Which side of the ‘house divided’ are you on?

San Franciscans have seen years of police shootings, brutality -- and no accountability. So yes, people are angry.

This morning I made the dire mistake of reading twitter comments on a San Francisco Chronicle report of protesters at SF Mayor London Breed’s house. The tenor was “These aren’t protests!” and condemnations of anything that deviated from the commenters idea of protesting, which seems to be politely chanting “Please change,” while passively accepting brutality rained upon them by the police.

Then there is the rush by some that all violence against property had to be committed by “out of towners.” Certainly, there is truth in that, just as there is truth in reports that far right militants and white supremacists are taking advantage of protests to escalate violence for their own ends. However, to deny that any violence comes from locals is not only absurd, it’s an insulting dodge.

A rally for Alex Nieto, killed by SFPD.

Underneath the condemnation of anything other some fairy-tale version of protesting is the American worship of power and the persistent denial of what this country is and has become. We talk about the red state/blue state divide or the one between liberals and conservative or urban and rural or even Black and white and wonder why we can’t “work across the aisle” or “all get along.”

Rarely, have I heard discussion in the mainstream about the much more fundamental divide of how Americans experience and view power or how they system rarely responds to peaceful calls to redress the power imbalance.

Those out in the street protesting peacefully or taking their anger out on a window or a wall experience power as a bludgeon used against them and their friends. If they aren’t a George Floyd or know a George Floyd, they certainly have seen and read accounts of many George Floyds and fear suffering the fate of George Floyd. Here’s an incomplete run through of San Francisco’s George Floyds:

December 7, 2019: Jamaica Hampton is stopped by police. Police say that Hampton attacked them with a bottle. Others say that Hampton was doing nothing when police approached him and his only crime was running. When Hampton take off, the police shoot at him, bring him down. Hampton falls to the ground and as he is laying there an officer shots him again. Hampton survives but one of his legs is amputated as a result of his injuries. Hampton is Black.

Oct 6, 2019: Dacrau Spiers is in a parked car making out with his girlfriend. Police roll up, accuse him of beating his girlfriend. They dragged Spiers out of the car, cuff and beat him, breaking his hand and leg. Spiers is Black.

June 9, 2018: Oliver Barcenas is celebrating a Golden State Warriors championship, drinking with friends. The police roll up. Barcenas takes off running. The police chase him. An officer shoots Barcenas in the back.  SFPD claims that Barcenas had a gun and pointed it at them. The DA says otherwise. Barcenas is Latinx.

May 19, 2016: Jessica Williams drives off in a stolen car. Police fire at the moving car, hitting Williams. One bullet and she is dead. Williams was Black.

April 7, 2016: Luis Gongora Pat is at a homeless encampment. The police pull up and, within 30 seconds, start shooting. Gongora Pat is killed by six bullets. Police say that Gongora Pat had a knife. Witnesses say that he didn’t. Gongora Pat was Latinx.

December 2, 2015: Mario Woods has a mental break. Drugged out, he carries on in the street in front of his home. Police roll up. There is a confrontation that ends with five officers open-firing on Woods. The autopsy shows that Woods took 20 bullets. Colin Kaepernick responds to Woods’ killing by kneeling. Woods was Black.

February 26, 2015: Amilcar Perez-Lopez is reported to be “swinging a knife.” Police arrive and shoot him six times. Officers report that Perez-Lopez was advancing on them. The Medical Examiner reports that six bullets entered him through the back. Perez-Lopez was Latinx.

March 4, 2014: Alex Nieto is walking home through Bernal Heights Park and is accosted by a white man who taunts Nieto. The man walks off. Nieto unholsters the taser he carries for his job as a security guard. Another white man calls the police on Nieto. Police roll up and empty their guns into Nieto. They claim that Nieto pointed his taser at them. Nieto was Latinx.

No police officer involved in these shooting has been fired for his action. Many have been officially cleared of all wrong-doing. No officer faced criminal penalties, even though the city paid out substantial money in civil cases that resulted from these shootings. Many of the officers involved are still working the streets.

During this time period, San Francisco police officers were involved in racist text chain, arrested a deputy public defender who defended the rights of her client, lost a $700,000whistleblower civil suit, and were found guilty of drug dealing and extortion. SFPD illegally searched a journalist’s home while trying to cover up the unauthorized release of the top public defender’s death report. The department refused to sign on to a $2 million grant that would clear up a rape kit backlog. And on May 30, video surfaced of a SFPD officer laying her knee across the neck of Black man.

In 2016, the Police Chief Greg Suhr asked the U.S. Department of Justice to do a review of SFPD. SF Examiner reported that, “Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services Office returned months later with 94 finding and 272 recommendations for the SFPD that dealt with five areas needing improvement including use of force, bias and community policing.”

The Examiner adds, “The federal government was working on its first report documenting the progress of the SFPD reforms in September 2017 when the Trump Administration abruptly ended federal oversight of the Police Department.” Despite no federal accounting, an independent consulting firm is monitoring progress. As of October 2019, only 10 percent of the recommendations had been instituted.

In January, the FBI arrested Mohammed Nuru, the head of San Francisco’s Public Works department. Nuru had been a deep fixture in city politics, with a lot of influence and friends. He built his power by using Public Works to service the city’s mayor and favored public officials. The mayor would call Nuru and tell him to clean a mess on the block they lived on or an area they were visiting and Nuru would hop to, diverting resources from needed and neglected areas to wherever power dictated.

Former Mayor Ed Lee was big on using Public Works to trash homeless encampments, a practice expanded by Mayor London Breed, one of Nuru’s former girlfriends and the recent recipient of a Nuru “gift” of $5,600, a sum never reported to city officials.  Last week, a public records request turned up text messages from London Breed to SF Police Chief Bill Scott. In the texts, Breed ordered Scott to send police units to break up specific homeless encampments that she saw on her drive through the city or in places that she was expected to visit, either for an official event or private diner.

Every time there is a police shooting in San Francisco, liberals lecture those who are pissed off about Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi, refusing to acknowledge that initial public response to police abuse is typically peaceful. Citizens write their elected officials, they attend public forums, they meet with the police, they protest, they go on hunger strikes, they show up to candidate events and push the issue, they work on political campaigns. Last year, people working on police shootings and reform were the back bone of radical public defender Chesa Boudin election to District Attorney.  San Franciscans are walking civics textbooks.

San Francisco activists not only do what they need to do at every level of engagement, they do it in the order which the power-that-be subscribe to them. They write letters, vote and everything else before they hit the streets.

What good has it done? Where is the change? Yes, Boudin is slowly implementing reform on the legal end of criminal justice. Yes, Police Chief Scott says that there has been a decline in police shootings since 2016, and that might be true. However, no one trusts that SFPD won’t backslide. SFPD killings, shootings, abuse and corruption are part of a culture that cemented itself in the system a century ago. Citizens, especially Black and Latinx men, fear becoming the next George Floyd.

So, people hit the street and when the police show up, they are taunted. Buildings are graffitied. On rare occasion, a bottle gets thrown and a window shatters. The media amplifies what is a relatively rare occurrence a hundred more times and a hundred times louder than they do 200 people cram themselves into a community meeting to question SFPD over a police killing.

And, when someone fires off bottle rockets in front of the mayor’s house during a protest against the police killing of 7,666 George Floyds in Minneapolis, San Francisco, New York, Ferguson, and other American towns, a dozen clueless assholes quote Abraham Lincoln’s “A house divided against itself cannot stand” as if Lincoln is calling for “civility.” Hey, I am all for quoting Lincoln “House Divided” speech, but let’s not play pull-quote. This is what Lincoln said,

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved— I do not expect the house to fall— but I do expect it will cease to be divided.  It will become all one thing or all the other.  

Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as newNorth as well as South.

Have we no tendency to the latter condition?

Lincoln, who was speaking at the 1858 Illinois Republican State Convention, follows those words with the recent history of the fight against slavery, the fight through official channels, and how the abolitionists had been thwarted by institutional rigidity and bad faith. The system, Lincoln concludes, has betrayed those who fight slavery. He ends his speech with words that, today, would be condemned as “violent” and “not helpful” and were deemed “too radical” by his peers:

Our cause, then, must be intrusted to, and conducted by its own undoubted friends — those whose hands are free, whose hearts are in the work — who do care for the result.

Two years ago the Republicans of the nation mustered over thirteen hundred thousand strong. We did this under the single impulse of resistance to a common danger, with every external circumstance against us.

Of strange, discordant, and even, hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought the battle through, under the constant hot fire of a disciplined, proud, and pampered enemy.

Did we brave all thento falter now? — now — when that same enemy is wavering, dissevered and belligerent? 

The result is not doubtful. We shall not fail — if we stand firm, we shall not fail. 

Wise councils may accelerate or mistakes delay it, but, sooner or later the victory is sure to come.

Lincoln was calling to the people on the street, to those gathered in front of police stations, reading the names of the dead, demanding that there be no more George Floyds, knowing that a house divided between authorities with the will to kill and the rest of us, particular those who are Black and Latinx, will not stand. Lincoln promises today’s protesters that if they stand firm, they shall not fail and that, no matter how fast or slow change comes, victory is sure to come. The question is, on which side of the divide to you stand? With Lincoln who stood against the abuse of state power or with those who murdered George Floyd?

Scott Soriano is a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, writing on California policy and politics. He can be read at www.sorianoscomment.com; follow him on Twitter @_ScottSoriano or on Facebook