As Californians prepare to vote in the presidential primary Tuesday, there’s one person we know for sure who won’t be participating. In fact, we will never know which candidate could have earned the vote of Jessica Williams Nelson, a 29-year-old woman from San Francisco.
That’s because on May 19, Williams Nelson was shot dead by a San Francisco Police Department sergeant, Justin Erb. Her death marked the third time since late 2015 that SFPD officers shot and killed black or Latino residents of my hometown.
As I see it, these killings represent a litmus test for the presidential candidates now wooing voters in California’s Bay Area.
More directly: Do Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton know or give a damn about what’s transpired for black people in the Bay Area in recent years? Are they aware that the black population of the city has declined from 13 percent to just shy of 6 percent of city residents between 1979 and now? If income inequality is a focus of the candidates’ domestic-policy platforms, what do the candidates make of the fact that the median income for white San Francisco households is $104,000 annually—and $29,000 for black San Francisco households? (I’m deliberately excluding from these questions the presumptive GOP presidential nominee: His policy positions on race and criminal-justice issues, such as they are, amount to “Support the police.”)
It is fair to ask if Sanders and Clinton are aware that San Francisco—an oasis of culture and sophistication—has become a hellscape of income inequality, obscenely high housing prices, police brutality and gentrification. For liberal candidates who espouse a commitment to leveling the playing field in education, housing, employment and criminal justice, it strikes me as odd, at best, that neither Sanders nor Clinton has explicitly called out the stark inequalities and blatant racial hostilities that exist in San Francisco, especially regarding the city’s shrinking black population.
Sanders, currently in a tight race with Clinton in California, has been crisscrossing the Golden State in recent days, desperate to win the primary in spite of a deficit in raw votes and delegates that makes his bid for the Democratic nomination all but an impossible dream. Sanders recently told a largely black audience in Oakland—the largest city in the East Bay, and a historically black enclave—that making police reforms, legalizing marijuana and forcing the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate every instance in which a suspect dies in police custody is his plan to combat police brutality.
“Unlike in other countries, we do not have [law enforcement] culture that says shooting someone is the last response, not the first response,” Sanders said during a May 30 appearance at Allen Temple, a community powerhouse in Oakland.
“Too often, the first response is lethal force,” he said. He didn’t directly address the SFPD excessive-force cases, but in campaign stops nationwide since early this year, Sanders has incorporated broad police- and criminal-justice-reform platform planks after being confronted by Black Lives Matter activists on the subject.
Clinton, too, hasn’t explicitly mentioned the recent San Francisco police-related shootings during her stops in the Bay Area, but she has forged an alliance with parents of other black and Latino citizens killed by law-enforcement officers in American cities. During a visit to St. Paul Greater Church in Oakland on Sunday, Clinton told the predominantly black parishioners that she advocates criminal justice reforms, and an end to gun violence. She stopped short of criticizing police departments in Oakland and San Francisco for excessive force. And while Clinton, like Obama, has dipped into the deep well of money sloshing around in San Francisco to bolster Democratic Party and campaign coffers, it doesn’t appear that these cases of cops out of control have penetrated the candidates’ radar to a big degree.
I’m not certain if this represents a simple oversight on the part of both campaigns (which, to be fair, have to cover an immense amount of topical terrain during primary season) or a sign that Sanders and Clinton, equally, are fronting when they say they’re committed to reforming the criminal-justice system and creating greater opportunities for blacks, Latinos and working-class Americans. San Francisco, a small city with enormously stark examples of all these social-justice topics packed into a small space, could be an ideal location for launching a concerted campaign (however rhetorical at this juncture) to inject policies and measures to level the playing field.
And more than any other topic facing the nation’s largest and most populous state, policing and criminal justice, particularly in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Oakland, are clear examples of inequitable systems that negatively affect blacks, Latinos and poor people.
The killing of Jessica Williams Nelson, for instance, was remarkable for its similarity to other recent episodes of San Francisco police killing residents: notably, in the race and economic status of those who were killed—poor and brown or black—and in the murky justifications for the shootings provided by police officials.
There’s the Dec. 2, 2015, case of Mario Woods, a 26-year-old black man, who was shot more than 20 times by SFPD officers who confronted him on a street in the city’s predominantly black neighborhood, Bayview. After a man nearby had been stabbed, police responded and found Woods a few blocks away, carrying a knife. After warning him to drop the knife, and after shooting Woods with bean bags, a phalanx of some eight officers surrounded him. Although Woods appeared to be walking away, officers fired dozens of rounds at him. Woods’ death was caught on bystanders’ mobile phone cameras and instantly went viral.
Then, on April 7, 2016, Luis Gongora, a 45-year-old Latino man who lived in a tent in an alley in the city’s Mission District, was shot multiple times by two police officers who responded to neighbors’ complaints that Gongora had been behaving erratically. Police officials claimed that Gongora had “charged” at officers while carrying a knife, though witnesses dispute that description.
These incidents happened all while blacks in San Francisco remain 7.1 times as likely as whites to be arrested and account for 40 percent of arrestees in the city, though the black population currently hovers just under 6 percent of the city’s 860,000 residents.
At the same time, it is encouraging to see a new generation of black activists emerge from the crises. The hippy-fueled socialist and radical movements that characterized San Francisco’s activist communities during the ’60s and ’70s, and the gay movement of the ’70s and ’80s, had all but vanished within the orgy of tech-industry-infused wealth that has poured into the city in recent years. But lately, street protests, sit-ins and social media campaigns from Black Lives Matter contingents in San Francisco, Oakland and other affiliated social-justice groups have revitalized San Francisco’s progressive and rabble-rousing DNA.
The killing of Jessica Williams Nelson led to the firing of SFPD Chief Greg Suhr, and a petition to recall Mayor Ed Lee—whom social-justice activists describe as a “puppet” for the tech industry—is gathering steam.
Still, black activists like Cat Brooks of the BLM-affiliated organization the Anti Police-Terror Project said that complex, intertwined factors—including high cost of living, income inequality and police abuse of black and brown residents—have ignited a fire under young residents in the city and the Greater Bay Area. She isn’t optimistic, however, that either Sanders or Clinton genuinely sees as an urgent priority the topic of police killing black and brown residents and related matters.
“Nobody’s responding to the issue of police terror unless they’re forced to respond to police terror,” Brooks said. “The fight to get Chief Suhr fired has been going on for years.” Brooks described the current wave of anti-police-brutality fervor as having begun with the killing of Alex Nieto, 28, who died in 2014 after being shot more than 15 times by members of the SFPD after an officer claimed that Nieto aimed a “Taser-like” object at them.
A rising coalition of organizations such as the Anti Police-Terror Project and the Frisco 5 is pursuing an agenda involving pushing for “top to bottom” reforms of police departments in Oakland and San Francisco, no matter the outcome of the Democratic presidential primary, Brooks said.
“What we want to know is this: What does it mean in the 21st century to keep communities safe?” Brooks added. “The system now, which originated in slave-catching, doesn’t work for black and brown people … we need to push to reimagine what 21st-century policing looks like.”
Amy Alexander, an award-winning writer and editor in Silver Spring, Md., is the author of four nonfiction books, including Uncovering Race: A Black Journalist’s Story of Reporting and Reinvention. She has produced stories for the National Journal/Atlantic, NPR, The Nation, The Root and other outlets.