This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.
In one of the widely circulated cellphone videos of the killing of Mario Woods by San Francisco police in December, you can hear the young girl filming his death screaming. "Are you f*cking serious?" she shrieks over and over at the crowd of cops encircling the young black man. According to police, Woods had refused to drop a kitchen knife they claim he was carrying. He was nonetheless attempting to walk away from the officers. "You had to shoot him that many f*cking times?" the girl cries.
The Supreme Court has ruled that police officers are justified in using deadly force under two circumstances: either to protect their own lives (or the life of an innocent person) or to prevent a suspect from escaping as long as the cop believes that suspect is about to kill or seriously injure another person.
Did the officers really believe that Woods -- who appears in the video to be much smaller than the five officers who fired on him, and who is clearly trying to get away -- would have suddenly lunged at them all and killed one or more of them? Did they truly believe that Woods, who had already been pepper-sprayed and pummeled by bean-bag rounds, was about to immediately slay an innocent bystander?
Both scenarios sound absurd, but the law puts great faith in the credibility of a police officer's fear. Under the legal standard governing police use of lethal force, the existence of an actual threat hardly matters, as long as the officer has an "objectively reasonable" belief that there is such a threat. In that belief, there's plenty of room for unconscious racial bias. It may be hard to accept that those five officers couldn't have found another way to neutralize Woods short of death, but as Vox's Dara Lind noted in December, "There are plenty of cases in which an officer might be legally justified in using deadly force because he feels threatened, even though there's no actual threat there."
Add one more factor to this mix: police officers are trained to shoot to kill, not injure. They are taught to fire at the chest because it improves their chances of hitting their target. Combine the unimpeachability of an officer's judgment under the law with the racist impulses virtually none of us can escape and a kill-not-capture modus operandi, and you end up with the startling figure of 1,134 killings by law enforcement officers across the U.S. last year, a figure you would expect to come out of an actual war zone. Of those who died at the hands of the police in 2015, young black men were nine times more likely to be victims than other Americans.
No city is immune from the American epidemic of police killings that has only recently begun to gain wide attention -- not even a liberal bastion like San Francisco. In her latest post, TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon, whose new book, American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, will be published in April, takes a look at officer-involved killings in the "City of Love." Erika Eichelberger
Turning American Communities Into War Zones, Death By Death
When It Comes to People of Color, the Police Make San Francisco "Baghdad by the Bay"
By Rebecca Gordon
In the photo, five of Beyonce's leather-clad, black-bereted dancers raise their fists in a Black Power salute. The woman in the middle holds a hand-lettered sign up for the camera, bearing three words and a number: "Justice 4 Mario Woods." Behind them, the crowd at Levi's Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, is getting ready for the second half of Super Bowl 50, but the game's real fireworks are already over.
The women in the photo had just finished backing Beyonce's homage to the Black Panthers and Malcolm X during her incandescent halftime appearance, when two San Francisco Bay Area Black Lives Matter activists managed to grab a few words with them. Rheema Emy Calloway and Ronnisha Johnson asked if they'd make a quick video demanding justice for Mario Woods. "From the look on the faces of the dancers, they'd already heard about the case," Calloway told the Guardian.
Who was Mario Woods and why did Calloway and Johnson want the world to know that his life mattered? The answer: on December 2, 2015, Mario Woods was executed in broad daylight by officers of the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) and the event was filmed.
Woods was a 26-year-old African American, born and raised in San Francisco's Bayview district, one of the city's few remaining largely black neighborhoods. (In 1980, right before I moved to San Francisco, African Americans made up almost 13% of the city's population. Today, the figure is around 6% and shrinking.) Woods died when police attempted to arrest him because they believed that, earlier in the day, he had stabbed another man in the arm. Like many victims of police violence, Woods had mental health problems. Indeed, his autopsy's toxicology report showed that, when he died, his system contained a powerful mix of medications (both prescribed and self-administered) including anti-depressants, speed, and marijuana.
But it was the way he died that brought Mario Woods a brief bit of posthumous notoreity. His death was, like Beyonce's dancers, captured on video. A crowd of people watched as what CNN described as "a sea of police officers" surrounded Woods and shot him dead. At least two people recorded cell-phone videos of what looks eerily like an execution by firing squad.
Woods, his back to a wall, one leg injured from earlier rounds of non-lethal projectiles, attempts to limp past the half-circle of police. Arms at his sides, he sidles along, until an officer blocks his way and opens fire. Three seconds and at least 20 shots later, he lies in a heap on the sidewalk. Police said he was carrying a knife, although this is not at all clear from the video. One thing is clear, however: Woods was not threatening anyone when he was gunned down.
From Hippies to Hipsters -- Policing the City of Love
San Francisco is known around the world for its gentle vibe, its Left Coast politics, its live-and-let-live approach to other people's lifestyles -- except when it comes to the police. For many of them, "live and let live" does not seem to apply to everyone, especially not to communities of color, and in the not-too-distant past to LGBT folk either. I remember, for instance, the infamous October 6, 1989, "Castro Sweep," when police responded to a nonviolent Act Up demonstration for AIDS funding by occupying an entire gay neighborhood called "the Castro" (for its main commercial street). They ran into bars and restaurants, dragging patrons out to the sidewalks and beating them with truncheons.
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).