The Mission — with its legacy of redlining and resilience in the face of wave after wave of gentrification — has long been a neighborhood with jarring economic inequality. People live on the sidewalks outside new luxury buildings with vacant apartments; store owners sweep their belongings into the street in the mornings.
Too often, this reality is exploited by business, corporate media, and politicians alike to dismiss progressive policy — to remove people from spaces rather than house them, and to police rather than support. “What we’ve seen over and over again is that unhoused people in San Francisco are used as political scapegoats,” Jennifer Friedenbach, the Executive Director of the Coalition on Homelessness, told El Tecolote.
Last month, community leaders from over a dozen Mission organizations gathered to call for a state of emergency following the assault of 78-year old teacher Yolanda Melara, who had been walking to work when a man grabbed her purse and pushed her to the ground. But the rally, organized originally in support of Melara, quickly became a condemnation not just of the violence she suffered but of some of the most marginalized people in the Mission, and the visible consequences of extreme inequality.
Speakers repeatedly generalized and scapegoated unhoused people, sex workers, people struggling with substance abuse, and street vendors for a perceived neighborhood “crisis.” And to deal with it, leaders like Roberto Hernandez, who is rumored to be running for the Board of Supervisors, and William Ortiz-Cartagena, a city Commissioner for Small Business, called broadly on the police for help. “SFPD … get out and do your job!” Ortiz-Cartagena demanded.
For many, though, to call on police is an invitation for more state violence. “Policing is worse than unhelpful — it’s harmful,” Peter Calloway, a San Francisco deputy public defender, told El Tecolote. When police approach unhoused people, “we’ve seen a number of instances where police kill that person [like in the case of] Luis Góngora Pat …” And if not that, Calloway says, “what happens a lot of the time is people are belittled, treated poorly, disrespected, sometimes shoved around, roughed up a little. I’ve seen police just kick people’s belongings all over the sidewalk … I have clients who have had threats made against them by officers, instances where officers magically have their body camera footage turned off until the arrest has taken place. The routine dehumanization and violence that constitutes American policing … happens in San Francisco.”
Here in the city, Black people are 9.7 times more likely to be killed by police than a white person, according to Police Scorecard analyses from 2013-2021. Latines are 4.3 times more likely to be killed than their white counterparts. In cases where the SFPD killed someone, officers have faced virtually no accountability, and families are left fighting for some semblance of justice for years.
It was nine years ago this week that police killed Alex Nieto for existing. He ate a burrito on Bernal Hill before his shift as a security guard, with a taser he kept on his person for work — a detail the SFPD knew before arriving on scene, because the 911 caller informed them he had a taser, and not a gun.
Still, when the four officers arrived, they fired 59 shots at Nieto. At trial, all four were cleared of any wrongdoing. Even in one of the cases with the most damning evidence of police brutality — one of the few that made it to trial — officers faced no repercussions.
For the family of Luis Góngora Pat, who was killed by police in 2016, the process of seeking justice has been desperately slow and demoralizing. Last year, with Chesa Boudin at its helm, the District Attorney’s office reopened Góngora Pat’s case and issued grand jury subpoenas — but when Brooke Jenkins took over following his recall, that momentum was lost. In the fall, the families of Góngora Pat, Keita O’Neil, who was killed by the SFPD in 2017, and Sean Moore, who was killed by the SFPD the same year, demanded that Jenkins prosecute the police officers who killed their loved ones. But earlier this month, Jenkins announced she would drop the charges filed by Boudin against the officer who killed O’Neil. As DA, Boudin had also filed charges against the officer who killed Moore, but under Jenkins the case has been delayed. Moore’s mother, Cleo, wrote in the SF Chronicle: “Since Jenkins became the district attorney last year, I have received zero updates about the case and I am in the dark about whether she plans to pursue the charges filed in 2021. When she took office last year, Jenkins fired the attorney who had been working with me and keeping me updated on my son’s case. Now, I have no idea who, if anyone, from the District Attorney’s Office is working on this case.”
The officers who killed Mario Woods in 2015 never faced any discipline.
“Brooke [Jenkins], [Mayor London] Breed, and the billionaires [are] calling for increased law and order in San Francisco while at the same time — and this is what is dangerous — all but assuring the SFPD that they can kill, rape, maim, [and] harm with impunity because Brooke [Jenkins] is not going to do anything about it,” Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Oakland-based Anti Police-Terror Project, told El Tecolote.
And while public officials make assurances of impunity, police finances are going up. Last summer, San Francisco increased its police budget by $50 million (more than the entire annual budget for the city’s Public Defender’s Office). This month, Mayor London Breed introduced legislation that would increase starting police salaries by 10.75 percent over three years, and later proposed a $27.6 million increase to police budgets on top of that to “fund police overtime.” Both policies have been pushed as responses to “staffing shortages” — but San Francisco has more officers per capita than 76 percent of police departments in California. The report that first documented understaffing was done with the SFPD, not independently — and crime researchers note that it “relies on a number of assumptions” and does not “show how an increase in officers could translate into improved public safety,” the Chronicle reported. Studies have repeatedly shown that structural changes—like accessible housing and access to education—have much greater impact on crime rates than police.
In terms of safety, “we need to make sure that we recognize that folks who have the greatest safety risk are folks who don’t have doors to lock, [or] beds to sleep in — because they are so susceptible and vulnerable to anyone walking by who wants to commit acts of violence,” Friedenbach said. “The reason that we have so many people living without housing is because of high rents. It’s not any more complicated than that … if [people] had housing that they could afford, they would not be unhoused.”
As far as drug usage, decriminalization and safe sites, not law enforcement, have kept people alive. “There’s no evidence to support the assertion that you can reduce drug use, or even sales, by deploying police to attack the problem,” Calloway told El Tecolote. “It’s something that’s been tried for 50 years; it’s something that has never worked.”
When Mayor Breed ended funding for the Tenderloin Center, a space where people could be connected to housing services and use drugs with medical supervision, average monthly overdose deaths in San Francisco went up by 16 percent.
Like criminalization of drug use, the policing of sex work makes it less safe, because it pushes people into a less regulated underground economy. In response to the rally demand for an “end to prostitution,” Lisette Sanchez, a sex worker in the crowd, asked in Spanish: “Why aren’t you listening to community voices? Sex work doesn’t have anything to do with [this] … I’m a sex worker by choice. It’s my option. Sex work is not the same as human trafficking — I work by choice, it is my decision.” If the goal is improving our community, the government needs to provide people with “options and services,” she continued, instead of “criminalization.”
Last year, Mayor Breed declared a state of emergency in the Tenderloin, continuing a push for sweeps of encampments and increasing police patrols. During the holidays in Union Square, visitors noted a visible increase in police officers. As a result, both neighborhoods were “cleaned up,” Hernandez said. “… There’s people that used to be [in the Tenderloin and Union Square] who are coming to the Mission. And nothing is being done…We’re being terrorized. We’re a neighborhood that’s become a free for all.”
He also lamented that the SFPD overtime proposal, which was approved at $25 million, would go mostly to officers operating out of Central Station “to protect the rich.”
But despite demands for police support in the Mission, Hernandez recognizes that police have killed people, and has called for the creation of a “community safety plan.” “We know that the other extreme is [what happened to] Alex Nieto, Mario Woods,” he told El Tecolote.
In a press release in advance of the rally last month, Hernandez cited increases in crime—including “murder,” “theft in stores,” and “car break-ins”—as evidence of the need for police support and a state of emergency. These numbers, however, don’t align with SFPD data.
In the Mission, total crime increased 0.7 percent last year, according to the San Francisco Police Department. But that total is 11 percent lower than it was in 2019, the pre-COVID year many use as a comparable baseline (in 2020, crime in San Francisco went way down— the likely result of a combination of factors including quarantine, eviction moratoriums, and more). If you compare the first few months of 2023 to the same window of time last year, total crime in the Mission has decreased by about 26 percent. Crime is not, as some local leaders have said, “at an all time high.”
Neither are homicides, which remained constant in the Mission from 2021 to 2022 and have been lower in the first two months of this year than last year; nor are robbery, motor vehicle theft, and larceny—all lower so far this year than last year.
Twisting crime statistics to call for increased policing isn’t new, or surprising. We saw it intensely last summer, during the billionaire-backed recall campaign of Chesa Boudin, when newspapers like the Washington Post portrayed homicide in the Tenderloin as out of control and up by double digit percentages—when in fact they increased by one case, from a total of 10 to a total of 11. We heard the same law and order rhetoric in the fall, when Mayor Breed scapegoated Honduran immigrants for an overdose epidemic, and this year, when the New York Times published an op-ed by billionaire Michael Moritz on “San Francisco’s decline.” We heard it during the War on Drugs, and again in the 90s with California’s Three-Strikes law. But the result of increased policing has never been, and will not be, collective safety.
Instead, police expansion has often taken the place of policy that would actually make our communities better places to live in. Alex Vitale, a leading scholar of police, writes that “targeted criminalization of already marginalized populations…lifts the burden of structural change (providing housing, healthcare) from politicians.” What if we called not for police, but for housing for all instead? Free healthcare? Places like the Tenderloin center? Protection and social services for sex workers, instead of their criminalization? Universal basic income?
Organized responses to both violence and community concerns about safety are urgent, and necessary—but part of that work needs to be reimagining what public safety looks like and expressing our demands accordingly. “We are gaslit into [thinking] that cops are going to keep us safe, while at the same time they’re kicking our asses and incarcerating our folk,” Cat Brooks says. “Safe communities are communities where people are housed, with healthcare, quality food, mental health and trauma supports, and quality education that is reflective of them, their lives, and their people’s history.”
Christian Balanzar contributed to the reporting for this article.