Have you attended a recent protest against police brutality in your city? Do you have a perspective based on what you’ve witnessed happening in your community? We want to hear your story. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your first-person account. Essays can be up to 500 words and should include specific details about your experience. We’re not looking for big picture analysis so much as the small things you’ve seen and been part of that make up the bigger story of what’s happening in America now. Anonymity will be honored if requested. Black voices and other voices of color are encouraged to submit.
Oh Christ, this hurts so much. It hurt so bad yesterday and last night. On Saturday night in San Francisco, we shouted George Floyd’s name hundreds of times and it seared the soul every time.
A man is gone. He’ll never breathe again. Never laugh. Never love. The earthly existence of George Floyd was ended over suspicion of a $20 forgery. Think of it. Four police officers. Not one. Four cops, together, participated in the slow and public execution of George Floyd.
We are an over-militarized, over-violent, barbarian society. We accept such towering levels of police violence that the rest of the world regards us with disbelief.
While the ink of the historical record is wet, I want to emphasize that the protests in San Francisco on Saturday were almost entirely peaceful and were absolutely necessary. Over the course of almost nine hours, hundreds — and, at the protest’s height, about a thousand—passionate and grieving residents shouted Floyd’s name and demanded justice, and insisted on a fundamental restructuring of law enforcement in the United States.
The group I joined in the Mission first made sure the Mission police station remembered the name of Mario Woods, who was shot 20 times in broad daylight by the SFPD in 2015. Woods had been surrounded by at least eight officers and shot when he did not comply with their commands. That no officers were prosecuted for that killing remains a stain on the city’s conscience and a wretched miscarriage of justice. Video of that murder, too, is widely available online, and it makes abundantly clear that Woods posed no threat to anyone. A diminutive and mentally distressed man, surrounded by eight cops, was executed as if by a firing squad.
After Woods was murdered, no one was fired. No one quit. No one went to prison. But after the 2016 shooting of Jessica Williams — an unarmed woman who had led police on a brief car chase — Police Chief Greg Suhr was forced out of office. The officer who shot her in the chest, Justin Erb, was not charged with wrongdoing. Read about Jessica, a mother of five, here.
The reason for the national rage right now is that there has never been accountability. Cops kill citizens and they are — unsurprisingly — not charged by the local prosecutor, with whom they work hand in glove daily. This system of assumed and assured protection, where cops know the local prosecutor has their back, is at the heart of the problem and must be rebuilt from the bottom up.
The protesters moved to the 1-80 overpass and were confronted by police who did not want the group blocking the highway. It must be said that the police did not overreact. They stood, took a great deal of verbal abuse, and the demonstrators moved on.
The protest moved to City Hall, where it joined another group of equal size. There, the name of George Floyd was repeated hundreds of times, and it hurt every time. The names of Mario Woods, and Oscar Grant, and Sandra Bland, and Jessica Williams, and Breonna Taylor, and Eric Garner were justly remembered, too. And these are only the most recent of more publicized names. When we remember George Floyd, we must also remember Stephon Clark, Terrence Crutcher, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Walter Scott, Eric Harris… Those are only some of the names from the last few years. There are too many more. To even say their names, all their names, would take weeks.
After City Hall, we walked between the Asian Art Museum and the SF Main Library and onto Market. Sporadic police blockades forced us to wind through downtown and up to Union Square. At Geary, there was a significant police presence, and the group began to move east again. That’s when I heard, about fifty feet ahead, the breaking of glass and a general commotion at the corner of Geary and Taylor.
Someone had broken a large window at the Swarovski showroom, but immediately young protest leaders blocked access to the store. I was there, and can say unequivocally that the vast majority of the protesters, then and throughout the night, were vocally opposed to any vandalism or theft. And the majority of the looting happened long after the majority of the protesters had passed.
By the time the group crossed Market en route to Mission Street — via the pedestrian passageway just west of the Contemporary Jewish Museum — the crowd had separated itself into two distinct groups. The peaceful protesters moved west and ended up at Octavia and Market, where they blocked the 101 onramp and, in spirited but peaceful protest, continued to honor the memory of George Floyd and the countless other Americans killed by police. The other, far smaller group, broke into a handful of stores.
Much of the media coverage has focused on these property crimes, which are absolutely nothing compared to the theft of a man’s life.
We can’t forget that George Floyd was killed on a Minneapolis street in the middle of the day. This kind of police brutality is so normalized that it unfolded in public, over nine minutes. People filmed it.
While attention is focused on Americans’ deaths at the hands of police, I urge you to take a look at the Guardian / Washington Post compilation of those who have been shot and killed by police in recent years. The average is almost 1,100 a year. England averages about 2.
That our society and elected leaders tolerate this is bewildering. Over the decades, an endless list of Americans have been martyred by our structurally racist and ultraviolent police response, and always our society finds ways to justify it. The victim moved suddenly. He resisted arrest. Had a prior conviction. Was holding something we thought was a gun. Was acting erratically.
Only recently have we begun to see some degree of accountability. The arrest of Floyd’s murderer, Derek Chauvin, is a step. The arrest of Chauvin’s three accomplices must follow. Soon.
Next, can we do something about the unpunished murders that preceded Floyd’s?
For years, I’ve been tracking a particular subset of police killings — the murder of the mentally ill and those in mental distress. These account for almost a third of police shootings, and while we’re remembering the names of the dead, I want to bring your attention to Decynthia Clements.
Like George Floyd, her death was captured on camera. The footage was actually released by the police in Elgin, Illinois, because the police department felt it exonerated the officers involved. (In fact, the cop who shot Clements was cleared of wrongdoing.)
But if you have a strong stomach, look at the footage now. It’s easy to find. Her death provoked local protest and some national attention, but her memory fades every day. But her murder is every bit as horrific and unjustifiable as that of George Floyd.
For those who can’t watch the murder, it began, like Floyd, with a Black American sitting alone in a car. Police asked her what she was doing, and Clements drove off. She was chased by police for miles, until she finally pulled over on Interstate 90.
For a long stretch, almost an hour, the police at the scene seemed to be doing the right thing. They waited. They patiently asked Clements to get out of the car. Clements, inside, appeared in visible mental distress. In fact, during the hour-long wait, the police involved got word over the radio that Clements had a history of mental illness. Did the police call for an ambulance? Any mental-health experts? No.
Eventually a fire broke out inside Clements’ car. This is where the footage is so mind-twisting that no rational person can justify what happens next. A 90-pound woman is inside a car, and the interior of her car fills with fire and smoke. But the police do not help. They tell her to get out of the car with her hands up.
When she finally opens the door, the police see a tiny woman who has just inhaled minutes of smoke. She staggers from the car on the side of the road. At this point all of humanity would react the same way: they would rush to her and help her. But when she falls, half-dead, from the car, the police see she’s holding a kitchen knife. A 90-pound smoke-addled woman is holding a kitchen knife while falling from her smoke-filled car. So one of the officers shot her twice in the head and once in the chest. She was killed instantly.
The officer who shot her twice in the head and once in the chest is named Christian Jensen. Days after the shooting, he said, “I am totally comfortable with what happened.”
After being cleared of wrongdoing, he was reinstated to the Elgin Police Department in September of 2019.
This person should not be wearing a badge or carrying a gun.
It’s been encouraging to see, in recent days, so many law enforcement representatives denounce George Floyd’s murder.
Now let’s examine the killing of Mario Woods again. And Decynthia Clements. Because their killers were never charged, it’s not too late to do so now.