On May 19, when the news broke that San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr had resigned, a group of activists who had been demanding his ouster were prepping for a vigil. Earlier that day, a 29-year-old African-American woman named Jessica Williams was fatally shot in the Bayview neighborhood of the city, making her the third person in the past six months to die at the hands of the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD). Activists planned to assemble outside City Hall, where a legion of sheriff’s deputies guarded the entrance, for the latest in a series of ongoing protests prompted by the uptick in officer-involved shootings in the city. Then, less than an hour before the demonstration was to begin, Mayor Ed Lee made a decision he’d resisted for months: He announced he had requested, and received, Suhr’s resignation.
The vigil that evening had a bittersweet air. Participants alternated between jubilant chants of “power to the people” and tearful laments over the police violence plaguing the city. “[Jessica Williams] had to give her life up in order for this to happen,” Maria Cristina Gutierrez, 66, said of Suhr’s resignation. Gutierrez is a member of the “Frisco Five,” a group of community leaders who camped out in front of the Mission Police Station from April 21 to May 6, pledging to starve themselves until Mayor Lee fired his chief of police. The group launched the protest after 45-year-old Luis Gongora was shot and killed by two SFPD officers several feet from the tent he occupied in a Mission district homeless encampment. While the Frisco Five ended their hunger strike on day 17 because of their declining health, their protest garnered international attention and amplified their most urgent demand: Get rid of Suhr.
Now that that demand has been met, many are wondering what’s next for the Frisco Five and the other activists who spent months organizing for Suhr’s removal, often referred to as the “Frisco 500.” But for those who attended the May 19 vigil, the answer was clear. Several steps away, in the majestic rotunda of City Hall, wealthy donors, politicians, and influence peddlers gathered for a ritzy healthcare fundraiser sponsored by Google, Wells Fargo, and other locally headquartered corporations. Chaired by former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, who remains a well-connected powerbroker with a direct stake in local real estate ventures, the “Humankindness Gala” was a who’s who of San Francisco politics and philanthropy. But for the activists outside the closed doors of the lavishly restored Beaux-Arts building, the gala represented the rich, corporate, and exclusive city they’re trying to reform.
“We’re such a small percentage now because of the displacement and gentrification that started with Willie Brown [mayor from 1996 to 2004] and Gavin Newsom [mayor from 2004 to 2011],” said Yayne Abeba, a local activist and spokesperson for the Frisco Five, referring to the city’s people of color. “[Mayor Lee] is owned by Willie Brown…and the tech industry, who want to make this city a playground for the ultra-rich.” The activists assembled that evening see their work as not just about combating police violence, but about opening up City Hall to people of color and the poor—demographics that have intersected in San Francisco for many decades—and addressing a regional housing crisis that’s decimating these very communities. To that end, the day after the vigil the Frisco Five announced their next campaign: an effort to recall Mayor Lee.
A few days later, I spoke with the group at the Compañeros del Barrio preschool in the Mission district. The organization, which Gutierrez heads, is one block from the police station where the hunger strikers had based their occupation. Beyond Gutierrez, the Frisco Five is made up of Selassie Blackwell, 39, Ike Pinkston, 42, Edwin Lindo, 29, and Ilyich Sato, 42. “We became the Frisco Five by accident,” said Gutierrez, who stressed that the group was an ad-hoc alliance of individuals participating in various overlapping campaigns to hold the SFPD accountable, including coalitions seeking justice for Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez-Lopez, Mario Woods, and others who have died in encounters with the San Francisco Police.
Inside the preschool, colorful rugs overlay the floors and political posters adorn nearly every inch of wall space, cataloguing a range of leftist protests, both past and present. Like the setting in which we talked, the activists’ comments were imbued with a deep sense of history.
“This struggle has been going on for decades,” said Lindo, who is vying for the open District 9 supervisor seat, which represents the Mission, in the November election. “In 1996, Mark Garcia was killed and [then] Lieutenant Suhr was [an] arresting officer out of the Mission Police Station,” Lindo explained. At the time, the city was in the midst of the first dot-com bubble, a dizzying period of startup booms and busts and rapid gentrification similar in many ways to what’s happening to the city today. “Mark Garcia was pepper sprayed,” Lindo continued, and “put into the back of a police van, handcuffed.” The arresting officers placed him facedown in the van and he suffered a heart attack on the way to the hospital. Garcia died the next day. Suhr was one of the seven cops investigated for contributing to his death, but neither Suhr nor any of the other officers faced any disciplinary action. In fact, Suhr was promoted to captain soon after the incident. If police brutality is a longstanding tradition in San Francisco, then so too is the culture of impunity protecting the rank and file. For Gutierrez and others who worked to hold the SFPD accountable in the wake of Garcia’s killing, Suhr’s comeuppance has been 20 years in the making.
But the group is looking toward the future, and they hope to parlay their initial victory into a broader organizing drive aimed at empowering the city’s marginalized citizens. In the popular imagination, San Francisco is a progressive sanctuary—a diverse oasis of gay pride, environmental activism, and countercultural thought. But for the Frisco Five and their supporters, the city’s legacy of police brutality and experience with gentrification belie its status as a liberal Shangri-La. “San Francisco hides behind the veil of progressiveness,” Lindo stated. After listing the many areas in which the city has failed its minority populations—including the high rates of unemployment they experience, the under-education of students of color in San Francisco public schools, and the city’s eviction epidemic—Lindo concluded, “There’s nothing progressive about that.”
Tech-driven gentrification has been a problem since the ’90s, but since Mayor Lee took office in 2011, real estate prices—and evictions—have skyrocketed. One of Lee’s first acts as mayor was instituting a multimillion-dollar payroll-tax break program for tech companies in order to attract or retain their presence in the city. The subsequent flood of tech workers has dramatically increased income inequality and put immense strain on the city’s housing stock. Rents have risen to truly stratospheric heights—the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is around $3,500—giving landlords a mounting incentive to evict anyone paying less than the market rate. Meanwhile, the median home price has risen $450,000 since Lee took office, to $1.14 million. One recent survey found that not a single home currently for sale in San Francisco is affordable on a teacher’s salary. Another found that the city is getting whiter while the rest of the Bay Area is becoming more diverse. In such an environment, the Frisco Five’s actions are taking on a sense of urgency. “[We need] to continue to build up the black and brown community—the last three percent of the black community, the last 7 or 8 percent of the Latino community in San Francisco—to be a force to be reckoned with in politics,” said Blackwell.
“The Last 3 Percent” is the name of a local collective targeting displacement, police violence, and other issues affecting San Francisco’s dwindling African-American population. It is also a phrase routinely mentioned in connection with the Frisco Five and the many scandals of the SFPD. Though San Francisco’s African-American and Latino populations were 6.1 and 15.1 percent of the city, respectively, as of the 2010 census, activists estimate that those numbers have dropped precipitously in the last six years. The city’s African-American population very likely stands somewhere between 3 to 6 percent, meaning the community declined from about 96,000 in 1970 to somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 today (meanwhile, the city’s total population has increased by 21 percent since 1970). The same neighborhood blocks now being emptied of longtime tenants have endured generation upon generation of aggressive policing at the hands of the SFPD. In a city with such a small black population, African Americans make up an astounding 56 percent of jail inmates. “The Last 3 Percent” captures a community’s sense of betrayal—its feeling that the city’s elite won’t be satisfied until its presence is entirely erased.
Things weren’t always this dire. In a 2011 paper, G. William Domhoff, a professor of sociology at the University of California–Santa Cruz, observed that San Francisco’s leftist activists and neighborhood groups were far more successful than their counterparts in other American cities in fighting corporate interests “to a standstill from the early 1970s into the early 21st century on issues that concerned the livability of neighborhoods and the preservation of urban amenities.” During those decades, activists wrested substantial allotments of affordable housing from developers, while securing unprecedented levels of democratic input in the urban planning process.
But, all the while, a “growth coalition” of major businesses and real estate interests continued to push—often behind closed doors—for the transformation of the city into a postindustrial hub, replete with newly converted loft apartments and ample office space for an array of tenants in the technology and financial sectors. As more affluent residents and corporations have moved to the city, increasingly large amounts of cash have been poured into local elections. According to Domhoff, the 2011 election of Ed Lee—a business-friendly moderate whose backers included Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and other millionaire and billionaire tech-industry leaders—reflected a palpable rightward shift in the city’s electorate. As well-compensated tech workers with centrist ideologies continue to move in and working-class people of color continue to move out, this trend will only deepen.
It is understandable, then, why the Frisco Five would choose a recall effort targeting Mayor Lee for their next campaign. “He’s not a leader and I think that’s been pretty evident, pretty much since he’s been in office,” said Pinkston. “He hasn’t done anything to change this city at all for the betterment of the people in this city, especially the poor people, with gentrification being one of the biggest problems here in San Francisco.”
Pinkston and the rest of the Frisco Five hope to collect 60,000 signatures in order to place the recall measure on the ballot this November. In the meantime, they will continue to press, with their community allies, for the prosecution of the SFPD officers involved in recent fatal shootings.
Whether the Frisco Five can succeed in bringing these officers to justice or topple the mayor as they did with Suhr remains to be seen, but one thing that’s abundantly clear is they’re not waging this battle alone. “There are a lot of people doing beautiful work in different areas,” said Gutierrez. “Regardless of the color of our skin or what country we come from, regardless of how much money we make at work, we need to be able to live peacefully and with dignity in this city. And it’s urgent.”