Each time Maria Cristina Gutierrez hears about a San Francisco police officer shooting and killing someone, she has a bit of a routine that she goes through. She signs petitions for independent investigations and attends meetings with all sorts of elected officials and police representatives.
But the 66-year-old grandmother says those countless protests and meetings with police panels have changed nothing. So when she saw horrifying footage of a homeless man being shot by San Francisco police earlier this month, she knew it was time to do something different.
“I talked to my son and said, ‘You know, mi hijo, this is too much. We need to do something radical,’” Gutierrez told Fusion in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Her new tactic: a hunger strike. Gutierrez told her son they should both swear off food until the chief of the San Francisco Police Department resigns.
Gutierrez, her son, and three other activists have been fasting and camping on the sidewalk directly in front of the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) station in the Mission District for the last six days. The five activists, now entering their seventh day of fasting, have survived on water, coconut water, tea, and chicken broth.
The activists chose to camp out in front of the police station in the Mission because that neighborhood is where the last police killing took place.
The latest wave of protest in the city started after SFPD officers shot and killed 45-year-old homeless man Luis Gongora on April 7th. Police officials say Gongora lunged at officers with a knife. “The knife had a 10- to 12-inch blade," Police Chief Greg Suhr said at a press conference.
But witnesses dispute the claims made by police. "The knife was on his hip the whole time," witness John Visor told the local ABC News affiliate. "He didn't have no knife in his hand when the officers were around." The Guardian has also interviewed at least six witnesses who said Gongora appeared “relaxed” and was “not posing a threat to anyone.” Officers are on a standard paid leave during the investigation.
“We are demanding the SFPD Chief Greg Suhr be fired. And if he’s not fired by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, then Mayor Lee should resign,” Gutierrez told Fusion.
The mother and son say they are not interested in any other outcome—they’ve already tried everything else.
“It’s not like we just decided to go on a hunger strike. We’re not stupid. It’s just that our protests, marches, and meetings haven’t done anything,” said Gutierrez, who started organizing in her native Colombia at the age of 14.
“We go to community meetings, police reviews, we go to all these places. And we get nowhere,” Gutierrez said as she sat on a sidewalk in front of the police station. “The investigations [that result from police killings] always say the police officer was defending himself and shot in self-defense.”
In the years before Chief Suhr became San Francisco’s top cop, the department was a less deadly police force compared to other big cities. Between 2009 and the end of 2012, there were a total of two reported police killings in San Francisco, the lowest rate of the 14 biggest cities in the nation, according to an analysis by Franklin E. Zimring, the director of the criminal justice research program at the University of California, Berkeley.
After Suhr became chief on April 27, 2011, there were five police killings in six months, three more than there had been in the previous four years. The department has averaged 1.4 killings per year since Chief Suhr took office 2011.
The activists participating in the hunger strike also count in-custody deaths, bringing the total number of SFPD police killings to 11 since 2014.
“We’ve exhausted every avenue,” Gutierrez’s son Equipto told Fusion.
One of the avenues Equipto has resorted to in the past has been to interrupt the San Francisco mayor as he delivers speeches. The well-known rapper cussed out Mayor Lee at a coffee shop last October, saying “you are a disgrace to Asian people.” Equipto has interrupted the mayor’s speeches on at least three different occasions, the San Francisco Chronicle reported earlier this year, to criticize “the mayor for everything from the fatal police shooting of Mario Woods to homelessness and the displacement of low-income renters in the city.”
“We can no longer watch our community be targeted and murdered,” Equipto told his 4,700 Facebook followers in a post. “We can no longer support a department that is wrought with corruption, criminal behavior, racial profiling and murder.”
The SFPD is currently embroiled in a scandal involving at least eight officers who allegedly exchanged racist and homophobic text messages, including a police captain and a sergeant. The officers have all been able to keep their jobs. This week the scandal is in the news again after CNN published a new set of racist text messages sent by an SFPD officer.
After the text message scandal this week the hunger strikers camping out in front of the Mission police station aren’t helping the department’s image.
The activists participating in the fast say police officers have tried to push them out of the sidewalk and have made their lives harder by claiming the public restroom in the station is out of order.
"You treat us like animals and this is a proof of that, we cannot even use the bathroom," an impassioned Gutierrez told a police station attendant shortly after they closed the restroom. Gutierrez became enraged when the police officers closed the restroom because she had used it moments earlier.
“Because I’m on this fast, I get really wiped out after I yell. I feel like I’ve ran 20 miles,” Gutierrez told Fusion. “It’s very difficult for all of us. I walk a few feet and I get tired.”
Despite their low energy, the strikers say their spirits are high. Dozens of neighbors have come out to support them, including students in a preschool class at the nearby school where Gutierrez is a director. In true San Francisco tradition, one protest in front of the police station ended in a dance party honoring the singer Prince. “Help us keep the energy going! Prince dance party tonight w [sic] the strikers! 8pm,” read a Facebook status update a day after the singer passed away.
Gutierrez is the oldest member of the group of hunger strikers. At the age of 66, she said she’s struggling, but she said she can’t leave this world without knowing she tried to change what she calls an epidemic of police killings.
“I’m not going to leave this world without taking a stand,” Gutierrez told Fusion.
Photos by Sana Saleem published with the permission of 48hills.org.