In 2014, in San Francisco, Alex Nieto, carrying a Taser for his shift as a bouncer, was shot repeatedly by four police officers, and died. None of the officers were indicted criminal charges stemming from his death; this month they were cleared in a civil case. But the broader consequences of their actions remain.
Jezebel has covered the unchill wave of riches washing over San Francisco, as tech bros spread across Northern California’s crown jewel. But the death of Nieto, as Rebecca Solnit writes in The Guardian, is a definitive mark of what the city’s become: historically a place of peace and reinvention, it is now a place where minorities, the working class, poor and homeless are no longer welcome in the city they helped create.
Nieto, writes Solnit, “died because a series of white men saw him as a menacing intruder in the place he had spent his whole life.”
They thought he was possibly a gang member because he was wearing a red jacket. Many Latino boys and men in San Francisco avoid wearing red and blue because they are the colors of two gangs, the Norteños and Sureños – but the colors of San Francisco’s football team, the 49ers, are red and gold.
Nieto was not a gang member. He was a bouncer who had taken community college courses in criminal justice and interned with the San Francisco juvenile probation department. He was the child of two Mexican immigrants, a youth counselor as a teen and a Buddhist as an adult. He was active in his community with a good group of friends.
But on the night of March 21, 2014, Nieto was viewed as an outsider by the white transplants who’d moved near his neighborhood park where he was trying to grab a snack.
It all began when Nieto encountered a man named Evan Snow, who was walking his unruly Siberian husky puppy. Snow’s dog wanted Nieto’s chips and went for them, barking and howling while Snow testified in the recent civil trial that he was distracted by a woman “jogger’s butt.” Nieto had been backed on top of a bench by the dog and Snow said he pulled out a taser, a weapon used on his job as a bouncer, and pointed it at both the dog and Snow. But Snow still didn’t retrieve his dog. Instead, he yelled at Nieto. Solnit writes:
Snow apparently used a racial slur, but would not later give the precise word. As he left the park, he texted a friend about the incident. His text, according to his testimony, said, “in another state like Florida, I would have been justified in shooting Mr Nieto that night” – a reference to that state’s infamous “stand your ground” law, which removes the obligation to retreat before using force in self-defence. In other words, he apparently wished he could have done what George Zimmerman did to Trayvon Martin: execute him without consequences.
These are the people—like Justin Keller, who wants all of the homeless pushed out of the city—who define San Francisco now. God help us.
As Nieto tried to calm down, two more men named Tim Isgitt and Justin Fritz passed him. They say they saw Nieto fidgeting “nervously.” Neither men saw the pup showdown, and had no context for his fright. Isgitt told others as they left the park to watch out for the nervous guy—though Fritz didn’t notice anything odd, nor did another man named Robin Bullard, who said Nieto was just “sitting there.” Isgitt still urged his partner to call 911, and Fritz told the dispatcher there was a “foreign” “Hispanic” man with a black handgun in the park. When the dispatcher asked Fritz what Nieto was doing, he said “just pacing, it looks like he might be eating chips or sunflowers, but he’s resting a hand kind of on the gun.”
Police arrived five minutes later, shooting Nieto upwards of 40 times after they say he pointed his weapon at them while presenting a threatening stance. They testified they were afraid for their lives; they thought the taser was a gun, despite the bright yellow strip along the taser’s side that differentiates it.
Like George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin, the Cleveland cops who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and Darren Wilson, who killed Mike Brown, the San Francisco cops described their victim with racist imagery—a villain with Marvel comic strength, somehow borrowed from a script from The Birth of a Nation.
The police had testified as though Nieto had been a superhuman or inhuman opponent, facing them off even as they fired again and again, then dropping to a “tactical sniper posture” on the ground, still holding the Taser with its red laser pointing at them.
The jury in the officers’ trial ruled in favor of them, not Nieto. Protests on the streets followed; Northern California locals like myself are furious but not surprised. Nieto’s murder is a reflection of how far San Francisco has come: from an all-inclusive haven for weirdos to “a cruel place and a divided one,” as Solnit writes—a wealthy enclave of those who describe Mission District natives as “possibly foreign” threats to their peaceful evening dog walk, and get those natives shot.
Read Solnit’s piece here.
Image via ABC/screengrab