By Alex Emslie
Family and friends of a 28-year-old San Francisco man shot and killed by police are questioning the official story of the shooting that reverberates with multiple controversies raging in the city.
San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr said Alejandro Nieto pointed a Taser stun gun at officers responding to reports of a man with a gun in Bernal Heights Park as the sun was setting on March 21.
Friends say Nieto carried the Taser for his job as a nightclub security guard, and he stopped at his neighborhood park to eat a burrito on his way to work.
Anti-eviction activists say the shooting spotlights a culture clash in the Mission and other San Francisco neighborhoods.
“It was a real wake-up call the other day to realize that evictions and gentrification don’t just mean losing your home but really losing your life as well,” said Erin McElroy with the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. She addressed about 500 people filling the streets of the Mission District Saturday before the crowd marched to Bernal Heights Park, where police shot Nieto. “It’s really sad that we have to be here because we are losing people from this community to gun violence by the police. We are losing people due to evictions, and we are being replaced by people who are scared of us.”
Catherine Marroquin lifted a sign that said “Gentrification = Police Brutality,” as she marched through drizzling rain toward the Bernal Heights panoramic view of San Francisco’s skyline.
“Police have much more of a presence in the neighborhood now,” she said, adding the Mission district youth she works with, some City College students, look just like Nieto. “They’re scared for their lives,” she said.
Erick Arguella represents Mission District business owners with the merchants association Calle 24 SF. He said Latino ownership of storefronts along 24th Street had dropped to 69 of 130, the lowest ratio in 15 years. Longtime local shops are being pressured by speculators looking to buy, Arguella said, and if they refuse, they get a lot more attention from authorities.
“We’ve seen realtors, we’ve seen speculators, we’ve seen individual folks hitting these businesses relentlessly for the last two years,” he said. “We’ve seen a pattern of Department of Public Health showing up, the Police Department showing up, different inspectors showing up in an attempt to force them to sell. A lot of times they would have to close if they find some infractions.”
The march was flanked by several dozen police officers with riot gear, but there were no confrontations between protesters and police.
“I’m glad they were here,” said Nieto’s friend, Ben Bac Sierra. He said police should hear the marchers’ message: “We’re at a new stage, we have a very positive momentum. We’re not trying to hurt anyone, we just want the truth. We want justice for Alex.”
Nieto was well-known in the Mission and Bernal Heights, where he lived. He was active in the fight to keep City College of San Francisco accredited as he studied criminal justice there. He planned to become a probation officer and completed an internship with the city’s juvenile probation department about a year ago, said his mentor and city probation officer, Carlos Gonzalez.
“Knowing that he knew a little bit about criminal justice, knowing that he was an intern with us, it just doesn’t make sense to me that he would be that dumb,” Gonzalez said.
Nieto was a Buddhist and volunteered with Mission District youth organizations.
Fellow security guards at El Toro nightclub attended the march Saturday and paid respects to Nieto’s father.
“He was a real nice guy,” Luis Del Villar said. “The first time I met him, he gave me his hand and a hug.”
But Nieto’s life was reportedly not without conflict. The San Francisco Chronicle reports former friend Arthur Vega filed a restraining order against him after Nieto allegedly shocked him with a stun gun.
Suhr described elements of a shooting that could point to a “suicide-by-cop,” although authorities haven’t yet made an official determination on the shooting. Suhr told an angry crowd at a town hall meeting to discuss the shooting last week that Nieto was prohibited from owning a gun for “mental health reasons.” He said Nieto acting erratically, then drew a Taser when police confronted him in the park.
“They asked Nieto to show his hands, to which he responded, ‘You need to show your hands,’ and then he drew his firearm,” Suhr said, then corrected himself, “the weapon that he drew.”
The majority of Suhr’s remarks on the shooting at a town hall meeting on March 25 are below. Some interruptions have been edited out:
But Nieto’s friends don’t buy it. Bac Sierra responded to the possibility of Nieto committing “suicide-by-cop.”
Bac Sierra said gentrification played a role in the shooting of his friend, with new neighbors quick to call police and officers quick to shoot.
“But I don’t really say that with spite — it’s just they had a different life,” he said, adding that the diverse crowd that marched Saturday was “beautiful.”
“Alejandro would love unity,” he said.
Nieto’s family, and his many supporters in the Mission and Bernal Heights neighborhoods, are mourning him this week. A public rosary is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday at Driscoll’s Valencia Street Serra Mortuary in the Mission. His funeral is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Tuesday at Saint Kevin Catholic Church in Bernal Heights. Supporters are taking donations for Nieto’s family, with more information available on the “Justice for Alex Nieto” Facebook page.
Meanwhile, police and San Francisco’s Office of Citizens Complaints and Police Commission will review the shooting, part of which will likely happen Wednesday in a closed-session meeting. The commission will review the chief’s decision to “return or not return officers to duty following an officer-involved shooting.” Suhr said involved officers were put on administrative leave after the shooting per police department protocol.