Standing up to police violence

  • by Richard Smith
  • Wednesday May 10, 2017
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Father Richard Smith speaks at a rally against police<br>violence. Photo: Courtesy Richard Smith
Father Richard Smith speaks at a rally against police
violence. Photo: Courtesy Richard Smith

To queers who are black, brown, or immigrants this will come as no surprise: Under President Donald Trump's law-and-order regime, the LGBTQ community could face mounting police violence.

And, sadly for San Franciscans, a recent decision by District Attorney George Gasc贸n makes that even more likely.

The threat to LGBTQs

Trump is not our friend. As he appoints virulent homophobes to his administration and dismantles our workplace protections, his administration simultaneously emboldens violent and abusive cops who target minority communities like ours.

Time to keep our eyes open. Our rainbow community's strained relationship with police did not end with Compton's Cafeteria or Stonewall or the paddy wagons outside local gay bars. As Amnesty International observed, police abuse of the LGBTQ community remains a problem for all of us regardless of race.

"...[S]erious police abuses, including gender-based violence amounting to torture and ill-treatment, against the LGBT community persist. The abuses reported range from sexually explicit, abusive language and threats to sustained beatings and rape," the group reported.

Even here in queer-friendly San Francisco, officers have perpetuated an abusive police culture through text messages both racist and homophobic.

Amilcar Perez Lopez's story

Police brutality can take an enormous toll on a community. Consider recent events in the Mission district where my family and I live.

Over two years ago 鈥" less than a year after police killed Alex Nieto with 59 bullets on Bernal Hill 鈥" police killed yet another young Latino, this time on Folsom Street, by firing six bullets to his back. He was Amilcar Perez Lopez, a hard-working 20-year-old Guatemalan, who immigrated to this sanctuary city to earn money for his impoverished family back home.

For many Mission families, Perez Lopez's story has opened old wounds from decades of police brutality. That's why, since his killing, hundreds of us have marched, stood in vigil, met with the DA, held news conferences, offered prayers, and signed petitions 鈥" pleading that Gasc贸n bring this case to trial. There, evidence from both sides could be weighed and evaluated, and witnesses could be examined and cross-examined, all in the light of day. That was our hope.

But Gasc贸n did not listen to us. Instead, he deferred to a former officer from the corrupt Baltimore Police Department 鈥" the same police force that killed Freddie Gray and is now under a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. With that questionable "expert testimony" in hand, Gasc贸n made himself both judge and jury, and let the officers who killed Perez Lopez walk.

Sadly, the DA's seriously flawed decision in Perez Lopez's case continues a deadly pattern. Since 2000, SFPD has killed more than 40 civilians, 19 of them during Gasc贸n's term as DA. In not one case has a DA filed charges against an officer. In not one case has such an officer even been brought to trial, much less convicted.

To abusive cops the message is clear: If you brutalize or kill civilians, both the president and the local DA will have your back. To minority communities like ours, the message is different but equally clear: Rogue officers will continue to brutalize and kill, and when they do, they will face no consequences.

Getting on board

It's not hard to get on board the current police reform effort. Right now, community leaders from around the city are considering over 400 recommendations, many from the Obama-era Department of Justice. These call for an innovative, open-minded, and progressive approach to policing.

We can put our own queer shoulders to this plow, holding police 鈥" and the White House and our local DA 鈥" accountable for this continuing nightmare. And we can add our voices to the many insisting that Gasc贸n bring the 10 remaining officer-involved-shooting cases to trial, including those of Luis Gongora Pat, Mario Woods, and Jessica Williams.

No silent bystanders

Looking back on the Holocaust, Martin Niemoller confessed he had failed to speak out when Nazis came for the socialists, the Jews, and the trade unionists. "Then they came for me," he wrote iconically, "and there was no one left to speak for me."

In a multi-hued, rainbow community like ours, Niemoller's message is even more relevant: We are part of one another. Regardless of race or ethnicity, what affects one of us affects us all.

Therefore, in the face of violent police abuse, there is no room for silent bystanders. The task of police reform falls on all our shoulders.

Father Richard Smith, Ph.D., is the vicar of St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in San Francisco. As a priest in San Francisco's Mission district, he has worked for both immigration and police reform. He has a doctorate in ethics and social theory from the Graduate Theological Union and has taught at various Bay Area universities. He lives in San Francisco with his husband, Rob Tan, and their son, David.