Acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California Brian Stretch, left, speaks next to Mayor Ed Lee, center, and Police Chief of Police Greg Suhr during a news conference announcing the launch of a federal review of the San Francisco Police Department. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

EDITORIAL: ‘Firing squad’ in focus

The Super Bowl is long gone, but the marks it left are still reverberating around The City and nation.

The game itself might have been only so-so, but the sideshows sure packed a punch. The calculating of how much The City made or lost on its $5 million party will take months to figure out, and whether businesses claiming losses over the event will receive assistance remains to be seen. But the national stage and star power in town last weekend gave immediate visibility and new energy to a host of issues.

Among the protests seeking solutions to homelessness, and affordability and better treatment for Uber drivers, none won such widespread attention as the protests over the death of Mario Woods, the 26-year-old black man killed by police on Dec. 2.

Alicia Keys, during her Friday night show at Super Bowl City, the portion of The Embarcadero at the base of Market Street remade as a fan zone, called out to protesters from the stage: “I want to thank you for your commitment to make sure justice is done for Mario Woods.”

And during the Super Bowl halftime show, a group of Beyonce’s dancers, dressed to invoke the Black Panthers, and held a small handwritten sign saying, “Justice 4 Mario Woods.” A video of the halftime show seems to have particularly rankled those who felt Beyonce was showing up the NFL and law enforcement with the political statement.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani told CBS this week: “I think it was outrageous that she used it as a platform to attack police officers, who are the people who protect her and protect us.”

Others faulted the NFL for allowing the display to air in the first place, saying the organization should have canceled the number. CBS reported that protests are planned against Beyonce next week outside the NFL’s New York headquarters.

Last week, San Francisco’s Sun-Reporter, a black-owned newspaper based in the Bayview, published an interview with Mayor Ed Lee on the police shooting that killed Woods. Speaking about the video showing Woods being shot to death, surrounded by armed police on a Bayview sidewalk, the paper quoted Lee as saying, “It was horrifying; a firing squad. That’s not the way we stop people.”

It was the most Lee has said publicly about the incident that has sparked weeks of protests and calls for the ouster of Police Chief Greg Suhr, as well as criticism of the mayor himself for what some have deemed a tepid response. Lee’s acknowledgment that Woods died by “firing squad” is an encouraging sign that he is starting to realize this incident is not fading into the background.

Even if Lee’s empathetic statement to the Sun-Reporter was an empty gesture, Lee has in recent weeks began to at least say the right things, signalling that even this mayor, who at times seems tone-deaf to public sentiment, is starting to understand this issue needs his attention.

Last month, Lee wrote to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, requesting a federal investigation into the shooting of Woods.

Lee this week confirmed his statement. “I was expressing the emotion that a lot of people feel about how Mario Woods was killed and that’s why we’ve called in the Department of Justice to really take a look at the police practices,” he told ABC 7.

Here, Lee seems to be claiming credit for the wrong thing. Lee called on the Justice Department to directly look into how Woods was killed, and that investigation has not been launched. The Justice Department last month agreed to look into San Francisco Police Department practices more generally, without investigating the specific killing of Woods, following Suhr’s own request.

Various supervisors and Mayor Lee called for a more thorough independent investigation into the death of Woods at the hands of the SFPD. It is disturbing to hear Lee now appear to conflate the two requests in the name of taking credit for bringing one federal investigation to town, while seeming to back away from the more rigorous demand he made to bring justice to this particular situation.

This is the type of obfuscation that gives ammunition to Lee’s critics that he isn’t genuine in his concerns. He would be a stronger leader of this city if he stood by his principles rather than trying to shade everything to his favor, avoiding confrontation and looking away from difficulty.

In his interview with the Sun-Reporter, Lee also defended Suhr, saying,“I still support Chief Suhr and feel the SFPD are doing a good job. I know there’s a lot of distrust in the African-American community.”

John Burris, attorney for the Woods family, who initially called on Lee to push for the federal investigation, welcomed the mayor’s acknowledgement that the way Woods died was horrific and wrong.

“The mayor’s statement is important for the African-American community that he saw the same thing and is equally repulsed by the shooting,” Burris said. “This, along with his support for the DOJ investigation, can go a long ways toward healing the breach between the mayor and community caused by Mario’s death.”

If true, that’s good news. But judging by the furor that swirled around the Super Bowl, the concern and discord over how Woods died is gaining new life.

It might be too much to ask for the mayor and the protesters to suddenly become allies, but if they can at least each view the shooting with the same horrified reaction — and if we can all agree this incident damaged our collective trust in the possibility of justice in our city — we may be further along than many of us imagined.

Michael Howerton is editor in chief of the San Francisco Examiner.

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