My encounter at 24th Street Southeast BART Plaza, approximately at 1:30pm, Oct. 9th, 2017, Indigenous People’s Day
I had just stepped out of the new Mission coffee house on the Southeast BART plaza, where for about an hour I had been writing up some ideas for my next essay. The moment I walked out of the café, another thought came to mind. So I walked forward to the side of the BART station to lean on one of those big metal bumps lining the surrounding BART fence to finish my note.
A homeless man was walking in my direction dragging a cart. He screamed, “I just want coffee, man!” Then he settled in about 5 yards away from me trying to pick up a can with his foot. I told myself, ‘When I finish my note, I’ll offer him a cup.’
At that moment, two beat cops passed behind him. It seemed like they were going to walk right by. Instead ‘White Cop Lujano’ stopped, and authoritatively called out to the homeless man who was facing away from him towards the BART fence, “Are you bored? Is that why you are kicking a can around? I said are you bored, is that why you are kicking a can around?”
I looked up from my writing to observe.
The homeless man was startled and turned left to face his speaker. He happened to have a fork in his left hand. ‘White Cop Lujano’ escalated immediately, prodding, “Are you going to come at me with that fork? Is that what you are going to do?”
Frightened, the man just held it up, mumbling something by way of showing he meant nothing by it.
My blood boiled seeing how fast White Cop Lujano had escalated the situation. I spoke loudly to the homeless man, “You don’t have to talk to them. You aren’t doing anything wrong.”
“If you listen to this lady right here, that’s what’s going to get you arrested,” menaced White Cop Lujano.
I was so angry I could feel myself starting to tremble, but I checked my anger because I needed them to listen to me, “He isn’t doing anything. You have no reason to harass him.”
Now I had the cops full attention, and they walked over to me.
White Cop Lujano mansplained, “This is my territory. I talk to whomever I want.”
More fuses blew up in my head, so I corrected him, “This is NOT your territory. This place does NOT belong to you.”
White Cop Lujano retorted, “Yes, it does. This is my beat.”
“That is not what that means. This place does not belong to you, and having a beat doesn’t mean that you have to come up to the poorest, most vulnerable person in the entire plaza to harass them.”
“How is that harassing him? He was littering. Tell me if he leaves the can there is it not against the law?” We all turned to see the man literally picking up the can with his hand. I tell his partner ‘Brown Cop Cubas’, “Do you see him literally picking up the can? He can’t even hear us talking.”
I directed myself to White Cop Lujano, “I heard what you told him, when he turned with the fork. You asked him ‘whether he was going to come at you with the fork’ and the simple act of expressing a perception of threat, that you saw his fork as threatening, and you knowing that your perception is all you need to justify yourself in killing him is the real threat.”
White cop Lujano, “I said ‘Take it easy with that fork.’”
“No, you did not, I heard you ask him, whether he was going to come at you with the fork…”
White cop Lujano, “I said, ‘Take it easy with that fork,” and did you see me pull a gun at him or something?”
Goddess help me! I turned to his partner Brown Cop Cubas, “I’m sorry you have to work with him.” Then, responded to Lujano, “I heard you very clearly ask him if he was going to come at you with the fork and that’s the problem. Your implicit bias is the problem. That you should even think to say that to him, that you should perceive that situation with a knife to be a threat…”
White cop Lujano, “knife?”
“FORK!” I correct myself. My Freudian slip and him catching me was painfully accurate to the situation. How many times have we BOTH heard other cops excuse themselves from murder by saying their victim came at them with a knife. For now, I’ll just name three: Amilcar Perez Lopez (Feb. 2015), Mario Woods (Dec. 2015) and Luis Gongora Pat (April 2016) killed on those dates by SFPD officers. I continued, “Your very perception that the fork was a threat to you, and your knowledge that all you have to do is state that perception to justify killing him is just a step away from you actually killing him!”
Brown Cop Cubas—with about 80% less hubris and entitlement—tried at this point to redirect the conversation, “Ma’am, ma’am, you are not out here all the time like we are…”
“I am out here all the time. Was I not out here just writing down a note?”
The homeless man walked behind the cops at this moment, and under his breath mouthed ‘I love you’ to me. I nodded at him slightly, and he shuffled to the other side of the plaza scraping the can under his foot. I want to believe that it was an act of defiance.
Brown Cop Cubas, continued “What I’m trying to communicate is that, I’ve seen what a fork can do….”
I lost patience, “But that was not AT ALL the situation here. This man was just minding his own business and you had no reason to even talk to him. Out of all the people here in the plaza you had to direct your attention to the poorest most vulnerable person out here.”
White Cop Lujano, “That’s my job. I get paid to be out here.”
“Harassing people who are minding their own business is not your job!”
White Cop Lujano puffed up, “Oh, yeah. Alright, how do you care about that man? What are you doing for homeless people? How are you helping him?”
“By directing your attention towards me, I’ve already helped him…”
White Cop Lujano kept talking over me, “And are you going to say that littering with a can is not against the law?”
“Who CARES?” I said, “Who cares about the can? This man is clearly homeless, needs resources and you are going to do what, give him a hundred dollar fine for littering?”
White Cop Lujano, continued talking over me, “…So you care now? Are you going to feed him? Are you going to house him? It’s so easy to flip that argument when you talk about caring!”
I could not believe this rookie, “Really? Really? Alright, let’s flip it again, how is what you are doing helping him?… How is you telling him that you see his fork as a threat helping him?”
Brown Cop Cubas interjected again, “Ma’am, ma’am…”
White cop Lujano, kept talking, “I only said that as a follow up after I said, ‘take it easy with the fork.’”
Note, kind reader, that now he’s changed his story, because I have insisted for at least the third time that I know what I heard him say.
Brown Cop Cubas interjected again, “Ma’am, ma’am, we’ve heard you now and ask that you hear me now…,” once more seeking another course of conversation….
But now I had to interrupt him, “Before I do [listen], I just want to set a ground rule, I don’t care if this is your beat, but nobody has to talk to you and you have no reason to engage with a man who is minding his own business. By the way, don’t you have to write up this interaction….?”
White cop Lujano snidely comments from behind, “It was a consensual conversation.”
Brown cop Cubas however has nodded that he has heard me, so I listened, “Ma’am, we’re out here doing community engagement. It was a consensual conversation. It’s our job to engage with community members. If he wanted to, he could just walk away…”
Imagine that, kind readers, if that poor homeless man had walked away from White Cop Lujano.
By this point, some tall White Dude In A Cap had come up to observe the exchange. As I am talking to Brown Cop Cubas, the White Dude In A Cap directed the attention of White Cop Lujano, “So, what is the correct protocol to follow in such a case…?” The question is absolutely maddening to me, because to be clear, we are talking about the case of a Latino homeless man playing with a can.
While I admit that Brown Cop Cubas was trying to make an effort in talking to me and that I was willing to entertain his effort to communicate better than his idiot partner, after hearing the question from White Dude In A Cap, I had had enough. I turned to Cubas and said, “Well, as you have noted, this is just a consensual conversation, and we’re done now.”
I walked away.
My recounting of this incident is undoubtedly biased by my anger at the mistreatment of a homeless man and the hubris and entitlement of White Cop Lujano. None the less, I believe I have done an accurate job of depicting the highlights of conversation between myself and the cops, and most of all, depicting the actions of the homeless man in question.
With a cooler head, let us now together assess the situation. The homeless man was probably very bored given that long term living on the street must be an extremely desensitizing experience. He was also in a fairly empty *PUBLIC* plaza entertaining himself with a can; much in the way that I was writing a note leaned against the fence absorbed in my own affairs. There is no code of law that would characterize his state of being or his actions as a crime, not even a misdemeanor offense that would require police interaction. He was not littering. He was truly just minding his own business.
But presume for a moment that a passersby, including a cop, might be concerned for his mental wellness. Let’s answer the question about what possibly could be the protocol in that situation?
I suggest that if you must interact with an extremely impoverished man minding his own business in a public plaza that first of all you use your most attentive voice to ask something along the lines of, “Hi, how are you doing today? How are you feeling? How can I help you?” If he responds positively, you should follow up, “Oh, you want a cup of coffee? Let me get you one… How about a donut or a taco too…? Want water while we are at it?…” If this person is grateful, you may say something like, “Oh it’s nothing…. No, I don’t get paid to do this, but I like to engage with community members and get to know them better to see how I can best be of service….”
I’ve done a version of this many times during the nine years I’ve lived in the Mission talking to homeless strangers on the street. Many times the response from a homeless person is to tell me to “FUCK OFF!” at the top of their lungs, at which point, I do, because everyone has a right to their privacy, especially the homeless who have so little privacy on the street. So, if this is ever the response you get to your good intentions, including if you are a cop, apologize to that person for bothering them and leave.