It often feels like not a day goes by without some new story about how San Francisco is in crisis. From Fox News to The New York Times, the national media is laser-focused on highlighting every step of the city’s supposed descent into crime-fueled anarchy.
But the killing of Banko Brown, a 24-year-old Black, unhoused, transgender man, by a Walgreens security guard in downtown San Francisco on April 27 has drawn virtually none of this kind of attention. Even as other incidents of crime in the city, like the killing of tech mogul Bob Lee, made instant international headlines, Brown’s death has remained a local story. Yet anyone looking to understand the real crisis in San Francisco—and the interlocking crises of housing, racism, and transphobia in America—needs to know about what happened to Banko Brown.
In the security-camera footage capturing Brown’s last moments, he’s clobbered to the floor by Walgreens security guard Michael Earl-Wayne Anthony. When Brown manages to stand up, he backs out and away from the store entrance, where Anthony shoots Brown from a few feet away.
Anthony claimed that Brown attempted to steal $14 in snacks and soda and then threatened his life. He said he shot Brown in “self-defense,” and cited the recent approval by Walgreens executives of a “hands-on” security approach. (Walgreens has since cut ties with the security firm that employed Anthony.) Though Brown can be seen fighting Anthony’s attempts to subdue him earlier in the footage, he is clearly retreating from the scene at the moment Anthony shoots him. He was unarmed. No one has come forward to corroborate Anthony’s version of events, and the idea that the footage shows him acting in self-defense has drawn deep skepticism even from establishment media outlets.
Nevertheless, District Attorney Brooke Jenkins declined to press charges against Anthony, saying that the threshold for self-defense had been met.
Banko Brown was at the beginning of his life. He had a community that loved him. He was a community organizer with the Young Women’s Freedom Center, an outreach group for women and trans youth. His friends described him as sweet and funny.
But Brown was Black, poor, and trans—a member of three of the most vulnerable and criminalized groups in San Francisco. At every turn, the city made his life more difficult.
Let’s start with housing—the largest expense in San Francisco, where the majority of residents are renters. It is the second-most-expensive place to rent a home in America.
There are 7,754 unhoused people and at least 61,000 empty homes in San Francisco, according to the city’s most recent figures. That means that there are enough vacant units to house San Francisco’s entire unhoused population nearly eight times over. (Recent tech industry flight has undoubtedly increased this number.) But as the city relentlessly gives itself over to the very richest, poor and working-class San Franciscans are left to subsist on the scraps that remain.
Brown was one of those struggling to survive in this environment. He was reportedly either unhoused or in an insecure housing situation for at least 10 of his 24 years. As The Guardian’s Sam Levin reported, “Banko was recently growing desperate—stuck on [a] housing waitlist, turned away from shelters, sleeping on BART.” Through a megaphone to a crowd at a recent protest, Brown’s friends at the Young Women’s Freedom Center said: “Banko deserved to live…. he deserved housing and to have his basic needs met.”
Brown was also suffering from the abandonment and criminalization faced by many queer people and people of color in San Francisco. In America’s queer capital, the city’s own reporting says transgender people are 18 times more likely to be homeless than non-transgender people. (The San Francisco Police Department has misgendered Brown since his death.) Black people are likewise overrepresented among unhoused people, and if you exist at the intersections of Black and trans, the numbers are against you.
Brown had the misfortune of trying to survive at a moment when San Francisco’s harshness towards its most marginalized residents is growing. In 2021, San Francisco Mayor London Breed declared a public health emergency in the Tenderloin, the downtown neighborhood a few blocks away from the Walgreens where Brown was killed. Breed used the very real opioid epidemic as a pretense for the emergency declaration, which unleashed showers of money on the local police. The overdose death toll was also used to justify $68 million in public funding handed to Urban Alchemy, a local nonprofit security company that has been involved in a string of violence and sexual assault scandals. (Breed closed one seemingly effective strategy to combat overdoses–a safe-injection site, where drug users could seek help and sterile needles—in December 2022.)
And this past April, Breed and California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that San Francisco would welcome National Guard troops and members of the state’s Highway Patrol as yet more layers of security to stand watch over the city’s central districts. These old, reactionary tactics from the drug war will certainly claim more low-income drug users as victims.
In September 2022, the Coalition on Homelessness sued the city on behalf f all unhoused San Franciscans, citing “the City’s egregious failure to support affordable housing for San Francisco residents.” In written declarations to the court, former staff members of Breed have testified around requests such as the mayor’s desire to have unhoused people removed from her sightline. Mentioned in the case are text messages showing Breed asking police officers to remove specific unhoused people from the streets. A sample: “Man sleeping on bench on Hayes St. near Gough. Can someone come asap, I am in the area having lunch.”
Contributing to the instability are self-deputized neighbors on apps like Nextdoor who frequently attend homeowners association meetings. These are the constituents Breed bends most quickly for. Prior to Breed’s election, Black activists held a banner reading “LONDON BREED DOESN’T CARE ABOUT BLACK PEOPLE” outside one mayoral debate. Breed, who is Black herself, was likely not too troubled by this. Even if she was broadly unpopular with Black residents, it wouldn’t mean much for her political fortunes: Once 20 percent of the city’s population, their numbers bottomed out at 5 percent a decade ago.
Breed now has backup from the district attorney’s office for these moves. In early 2022, she and her supporters focused their sights on the campaign to recall reformist District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Boudin and Breed were not friendly, and when Boudin was ousted after a recall campaign largely funded by out-of-state donors, Breed replaced him with Jenkins, a leader of the recall campaign who had promised to be “tough on crime.” (Friends and family of Banko Brown have pointed out that Jenkins’s refusal to prosecute Anthony sends the message that it is all right to kill unhoused people in San Francisco.)
That said, rulers like Breed know that progressive optics play well in Bay Area politics, but they won’t fight the housing affordability crisis with the most obvious, materially meaningful solution: cheap or public housing. Instead, Breed follows her benefactors from the real estate and security industries, who hawk dressed-up forms of punishment and surveillance to make life miserable for poor people, like new metal barricades meant to discourage sex workers in the Mission district, or “navigation centers,” temporary shelters for unhoused people that are demolished and moved every few years, and keep the city from building permanent low-income housing.
Last week, Walgreens agreed to pay San Francisco $230 million to pay for the opioid bombs the pharmacy dropped in the city. Breed says the money will be used to fund anti-addiction initiatives. Her record indicates it will more likely go to ending the lives of people with addictions, as she funnels money into punitive drug war tactics, hiring police instead of drug counselors, and forcing drug users into locked-down “conservatorship” facilities that disability justice activists have compared to the asylum system of the 1900s.
Brown’s supporters are working to end the conditions that murdered him. After leaving a May 16 meeting of Banko Brown supporters in the city’s Mission district, organizer Jemma DeCristo told me that “Banko Brown had no access to food or safe secure housing,” in a city “where London Breed continues to give millions and millions more to the SFPD, and equally violent proto-police security forces” like Urban Alchemy.
“She may as well have pulled the trigger herself,” DeCristo said.
Michael Earl-Wayne Anthony may have fired the gun that killed Banko Brown on April 27, but politicians who put property values over the lives of people like Brown loaded that gun. Brown was killed because life is dangerous for people who are Black, transgender, and unhoused. He was killed because of negligence from local government heads, who use “tough on crime” rhetoric to justify throwing public money at policing, surveillance, and cruel sweeps of homeless people from sidewalk to sidewalk, all while millions of dollars earmarked for low-income housing sits unused. Breed has a seemingly endless budget for policing. Brown didn’t even have a bed when he was killed.
The forces that caused Banko Brown’s death are ultimately not found on the streets. They are found in the halls of power, in a city overflowing with wealth that refuses to use that wealth for the public good. That—not the scaremongering propaganda you see on television—is the real crisis in San Francisco, for anyone who cares to look for it. That is why Banko Brown is dead.