn, included a series of family deaths — grandmother, grandfather, aunt — that she blames on the Bayview's well-documented environmental contamination.

Then there was the trouble with law enforcement. Woods had an “extensive juvenile record,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle, and was named in one of the city's controversial “gang injunctions” at age 19 by City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who said that Woods was “an active member of Oakdale Mob.” (Jeff Stewart, Woods' cousin who grew up a few doors down from him, challenges the “gang member” designation, saying, “There are no gangs here. There are neighborhoods where people grow up and live. They said he was part of Oakdale Mob, but he never even lived in Oakdale.”)

Woods was arrested for robbery in 2008, pled guilty in 2010, and was sentenced to seven years in state prison. He was released in September 2014 — and came home, friends and family members say, with mental health issues.

“They hurt my child and sent him home a basket case,” Gwendolyn Woods says.

“He wasn't himself,” says Stewart. “You're not going to go sit in a box for seven years and come out the same person you went in.”

Despite his struggles to adjust to life after incarceration, Woods' family says that he'd been hired by UPS. The day before he died, he received his uniform; he was supposed to start work the day after his death.

The public spectacle of Mario Woods's death, witnessed in person by a Muni bus carrying schoolchildren home from nearby Bret Harte Elementary and untold more across the country via social media, is the kind of graphic depiction of excessive police force that prompted uprisings and rioting in cities across the U.S.

But where black youth in Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland, New York City, Baltimore, and Los Angeles have taken to the streets en masse, the response in San Francisco has been more contained. The Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood may have been the crucible in which Alicia Garza, one of the three co-founders of Black Lives Matter, formed her politics, but with so few African Americans remaining in the city, it seems unlikely that San Francisco will become the next flashpoint in the developing narrative of racial uprising in U.S. urban cores.

A vigil and march last Thursday night in the Bayview was shepherded into the St. Paul of the Shipwreck Church for a community meeting that focused on organizing resistance. SFPD's town hall the next night drew a significant crowd, but calls from some protesters for the community to leave the meeting and march through the neighborhood went largely unheeded. On Monday, the local chapter of the NAACP called for another meeting, this time in the Fillmore, the one-time “Harlem of the West.”

“People meeting and unifying and organizing is just as important as street protesting,” says Biko Eisen-Martin, a teacher, poet, and activist who has been working with the Black Lives Matter Bay Area chapter since the night of Woods' death. “Even though we're down to 3.5 percent, we're a strong 3.5 percent.”

Eisen-Martin and BLM have released a list of demands that includes charging the police officers who killed Woods with murder. They are uninterested in proposals by the SFPD and the mayor to amend police use-of-force policies by attempting yet again to equip San Francisco police with Tasers and increase de-escalation training for police.

“The police are aware of how to apprehend people peacefully,” Eisen-Martin says, referencing instances where the SFPD has apprehended white suspects — like the man, also armed with a knife, who stole a police cruiser and drove it to Treasure Island in October — without killing them. “They just don't do that with black people. They shoot them like dogs. When police know that they can no longer shoot us with impunity, they won't do it anymore.”

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