- Rebecca Solnit
writer, historian and activist. She is the author of over a dozen books, including, most recently, Men Explain Things to Me. She is also a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine. Her most recent piece for The Guardian is headlined “Death by gentrification: the killing that shamed San Francisco.” She’s lived in the Bay Area for 50 years, 36 of them in San Francisco.
- Adriana Camarena
writer and community advocate based in San Francisco. She attended the officers’ trial over the killing of Alex Nieto and is co-founder of the Justice for Alex Nieto Coalition.
We are on the road in San Francisco, as we continue our conversation about the 2014 police killing of Alex Nieto and a slew of other police killings—Mario Woods, Amilcar Pérez-López and now Luis Gongora. Three of four of these killings happened in San Francisco’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, the Mission District and Bernal Heights. We speak about the link between these police killings and gentrification in San Francisco, with author Rebecca Solnit and community organizer Adriana Camarena.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re on the road in San Francisco, California, where we’re continuing our 100-city tour and our conversation about the 2014 police killing of Alex Nieto, as well as a slew of other police killings—Mario Woods, Amilcar Pérez-López and now Luis Gongora, a homeless man who was killed just last Thursday. Three of four of these killings happened in San Francisco’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, the Mission District and the adjacent Bernal Heights. We’re going to talk about the link between these killings and gentrification in San Francisco, with author Rebecca Solnit, who wrote a piece called “Death by gentrification,” and community organizer Adriana Camarena. This is Part 2 of our conversation. In the first part, we particularly focused on the death of Alex Nieto and a recent jury decision to acquit the officers who killed him of excessive force. And we also talked about the killing of a homeless San Francisco man named Luis Gongora.
So, Adriana, we ended the first part of the conversation by talking about how you’re organizing. What are the groups that are dealing with these killings? And what do they have in common?
ADRIANA CAMARENA: There have been other groups before the Justice for Alex Nieto Coalition, that formed in 2014, and—like the Idriss Stelley Foundation, the Kenneth Harding Jr. Foundation. And now, with each killing, we have new coalitions forming with community members, neighbors, family. We now have the Justice for Amilcar Pérez-López, which is a group of neighbors who did an extraordinary job of putting together the first witness accounts. And unfortunately, Amilcar was literally killed in front of my house. So I was then part of another case.
AMY GOODMAN: Before we go further—
ADRIANA CAMARENA: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —for those who didn’t see Part 1, and they should go to our website to see it, but explain very briefly what happened to Alex Nieto March 21st, 2014, and then what happened to Amilcar.
ADRIANA CAMARENA: Alex was eating a burrito in the park around sunset on March 21st, 2014, just before he went off to work at his job as a night club security guard. And he was wearing his work Taser on his hip. And the short version is that two people passed by, they saw the Taser at his hip, became concerned and called 911. Alex was—didn’t actually engage with them at all, but they proceeded to inform 911 of his location. The police arrived. And two officers first arrived, and they—those first officers unloaded two clips and then reloaded and kept on shooting for a total of 43 bullets, before two other officers arrived and shot 16 more bullets. That’s—
AMY GOODMAN: You have two things. He was carrying a Taser—
ADRIANA CAMARENA: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —which he used for work. And he was wearing his 49ers jacket and a baseball cap.
ADRIANA CAMARENA: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: But they were red.
ADRIANA CAMARENA: Right, and they were red. And so, the description, which was actually elicited by the dispatch caller, was, “What is he”—you know, “Where is he? What is he wearing? What race is he?” And so, the description that was sent out to police is that they were looking for a Hispanic male, six feet tall, 200 pounds, wearing a red jacket and a gun at his hip. And so, with that description, they were basically setting up Alex Nieto to be killed, because he was—he could easily be profiled by police as a Norteño gang member.
AMY GOODMAN: Because they wear red.
ADRIANA CAMARENA: Because they wear red.
AMY GOODMAN: But they don’t consider the rest of San Francisco that wears these red 49ers jackets to be gang members.
ADRIANA CAMARENA: Exactly. One of Alex’s close friends, Ben Bac Sierra, said, “What if it had been a white person in a jacket? Would they have taken him for an off-duty cop?” Right?
AMY GOODMAN: So, he was killed by police March 21st.
ADRIANA CAMARENA: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: And a trial just acquitted them of excessive force.
ADRIANA CAMARENA: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: What happened to the man, Amilcar, who was killed in front of your house? When was this?
ADRIANA CAMARENA: This was February 26, 2015, so almost a year later. Amilcar is a—was a day laborer, 21-year-old Guatemalan man from Ch’orti’ indigenous descent. And he lived in a house across the street from us. And so, because day laborers would congregate outside the house, and so he was having a confrontation with somebody who took his cellphone. And so, he—this person walked away with his cellphone. The person had a bicycle. And so, to understand—these are people who don’t speak Span—English, sorry, sometimes not even Spanish. But he took a knife from his house and wanted to impress upon this person to give him back his cellphone. At that point, there were two undercover cops who came up behind him, did not identify themselves. They jumped him. And he had the natural reaction of wriggling out. He didn’t know what was happening. He dropped the knife that was in his hand, and he ran away from them. But what happened is—what I know from eyewitness accounts is that they—the police officer dropped the flashlight he had in his hand, and so his reaction was to immediately stand up and shoot him. And so, what’s remarkable about this version is that immediate version of police is that Amilcar [Pérez-López] was lunging at police officers. But very smartly, the lawyers who took the case did immediately an autopsy, and the finding is that there were six shots to the back.
AMY GOODMAN: Six shots in the back?
ADRIANA CAMARENA: Yes. And what was really impressive about it was that the—and the police said, from the—immediately and into the town hall meeting, that their version of events was that Amilcar had lunged at them with a knife. But the autopsy showed that all shots were to the back.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, what did the police say once the autopsy came out?
ADRIANA CAMARENA: They have sustained their version. They have now shifted slightly to say that he was turning. But we all know that when the police put out a statement, it is—it’s a fictional narrative. It’s a narrative that is adjusted to the legal standards, which is basically that they felt a threat and they feared for their lives. So, what’s really important is sometimes to hold them to those accounts, because, over time, as evidence comes forward, that narrative will fall apart.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the story of Amilcar Pérez-López.
ADRIANA CAMARENA: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: No one was held accountable in his killing.
ADRIANA CAMARENA: Well, in this case, we’re waiting to see if the district attorney is actually going to press charges in this case. There’s rumblings that he might.
AMY GOODMAN: When was Amilcar killed?
ADRIANA CAMARENA: On February 26 of 2015.
AMY GOODMAN: So why has it taken so long? This is more than a year later.
ADRIANA CAMARENA: Yes, it’s usually—they usually wait for the autopsy report, that I think was just released around his anniversary. And so, we are literally waiting for the district attorney to make a statement. There’s pressure right now.
AMY GOODMAN: Mario Woods, what happened to him on December 2nd? This is a very well-known story in San Francisco, but not as well known nationally, although it was raised by some of the Super Bowl dancers with Beyoncé who held up a sign, “Justice for Mario Woods.”
ADRIANA CAMARENA: Exactly, and, yes, it’s very well known in San Francisco. In this case, there’s actually video of bystanders where you see Mario being surrounded by approximately five officers. And you can see him literally cowering and walking against a wall. He’s not being aggressive. You can see he’s terrified. And what happens is that one of the officers moves into his line of where he’s walking. At that moment, there’s a release of a barrage of bullets from all of them. I’ve heard the number 20 bullets. And we see Mario die in the video. And it’s very shocking and traumatic for those who view this video or everybody who’s there present.
AMY GOODMAN: And where did this happen?
ADRIANA CAMARENA: This happened in the Bayview neighborhood. And in this case, the police were asked why did so many shoot, as clearly he wasn’t a threat. And the answer the chief of police said is that there’s a thing called sympathetic fire. And so, basically, there’s sympathy for other officers firing, but not for one man surrounded by all these officers. And so, there has been a strong coalition and other community organizers, including the coalition—the 3 Percent Coalition, who’s focused also on gentrification, looking into the case of Mario Woods.
AMY GOODMAN: Rebecca Solnit, this piece you wrote, “Death by gentrification,” which very much profiles the story of Alex Nieto, his death back in 2014, and then this civil trial, which may not be familiar to many, the idea that police officers go on trial, but they’re not going to face criminal charges. This is a civil suit that the family has brought against them using excessive force, though the jury found they did not use excessive force. Were jurors interviewed afterwards about why they felt what they felt?
REBECCA SOLNIT: No. Some journalists went after them, but weren’t able to get interviews. We don’t know why they made the decision they did.
AMY GOODMAN: You also interviewed Alex Nieto’s boss at the night club. He was a bouncer at a night club. Talk about how he described Alex.
REBECCA SOLNIT: Yeah, he was a—worked at a night club. Is it El Toro? I’m suddenly forgetting the name. Yeah. That has a Latino immigrant population going there. It can get very rowdy. Sometimes they have as many as nine security and bouncer guys working there. We went to talk to his boss after the trial, because I still felt like, OK, they’re talking—you know, the police story is that he was mentally ill, etc. And I was like, how could you work as a bouncer if you, like, were unable to deal with stress and make decisions in conflict, etc.? His boss could not say enough good about him. He adored Alex. He just deeply admired him. He loved how he could really defuse conflicts. He was a peacemaker. He would take people who were drunk and rowdy out in ways that didn’t—weren’t macho, didn’t increase the conflict, was really good at just like a really peaceful, calming presence, a real kind of hero in that space. And his boss couldn’t believe that he would do that with a Taser, and can’t believe this happened, and clearly just values and honors him deeply.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s pivot to the larger issue of gentrification that you raise, your piece headlined “Death by gentrification.” Three of the four cases that we have looked at—we previously talked about the killing of the homeless man, Luis Gongora, just last week—talk about where they took place in San Francisco and what’s happening here.
REBECCA SOLNIT: Mario Woods was killed in the Bayview district, which is a historically black district in southern San Francisco. The other three killings—the two non-English-speaking immigrants were killed in the Mission District, a historically Latino district with deep roots in really strong, beautiful Latino culture. And Alex was killed in the adjoining neighborhood that’s really part of the Mission in many ways, Bernal Heights.
And the gentrification—you know, the feeling you get from the community is that we’re being pushed out in many different ways. We’re being pushed out by evictions, by unaffordable housing, by the destruction of churches and businesses, bookstores, social services, nonprofits, etc., making way for a culture—you know, for new enterprises that serve a new incoming population of young, mostly white, mostly male tech workers. So you’re really having the wholesale replacement of one culture by another. And in the Mission, which is a really culturally rich place with really deep roots, really deeply meaningful, I think, for the United States Latino cultural identity as a whole, you know, this destruction is particularly painful. People are losing something, a sense of connection, a sense of community, a sense of memory and history. And it’s really kind of like a lobotomy for the neighborhoods as everything that makes people connected to the past, to each other, to a sense of meaning, to an identity, gets stripped away, and it all turns into a kind of shiny new kind of place that could be any place in the developed world.
AMY GOODMAN: You have written that Alex Nieto may have been killed in part because he grew up in a multicultural neighborhood where he dared to think that he belonged.
REBECCA SOLNIT: That—you know, it’s very hard, since Alex is not available for interviews. But the sense that I get from many of his friends and from knowing people who grew up right around him—some of my closest friends did—is that, you know, when he grew up, Bernal Heights was multi-ethnic, including white people. But it was—but people were really comfortable being around diversity. And the sense I get of him is of somebody who felt like he was an insider, felt at home, assumed that people respected him and respected his right to be there, and that he wasn’t really prepared for outsiders who saw him as an intruder, as somebody who didn’t belong, as somebody who didn’t have the right to be there.
AMY GOODMAN: His parents lived in this neighborhood for how many decades? Adriana, let me put that to you. You’ve become very close to them. They lived in one apartment, one house, for how many years with Alex and his brother?
ADRIANA CAMARENA: After they married, Refugio and Elvira Nieto moved into their home on Cortland street in 1984. So, since then, they’ve lived there.
AMY GOODMAN: And raised their two boys.
ADRIANA CAMARENA: And they raised their two boys there, Hector and Alex.
AMY GOODMAN: And what happened to Hector, Alex’s brother, after Alex was killed? He sat next to his parents in the courtroom.
ADRIANA CAMARENA: Yes, absolutely. He was there every day. He’s a very quiet, reserved young man. And he—but he stood there, and he took on the information. And he and I would sometimes debrief a little bit, but he basically understood that there was a version of the narrative the police were telling about his brother that was truly false.
AMY GOODMAN: And moving forward, in terms of gentrification and police sweeps of the homeless, Luis Gongora just last week, the homeless man, being killed. And he was killed in which neighborhood?
REBECCA SOLNIT: He was also killed in the Mission. And for me, this is really a death-by-gentrification story, because first he’s evicted from his home, and, of course, there’s incredible competition for the incredibly expensive housing, and an immigrant laborer was not going to compete successfully. So he became homeless, lived in a tent, established himself in a kind of tent community as a kind of beloved and trusted and kind member, was—as some of the people who lived in houses around really liked and trusted him. And so there’s a sense of people being pushed further and further. First he’s pushed out of his home. Then the mayor, particularly when the Super Bowl happens, pushes the homeless out of places they’ve traditionally been, and steps up the harassment of homeless people, 71 percent of which, as I said earlier, were previously housed in San Francisco. And then the police come and shoot him, and he’s just driven out of this life altogether.
AMY GOODMAN: And the Super Bowl, what happened as a result of the Super Bowl or the plans for it to happen?
REBECCA SOLNIT: It was so ridiculous. The Super Bowl actually happened in Santa Clara in Silicon Valley. The 49ers have moved south. But to make the city look pretty for the newcomer, for the visitors, for the tourists, the mayor decided to do massive sweeps of the homeless. And so like a whole new level of persecution began where people were pushed out of a lot of other neighborhoods. Many of them moved south of Market, which is adjacent to the Mission, and to the Mission. It’s been a very rainy, wet winter, so they’re living in tents. The tents were confiscated and trashed. One of the really painful things we saw was a disabled veteran who required a walker to get around. We saw his walker thrown into a garbage truck and compacted. People are losing their medicines, their possessions, their identity, their phones. You know, all their belongings are just thrown away. And so, it’s a real kind of purge. And where are these people supposed to go? They have no place to go.
AMY GOODMAN: This was just in this morning, published this morning. A sixth witness disputes police account of homeless man’s killing in San Francisco, Luis Gongora’s killing. She says he appeared relaxed and was not posing a threat to anyone before officers shot and killed him.
REBECCA SOLNIT: We have a lot of witnesses who say he was not a threat, and they conflict with the police story. The police claim that there were three witnesses supporting their version. But no journalist has ever heard—we’ve never heard from them. We don’t know their names. They haven’t appeared. We don’t know if they exist. And as Adriana and I have been telling you, the San Francisco police don’t have a great reputation for truthfulness right now.
AMY GOODMAN: Adriana Camarena, you are a community organizer. You’ve been very close to the Nietos. During the trial, you sat with them. You helped translate. You’re also a lawyer—well, in Mexico. And you’re now trying to document what is taking place in your communities here in San Francisco. Can you describe what happened to you on Saturday night as you tried to film?
ADRIANA CAMARENA: Sure. One of the things that we’ve learned, unfortunately, through these cases is that it takes the neighbors to get the first account of these shootings right, because we know that the narrative of the police is that they were threatened and had to shoot for their lives. So, as soon as I could on the night that he was killed, I made a first round and introduced myself to the residents of the homeless encampment. And after that—
AMY GOODMAN: This is when Luis Gongora was killed?
ADRIANA CAMARENA: Yes, when Luis Gongora was killed on Thursday, April 7th. And so, after that, I returned, and we exchanged numbers. And so, now they had my numbers, two of the witnesses. And what—and I told them, “If you need help, just call me.” So it’s Saturday night. I’m already ready to go to sleep, and they call around 11:00 p.m. to say that they—the cops have arrived with sticks, they’re hitting on the tents, they’re pushing them out. So I put a call out. I blasted out a call saying, “Whoever can go out there right now, come out and observe what’s going on.” So, by the time I arrived, it was closer to midnight, maybe 11:30 into midnight. And I started filming.
And I did see the cops tearing down tents. What I learned that had happened is that many of the homeless people who are terrified of contact with police, as soon as they arrived, they fled. So the police officers were—there weren’t that many, maybe about four. Some people have said up to six, but I saw four. They targeted the tents that were unattended. One of them belonged to another one of the witnesses. And they literally dismantled, slashed them, tore them apart. And it really felt like a retaliation, because they just targeted the homeless people on that block, on Shotwell from 18th to 19th Streets. There were homeless people around the corner. And basically, they didn’t actually even pick up. The remains of these structures were left there for the homeless people, on a rainy night, to pick up during the night.
And so, as I was filming there, I also had an interaction with one of the officers, who resented my filming, and so he flashed a flashlight into my face. And I asked him, “Are you doing this so I can’t film you?” And he responded, “No, I’m doing this because you’re pointing an object at me, and I’m concerned for my safety,” which is basically the language that police officers use to pull out their guns and shoot people.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, I want to go to the clip of you, Adriana Camarena, filming the police in San Francisco dismantling this homeless camp shortly after Luis Gongora’s killing.
ADRIANA CAMARENA: So you’re flashing your camera—your flashlight at me so that I can’t record? Is that the idea?
POLICE OFFICER: I’m flashing my flashlight at you because you’re pointing something at me, and I’m concerned for my safety.
ADRIANA CAMARENA: You’re concerned about your safety, after there was a police shooting on this block?
POLICE OFFICER: Yeah.
ADRIANA CAMARENA: Yes?
POLICE OFFICER: Especially after that.
ADRIANA CAMARENA: Especially, because it’s on video that you responded—your colleagues responded within 30 seconds by shooting bean bags and then bullets? You are the danger on the streets.
AMY GOODMAN: “You are the danger on the streets,” you said to the San Francisco police.
ADRIANA CAMARENA: Yes, that’s exactly how I feel and how many of my members in the coalitions and also just neighbors at this point feel. It’s dangerous that they are so reckless about their use of force. And I think they have become brazen, especially after the Alex Nieto trial. They feel emboldened to use their weapons, because no charges have come from the district attorney, and the case was not successful. But it was successful in pointing out their behavior.
AMY GOODMAN: The California primary is coming up on June 7th. Are these issues of police brutality, of police killings being raised at the higher levels of government? Is the movement, do you feel, coalesced enough that this will become a presidential campaign issue?
ADRIANA CAMARENA: What I have been able to—the only instance that I’ve seen so far is that—precisely on the Facebook page for Luis Gongora, also known by his nickname Willy Gongora, a supporter for Bernie Sanders has mentioned, #MovementForBernie, that they will respond to the shootings in San Francisco. So, it could be possible that that’s coming up.
REBECCA SOLNIT: We do have local candidates with different positions on the issue running for the state Assembly. And San Francisco is like pretty nearly 100 percent Democratic Party, but there’s a real schism between the people serving the tech corporations and the wealthy elite, and in the Assembly race for San Francisco that’s represented by Scott Wiener, and by Jane Kim, who’s much more on the populist side of the divide in city politics.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s so interesting the way these stories are described, so often the person who is shot by police seen as the threat—and this is something you referenced, Adriana. Rebecca, what about this?
REBECCA SOLNIT: You know, what was interesting to me, when I was charged with not saying enough about Alex Nieto’s mental illness, which I actually didn’t say anything about in my Guardian piece because nothing convinced me that he had any mental illness—and if the evidence of that was supposed to be that he pointed his Taser at the police, and the only outside witness says he didn’t, then forget that story—what I suddenly realized, with my experience with rape stories, something I’ve covered a lot, is that the victim gets put on trial. The victim is treated as the guilty one. The victim undergoes character assassination. A lot of red herrings are thrown out about things that are irrelevant. We heard about Trayvon Martin’s high school, you know, suspension. We heard about Eric Garner’s arrest record for nonviolent, petty sort of harassment offenses. And so, there is this weird way where who’s guilty—and are you guilty of being shot by the police?—but all this evidence comes up to prove—to justify what the police did.
And the other similarity for me between these police stories and the rape stories that I’ve covered so often, nobody ever shows up in court and says, “Yeah, I totally raped that person.” Nobody—the police never show up and say, “Oh, hell yeah, that was excessive use of force. Oh, hell yeah, we violated that person’s civil rights.” So of course they always say that there was a threat, that it was justifiable, etc., and then start trying to convince people to not care about this person, to not value this person, to not believe the people who stand up for this person. And that’s kind of routine. There’s a way in which you should look at all the evidence and form your own opinion, and there are justifiable homicides in like hostage situations and things like that. But in these cases where—it’s kind of a given that you’ll be told that this was a very bad person who was doing very terrible things.
AMY GOODMAN: Adriana, finally, in the case of Alex Nieto, the man who made the original 911 call, though he hadn’t even seen Alex—his partner had seen Alex and was concerned that the Taser looked like a gun—he attempted to apologize at the trial to Alex Nieto’s parents?
ADRIANA CAMARENA: Yes, he did apologize. I was there with the Nietos. It was during a recess after he had testified. He came straight at them. And I’ll try to recall what he said, but he said that he was very sorry for the loss of Alex, that no parent should have to go through what they went through, and that he just wanted to tell them how sorry he was. And at that moment, I was—the Nietos got a translation of the apology, and they had different reactions. And the father immediately took his hand and embraced him. And he later—Refugio later told me that, for him, he heard Alex saying that even in facing some of our—the people who hurt us, you have to take the higher ground. His mom, on the other hand, heard the apology, but she wasn’t in the place to hear it or, you know, to accept it or to allow herself to be touched. And since I am studying restorative justice, I would say that that was appropriate, and each victim has their journey. And I respect the parents very much, each—each one of them for their reaction.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for spending this time talking about what’s happening in your communities. Adriana Camarena is a community organizer, a lawyer in Mexico. Here, she is working with families who have been victimized by police. And Rebecca Solnit, we’re going to link to your piece, “Death by gentrification,” that you did for The Guardian. Rebecca Solnit is a well-known author and writer, acclaimed all over the United States. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.