October 23, 2002

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Riot or racism?
Two schools. Two fights. Two very different responses from the SFPD.

By Cassi Feldman

ON THE SURFACE , the Oct. 11 brawl at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in the Bayview is strikingly similar to one that happened near Lincoln High School in the Sunset District less than two weeks earlier. Both were sparked by smaller fights. Both involved dozens of youths. Both resulted in injuries and arrests.

But there is a huge difference in how the fights were handled: 3 officers responded to the fight at Lincoln; 67 raced to Marshall.

If anything, the Lincoln fight, which occurred Sept. 30, was more serious: it involved 50 kids, some armed with knives and baseball bats. So why was the response at Marshall so severe? Some say the answer lies in the race and background of the students involved.

"I think it was overkill," Mark Sanchez, a San Francisco school board member, told us. "My gut feeling is that it wouldn't have happened if the kids were white."

Unfortunately, neither the San Francisco Police Department nor the San Francisco Unified School District seems particularly inclined to deal with the race issue. Both have downplayed its significance in the fights themselves and in how the police responded.

Crosstown bust

According to the police report for the incident outside Lincoln, two police officers arrived at 22nd Avenue and Taraval Street after receiving a call about a "fight with weapons involving approximately 50 [Asian American and Caucasian] juveniles." By the time they arrived, another officer was already on the scene – and the fight was basically over. One youth was treated for a stab wound; three others were arrested. It barely made the news.

Eleven days later, two young African American men came to Marshall to pick up a relative who had been involved in an earlier fight with a group of Asian American youths. As the men approached the principal's office, witnesses say, another scuffle erupted in the hallway – and chaos ensued. Someone pulled the fire alarm, the on-site police officers called for backup, and 67 cops responded – along with eight sheriff's deputies in full riot gear who were "training nearby," according to SFPD deputy chief David Robinson.

In their attempt to contain the fight, students say, the officers hit several kids with batons. Senior Jeffrey Branner told us he saw an officer hit a student in the stomach and another one pull out a gun. "I never witnessed anything like that," he said.

A number of parents have already filed grievances with the Office of Citizen Complaints, and the incident is now under investigation. But while the SFPD and SFUSD admit that the response may have been excessive, neither has publicly acknowledged that any students were beaten.

Ducking blame

At an Oct. 16 meeting at Marshall, Robinson said he had checked hospital records and found that no students were treated for injuries inflicted by the police. Several parents took issue with that, waving their medical records in the air. Ronnie Cooper told us his daughter went directly to the hospital from the school. He said an officer had smacked her wrist with a baton and forced her to the ground.

Several other parents at the meeting had similar stories, but the response from school officials was tempered. Though the incident was serious enough to prompt the Oct. 16 resignation of Juliet Montevirgen, the school's principal, her interim replacement, Frank Tom, urged students to move on. "I'm more focused on interest than blame," he said. "I don't want to hear blame because ... that's negative energy."

But parents – for good reason – aren't ready to put the incident behind them. "I'm not trying to impose blame," parent William Mitchell said. "I'm trying to impose accountability."

The race issue

In making sense of what happened at Lincoln and Marshall, some say, you have to talk about race. While neither the students nor the faculty see overt racial tension in their schools, it's hard to ignore the fact that both fights involved two different ethnic groups going at it. SFUSD spokesperson Jackie Wright said that as far as she knows, they were not "racially motivated," but that's not necessarily the point.

"There's a lot of misunderstanding regarding multicultural conflicts," said Francis Chan, a case manager at the Community Assessment and Referral Center, which works with kids who have been arrested in San Francisco. Chan, who knows some of the youths involved in the Lincoln fight, said, "I'm sorry to say that the school hasn't been providing very much education about racial issues."

Others say students aren't the only ones who need to be schooled. San Francisco is arresting and incarcerating African American youths at a far higher rate than it is other kids. According to CARC, a total of 46 percent of the 113 kids arrested and brought to its office in the last three months were African American. Meanwhile, only 15 percent of the total number of students served by the SFUSD are African American.

James Bell, team leader for the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative, is working to understand this disparity. Though reluctant to label it racism, Bell notes that "police deployment and police activity are highest in neighborhoods that are poor, and most of those tend to be neighborhoods that have people of color in them."

Students and parents at the Oct. 16 meeting seemed to sense that inequity. They repeatedly demanded to know why the police felt it necessarily to show up at Marshall in such force. Deputy chief Robinson admitted their response was based, in part, "on the number of incidents [in the neighborhood] and the types of crimes that occur there."

But parents say that's exactly why the school is so important. "This is one of the finest schools in the city," parent Nadine Zeltzer said. "How do you characterize a school based on where it's located?"

Ishmael Tarikh, director of Bay Area Police Watch, agrees. The police at the meeting implied that "certain groups of people have to be treated in a brutal manner because they are brutal," he said. "Once you begin to paint with a broad brush, everyone in the community gets caught in the net."
E-mail Cassi Feldman at cassi@sfbg.com.