The unmarked police truck jumps the curb, red-and-blue lights flashing from behind the grill. As the vehicle advances, making a hairpin turn from Pine Street to Davis Street, the demonstrators retreat. A man in a light jacket shuffles backward, pulling a cell phone from his pocket and training it on the black Ford.
That’s when a San Francisco Sheriff’s Captain in riot gear comes running into the frame, pushing the man from behind — hard — and sending him to the ground. The protester rolls onto his back and holds his hands above his head. He clambors to his feet and backs away from several officers in the direction of the march continuing down Market Street toward the Ferry Building.
In the weeks-long wave of mostly peaceful demonstrations that has swept the country in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, hundreds of videos of aggressive policing have surfaced. Many make the May 31 clip from San Francisco look tame.
The protests that have gripped the nation for two-and-a-half weeks were set in motion by another video of police brutality. The cell phone clip captured the Memorial Day death of Floyd, who died under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derrick Chauvin.
These mass gatherings are being compared to the protests that erupted in 1992 after the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King, and to the civil unrest that followed the assasination of Martin Luther King in 1968.
However, these protests are different, some point out. The demographics of today’s protesters are more diverse than those who participated in previous movements, as are the locations. Unlike 1968 or 1992, when protesters largely congregated in low-income Black neighborhoods, recent protests have been more likely to take place in more diverse spaces — including upscale shopping districts, like San Francisco’s Union Square, and in quieter suburban enclaves.
Furthermore, thanks to the ubiquity of cell phone cameras and social media, many who were once oblivious to, or willfully ignored, the specter of police brutality, are reconsidering an institution that historians and activists say was created to benefit slaveholders and protect the interests of the powerful against the desperate actions of the powerless.
“When an atrocity is so horrendous, the public are able to see police violence the way we as advocates see it on a daily basis,” says James Burch, the policy director for the Oakland-based Anti Police Terror Project. “What made the situation worse was that during this whole rebellion, law enforcement has continued to brutalize and even kill protesters, which only magnifies the attention that is placed on them at a time when folks are seeing them for who they really are.”
Now, criminal justice reforms once considered on-the-fringe are being seriously considered by officials around the country and here in San Francisco. Chief among those proposals is some form of defunding the police.
‘LAUGHABLE’ TO ACTIONABLE
“People were laughing at us five years ago when we demanded that the Oakland police budget be reduced by 50 percent,” says Burch, whose group was founded in the wake of the death of Oscar Grant and seeks to end police violence in communities of color. But now, he continues, the call to defund police, is “the rallying cry of the people.”
In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed and Supervisor Shamman Walton announced an effort to divert funds (around $25 million, according to Walton) from the SFPD to the city’s Black community.
On June 11, the mayor announced a “roadmap” for police reforms, including initiatives to demilitarize the police, ensure police do not respond to non-criminal activity, and address bias in the police force, in addition to her previous call to divert funding to the Black community. In a roundtable discussion following her announcement, Breed used strong language as she reaffirmed her commitment to battle police brutality.
“If we’re going to make real significant change, we need to fundamentally change the nature of policing itself,” she said.
District Attorney Chesa Boudin, elected last year on a progressive platform, announced the creation of a fund to compensate victims of police violence, and has instructed his prosecutors to review all available evidence when considering allegations of resisting arrest in order to understand the origin and nature of the altercation — and whether resistance truly took place at all. Boudin has also joined other current and former Bay Area DAs in calling on the California State Bar to prohibit prosecutors from accepting political and financial support from police unions.
Thanks in part to the above video, Capt. John Ramirez of the SF Sheriff’s Department — the officer seen knocking over the protester in the above clip — is now being investigated by the DA.
“There’s an urgency that we’re feeling and we wanted to act accordingly,” says Rachel Marshall, a spokesperson in the DA’s office, adding that Boudin is focused on creating “systemic change” in the criminal justice system.
Public Defender Mano Raju has called for a new use of force policy for SFPD. And Chief Bill Scott, said he was “open” to reducing funds for the police department.
San Francisco is not the only city mulling changes to its criminal justice apparatus. In Minneapolis, city council president Lisa Bender, along with a supermajority of city council members, have stated their intent to “dismantle” and “replace” the city’s police department.
Meanwhile, the city of Houston and the state of New York have moved to ban chokeholds; and Democrats in Congress have unveiled a bill that would ban chokeholds nationwide, and make it easier to sue police for misconduct. That bill is yet to see Republican support, but Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah has announced that he, too, will propose a police reform bill.
“Minnesota gives me optimism,” Burch says of the actions taken by the Minneapolis City Council. “That’s the goal — creating a completely different system of public safety.”
However, Burch adds, he is “not moved by marginal budget cuts” to police departments. By way of example, the APTP is currently advocating the Oakland Police Department cut its budget by 50 percent — about $150 million — and redirect those funds into other city programs, especially those that address mental health, addiction, poverty, and racial inequity.
By way of comparison, Breed and Walton’s proposed $25 million proposed cut to the SFPD accounts for just about 3.5 percent of the department’s $700 million budget.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t want a system to deal with violence and acts of violence,” Burch says. “We just want to re-imagine what that looks like and start from the beginning.”
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
While some who support defunding police believe there will always be a need for armed civil servants authorized to use force, others advocate for nothing short of a complete abolition of policing as we know it.
“When I say ‘defund the police,’ I mean defund the police,” says Erin Kerrison, professor in the School of Social Welfare at UC Berkeley. For her, even slashing a department’s budget by half would represent a failure to evolve beyond our current — and, in her view, antiquated — notion of community policing.
Kerrison, who studies the way in which the criminal justice system has historically impacted communities of color, says the founding philosophy of the modern, professional police force is inextricably tied to inequality and racism.
In Southern states, Kerrison explains, the very first loosely organized groups that might rightfully be thought of as police, were established to monitor enslaved African Americans. These were the slave drivers and paddy rollers, who worked to capture runaways, preempt rebellion, and crush insurrection.
In Northern states, she continues, some of the very first police departments were formed during the Industrial Revolution, at a time when major Northeastern cities, such as Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, were growing exponentially. Unlike the wealthy, white, landowners in the South, the wealthy, white, landowners of industrial cities worked away from their residences. The head of the household could not simultaneously oversee the safety of his home and the safety of his investments in warehouses, shipyards, and factories on the other side of town.
“There’s this panic among Christian, white property owners — this expanding group with more and more material wealth — who want protection,” Kerrison says. Early police forces largely protected the interests of the haves by monitoring, intimidating, and arresting the have-nots, who, by and large, were non-white or Eastern European.
Tracing a line from these earliest patrols to the modern day municipal forces we know today, Kerrison notes that police became more professionalized. They actively recruited and trained the men and women in their ranks, they formed powerful unions, and they established ties to public school systems — but, she emphasizes, their priorities remained more or less the same: to protect the interests of capitalists, industrialists, landowners, and elites.
Kerrison says it’s no mistake that the war on drugs — initiated by Richard Nixon and carried out by subsequent administrations — was largely waged in communities of color.
“The war on drugs was never about drugs,” she says. “It was about poor Black folk. They were ‘making a mess’ in the cities. They were an ‘eyesore.’ They were a ‘blight.’ So they had to go.”
And, it turns out, there was money to be made, as mandatory minimum drug sentencing, three-strikes laws, and other “tough on crime” legislation — such as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 — helped feed the prison industrial complex.
“The past is the present and the future,” Kerrison says.
Nikki Jones, a sociologist and professor in the department of African American Studies at U.C. Berkeley, echoes Kerrison’s assertions.
“Policing has never been neutral,” Jones observes, adding that if there was a point at which a major shift occurred in the philosophy of policing — in which police departments across the country made a concerted effort to root out institutionalized racism and classism — she is unaware of it.
“As an institution, this is what the institution has the capacity to do and has always done,” she says, speaking broadly about the police. “And if it’s doing something different today, we should be able to identify when that shift happened.”
Kerrison, Jones and Burch are all cautiously optimistic that the demonstrations they’ve seen and the gestures made by law enforcement officials will amount to some kind of meaningful change. But they all understand from experience that progress in this realm is hard to come by. Furthermore, even when changes are made, they don’t always stick.
“Progress has never been linear when it comes to racial justice,” Jones says. “There is always progress and retrenchment.”
As evidence, she points to actions President Barack Obama took after Michael Brown’s 2014 killing in Ferguson, Missouri, led to wide scale protests against police brutality and the militarization of the police.
Although Obama used his executive authority to restrict the transfer or surplus military gear to police departments, one of the first things President Donald Trump did upon taking office was to lift that order.
Jones encourages those who have been moved to act by the death of George Floyd to not interpret a few paltry gestures from politicians as a sign that it’s time to pack up and go home. After all, she observes, it’s been nearly six years since Ferguson.
“Don’t waste anymore time between now and the next moment.”
SF Weekly Staff Writer Benjamin Schneider contributed to this report.