The largest Black Lives Matter protest in San Francisco’s history took place Wednesday afternoon, with estimates of up to 10,000 people in attendance. The Mission neighborhood’s streets were jam-packed with crowds of people holding signs, as the city’s residents rallied against the ongoing violence Black people experience at the hands of police.
The recent police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky — and the vigilante murder of Ahmaud Aubrey in Brunswick, Georgia — have turned out hundreds of thousands of protesters nationwide, and even inspired demonstrations overseas. Local governments have responded by sending armored police and instituting curfews, and Vallejo even requested assistance from the National Guard to help protect private property from vandalism and looting.
In San Francisco, the Mission District has long been the epicenter of the city’s social justice protests. In decades past, it was ground zero for actions led by labor leaders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. More recently, it’s been the hub of protests against police violence. In 2014, after police killed Alex Nieto, Mario Woods, and Amilcar Perez Lopez, five Latinx and Black protesters calling themselves the “Frisco 5” went on a hunger strike outside Mission Police Station, eventually leading to the resignation of then-Police Chief Greg Suhr.
But on Wednesday, the lead organizers of the protest were not community elders or longtime activists. Instead, it was a handful of Black students from Mission High School, who over the past several days managed to pull together the best-organized protest the city’s seen all week. Street medicine teams were everywhere, cases of water were dropped on every corner, and the march — which was originally slated to end at 6 p.m. at Mission Police Station — redirected itself toward the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant St, in a sly, last-minute “screw you” to cops.
The execution of the protest was secondary to the voices of the people leading it. Simone Jacques, 17, a Black Latina high school student, was the first to take the mic, stunning the crowd into silence as she spoke.
“I’m Black and Brown, I’m Afrochicana and proud,” she began. “People keep asking who the organizers are — we’re just youth who grew up in the city. We just love each other and want to take care of each other… We are here to acknowledge the Black people who built this country against their will, the Black women who birthed this country, the reparations we still have yet to take, and all the Brown and especially Black bodies who have been murdered at the hands of police. Understand that we are here to fight, and to dismantle the systems that depend on our oppression.”
The dual identities and struggles of Black and Brown people was front and center — but a youth-led movement meant that communities often left out of traditional protests were acknowledged, again and again. Women — especially transgender women of color — were mentioned frequently by the teens on the stage. One Filipina girl acknowledged her passing privilege; she could easily be construed as white. People of color who have disabilities were given a nod. And, of course, the Ohlone land the protest was being held on was acknowledged. The youth ushered in intersectionality effortlessly and garnered cheers from the thousands they spoke to.
For longtime Mission organizer Roberto Hernandez, 63, Wednesday’s protest marked a turning point in the neighborhood’s history. An activist from a young age, he began supporting Cesar Chavez’s union efforts at 24. In the years since, he’s marched with Dolores Huerta, organized against police violence, and — by his own count — been arrested by police 113 times for protesting.
But today’s action gives him hope. “I could die today, I could die tomorrow,” Hernandez told SF Weekly. “There’s a whole new generation of people of color at work. I grew up with the Black Panthers and the Brown Berets. I’ve seen and experienced all of that. For me to experience a new day like today… I’ve been waiting for it. Today is a new beginning. It’s bringing people together on a different level of togetherness and oneness.”
The diversity of protesters who turned out affirmed that sense of solidarity. Brandon Yip, 22, held a sign saying “Asian Queers for Black Lives” as he marched down 16th Street towards the Hall of Justice.
“I was raised here in San Francisco and went to Mission High,” he said. “That’s where I learned I was an intersectional being, and that my liberation as a queer, immigrant, first-generation college student is not my own, but is tied intersectionally with people who are being killed regularly by police. I’m not here for me, I’m here for them, because their liberation is also my liberation, it’s everyone’s liberation.”
Priscilla Ortiz, 25, who was raised in the Mission District, held a bright pink sign outside the Mission Police Station that read “Latinas for Black Lives.”
“Whether we like to admit it or not, Latina households can be hella anti-Black,” she said, when asked why she chose that wording for her sign. “I want to make a statement that that’s not me, that’s not us, that’s not the newer generation. We’re here to support our community. It’s at a breaking point… All of these people keep dying for absolutely no reason. That’s why we all gotta be out here.”
By the time the 8 p.m. curfew rolled around, thousands were still in the streets — but the protests were peaceful, and police seemed willing to avoid conflict. That peaceful form of protesting, Hernandez said, is part of the Mission’s history, too. “Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King taught us that,” he said.