Hunger strikers (from left) Sellassie Blackwell, Maria Cristina Gutierrez and Edwin Lindo during a march to City Hall from the Mission Police Station at 17th and Valencia streets in San Francisco, Calif. Tuesday, May 3, 2016. Five San Francisco residents have been on a hunger strike for 13 days calling for the resignation of SFPD Chief Greg Suhr following recent police violence. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Hunger strikers (from left) Sellassie Blackwell, Maria Cristina Gutierrez and Edwin Lindo during a march to City Hall from the Mission Police Station at 17th and Valencia streets in San Francisco, Calif. Tuesday, May 3, 2016. Five San Francisco residents have been on a hunger strike for 13 days calling for the resignation of SFPD Chief Greg Suhr following recent police violence. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

‘Frisco 5’ hunger strikers take their cause to City Hall

The five hunger strikers in wheelchairs who led a march on San Francisco’s City Hall on Tuesday did not get their meeting with Mayor Ed Lee, who they are calling on to fire the police chief.

Instead, they confronted The City’s legislators and forced their meeting to temporarily close down.

The hunger strikers, known as the “Frisco 5,” marked Day 13 without food by marching on City Hall at the head of hundreds of protesters to demand a meeting with the mayor.

The march came a day after Lee’s failed attempt to meet with them at Mission Police Station, the location of their hunger strike.

The group says they will not eat until Lee fires Police Chief Greg Suhr, who has the mayor’s backing and has said he has no plans to resign.

The hunger strike was prompted by a series of scandals in the San Francisco Police Department, which included two separate releases of racist text messages and recent killings at the hands of police.

The shooting of Mario Woods Dec. 2 prompted outrage, protests and promises of reform in City Hall. But just as it seemed the protest movement for police reform and calls for Suhr’s job had subsided, another police shooting killed Luis Gongora last month.

Soon afterward, the “Frisco 5” — Sellassie Blackwell, 39; Ike Pinkston, 42; Ilyich Sato, 42; Edwin Lindo, 29; Maria Cristina Gutierrez, 66 — decided to stage their hunger strike.

THE PROTEST

San Francisco is a city known for its protests. But Tuesday’s emotional and almost ceremonial march from Mission Station at 17th and Valencia streets to City Hall was seemingly political theater at its best.

A Franciscan Friar blessed the five with holy water before speeches were made and the group was wheeled north to City Hall. The protesters included the mother of Woods and the parents of Alex Nieto, who was shot and killed by police in 2014.

The day’s protest began just after noon. As the crowd grew outside of Mission Station, where the five have been sleeping in tents, Kat Brooks of the Anti-Police Terror Project, took the microphone.

“I believe with all of my body, this can and will be a victory for the people,” said Brooks, who implored the large crowd to continue to pressure Suhr and Lee over the issue. “Be everywhere Suhr is. Make it impossible to breathe in this city.”

Gutierrez, one of the hunger strikers, spoke next. “I hate what they do, but I love them,” she said of police, adding that the protest had to come from a place of love rather than hate.

Minutes later, the march was underway. Never far were the lines of uniformed police officers shadowing the crowd as it hollered anti-police chants.

Along the way marchers stopped and sat in silence at Market Street and Van Ness Avenue, chanting “Fire Chief Suhr” and generally making a ruckus with music as incense wafted across the streets.

Many among the crowd said they’d come because they were fed up with police violence and wanted to show solidarity for the hunger strikers.

“We are here because we are tired of so much police abuse,” said one of Tuesday’s protesters, Maria Mendez, 40.

Jason Nava, 30, another marcher and friend of Woods, said he came to support the group. “I’m thankful for what they are doing,” said Nava. “It sends a message to The City: you can’t kill citizens.”

Anthony Sims, 38, agreed with that sentiment. “We won’t settle for cold-blooded murder in our community,” said Sims.

By around 2 p.m. the growing march had entered Civic Center Plaza, where a large path was made for the wheelchairs of the hunger strikers. In their final approach to the steps of City Hall, protesters lined the mall on Civic Center Plaza and let the five hunger strikers pass, pushed by their white-jacketed medical team.

Once inside the building, the group headed to the second floor where they hoped to find the mayor.

From their wheelchairs, Gutierrez and the other four hunger strikers tried and failed to pass the deputies guarding a closed Room 200. The four deputies said Lee was not in.

As a crowd tussled outside of the office, someone yelled, “Tell the mayor we’re here.”

“She’s come a long way for a word with the mayor,” said someone else in the crowd.

A spokesperson from the Mayor’s Office reiterated Tuesday that Lee had attempted to speak with the hunger strikers the day before.

“Mayor Lee agreed to sit down and have a thoughtful discussion about police reforms, hear their concerns and see how they are doing and that’s why he visited them at the Mission Police Station yesterday, but they refused to meet with him,” Christine Falvey wrote in a text message to the San Francisco Examiner.

“He wanted to let them know that he is working with the police chief, the Police Commission and the community to move fast on police reforms with the full involvement of the U.S. Department of Justice to make that happen.”

Within 20 minutes the five departed and made their way to the opposite side of the building, where they found the Board of Supervisors in session.

About 50 supporters of the hunger strikers entered the Board of Supervisors chambers Tuesday and were soon joined by the hunger strikers themselves in wheelchairs where they addressed members of the board.

Both Board President London Breed and Supervisor David Campos addressed the protesters, but their comments were met unfavorably by those gathered who wanted the board to take more actions.

Meanwhile, Suhr canceled his appearance Tuesday night at a police accountability forum where he was scheduled to speak with Public Defender Jeff Adachi, citing security concerns, Adachi told the San Francisco Examiner.

S.F. Examiner staff writer Joshua Sabatini contributed to this report.

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