Anger erupts over police shootings

Two recent officer-involved shootings spark protests throughout San Francisco

Police Chief Greg Suhr (left) and Elvira Pollard, mother of another police shooting victim, speak at the July 20 meeting

As the murky details of two recent police shootings emerge, a palpable anger surging through targeted communities points to a deeper issue than the particular circumstances surrounding each of these deaths. Simply put, many Bay Area communities are fed up with police violence.

For many activists who descended on transit stations to protest the fatal BART police shooting of Oscar Grant III, the 20-year-old unarmed Hayward man who was killed on New Year's Day 2009, an upwelling of rage was rekindled after BART cops shot and killed a homeless man named Charles Blair Hill on July 3 in Civic Center Station.

Then, on July 16, San Francisco police officers in the Bayview shot 19-year-old Kenneth Wade Harding Jr. multiple times after he ran from the T-Third train platform because he'd been stopped for fare evasion, leaving him dead on the sidewalk.

The recent officer-involved shootings occurred under two different law enforcement bodies, and both incidents remain under police investigation with many questions still unanswered. BART police say Hill was brandishing a knife; the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) said its response was justified because Harding fired at officers first. The investigation in Harding's case took a bizarre twist July 21 when SFPD issued a press release based on a medical examiner's report stating that Harding had died not from rounds fired by police, but a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

But among communities distrustful of the police, the particulars of each case seemed to matter less than the perception that officers are too quick to escalate conflicts into deadly standoffs. Both incidents provoked intense anger because they resulted in marginalized transit passengers suffering sudden, violent deaths following interactions that were initiated by police. The shootings sparked angry protests, prompting standoffs at Civic Center BART Station, along the T-Third line in the Bayview, on Valencia Street, in Dolores Park, inside the Castro Muni Station, and at the cable car turnaround on Powell Street.

A group of activists staged protests in the Mission following the Bayview police shooting, snaking through the streets as they disrupted traffic and public transit service. "The march began at Dolores Park where nearly 200 of us departed," an anonymous post on the anticapitalist Bay of Rage website recounted, describing the events of a July 19 protest that resulted in 43 arrests. "Upon reaching the Castro Muni Station, all hell broke loose.... What had now become a mob moved effortlessly past the bewildered cops ... Trash was set alight and thrown down onto the tracks below ... ticket machines, the fare checkpoints, and the agent booth were all smashed with hammers and flags — totally ruined. Smoke bombs and fireworks were thrown throughout the station."

This display occurred just eight days after protesters shut down BART stations in downtown San Francisco during rush hour to condemn the fatal shooting of Hill, the homeless BART passenger.

The message from outraged Bayview residents at a chaotic and emotionally charged community forum staged July 20 at the Bayview Opera House was not that people were upset that this had happened to Harding, a Washington state resident, in particular. Instead, people expressed outrage that police had gunned down yet another African American youth, and that unless some complicated and long-standing issues were addressed, it could happen again, to anyone. The forum was organized in partnership with the SFPD and clergy members from the Bayview. Police had prepared a PowerPoint presentation, but never managed to get that far.