Absent political will, black communities seek justice in Woods slaying

Tensions are rising as the San Francisco Police Department attempts to justify the fatal shooting of Mario Woods, a 26-year-old black San Francisco resident, and black community members insist the killing was avoidable and are demanding an immediate, independent investigation.

If black lives mattered in San Francisco, Woods would not have died on the street, with his back against a wall. He would not have died surrounded by nine heavily armed San Francisco police officers in a scene resembling a firing squad. He would not have died with officers’ guns cocked and trained on his body, already weakened after being pepper sprayed and shot with beanbag ammunition. He would not have died with his body riddled by 15 bullets from at least five different guns.

If black lives mattered in San Francisco, Woods may not have died at all.

Instead, Chief Greg Suhr may have trained his officers to properly disarm a knife-wielding suspect, holster weapons when dealing with an individual who had neither lifted his weapon nor lunged at officers, position themselves in ways that de-escalate and afford both the police and their target a chance at a different outcome — and ultimately take that person into custody alive.

The question many members of San Francisco’s black community are asking now is: What will it take to make black lives matter in the San Francisco Bay Area? Instead of turning to police and politicians for all of the answers, San Francisco should pause from its drumbeat of rising housing costs and police presence to listen to black communities.

First, the names of the officers who discharged their weapons must be made public, and a formal apology should be issued to Gwendolyn Woods, mother of the deceased, for failing to inform her of her son’s death in a timely manner, forcing this grieving mother to drive around The City looking for answers.

Second, the family of Mario Woods deserves justice. In this case, justice means an immediate and independent investigation into this officer-involved shooting and the policing practices of SFPD as a whole. In Ferguson, the Department of Justice found that regardless of the results of the officer-involved killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, the police departments involved were steeped in racially biased practices.

Third, the black community of San Francisco deserves police accountability. All officers who fired upon Woods should be fired and charged with murder.

This is not simply about the fact that Gwendolyn Woods’ youngest son died unnecessarily at the hands of the police, but about a black community being overpoliced, underpaid and pushed out of a city they’ve helped build.

Despite San Francisco’s chic multiethnic restaurants and its brand as a diverse and “tolerant” urban tech center, it’s also a city where black people are seven times more likely to be arrested by police than white people and comprise 56 percent of those in County Jail, despite being only 3 percent of The City’s total population.

The reason for racial disparities in San Francisco is the same reason Woods died brutally at the hands of SFPD at only 26 years old, while Colorado police were able to take Robert Lewis Dear into custody alive after he apparently shot five officers, killed one, killed a young mother and killed an Iraq war veteran: The policies and practices of this city, and of most cities across the United States, have made it easier for black people to die than to thrive.

When black lives matter, police officers are not driven to so degrade black life as to act as judge, jury and executioners. Though Woods’ black life didn’t matter to the officers who shot him dead, he mattered to us.

As San Francisco proposes to spend millions on a new jail and on body-worn police cameras, both of which expand an already racially biased system of mass incarceration while failing to fund much needed services and housing, the question of what The City is willing to pay and do to ensure that black life counts in San Francisco remains to be seen.

Black communities in The City are ready to lead any process that impacts us. That’s why, despite these conditions and the fear they generate, hundreds of people came to a vigil to honor the life and mourn the death of Woods last week.

That is why Black Lives Matters Bay Area exists. Not simply to gain justice for those slain by police as Woods was, but to reflect back a simple truth to black people in San Francisco and across the Bay Area: Though we are dying as a result of practices that do not honor our lives, we matter.

There is an old saying, “When there’s a will, there’s a way.” But where there is no political will to ensure contacts between black people and police do not result in our disproportionate death, local organizing and external oversight must make a way.

Born and raised in the historically black San Francisco neighborhood of Bayview-Hunters Point, Ronnisha Johnson is a leading member of the Black Lives Matter Bay Area Chapter.

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