Commentary

Commentary – Meyer Gorelick

Sunset Fighting for Justice 

George Floyd’s slow suffocation at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25 ignited nationwide protests decrying both police brutality and systemic racism. About 2,000 people marched down the Great Highway on June 2 in a protest organized by workers at the Outer Sunset restaurant Outerlands.

Sunset resident and American Flight Attendants Association Union organizer Kaylah Paige Williams said she felt a bond with her community that day.

“Being at that protest on Monday, it really truly felt like, wow, this is my community,” she said. “I felt so excited to stand in solidarity with all of my neighbors.”

sunset march photo square md

A crowd gathered at Sloat Boulevard and the Great Highway near the San Francisco Zoo for a “Sunset Solidarity March” on June 2. Protesters carried signs and chanted slogans supporting the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Floyd’s death sparked outrage and protests throughout the country and in other parts of the world. Photo by Michael Durand.

Williams said the protests are a good start, but an organized movement to defund police is the next step.

Floyd’s murder is among a litany of examples of lethal state violence that disproportionately impacts people of color in this country. Black Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by the police than white Americans, despite making up only 13% of the population. One in three Black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives, while only one in 17 white men can expect jail time. 

Statistics like these are not a reflection of criminality, but institutional inequities that have existed since the nation’s founding. That started with slavery, which even after being abolished by the 13th Amendment, was still protected by a clause saying that criminals could still be exploited for their labor.

This loophole was exploited immediately and continues to be abused today as people of color are disproportionately mass-incarcerated due to over-policing and a militarized war on drugs in their communities, where they don’t have access to adequate healthcare, housing or employment opportunities.

“These problems have obviously existed for a long time, and even the specific issue of police-involved killings of African American men has been a problem nationally, even here in San Francisco in recent years,” said Sunset District Supervisor Gordon Mar.

The scaling up and militarization of police at the expense of housing and education in communities of color puts officers with guns as first responders for mental health crises and other emergencies where de-escalation is paramount.

“In San Francisco, the police department budget has increased significantly over the last decade,” Mar said. “A lot of that increase has been increased officers, yet that hasn’t really resulted in improvements in public safety in our city, including in the Sunset District.”

Williams, who was recently elected as a delegate to represent Bernie Sanders at the Democratic National Convention, sees reinvestment of the police budget into social services as a key step forward.

“What we invest in tells us what we value,” she said. “If we value the high militarization of the police to the point where it takes away from educating our citizens, or it takes away from helping our veterans, or helping folks to find housing, that’s telling the entire country where our values lie, and I think that we’re finally fighting back to say: ‘Hey, no, our values are within our people.’”

While Mar stopped short of an outright call to defund the police, he said that in light of the city’s impending $1.5 billion deficit, the police budget must be scrutinized. He called for more resources in communities of color.

“I do support increasing investments to support communities of color that have been the most impacted by racism in all its forms in our city,” he said. “This is actually a strategic investment in public safety as well. By investing in education and safety net supports in low-income communities, especially communities of color, we can address the root causes of crime in our city.”

Williams, a Black woman, has first-hand knowledge of what it is like to be harassed by police and to fear for her life simply because of the color of her skin. 

While working as a canvassing manager in San Mateo on election day in November 2016, she was cut off by two police SUVs before she could cross the street. Dressed professionally and carrying a clipboard, Williams explained to the officers that she was not lost, she was simply doing her job, and showed them her clipboard with the candidate’s name on it.

She didn’t have her driver’s license handy, so the officers grilled her for 20 minutes, running her name through their database, questioning whether she was actually campaigning.

“I can’t describe to you the fear, the worry, the anxiety,” Williams said. She said she was terrified that speaking her mind and voicing her frustration could result in serious harm, or possibly her death.

“The only name that kept ringing in my ears was Sandra Bland,” she added. Bland was pulled over in 2015 for failing to use a turn signal, then was arrested and died in jail three days later.

“After running my name and my address and all that, they let me go, and I walked back and I found a space that’s a little hidden away and I just cried for a solid five minutes,” Williams said.

Although the experience was traumatic, Williams said she felt lucky it did not turn out worse for her.

The impact of disparities in wealth and opportunity in American communities of color thus far have not been treated with improvements in education, housing, healthcare and employment opportunities, but with more policing. 

In January, cellphone footage showed Kajon Busby, 19, being restrained by San Francisco police officers in the Hunters Point neighborhood. Police there used the same kneeling choke restraint that resulted in George Floyd’s death.

Williams said the San Francisco Police Officers Association union raised $700,000 in two weeks to fund the November 2019 campaign against current District Attorney Chesa Boudin, an advocate for police and criminal justice reform.

“They are willing to protect a police officer, and respect a police officer’s life more than a civilian’s,” she said. “The entire point of being a police officer is to serve and protect. It’s in the title.”

Williams called for allies of the movement to end systemic racism to educate themselves, listen to and elevate black voices who are speaking about these problems, and to continue taking action by voting, protesting (if able), using their platforms and communicating about these issues.

Mar stressed the need to be more sensitive to the stakeholders during this reevaluation.

“I do think it is important for allies to really understand what the specific demands are from communities of color that are most impacted by law enforcement and to respect and support those demands,” he said.

“It’s important for allies to follow the lead of communities of color that are most impacted and are the ones whose voices should be centered in our public discussion and our calls for action.” 

Meyer Gorelick is a writer living in San Francisco. He is a contributor to the Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon newspapers.

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