San Francisco is more than 2,000 miles from Ferguson, Mo., the small town where a police shooting set off protests and fueled the Black Lives Matter movement around the nation in 2014. But the events of Ferguson seem closer than ever to the Bay Area after Mario Woods, a young black man, was fatally shot by police in early December.
Activists and city leaders in San Francisco say it’s a mistake to think progressive liberalism has shielded this city from racial tensions causing an uproar from the South to the Midwest. “I know that Ferguson is in Missouri and we’re on the Bay, but in terms of attitudes, practices and the treatment of the black community, Ferguson is in San Francisco,” says local NAACP chapter president Amos Brown. The shooting “happened because of racism,” he adds. “It happened because of a culture of neglect when it comes to black folks. That’s what’s coming home to haunt us.”
On Wednesday, members of San Francisco’s black community planned to memorialize 26-year-old Woods. Three investigations into Woods’ death are underway, and local lawmakers, black community leaders and Woods’ family are calling for major policing reforms.
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has met the criticism by asking police to ensure that lethal force is a last resort, and by drawing a distinction between San Francisco and other cities that have been roiled by police shootings of young black men. “This country has seen far too many incidents where conflicts between police and young men of color result in the death of a young person,” he said at a press conference. “In San Francisco, we’re not this kind of city. That’s not our values.”
A ‘wrongful’ shooting
The events leading to Woods’ death began on Dec. 2 when a man was injured in a non-fatal stabbing in the city’s Bayview neighborhood. Later that afternoon, at least five police officers approached Woods, responding to reports of a man who matched the description of the stabbing suspect. What followed is still being determined by investigators, but videos taken on cellphones show at least part of the events.
Police have said Woods was brandishing a 6- to 8-in. kitchen knife and therefore endangering the officers. At a community meeting held two days after the shooting, Police Chief Greg Suhr produced a blown-up still from a video in an attempt to show that Woods’ arm was outstretched with a weapon. The officers first tried to disarm Woods using pepper spray and bean bags, police said, but they were unsuccessful. So when one of them stepped into Woods’ path as he tried to walk away from the officers—and toward bystanders—that officer fired his gun. At least 15 shots from police followed, and Woods was killed. One of the police officers was African-American.
A spokesperson for the police department declined to comment on the case, citing a lawsuit that has been filed against the city and county on behalf of Woods’ family, and referred TIME to the city attorney’s office, which has yet to respond to a request for comment.
A bystander’s video uploaded by the law office of John Burris, which filed the civil suit, shows police surrounding Woods as he crouches and stands near a wall. It is hard to make out if anything is in his hands, but the woman filming the events repeatedly yells, “Just drop it!” At the time when the first shot is fired, Woods is slowly walking, almost limping, away from the officers and his hands appear to be at his sides.
“The police statements about how it happened were just not accurate,” says Burris, who successfully sued local authorities in the past on behalf of the daughter of Oscar Grant, the young black man whose death at the hands of police in Oakland became the basis for the 2013 film Fruitvale Station. “Our view is that this was a person who was shot multiple times at a time when he did not put officers’ lives in imminent danger.” The case alleges that police used excessive force in Woods’ “wrongful death,” that police fabricated reports, and that the department has more broadly exhibited a “continuing pattern and practice of misconduct.”
‘The powerful against the powerless’
San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen, an African-American lawmaker whose district includes Bayview, has described the police officers’ actions as those of an “ethnically diverse firing squad,” and tells TIME that she stands by that description, despite criticism from the local police officers association. She adds that the problem is not just about race but about how institutions with power view and treat disenfranchised communities.
“This is a very classic example of the powerful against the powerless,” Cohen says, sitting in her office at City Hall, where hundreds of students arrived in protest in the days after the shooting. “It’s a power struggle. ‘I command you to put down the knife. You disobey. I will force you. I will show you who has the power and you will put down the knife one way or the other.’ In this case, Mario was killed.” Cohen believes there needs to be greater transparency, accountability and training for officers in areas such as implicit bias and crisis intervention, though she does not take a position on whether abuse of power is a department-wide problem.
San Francisco’s leaders have watched similar events unfold in other cities like Chicago—where the chief of police was fired over the controversial police shooting of Laquan McDonald more than a year after it happened—and are trying to address the problem head on before it spirals into further protests and conflict. In the days following the shooting, the police department issued a bulletin with new guidelines for using force, and the police chief has called for officers to be outfitted with stun guns and shields so there are more choices “between beanbags and bullets.”
Still, anger is mounting along with views of the shooting videos posted on social media. Some members of the community have called for the police chief to resign, arguing that he misrepresented what actually happened. And NAACP president Brown says the promised reforms are “a bit too late,” alleging that his group got an insufficient response a year ago after asking the police to institute changes like recruiting more African-American personnel to diversify the workforce.
Woods’ family is not among those asking for the chief’s head, but they do want “justice,” says the spokesperson for the family, Shawn Richard. The 47-year-old, who lost two brothers to gun violence and runs a non-profit called Brothers Against Guns, says that Woods’ mother, Gwendolyn, is struggling. “She lost her kid. Her son was killed and she had to find out on Facebook,” he says. “And we’re not even sure Mario was even involved in the stabbing.”
Woods does have a criminal record, including alleged juvenile gang activity and an arrest at age 19 after he fled the scene of a failed robbery at a pool hall, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. He pleaded guilty to robbery with a weapons enhancement, as well as gang-related crimes, and was sentenced to seven years in state prison. Richard, who says Woods came through his non-violence program as a teenager and that he was “a healthy, vibrant young man,” not a gang member. The family has, however, said that he’s been having mental health issues such as depression. “When he came home from jail,” Richard says, “it seemed like he lost a little bit of his tracking.”
Bayview vs. Ferguson
While many are comparing the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson to Woods’ death, the demographics set a different scene on the West Coast. Unlike Ferguson, where two-thirds of the population is black, San Francisco’s black population has been dwindling for decades, down to what is now less than 6% from more than twice that in 1970. Of the 13 largest cities in the U.S., only San Jose has a smaller proportion of black residents. And while the incomes for other demographics have been rising amid the tech boom—the median for white households is now more than $104,000—theirs has shrunk to less than $30,000. Bayview, where the shooting occurred, is a southern neighborhood where some black residents moved after urban renewal pushed them out of other neighborhoods closer to the center of the city; incomes there are relatively low and nearly a third of the population is black.
In the wake of a scandal earlier this year over San Francisco police sending racist text messages, which erupted after a federal corruption probe uncovered texts that referred to “monkeys” and “half-breeds,” leaders in the black community questioned whether the decades of exodus might have “been driven as much by subtle forms of racism as by the city’s high cost of housing,” as the Los Angeles Times’ Maura Dolan wrote. On the same day Woods was shot, defendants in a federal drug case accused San Francisco police officers of racial targeting and using excessive force in a court filing, as well as “engaging in systematic racial bias and sexual harassment toward black residents.”
“What’s it like being black in San Francisco? It’s hard right now,” Richard says. “We have to be very honest that there’s still racism going on. Until we start being honest and having an honest dialogue and conversation about race, we’re going to be stuck in the same pattern, the same jacket that we wear every day.”