Last April, Luis Góngora— a homeless man living in the Mission District— was fatally shot by San Francisco police. In the days following the incident, the community expressed outrage over the excessive force used against him and demanded answers from the SFPD.
The investigation into his death is still open. The family of Luis Góngora is left hurting and wanting answers. Luis, they say, was not an anonymous person living on the streets; he had a family who cared about him, and now they want justice.
Their pain and anger
In San Francisco’s Mission district, on the corner of Shotwell and 18th, there's a make-shift altar. There are flowers and notes; a candle sits on the ground in front. Laura Guzman stands in front of it speaking to a small crowd on the 4 month anniversary of the death of Luis Góngora. José, Luis Góngora’s brother, is at the anniversary memorial. He says he used to come here to see Luis every chance he had. Luis lived in a homeless encampment on this street. And José says it was here that he found out his brother had died. He says when he left work that day in April, he came to Shotwell to visit Luis like he always did. His brother had been homeless for a couple of years, but the two were close. When he got to the encampment, he saw his brother’s name painted on the sidewalk. He got a sick feeling in his stomach. He frantically tried to ask people if they had seen Luis.
“I’m his brother,” he told the people on the street. But they didn't understand his limited English. José, like his brother, immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico to look for jobs and make money. They grew up in an indigenous community speaking a Mayan language and some Spanish, but little English. José says he finally learned what happened to his brother from Laura, the woman who is leading the memorial today. She told him that Luis had been shot the day before. By police.
Since Luis’ death, a coalition of Luis’ family, friends and community members meets once a month. They come not only to remember Luis, but because they want justice for his death.
“What would you do if they killed your family? Your brother, your child? Your father, your mother?," asks Luis Poot, Góngora's cousin, who's been working closely with the coalition and says "It’s not the same as any other murder in the streets—this was the police—they’re supposed to take care of you and they show up and kill you. The family is destroyed.”
What happened that day
It was April 7th, 2016, around 10 AM. Police had gotten a call from the city’s Homeless Outreach Team saying there was a man in the area with a knife. Three officers pulled up in squad cars. They walked towards Luis. In video footage of the incident, you can hear the officers say “Get on the ground. Stay on the ground.” Less than 10 seconds later they yell “put that down!,” and shots can be heard.
Police say Luis lunged with the knife and that’s why they opened fire. Eyewitnesses who spoke to news outlets disagree. They say police moved in on Luis quickly—in less than 30 seconds. And not speaking much English, he was likely confused.
“Here you have officers who pull up on the scene and within moments get out and start confronting a person under threat of a shotgun yelling at a person,” says Adante Pointer, a civil rights lawyer who is representing Luis’ family. He works for the John Burris Law Firm— the same law firm that brought civil charges against BART in the Oscar Grant case. He’s currently representing almost a dozen victims of officer involved shootings in CA, including Luis Góngora.
“They pull up barking commands at a person who they don't know whether or not this person understands what they’re saying…in this situation a person who doesn’t understand English or Spanish,” Pointer adds.
Pointer says holding officers accountable is hard. Unless someone is pushing, cases such as Grant’s and Góngora’s don’t go to court. “Everything is geared towards protecting the officer, protecting the entity. Despite how good your facts are, no matter how egregious the circumstances are… and not about, in my opinion, getting to the bottom of why we’re having these types of incidents take place and correcting them.”
It’s up to the DA, the Attorney General or the US Attorney to press criminal charges. However, it’s tricky. The DA relies heavily on the police department to investigate and collect evidence— in any homicide, including those where officers are involved. Pointer says it's an inherent conflict of interest.
The District Attorney comments
According to an investigation by the San Francisco Chronicle, in the past 15 years there have been 40 fatal officer-involved shootings in San Francisco. None of those officers were criminally charged. Coalitions have formed for the more recent police-involved shootings of Alex Nieto, Mario Woods, and Amilcar Perez Lopez. The families say that had their loved ones died at the hands of anyone other than an officer, the DA would have already pressed charges. They feel that the system is failing them, turning a blind eye, protecting their own.
Max Szabo, a spokesperson for the District Attorney, says it is difficult to prosecute officers. “People always ask is there a different standard? Why are they held to a different standard?”says Szabo. In fact, it is the case the police are held to a different standard; legally, police are allowed to use lethal force when trying to take a person into custody or approach a person and they subjectively perceive threat. However, the DA is doing something to change the way that these investigations are conducted.
“We want the investigations to be completely independent. We're taking appropriate measures to do that,” says Szabo. The DA office recently announced funding to create a separate group that would be tasked with investigating officer involved shootings. This means the DA will no longer by relying on the SFPD to gather evidence in these cases. Such changes could mean that more officers are tried in criminal court.
But for Luis Góngora’s family, any changes are too late. And for them, the process is frustrating. Luis’ brother José, is especially heartbroken. He says Luis was not just a brother, but a best friend.
“I grew up with him,” José says. “I was constantly with him until they took him away from me.” The two grew up in Teabo, a small town in the Yucatan peninsula where they swam in the reservoirs of their village. They rode horses and tended to the fields together near their home. José remembers how his brother loved animals, and pranks. “We had a horse we would ride,” José says, “but I didn’t know how to ride it so well. For fun, Luis would sometimes make it try to throw me off, and he’d laugh. Sometimes in the evenings after we’d put the animals away, he’d hurry off and I’d be running behind him trying to catch up. But he always took care of me.”
The brothers did everything together. In 2001 José came to San Francisco. Luis followed him a year later in 2002. Jobs were hard to come by in Mexico and they had wives and children to support. Luis Góngora got a job working at Mel’s Diner. His brother worked in another restaurant. Luis didn’t speak much English or Spanish; he depended on others to translate to Yucatec Mayan. He did that for almost 10 years at Mel’s.
But then all of the Mayan speakers left the restaurant, and Luis couldn’t communicate. He lost his job. With no money to pay for rent, he and José were evicted from their apartment. They both ended up on the street. His cousin, Luis Poot says that’s when things got bad. He says Luis Góngora was the more traumatized of the two. Meanwhile, José asked for help. The cousin says he only had room for one of the brothers- José. Still, Luis Góngora lived in a tent right in front of their apartment building. The circumstances were not ideal. Luis’ mental state also seemed to deteriorate during those years, but he was still very much a part of the family. They would communicate with Luis every week— talk to him, give him food, water, money. They’d lend him a phone so he could call Mexico. They were trying to help Luis get back to his wife and three children in Teabo. Now, however, they’re trying to push for justice for his death.
The continued fight
Every other week the brother and cousin go to a protest, a march or a meeting. Tonight is a combined rally of Luis’ supporters as well as those of Nieto, Woods and Lopez— other victims of fatal police confrontations. In the Mission, cars stop at intersections to let protesters pass— 60 people strong. They’re carrying signs and banners. A group dressed in indigenous Mayan garments lead the group with a drum. A decision for Amilcar’s case is expected soon. Luis’ case is still under investigation. The coalitions say if District Attorney Gascón won’t press charges they'll ask California General Attorney Kamala Harris to step up.
For months after his brother’s death, José couldn’t work. Today at the march he says he’s sad, but giving it his best. He walks holding a picture of his Luis as he follows behind his cousin who carries a large banner. “I’ll never forget him. No matter where I am. Always. Because he is my big brother.” José says.
Luis’ cousin Luis Poot says that— just like any other person— Luis Góngora deserves justice. “Luis Góngora is a father, a brother, a cousin, a human being. Anyone who takes away the life of another person, it doesn't matter who they are, they should be given justice.”
That’s what they’ll keep fighting for. And if the criminal justice system fails them, they say they’ll go to civil court.