Last Wednesday, Edwin Lindo ditched his suit for a puffy jacket and a beanie, took to the street, and announced that he was going on a hunger strike.
With four other activists — two "politically conscious" rappers, a 66-year-old woman, and a preschool teacher — Lindo set up camp in front of Mission Police Department, in the heart of the city. He has remained there for a week, subsisting on a crate of coconut water and the nectar of community support.
Lindo, who is currently running for San Francisco district supervisor, is frail, weak, and parched. His body aches. His thick beard, usually neatly trimmed, has begun to creep up his cheeks. But he is out to spark a long-awaited change in his city's leadership. And he is willing to sacrifice his body to make that happen.
His cause is singular: "I won't eat until San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr steps down."
Lindo's grievance with the SFPD goes well beyond San Francisco, into the national discussion surrounding police brutality and shootings. By the Washington Post's count, 990 people were killed by police in 2015 alone — a disproportionate percentage of whom (43 percent) were black or Hispanic.
High-profile police killings, like those of Freddie Gray (Baltimore, Maryland), Tamir Rice (Cleveland, Ohio), Michael Brown (Ferguson, Missouri), and Eric Garner (Staten Island, New York), have sparked international ire and further exposed serious systemic and racial issues with police violence.
San Francisco has, by and large, stayed out of the limelight. Yet over the past two years, under the leadership of Chief Greg Suhr, its police department has shot and and killed four people of color.
The scandals of San Francisco's police chief
Greg Suhr's troubles began long before he was appointed as San Francisco's police chief.
In 2003, three off-duty cops beat up two San Franciscans over a takeout bag of fajitas. The incident, which later became known as "Fajitagate," ended in the acquittal of the officers. At the time, Suhr was deputy chief, and he was charged with obstructing the investigation. This indictment was later dropped.
Between 2005 and 2009, he was demoted twice: once for mishandling a protest, and again for failing to file an official report on an instance of domestic violence.
Since being promoted to police chief in 2011, Suhr has been involved in a number of scandals — most of which revolve around allegations of him covering up the wrongdoings of fellow officers.
Last March, a federal probe of San Francisco's outfit revealed that officers under Suhr's watch had been exchanging hundreds of virulently racist text messages. Suhr repeatedly claimed to have been "walled off" from these conversations, but a judge determined that the police chief had "sat on the texts for more than two years before beginning an internal investigation."
The texts, laid out in a court proceeding, are startling coming from any human beings, nonetheless officers of the law:
- In response to a text asking "Do you celebrate quanza [sic] at your school?" one officer wrote: "Yeah we burn the cross on the field! Then we celebrate Whitemas."
- In response to a text saying "Niggers should be spayed," one officer wrote "I saw one an hour ago with 4 kids."
- "White power."
- "Cross burning lowers blood pressure! I did the test myself!"
- In response to a text saying "All niggers must fucking hang," one officer wrote "Ask my 6 year old what he thinks about Obama."
- "Get ur pocket gun. Keep it available in case the [black] monkey returns to his roots. Its [sic] not against the law to put an animal down."
But officers' prevailing attitudes toward the communities they police are at the heart of something much graver than offensive text messages: San Francisco's burgeoning police brutality problem.
And in the opinion of Lindo and other hunger strikers, much of the blame falls on the shoulders of Police Chief Suhr.
San Francisco's police brutality problem
On March 21, 2014, at around 7 pm, Alex Nieto was eating a burrito atop Bernal Heights Hill. As the sun descended, the 29-year-old nightclub bouncer watched the city he grew up in sprout with twinkling lights below.
Accounts vary on what happened next, though most reports generally follow the same structure: A misinformed passerby dialed 911, and reported a "Latino man in a red jacket, with a gun." Four police officers arrived and approached Nieto in tactical formation. Nieto purportedly drew a licensed Taser from his belt. Mistaking the Taser for a gun, the officers fired 59 bullets at Nieto, killing him.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Chief Suhr presented a version of the story that differed significantly from that told by witnesses. Despite an amalgam of troubling evidence in court (including the time stamp on a Taser deploy being miraculously changed upon reexamination), all four officers were recently cleared of charges.
This was the first of four questionable police shootings of Latino and black men over the past two years in San Francisco.
Eleven months after Nieto's death, a 20-year-old Guatemalan immigrant named Amilcar Perez-Lopez was walking through San Francisco's Mission District neighborhood when he was stopped by a man who claimed Perez-Lopez had stolen his bicycle.
An altercation broke out, and shortly after 9:45 pm, two plain clothes officers arrived at the scene. Within minutes, Perez-Lopez lay dead in a pool of blood, his body peppered with six bullets.
According to Suhr's statement on the incident, Perez-Lopez withdrew a kitchen knife and "lunged" offensively, preempting the officers to shoot. Contrarily, multiple witnesses recount the young man running away. Two autopsy reports seem to confirm this: All six shots were fired into his back.
Perhaps most notorious — in part because it was captured on video — was the December 2015 shooting of Mario Woods.
Woods, a 26-year-old African-American man, had allegedly slashed a man in the shoulder with a knife and fled the scene. Shortly thereafter, about a dozen officers cornered him against a wall, demanding that he drop the knife.
In the video [warning: graphic content], Woods can be seen limping in place. As he veers off to the side, in what appears to be a nonaggressive attempt to walk away, a rapid succession of shots rings out. Later, 27 shell casings were recovered.
The shooting gained the support of the Black Lives Matter movement and became a part of the larger, national conversation about police brutality against African Americans. It also put Chief Suhr under increased heat to respond to the killings.
Earlier this month, in the midst of community campaigns calling for Chief Suhr to step down, another man was killed by the San Francisco police force.
Hailing from Yucatan, Mexico, Luis Gongora was evicted from his San Francisco apartment eight months ago. Unable to find housing in the city's volatile market, he turned to a homeless encampment.
On the morning of April 6, 2016, police claim that Gongora was "waving around" a large knife at a busy intersection. Within 30 seconds of arriving on the scene, Gongora was shot seven times.
Multiple witnesses attest that Gongora was not, in fact, brandishing his knife, but had it tucked into his pants throughout the ordeal. He did not respond to the officers' demands, claims a witness familiar with the victim, because he "did not speak English, and did not understand."
For Edwin Lindo, this was the last straw.
"We will not eat until San Francisco's police chief resigns"
Edwin Lindo is not typically found sleeping on the street.
Born and raised in San Francisco, he watched the city's Latino population sharply decline with the influx of the first tech boom. After graduating from the University of Washington Law School, he forwent a lucrative legal internship at Amazon to return home and invest his time in community work.
Recently, he announced his intent to run for city supervisor, a stepping-stone appointment for budding, young politicians. Though he admits that staging this hunger strike could "very well be political suicide," Lindo believes that all other avenues have been exhausted.
"There has been no drastic change in the force to stop these killings of black and brown communities: The police operate with impunity, and without accountability, " says Lindo. "This is serious. [Suhr] is on his last string. When we succeed, there will be a huge shift in power in this city."
What began as a solo effort by Lindo has since expanded. The hunger strikers now include Bay Area rappers Equipto and Sellasie, Compañeros Del Barrios pre-school director Cristina Guitierrez, educators Ike Pinkston and Mary Mendoza, and an activist who goes by "Rae."
At any given point in the day, a few dozen supporters stand by their side, offering words of encouragement, and the occasional edible temptation. "One man dropped a burrito by my tent," says Lindo, coconut water in hand. "But I won't be tempted!"
According to Lindo, a few officers on the San Francisco police force have messaged him directly, expressing solidarity with his cause, though most of the force has not been cooperative with his efforts.
Until last night, the strikers had been using the power outlets of the police station. When the department shut off its power source, Good Vibrations — a sex toy shop across the street — offered to recharge his electronics. They are now back to buzzing.
The strike has yet to elicit a response from Chief Suhr, or an official statement from the San Francisco Police Department. The department did not respond to Vox's request for comment.
Amidst his staff's controversies, Chief Suhr has been handsomely rewarded: His $307,450 yearly salary places him among the nation's highest-paid police officials.
"There's only one resolution to this," says Lindo, now going on seven days without food. "He needs to stand up and say 'My department has failed.' When a leader can't accept his failures, that's a dangerous thing."