In the photo, five of Beyoncé’s leather-clad, black-bereted dancers raise their fists in a Black Power salute. The woman in the middle holds a hand-lettered sign up for the camera, bearing three words and a number: “Justice 4 Mario Woods.” Behind them, the crowd at Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, is getting ready for the second half of Super Bowl 50, but the game’s real fireworks are already over.
The women in the photo had just finished backing Beyoncé’s homage to the Black Panthers and Malcolm X during her incandescent halftime appearance, when two San Francisco Bay Area Black Lives Matter activists managed to grab a few words with them. Rheema Emy Calloway and Ronnisha Johnson asked if they’d make a quick video demanding justice for Mario Woods. “From the look on the faces of the dancers, they’d already heard about the case,” Calloway told The Guardian.
Who was Mario Woods and why did Calloway and Johnson want the world to know that his life mattered? The answer: on December 2, 2015, Mario Woods was executed in broad daylight by officers of the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) and the event was filmed.
Woods was a 26-year-old African American, born and raised in San Francisco’s Bayview district, one of the city’s few remaining largely black neighborhoods. (In 1980, right before I moved to San Francisco, African Americans made up almost 13 percent of the city’s population. Today, the figure is around 6 percent and shrinking.) Woods died when police attempted to arrest him because they believed that, earlier in the day, he had stabbed another man in the arm. Like many victims of police violence, Woods had mental health problems. Indeed, his autopsy’s toxicology report showed that, when he died, his system contained a powerful mix of medications (both prescribed and self-administered) including anti-depressants, speed, and marijuana.
But it was the way he died that brought Mario Woods a brief bit of posthumous notoreity. His death was, like Beyoncé’s dancers, captured on video. A crowd of people watched as what CNN described as “a sea of police officers” surrounded Woods and shot him dead. At least two people recorded cell-phone videos of what looks eerily like an execution by firing squad.