Recollections from the Frisco Five hunger strike — and a real San Francisco poet

Tony Robles, in a new book, writes from the streets of a city that he loves, and that keeps trying to break his heart.

The Frisco Five hunger strike electrified the city. Five San Franciscans, sick of the rampant police violence, stopped eating for 17 days – long enough to risk serious health consequences – to demand that the mayor fire Police Chief Greg Suhr.

The strike brought constant news media attention to the deaths of young people of color at the hands of SFPD – and while it wasn’t the only reason Suhr was dismissed, it played a huge role.

Every day, the five sat in front of and sometimes inside the Mission Precinct Station, wrapped in blankets, talking to supporters, press, and the public. Kids from local schools came by to offer solidarity. Young doctors in training from UCSF monitored their health, and pushed them in wheelchairs to City Hall.

One of the people who was there in solidarity almost every day was Tony Robles, a tenant organizer, senior advocate, poet and Filipino community activist who was born in this city and struggles every day with what it has become.

Robles, who sometimes writes for 48hills, uses the hunger strike as inspiration for a new book of poetry, short stories, and politics called Fingerprints of a Hunger Strike.

“It took a hunger strike to make me feel alive in a city that feels dead,” he writes. “It took a hunger strike to bring back that down home feeling and black laughter and fire and tears that flow so deep. It took a hunger strike to clear my veins of digital cholesterol.”

He talks about visiting the police station, a San Franciscan who can barely recognize his city: “It brought me back to a time when I felt the community in the pores of my skin, when I tasted every raindrop before I had to start paying for the rain that was to become bottled and packaged and presented in an app. The Frisco Five – Mama Christina, Ike, Selassie, Edwin and Equipto – five fingers on a hand that became a fist that became our heart.”

The book starts out with a series of poems, then some wonderful stories; Robles describes working as a security guard in a supermarket and meeting a man he knew from tenant organizing who has stolen a cooked chicken and is eating it in the bathroom. He talks about the Child Support Office, about people he meets on the 5-Fulton … about a side of life in this city that the self-important young and rich who are taking over so many SF neighborhoods will never see or understand.

It’s a book about a real San Francisco, by a real San Francisco writer and poet. In his poetry, his street consciousness, and his love for a city that is trying to break his heart, Robles reminds me a bit of John Ross, who wrote from the heart of the Mission and never learned how to be a prisoner. It’s good to know that, for all the attacks on the soul of this city, there are poets like Robles keeping that legacy alive.

You can buy the book here, or in local bookstores.

$16, paperback. Ithuriel’s Spear, San Francisco, 2017.

  • Don Sebastopol

    Why did they end the hunger strike?

    • tiabgood

      If I recall it was due to community members pressuring to stop for their health. And the day they called it there were protests that turned violent and lead to ~30 arrests.

      • Cynthia

        Links, tiab?

        • tiabgood

          “if I recall” I do not have links. I am sure you can search google for it, they must have had a press conference.

      • Don Sebastopol

        Did the hunger strike accomplish anything?

        • tiabgood

          It did not have as big as an impact as they wanted (Greg Suhr stepping down), but it did start the conversation, and the next big scandal Greg Suhr did step down, which I doubt would have happened if this had not happened.

      • mlyon01

        Let’s be clear: the “protest that turned violent” was an occupation of City Hall demanding Suhr’s firing. We refused to leave and the sherrifs beat and arrested us. Let’s not violence-bait ourselves. Force on our part is necessary for change, but this was not an example it.

  • RuMADorRuREALLYmad

    Stealing a chicken and eating it in the bathroom. Heavy stuff.

    • Cynthia

      Posting on the Internet what you removed from your rectum and calling it true. Heavy stuff indeed.

      • RuMADorRuREALLYmad

        que?

        • Cynthia

          If you mean to ask, “what?” then it’s: “¿qué?”

          • RuMADorRuREALLYmad

            damn girl. I actually follow you #OnHere, i.e. (Disqus). Your misery is palpable. I’m sorry I like 48 hills? I’m sorry that I like poetry? I’m sorry that I like local voices with stories to tell? I’m sorry if you can’t discern that these apologies or all fake and are just being used as a mirror to your odd behavior. Have a better week hun –

          • Cynthia

            That’s some serious negging there, dude. Plus some fake concern … great way to deflect from the a-hole comment you started off with.

          • edlee

            Uh, that original comment came off kind of sarcastic but I think that person was being sincere.