When Alex Nieto was killed by police on March 21st, 2014 an entire community was traumatized by the extreme violence committed by four officers to end the life of a bright young man and community member. Though I barely knew Alex, I placed myself, my skills, at the service of two humble hardworking Mexican immigrant parents who faced immense cultural, language, technical, and power barriers to confront the state and media machine they took on when they opted to file a complaint against the City. Back then, we did not believe SFPD version of events, and now after the trial, we have the facts that make the officers’ version simply preposterous.
The facts are that the officers ignored duties and alternative responses established in policy, shot 59 bullets at Alex in two distinct sets of volleys, shot most of those bullets after Alex was shot to the ground already mortally wounded, that Alex Nieto had his hands in his pockets and never threatened officers, that the Rookie cop Schiff overreacted on ordering Alex to show his hands and started shooting, and so his superior Sergeant Sawyer covered his rookie ass by executing Alex. Sawyers’ bullet was found in Alex’s temple, and by his own testimony he put that bullet in Alex on purpose. A total of 43 bullets were fired just by these two officers. There is also damning evidence that the crime scene and other documents were tampered with by officials from the D.A.’s office, Medical Examiner, homicide investigation team, CSI, and other authorities investigating his homicide.
When the majority white conservative suburban jury returned on March 10th with a verdict stating that SFPD’s Sawyer, Schiff, Chew and Morse did not use excessive force in killing Alex, we were retraumatized as a community alongside the Nietos. Like myself, perhaps you are feeling at times angry then depressed then relieved that this trial stage is over and that we can now move on towards strategic policy actions, but then back to feeling numbness, frustration, denial, acceptance, responsibility, or even a need to immediately react and spur into action. Statistically, the verdict in favor of police was the expected result when filing a case against police misconduct, but when the evidence presented at trial clearly negated SFPD’s narrative, it was inevitable that we felt hopeful. We are a community retraumatized by this jury decision and by the reminder that we live in a racially biased society that protects police departments from accountability. We live in a society that is afraid to acknowledge that police departments abuse their right to use of force, and do so disproportionately towards people of color.
One of the most important changes in my path being involved in the Alex Nieto case has been to learn more about restorative practices, because as someone trained in legal systems, I know that ultimately even with a jury decision in our favor, the pain and fear that we are not safe from police in our communities will not go away until there is personal accountability by those who harm us. This is why, even as odd as it was, the apology offered by the 911 caller Justin Fritz to Elvira and Refugio Nieto was important. It should put those four officers to shame that it was another community member who ultimately took responsibility for their actions. But Fritz’s apology, and for that matter the verdict, do not excuse Sawyer’s, Schiff’s, Morse’s, and Chew’s moral duty to make amends to the Nietos and to us for taking Alex’s life away. They created harm.
Many families who suffer violence will never be fully restored because our legal systems get in the way of the process of true accountability, and hence, creating healing environments. So, we need to search for alternatives. In a restorative spirit and addressing a retraumatized community, I want to claim a tremendous victory from the trial. The trial revealed the facts that we needed to be aired about how these four officers abused their power.
The complaint forced the City to reveal the names of the officers involved after 9 months of keeping them sealed and forced the City to hand over evidence. The court also barred the City from attacking Alex’s character with irrelevant information. Nonetheless, the City attempted to have this case dismissed twice in court, and twice the judge said that there were sufficient facts for a jury to find in our favor. Hold on to those facts, because in a fairer society with a jury composed of our true peers, SFPD never had a chance in court. Elvira said that when her son was first delivered to her she knew nothing about the circumstances of his death, but knowing what happened that day is now a victory onto itself. By that she means, and I mean, and I believe many of you who followed this case know that we blew the cover off the SFPD cover up.
We now have a solid record of SFPD abuse in the death of Alex Nieto. Over the next few days we will provide more hard facts on our website from the case and trial to set the foundations for a next stage in the struggle against police impunity. We will move forward, or as Ben Bac Sierra says, upward, from here. We will create our own justice. We will not let the homicide of Alex Nieto go forgotten, nor the excessive violence of police to go unchecked. Together we will do this.
From a restorative point of view, facts can also help heal community trauma. Elvira and Refugio and all of us who suffered from Alex’s killing at least now know what happened that day. We can stop looping through imagined scenarios that trauma demands us to create in order to explain the unacceptable killing of Alex Nieto. Yesterday Refugio spoke out in astonishment and anger that with the facts pointing against the defendants that the jury chose to believe the police. He can speak now with the certainty of a factual record on his side, when he says that police behaved abusively.
We are checking in with the Nietos about what they need but we also want you to take care of yourselves and each other. Grief is ok, but trauma is not good, because it puts us all in a continuous disadvantage to those who do not suffer violence. Hang in there. We will rebound. We will regroup and we will defeat the oppressive circumstances faced by our communities of color because we will create new circumstances for ourselves. In every end, there is always a beginning. Cry, laugh, be angry, be afraid, be numb, be active. It is all good. Be aware how you are affected, learn more about the facts, and imagine new strategies and tactics to end police impunity.
The strength of our Coalition has been our diversity. You all have a place and voice here. Our victory as the Nietos said yesterday is that we are still together. Each contribution made along the way by each of you, whether small or large, has made for a mounting movement. Amor por Alex. Heal and regroup. Alex Nieto’s death will not be in vain. We will fulfill his dream to help our younger generations. I know our incredibly talented and smart younger generations are paying attention and will let us know how they want to be helped.
Yo, youth! We’re listening. We’ve got your back. We need you. We want you to be safe. We want you to thrive. We’re here for you.
More soon… March 21st is coming, the second year anniversary of Alex Nieto being killed by police.
[original version posted on faceebook March 11, 2015; edited]