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The Frisco Five Helped Oust A Police Chief. But The Fight Isn't Over.

Mona Caron
The Frisco Five Hundred march to San Francisco City Hall.

Five years ago, a group of activist went on a hunger strike after a series of fatal police shootings. They were called the Frisco Five and their goal was to force out the city's police chief.

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In honor of the five year anniversary of the Frisco Five hunger strike, activists rallied and camped outside of San Francisco City Hall over the weekend to call attention to the ongoing problem of police brutality.

The protests came in the wake of the conviction of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder George Floyd. Though there were scenes of relief and joy outside the courthouse that day, for many it was also mixed with grief.

The very day of the verdict, 15-year-old Ma’khia Bryant was shot by police in Columbus Ohio. And closer to home, the day before, on April19, Alameda Police killed 26-year-old Mario Gonzalez.

So today, we're looking back at the events that led to the hunger strike that ousted a police chief.

One Major Goal: Fire Chief Suhr 

Jessica Williams was shot and killed the morning of May 19, 2016 by a San Francisco police officer. The 29-year old woman was homeless. Just hours later, Mayor Ed Lee held a press conference announcing Chief Greg Suhr had resigned.

Activist Edwin Lindo watched in disbelief. 

“And we just started crying and we hugged each other, and we couldn’t believe that it actually happened,” he said. 

Lindo was part of the Frisco Five, a group of activists who went on a very public 17-day hunger strike. They had one major goal: get Chief Suhr fired. 

“You have to take the head off of the snake,” Lindo remembers. “And the San Francisco Police Department is a snake and its head had to be removed. And that was Greg Suhr.” 

Greg Suhr was a veteran on the force, and a fourth generation San Franciscan. His family worked in the lumber business. He was picked by Mayor Lee to be police chief in 2011. 

Suhr pledged a series of reforms while he was police chief, but none of them seemed to happen fast enough. Officers sent racist, sexist and homophobic text messages while he was chief, and there was a spate of police killings under his leadership. 

A Spate Of Officer Involved Shootings

In March of 2014, twenty-eight year-old Alex Nieto was killed. In response to that fatal shooting, activists — including those who would later become the Frisco Five — organized meetings, marched, and protested. 

About a year later, police shot and killed Amilcar Perez-Lopez in the Mission. And in December of 2015, officers shot and killed Mario Woods in the Bayview. 

Again, people marched, demanding justice. And Greg Suhr was still in charge. Then, in April of 2016, a homeless immigrant named Luis Gongora Pat was shot and killed by police.

He and his brother had recently been evicted from the apartment they shared in the Mission. 

For the Frisco Five, the death of Luis Gongora Pat was the tipping point. After so many fatal shootings, they still didn’t see anything being done to change the culture of policing or hold officers accountable. 

At the same, the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum in response to similar killings by officers in cities like New York and Ferguson. 

‘I Was Tired Of Marching’

Longtime organizer Maria Cristina Gutierrez wanted the world to pay attention to the police shootings in San Francisco. So she called for a hunger strike. 

“I told my son I was tired of marching,” she remembers. 

People call her Mama Cristina. She’s a petite woman who’s been known to wear a peace sign necklace and her hair in a short bob. She comes from a family of activists. Her dad organized one of the first labor unions in Colombia, where she was born. At the time of the strike, she was 66 years old and she ran the Compañeros del Barrio preschool. 

“I’m a mother, a grandmother. My family is a rainbow coalition. For the children at the school I teach in, for the children of this city, for the children of this country, for the children of the world...enough,” she said during a rally. 

The hunger strikers slept outside the Mission police station. People dropped off tents to make them more comfortable. News crews came out to speak with them.

While what they were doing was painful, they also wanted to have fun. It was a little bit festive, like friends just kicking it and yelling things with bullhorns. Mama Cristina’s son, underground hip-hop artist Equipto, was another hunger striker. 

Coconut Water, Blankets, And Revolution 

“You can bring us coconut water and water and blankets and chill with us and have conversations. let’s talk about books, let’s talk about music, let’s talk about revolution,” Equipto said outside the police station. 

The Aztec dancers came out, and so did the low riders. People chanted and drivers honked. And some members of the Frisco Five smoked a lot of pot. In the spring of 2016, recreational cannabis was still illegal in California.

“Defiant to everything, smoking pot. Telling the police we don't care, telling the mayor, the supervisors, the police officers association, we didn't care. And that was it. We didn’t care if we went to jail,” Averi Sellassie Blackwell, one of the hunger strikers, says. He goes by Sellassie. 

“People would drop us off their keys,” he says, remembering how neighbors would say, “‘Just take a shower, whenever you want to.’ So we would all do that. Take a shower, get freshed up, then leave and then come back to the hunger strike.” 

Preschool teacher, rapper, and Frisco Five member Ike Pinkston says people came to be security for them. “To make sure that while we slept, the police officers didn't come out and do anything to us or any passerbyers didn't do anything to us,” Pinkston says.

The Makeshift Medical Clinic 

This was the beginning of a larger movement. Many people helped and supported the Frisco Five, including Doctor Rupa Marya. She and some medical students formed a makeshift clinic on the sidewalk, weighing the Frisco Five daily and taking their blood pressure. 

“I offered my help as a physician to make sure that they were safe as well as they could be, and to understand their advanced directives, like how far were they willing to take this hunger strike?” Marya says.

The hunger strikers sustained themselves with broth and coconut water. 

As the days went by, the group rallied around Mama Cristina. Edwin Lindo says she was the force who held them together. On the 10th day of the hunger strike, he spoke before the growing crowd that had been joining them outside the police station. 

Mama Cristina Leads The Way 

“This woman here is a queen, her spirit is driving us, she might possibly have pneumonia. And this is no joke. and I hope Ed Lee and Chief Suhr go to sleep knowing her blood is on their hands,” Lindo said. “Because Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez-Lopez, Mario Woods and Luis Gongora it’s already on their hands”

Mayor Ed Lee said he didn’t buy the argument that bringing in a new chief would lay the groundwork for meaningful change. And he said he had already been working with Greg Suhr on a series of police reforms. 

“I recognize there is a level of politics involved, but I'm about making sure these reforms do get done and they're led properly. The chief has not been an obstacle to that, in fact he’s been championing these reforms and he’s holding officers accountable,” he said in an interview with ABC7. 

Meeting On Their Own Terms 

Mayor Lee offered to talk with them and even went down to the station to meet with them. But the Frisco Five wanted the meeting on their own terms. So on their 13th day without food, they went down from the Mission to City Hall to meet with the mayor. Hundreds of people, who became known as the Frisco Five Hundred, marched with them. Mama Cristina and the other hunger strikers were in wheelchairs.

“ I don’t want to die. I want to go home, I want to eat some good food, I don't even want to talk about that,” Mama Cristina said to the crowd. “This fight has to go on. We cannot quit now, you know that, right.”

“This goofball who decided not to be there,” Hunger striker Ike Pinkston says. 

Ed Lee wasn’t there. It’s not really clear where he was. According to 48 hills, his calendar had him at city hall. But a spokesperson said he was in the Bayview. 

The End Of The Hunger Strike 

Later that afternoon, the Frisco Five were hospitalized. They were gaunt, rapidly losing weight, and needed more care than they could receive on the street. After four days in the hospital, they called off the strike. But while they recovered. Their supporters invited everyone to take part in a general strike. 

By this point, some politicians were beginning to see their side. 

Soon after the strike ended, four members of the Board of Supervisors joined their call for Greg Suhr to resign. 

Greg Suhr Steps Down 

And then Jessica Williams was killed. That’s when Mayor Ed Lee held that press conference, announcing that Chief Suhr had resigned. 

Suhr’s resignation was the entire goal of the hunger strike.

But Ike Pinkston says it was bittersweet. 

“I mean, he resigned, but he still got his pension. That's what that's what it was all about. It was all about money,” Pinkston says. “But Lee wanted him to stay on because Ed Lee was trying to prove that he had the last say and he was the one in charge with the power and not us, the people.”

Greg Suhr was replaced by Bill Scott, an African American man from the Los Angeles police department. Soon after that, SFPD officers were equipped with body cameras, The city’s police commission adopted a use-of-force policy that emphasizes de-escalation and alternatives to using force. One report from the Justice Department shows use-of-force in the department dropped 47% since 2016

More Work To Do 

But that same report shows San Francisco police continue to use force disproportionately against Black and Latino people. The members of the Frisco Five now want to defund the police. Because people of color are still being shot and killed by law enforcement around the country. 

And the Frisco Five haven’t stopped fighting for justice. Edwin Lindo is now a professor at the University of Washington and a critical race theory scholar. Ike Pinkston is still teaching. He, Equipto, and Sellassie are still highlighting injustice; often through music.

As a direct result of her work with Frisco Five, Dr. Rupa Marya co-founded Do No Harm, a coalition of health workers and activists who believe that health is a human right and that health workers have a collective duty to eradicate systems of oppression that threaten that right. 

Mama Cristina is still the director of the Compañeros del Barrio preschool. Every Friday from 1 to 2 pm she shows up to make some noise at 850 Bryant, the Hall of Justice, with a group called Mothers on the March.

When Mama Cristina thinks back to the Frisco Five, she thinks about how little has changed in the last four years, and even since George Floyd’s death. And she thinks about fasting for social justice again. 

“I want to do this in front of the White House,” she says.

See photos and videos from the anniversary march of the Frisco Five hunger strike by following #Frisco500 on Twitter and Instagram.

This story originally aired on October 5, 2020.

Sona Avakian is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. Issues she is in interested in convering include housing in the BayArea, how to survive as an artist in the Bay Area, immigration, and local politics.