The Laborers Local Union 261 on 18th Street was full of angry people on Wednesday, April 13, at high noon. Around the corner, on Shotwell Street, six days earlier on April 7, Luis Demetrio Gongora Pat, a slightly built, 45-year-old Yucatec Mayan man, was shot and killed by San Francisco police officers after staff with HOT (Homeless Outreach Team) had summoned them. HOT staff decided Gongora was acting erratically—they described him as swinging a knife and bouncing a ball with too much vigor off walls and cars. The police responded. Within 30 seconds he was dead. These are the facts.
The Mission District been the scene of some high profile police killings in the last year. Alejandro Nieto, Amilcar Perez Lopez, and Mario Woods, all black or brown men, are also all dead. None of them were armed with a gun. These are also the facts.
The angry people had gathered because Police Chief Greg Suhr had convened a “town hall meeting”: a panel of police officers to discuss these facts and the state of the investigation with the community. Accordingly people crowded into the hall, which looks different from labor halls of yore. No more wood-paneled walls with men smoking, sipping coffee, and squinting at the jobs board. It’s a modern and airy space with open floor plan and lots of natural light. Large posters hung on the wall, showing the laboring men of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which describes itself as “The Most Progressive, Aggressive and Fastest-Growing Union of Construction Workers.” The men wore the uniform of the blue collar worker: hard hats, big boots, and work-shirts, looking hunky, healthy and cheerful, outtakes from a beefcake calendar, perhaps. The grins in the posters contrasted sharply with the grim faces of the people sitting in folding chairs or leaning against the wall, arms folded or thrust into the air holding signs. No one was smiling. Some participants were holding black and white Xeroxes of Luis Gongora’s only known photo. His face, unsmiling and spectral, hung in the air.
Adriana Camarena was querying the police, politely, but pointedly. They know her; she knows them. She’s an attorney, author and human rights activist who became involved with police shootings after the death of Nieto on March 21, 2014, one day after the vernal equinox. Nieto was eating a burrito on Bernal Heights when a man walking his dog decided he was “behaving erratically” (Nieto had just encountered that scourge of San Francisco’s open spaces, an aggressive and unleashed dog and an indifferent owner) and called the police. They arrived and shot him 59 times. Camarena helped his parents to mount a civil suit, which they lost this year.
Almost a year later, Amilcar Perez Lopez, a 20-year-old Guatemalan immigrant, was shot four times in the back and in the back of the head by the police on Folsom Street, about four houses down from where Camarena lives.
Camarena visited the homeless encampment on Shotwell Street three days after the shooting, filming the police and a worker with the Department of Public Works as they dismantled the camp at night, smashing candles and ripping tents. As she filmed them doing this, a police officer shone his flashlight in her face and her camera until she moved. Later, she described her encounter with the SFPD. “When I questioned him, he said … he was concerned for his safety because I was pointing an object at him. In other words he used the SFPD General Order language that would justify him shooting me to death.”
At the meeting she was quiet, focused and imperturbable, impressive for someone who’d been threatened with summary execution four days earlier. She quizzed the police: What prompted officers to go to Shotwell Street? Did they describe the person as Latino and possibly a Spanish speaker? What is the crisis intervention protocol followed by the police station in confronting escalated individuals? Did the SF HOT Team refer to a person with a knife or a person brandishing a knife? And, importantly: What exactly did they say about the presumed weapon?
“Chief Suhr, one of your men threatened me last Saturday,” she said calmly. “Are you going to investigate this threat? I have the badge number.” Suhr said he would. Her allotted time was up, she sat down.
The small noises in the labor hall suddenly coalesced and became one noise, a roar of anger. “Fire Chief Suhr! Fire Chief Suhr!” People walked through the door and got into the line of speakers waiting to give testimony. A woman wearing a red baseball cap yelled, “You have blood on your hands!”
A man in a green sweater turned to me. His eyes were bright. “I can’t believe so many people are here,” he said, almost conspiratorially. “What do you think they’re thinking?” He meant the police officers, who mostly looked impassive. Chief Suhr, who has the fierce and fixed gaze of a hawk, looked at the crowd and waited. The police rested their hands on their belts and rocked back on their heels, carefully looking at nothing, their faces impassive, their gazes directed skyward. The man in the green sweater said bitterly, “I think this is all a bunch of bullshit. Nothing’s going to change.”
David Campos, San Francisco Supervisor for District Nine, which is where the killing took place, was the next speaker. Campos, a thoughtful, quiet man, was visibly annoyed. “Chief, I have to tell you: I’m very disappointed. If this town hall meeting is so important, why wasn’t my office informed?” The crowd erupted. “I know if I wasn’t informed of it, then there are many members of this community who don’t even know that this meeting is happening.” More shouts of encouragement. “If the objective,” Campos went on, the sternness in his voice increasing, “is to maximize community involvement, why would you have a community meeting at noon?”
“Supervisor Campos, when we have these town halls, they are in the area and at the time that’s closely proximate to the officer-involved shooting,” Suhr replied flatly.
“I’m sorry, chief, but if someone gets shot at two in the morning, I doubt you’re going to have a meeting at two in the morning,” Campos replied. Angry shouts of “liar” rang through the hall. He pressed on, in sentences that were increasingly staccato, and compact. “This is really important. This is really important. You have an ongoing investigation. Supposedly to find out what happened in this incident.” He paused, staring at Suhr. “And yet, you’ve had a number of press conferences where you are already prejudging what happened in this case.”
The audience started chanting. Suhr’s eyes widened, and for the first time, he unfolded his arms and put out his hand. “I’m not going to allow that,” he said sharply. Was he referring to the tumult in the audience, or the charge that his department was spreading misinformation? The audience yelled back in disbelief and defiance: You’re fired. Murderer. Liar.
Campos spoke above the shouts. He pointed his finger at the chief. “I’m asking the SFPD: stop putting out facts until your own investigation is completed, because it is absolutely doing a disservice.” The clapping continued. Campos’s voice was momentarily drowned out by the waves of sound sweeping through the halls. The policeman sitting next to Suhr looked at the crowd, his eyes round and his face blank. Campos continued to press his point. “…You’re really saying, This is what we believe happened.”
Suhr interrupted Campos. “I didn’t say what I ‘believed’ happened. I’ve given the facts that came from interviews, simply.” He hit the word “simply” hard, as if to say: I’m trying to keep this simple.
“You are prejudging,” Campos responded. A man yelled something, the syllables of his words distorted by the acoustics of the spaciousness and hard concrete floor of the hall. Campos held up his hand. “I want to say this.” The restive crowd quietened. “I’m saying this as a former police commissioner, and I’ve said this to the president of the police commission. I think that we need to change this policy. Of actually having police come out and hold these press conferences. I don’t want you to prove anything. I am not jumping to conclusions about what happened. But I also think it’s irresponsible for SFPD to do that. So I ask you: PLEASE. Stop saying anything until your own investigation is complete.” Clapping, shouts. “And if you are not willing to do that, I ask the police commission and I ask the Mayor to, please, direct the police department to stop trying this case in the public.”
A cheer went up. A woman cried out in ringing tones: The police cannot police themselves!
“We need the Mayor to step up and show leadership on this point. Why isn’t the Mayor calling on the Federal government—not the cops!—but the civil rights division of the Justice Department to come in and actually do a legally binding investigation of this police department.” A policewoman next to him indicated that his time was up. He nodded. “I will end by saying this. Blaming the homeless for what happened, by cracking down on the homeless, is not a solution.” He stepped away from the microphone and walked to the back of the room.
More speakers stepped up to the microphone: Brother Damien Joseph, a Franciscan brother wearing his brown robe, works with the homeless in the Haight. “I need to know that your officers are going to act rationally, slowly and in a measured manner,” he told Suhr. “If they won’t, I would risk my safety rather than that of the person on the street.” Daryl Rodgers, a third-generation San Franciscan, and activist, asked what “excessive force” was. He didn’t get an answer. Another man described being harassed by the police as he ate a sandwich. “This harassment is nothing new! This has been happening for a long time,” he said, “but now we have video. We deserve to live,” he yelled. “Stop being so trigger happy! C’mon! What happened to batons?” An organizer with the Justice for Mario Woods Coalition fired Police Chief Suhr. The statements of fact came thick and fast from the speakers: You don’t care. You aren’t changing. You’re lying. You are attacking our bodies. We deserve to live.
The man in the green sweater, who had been standing next to me, appeared at the microphone. He started to speak, then stopped and tried again, though his throat was constricted with tears. He’d worked with Luis, he told the panel, in a diner. In a voice that wavered with grief, he described his friendship: “We worked together. I’d have him over to dinner. We were friends. He was docile. He didn’t have an aggressive bone in his body. He would never hurt anybody. Luis was kind.”
The audience stilled for a moment, listening to the words that re-made the dead man: Gentle. Docile. Kind. He would never hurt anybody. The rage left the room as the man spoke and grief crept in. People wept.
In less than three years—25 months to be prissily exact, starting with Nieto’s death and pausing (only temporarily, one fears) with Gongora’s— six men have been shot and killed in what amount to public executions. All were witnessed by at least one member of the public. One death (Mario Woods) was documented, cinéma-vérité style, with a cell phone standing in for a hand-held camera, held by an eyewitness who swears and sobs as she is forced to witness the extra-judicial killing in broad daylight. Last Thursday, a woman named Ellen can be seen in the grainy video, scrambling to get out of the way as shots ring out which killed Gongora.
There are black-and-white posters of Nieto, Woods and Perez-Lopez hanging on the wall of the Red Poppy Art House on Folsom at 23rd. The posters were created by Justice For Our Lives, a collective that has immortalized the faces of 49 black and brown men and women killed by police violence nationwide.
Will Gongora be the fiftieth in the series? Probably. Will he be the last?
From the Justice for Luis site: Luis Demetrio Góngora Pat was born in Teabo, Yucatan on 4/25/1970; he was nearly 46 years old at the time of his death. A Yucatecan Mayan, he is survived by his spouse, three grown children and his elderly parents in Yucatan, Mexico. Luis is also survived by brothers and cousins in San Francisco. Family called him Luis or by his nickname Sapo.
Luis’s wake is scheduled for Saturday April 23. 5-9pm Duggan’s on 17th and Valencia in the Mission.
Yabilaaj yeteel jeetsambaal u tial Luis Góngora Pat.