In the photo, five of Beyonce’s leather-clad, black-bereted dancers raise their fists in a Black Power salute
. The woman in the middle holds a hand-lettered sign up for the camera, bearing three words and a number: “Justice 4 Mario Woods.” Behind them, the crowd at Levi's Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, is getting ready for the second half of Super Bowl 50, but the game’s real fireworks are already over.
The women in the photo had just finished backing Beyonce’s homage to the Black Panthers and Malcolm X during her incandescent halftime appearance, when two San Francisco Bay Area Black Lives Matter activists managed to grab a few words with them. Rheema Emy Calloway and Ronnisha Johnson asked if they’d make a quick video demanding justice for Mario Woods. “From the look on the faces of the dancers, they’d already heard about the case,” Calloway told the Guardian. Who was Mario Woods and why did Calloway and Johnson want the world to know that his life mattered? The answer: on December 2, 2015, Mario Woods was executed in broad daylight by officers of the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) and the event was filmed.
Woods was a 26-year-old African American, born and raised in San Francisco’s Bayview district, one of the city’s few remaining largely black neighborhoods. (In 1980, right before I moved to San Francisco, African Americans made up almost 13% of the city’s population. Today, the figure is around 6% and shrinking.) Woods died when police attempted to arrest him because they believed that, earlier in the day, he had stabbed another man in the arm. Like many victims of police violence, Woods had mental health problems. Indeed, his autopsy’s toxicology report showed that, when he died, his system contained a powerful mix of medications (both prescribed and self-administered) including anti-depressants, speed, and marijuana. But it was the way he died that brought Mario Woods a brief bit of posthumous notoriety. His death was, like Beyonce’s dancers, captured on video. A crowd of people watched as what CNN described as “a sea of police officers” surrounded Woods and shot him dead. At least two people recorded cell-phone videos of what looks eerily like an execution by firing squad.
Woods, his back to a wall, one leg injured from earlier rounds of non-lethal projectiles, attempts to limp past the half-circle of police. Arms at his sides, he sidles along, until an officer blocks his way and opens fire. Three seconds and at least 20 shots later, he lies in a heap on the sidewalk. Police said he was carrying a knife, although this is not at all clear from the video. One thing is clear, however: Woods was not threatening anyone when he was gunned down. San Francisco is known around the world for its gentle vibe, its Left Coast politics, its live-and-let-live approach to other people’s lifestyles -- except when it comes to the police. For many of them, “live and let live” does not seem to apply to everyone, especially not to communities of color, and in the not-too-distant past to LGBT folk either. I remember, for instance, the infamous October 6, 1989, “Castro Sweep,” when police responded to a nonviolent Act Up demonstration for AIDS funding by occupying an entire gay neighborhood called “the Castro” (for its main commercial street). They ran into bars and restaurants, dragging patrons out to the sidewalks and beating them with truncheons.
Modified from Tomdispatch