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The Hunger Strike May Be Over, but the Conversation Around Police Violence Is Still Starved

The Frisco Five have everyone’s attention. What will they do with it?

Protesters outside Mission Police Station on May 3.


Say what you will about the Frisco Five, who, after 17 days, called off a hunger strike that inspired hundreds of protesters to storm City Hall and berate public officials on multiple occasions. But you can’t say these aren’t brave people, with no shortage of tenacity and fortitude. And you can’t accuse them of being unfocused. Their demands were the ouster of Police Chief Greg Suhr and/or the resignation of Mayor Ed Lee. And in that they've refused to waver, even when traditional political allies urged them to think bigger.  

Now the protesters have announced a press conference at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday at 17th and Valencia Streets to, ostensibly, answer the question of what comes next. It will be intriguing to see where this nascent movement chooses to go: Will it use its leverage and sense of moral urgency to push through long-sought, tangible reforms? Or will it, like so many prior efforts, gallop headlong into the windmill and disintegrate, having failed to accomplish much other than retaining ideological purity? 

The conversations about how to change the rules and training so that police no longer cavalierly gun down suspects not possessing firearms—and routinely escape punishment when they do—are overdue. There’s a vital discussion to be had. But, outside the realm of technocrats, we’re not having it. In this city, the conversation around police use of force has been starved, too.

It’s not every day
you hear city progressives bemoaning the exit of Mayor Willie Brown from City Hall. But, after Lee’s handling of the hunger strikers, there were more than a few longtime city lefties who openly pined for Brown’s panache. 

Da Mayor would not have secreted himself in the back entrance of the Mission Police Station and had his photo taken as he sat, impotently, in an empty room sandwiched between two African American aides. Nor would Brown have fled the protesters’ march to City Hall and, instead, disseminated photos of himself pressing the flesh with minority business owners in Bayview. No, Brown would have pulled off something along the lines of parking the mayoral limo in front of Mission Station, asking for five designated leaders, and motoring off to talk turkey. 

This scenario would be far more welcome than what we got: Intransigent protesters and San Francisco’s cloistered mayor talking past each other while the former threatened to commit slow suicide on the sidewalk. 

It is not the role of the Frisco Five to get out of the way and let this city’s reform-minded politicians carry the ball across the goal line. But it was still agonizing to watch the protesters denounce their left-leaning Board of Supervisors sympathizers as “sellouts,” unwilling to autocratically do things the Board is not authorized to do (like firing Chief Suhr), or send an “emergency resolution” to the mayor demanding he fire Chief Suhr. (Such a resolution would, of course, be nonbinding. Lee can ignore even binding legislation if it receives the votes of fewer than eight supes. And, even if an ordinance received 11 votes and Jesus descended from heaven to grant a 12th vote, Lee would be entitled to simply not fund any financial elements of a law he dislikes. They don’t call it a “strong mayor system” for nothing.) 

The protesters’ focus on firing Chief Suhr has, for better or for worse, been nothing short of obsessive. If the Frisco Five have tangible goals in mind other than tossing Suhr into retirement (where his pension will, in all likelihood, exceed his current take-home salary), they remain elusive. When the strikers were hospitalized last week, Public Defender Jeff Adachi visited them and presented, in writing, some of the goals police reformers have desired for a decade or more. 

Among these: 

• Redefining the amount of force an officer is entitled to use in a threatening situation from its current status of “reasonable” to “minimal”; 

• Mandating use of “proportional” force, which would prohibit use of deadly force unless a suspect is also engaging in potentially deadly force; 

• The creation of an independent entity to review SFPD crime and race statistics; 

• Independent review of officer-involved shootings; 

• More and better crisis intervention and implicit bias training for all officers. 

And that would just be the start of things. Chiefs come and chiefs go, but the Department General Orders have, by and large, remained untouched. “The DGO is the bible,” says a former city law-enforcement official. “It becomes the enabler and the ethos.” And changing “the bible” might be easier if commanded to do so by a higher authority. If Mayor Lee were cajoled by protests into calling in the Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation of the SFPD—and the DOJ consented to do so—its rulings would be binding, unlike the nonbinding collaborative reform currently under way. Boot Suhr and leave the DGO intact, and you provide only the veneer of change. And, right now, none of the activists are even talking about altering the DGO.   

It’s uncertain what, if any, of these matters will be discussed on Thursday by the Frisco Five. Reached by cell on Tuesday, former striker and District 9 supervisorial candidate Edwin Lindo politely declined to offer much of a preview. He did, however, reconfirm that he and his colleagues aren’t willing to compromise on their raison d'être. Progress will come “when we have proper leadership in the police department.” And not before: “Whatever changes are going to be implemented to create more accountability is great. As long as they lead up to the removal of the current police chief.”  

The strikers’ unblinking drive
for Suhr’s ouster has, undoubtedly, galvanized a disparate community of people who are angry and frustrated at the way things are. Frankly, they deserve to be: On top of the San Francisco Police Department’s disturbing spate of shootings—often targeting minorities and/or the mentally ill—both violent and property crime is up under Suhr’s watch. It’s challenging to craft an argument that he’s succeeding in any quantifiable way. But it’s also challenging to claim, as the protesters do, that Suhr’s removal is the first step to a better tomorrow.

Police chiefs are not chosen by the Lady of the Lake; the combination of a weak mayor and an ever stronger and more aggressive Police Officers Association means that Suhr's successor would largely be a relatively close replica of Suhr himself. Supervisor Jane Kim today called for a search to find Suhr's eventual replacement, and was echoed by Supervisors David Campos, Eric Mar, and John Avalos—but the well-connected chief is not without resources of his own: Last week, cops attending a joint meeting of Taraval and Northern Stations were surprised when none other than Senator Dianne Feinstein walked out with the embattled chief. “I went to school with Greg’s mother,” she purportedly told the roomful of officers. “He is like a son to me.” The message of deep support from way up the political ladder was surely lost on no one.

And yet, Lindo remains sanguine. “The community will choose who the next police chief will be,” he says. “We will make sure there’s a process in place where there is absolute, binding participation.” But we don’t elect police chiefs in this city. The appointed members of the San Francisco Police Commission must ratify the candidate put forward by the mayor, and this candidate is selected via a supremely political back and forth. Every kind of politics you can imagine is involved: identity politics, union politics, local politics, whom your mother went to school with... And even if a person acceptable to all parties were found, that chief would then have to work with the officers and the union to codify reform, and then continue to do so to ensure the cops follow the policies they bothered to codify.  

A hunger strike intended solely to remove Suhr is little more than a symbolic act meant to bring about another symbolic act.  

The hunger strikers and the protesters they have inspired have proven their tenacity. And that’s what will be required to ensure real and lasting reforms—and accountability if they’re ignored. The spotlight drawn here by weeks of unrest laid bare the pain and suffering in this city. But it did not illuminate the path forward—or the many obstacles that must be overcome. And that's a shame and a waste.   

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