An essay by Adriana Camarena about affordable housing, police brutality, homelessness, art and activism. The author was commissioned by the YBCA to write a response to the exhibit “Take This Hammer”, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), March 11th to August 16th, 2016 (Guest Curator: Christian L. Frock) and present work at the event: “Take This Hammer: Ten Bay Area Writers Respond”, YBCA, June 7th, 2016, San Francisco.
Thank you YBCA for being an incubator for activist-writers too!
In this blog publication, I have included images of the art directly and subtly referenced in the response essay as a way to honor the artists in the exhibit.
This merits a response!
First: Gentrify my love.
“You haven’t seen it? Wait, you have to see it.” We interrupt our regular Pigeon Palace weekly co-op meeting to break into a “Google Google Apps Apps” viewing party. It’s 2013 and bodacious queens scurry across a screen in my top floor rent-controlled apartment in the Mission to the dance beat of “gringa gringa apps apps” with punctuating bellows of “I just wanna wanna be WHITE!”
My Pigeon Palace neighbors are picture-perfect white radical and liberal San Francisco in the Mission, cultural inheritors of the Diggers and Harvey Milk and the Anti-War movement. The Pigeon Palace is however not techie white. Our surfaces don’t gleam like an Apple Store circa 2010. Our building has stoops mottled with morning pigeon shit and beer stains from late night raucous day-laborer parties, but it is here that our formidable co-op of artists and activists incubated a socialist land grab dream.
In 2015 we pulled it off. It was an open probate court auction at peak market rates against Sergio Iantorno, one of the most notorious serial evictors documented by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. We put out a community call to pack the courtroom! Our friends and allies responded in such numbers that potential bidders were left outside unseated. Our next door neighbor, famed Wiccan and ecological activist Starhawk, sat inside casting a spell at Iantorno, who she imagined to be Russian mafia, given his decrepitude swaddled in silky suits and designer sunglasses. The courtroom erupted after ‘going once, going twice, going thrice’, the judge declared the San Francisco Community Land Trust to have the winning bid for our six-unit Queen Anne Victorian in the Mission.
In 6 years, the land trust will transfer management of the Pigeon Palace to our non-profit organization under a 99-year lease. Under California Law such a lease is equivalent to ownership. We are now unevictable low-income artists and activists determined to hold space from everything in the continuum of woo woo spirituality to biting radical politics. Our land grab secured my cheap rent that in turn enables me to stay in the City to say: Fuck the police.
Second: I am Alex Nieto and my life matters.
I heard the shots that killed Alex Nieto. I was alone in our Pigeon Palace apartment that twilight evening of Friday March 21st, 2014. I was dressing in the bedroom after a shower, readying myself to go out. It was quiet and I was rushing. A sputtering of shots began, then a lull, followed by a barrage of shots banging out. I held still, asking myself, “Shots or fireworks”? Fifty-nine shots echoed off the north rock face of Bernal Heights Hill and dispersed into the air over the Mission valley, sounding closest to a stash of fireworks set off by local homeboys. I went out carefree that evening.
In the months to come, I would obsess about the texture of the light on Bernal Heights at that moment at that angle on the hill at twilight on the Spring Equinox on a blustery day, when the slopes are tainted an emerald green from the rains, and the California poppies puncture the hills with their broken egg yolk blooms. The altar on the hill began with a scrawl of black graffiti “R.I.P. Alex Nieto” at the site were his body bled out. Mementos, messages and flowers came next, placed on the slope to the side.
At our early actions on the hill, the wind would blow over the banners we placed. Refugio Nieto, his father, began using the red rocks from the hill to lodge the signs, posters and flower vases into permanence. Our utilitarian stash of rocks grew. Then, anonymous supporters began making rock offerings. Month after month rocks piled up into a gravesite for Alex Nieto. Every month since his death, the living also gather around the stump of our fallen Alex Nieto to form a swaying redwood Cathedral on the hill. Here lives his spirit on Bernal, while his body rests in a Colma cemetary.
Third: Take This Hammer.
Before Alex was killed, I was setting up an installation with master Chicana artist Yolanda Lopez for the annual “Sólo Mujeres” exhibit at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts. At the time, she was resisting her eviction process, counting days to the date she had to leave her home of 34 years. “I want to make something with patada, you know, with a kick!” she said.
[Caption: Take This Hammer (1963). On display at YBCA’s Take This Hammer exhibit.]
We installed an “Eviction Scene Investigation” depicting the legalized barbarity of evicting a community elder, mother and artist from her lifelong home and studio. We used blown up copies of her Ellis Act Eviction notices as wallpaper, and tacked up a “murder board” similar to those used by police to solve a homicide case. Yolanda hand-sketched portraits of herself, her son, and their evictor Sergio Iantorno posing as victims and suspect for our murder board. Listening to Yolanda, I was impressed by how stressful eviction is, and I created an audio collage for the installation in which a female operator asks “911, what is your emergency?” I imagined a frazzled elder placing the call to explain her eviction as a life-threatening emergency, only to be dismissed as the ramblings of an old lady. I heard that audio loop so many times in the days before the killing of Alex Nieto, that when I learned that his death had been instigated by a 911 call, like a bad ear worm, all I heard in my head was “911, what is your emergency?”
Two years later on March 3rd, 2016 sitting inside the courtroom next to his parents, Elvira and Refugio, I finally heard the audio of the 911 call that instigated the death of Alex Nieto. The audio confirmed what we already knew: That no emergency was reported in the call that resulted in his death. Two white gay newcomers to the City walked past Alex with their dogs. Tim Isgitt spotted the licensed work taser at his hip and urged his partner Justin Fritz to call the police about a man with a gun. Neither had any interaction with Alex. Fritz was only able to describe him to the operator from afar as walking near a bench and “eating sunflower seeds or chips”. Yet in his courtroom testimony, Fritz admitted to having worked himself up to imagine that the man was a potential active shooter on the hill, citing Sandy Hook and Colombine.
In a self-fulfilling prophesy, their white tears brought police shooters to enact a one-sided gun battle against a man just eating a burrito. In response to the operator’s prompt “911, what is your emergency?” Fritz should have answered “We have a terrifying emergency operator. My white boyfriend and I are in a crisis of internalized fantasies of violent and racist America. Send an intervention team.”
Fourth: April Fools.
My phone rings. I’ve fallen asleep on the couch burrowed against my husband, while watching tee-vee. I look at the phone. It’s 11:30pm on Friday April 9th and John is calling. John, who is a homeless eyewitness to the police shooting that took place two days ago. I pick up. He is in distress. He says the police are bashing-in their tents with sticks, threatening to take them to jail if they don’t move immediately off the block. Earlier that week, their campmate Mayan-Mexican Luis Góngora Pat was shot in front of their eyes in broad daylight. John is with Stephanie; his seven month pregnant partner, also an eyewitness to the shooting. They are packing up in a hurry. “Can you come?”
[Caption: April Fool’s, Heart-of-the-City Collective, Google Bus Action. On display at YBCA’s “Take This Hammer”]
I walk out close to midnight and travel the length of Shotwell Street from my home near 24th down to 19th Street to film the police that Friday night. It’s late and dark and light rain falls. For more than an hour, I film officers destroying the private property of encampment members under the cloak of the Sit-Lie Law, but I know that what I am filming in the middle of the night is officers who were sent to deliberately harass and disband eyewitnesses to a homicide case in which police officers are the suspects.
Standing on the wet sidewalk, I hoped to buffer from abuse the unhoused witnesses of the eleventh fatal police shooting in San Francisco since 2014, the twenty-first since 2000, the one hundred and third since 1985, in which without exception all officers have been found to have acted within policy, free of any criminal or labor consequences, because they claimed they “feared for their safety.”
It’s 1 a.m. when officer badge number 2095 points his flashlight into my face. When I complain that he is blocking me from filming, he retorts, “You are pointing an object at me and I am concerned for my safety.” Badge 2095 has a way with words, words that would justify him shooting me. I had not yet recovered from the jury verdict a month earlier that exonerated officers from killing Alex Nieto. The four officers cleverly uttered the immunity spell in the law that frees them from accountability: “I feared for my safety and the safety of my fellow officers.”
Fifth: Move freely.
The Friday after Luis’s killing, José has a premonition and is found by a social worker wandering around Shotwell Street, trying to find his brother. No one of the family in San Francisco had been notified; none had been called to ID the body at SF General, but an independent autopsy had already been ordered. The brother and cousins cannot sleep for the following weeks. They are increasingly agitated feeling that on top of the atrocity committed by police, the deceased is being dishonored. In their Mayan culture, for seven weeks, a household will be maintained with extreme cleanliness and quiet to allow the deceased to become aware that he is now dead. We go together to the Mexican Consulate to protect their right to hold a wake here for Luis, his home of 15 years, before his body —finally fully documented, finally free to move across a border—is repatriated to Teabo.
On April 23rd, a wake is held in a funeral parlor one block away from the Mission Police Station, where the Frisco5 have set up their encampment, but only a few supporters visit the funerary. A man from Luis’s homeless encampment comes to the wake. He is a tall black man, who seeing Luis in the open casket turns away, distorted by grief, wailing, pushing a shopping cart violently down the street past the police station, past the Frisco5, moving downstream fast. I run after him, afraid the police might harm this man in crisis.
Sixth. Revolution come and carry on.
Today June 7th is the second month anniversary of Luis Góngora’s killing. Between the day he was killed and today, 29 year old Jessica Nelson-Williams was murdered with one police bullet while sitting in a car. The Chief of Police resigned. But don’t stop. Now we decapitate the entire hydra that supports police impunity: I’m talking about the triad of the Mayor, the Police Commission and the well-funded Police Officers Association. The POA is the greater problem, notorious for bullying City officials into blocking any reform to establish accountability.
If you care for the safety of yourself and others, tonight when you climb into bed with your lover, lean into their ear and whisper:
The POA is the problem.
The POA is the problem.
The POA is the problem, my love.
[Caption: Revolution by Ruby Mountain. On display at YBCA’s “Take This Hammer”]