Playing Politics with Tragedy

Día de los Muertos altar at the Coalition on Homelessness

Please note: This article addresses the violent deaths of several individuals our communities have lost this past year. As such, it may not be an appropriate article for younger readers. Those who have lost loved ones to violence may find this article hard to read. Our hearts are with all those who have experienced such loss. May your roads get easier and your burdens lighter with the passage of time.

San Francisco has seen 41 murders so far, in 2015. 41 times since January 1, someone in this city has made the decision to kill another. That’s very nearly once a week. But there’s a very good chance that you have only heard of two of these killings.

On July 1, Kate Steinle, a native of the Bay Area only 32 years old, was shot thrice in the back on the Embarcadero while walking with her father. Though rushed to the hospital, she died in two hours. On that same day, Franciso López Sánchez, a 45-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was arrested and charged with the murder. López Sánchez had previously been deported from the United States multiple times on drug-related charges. It’s believed that the shooting was random. López Sánchez has confessed to killing Steinle under the influence of “sleeping pills.” In his version of events, he’d thought he was shooting at sea lions.

In the first weekend of October, Audrey Carey, a 23-year-old Canadian tourist, was shot and killed in Golden Gate Park. Her alleged murderers, Morrison Lampley (age 23), Sean Angold (age 24), and Lila Alligood (age 18), were all homeless. They’re accused of having also killed Steve Carter, a 67-year-old well-known tantra instructor, on a hiking trail in Marin County a few days later. The three were arrested in Portland, in possession of Carter’s car, the gun used in the murders, and several of Carey’s possessions. All three have been charged, and are being held in Marin County. If any of them have confessed, investigators have not, as of our publication time, reported it to the press.

The San Francisco Chronicle has printed several dozen stories about the Steinle murder over a period of months, and two dozen more about the murder of Audrey Carey in the month since her killing. Most murders that have happened over the past year have received only one brief announcement, usually with little more than a name, an age, and a cause of death. Some have been entirely invisible in the pages of the Chronicle.

There’s one obvious and understandable reason that these two stories are so attractive to media: The murders appear random. Most homicides are relatively intelligible to most of us, if horrifying and tragic. Most murder victims are killed by someone they knew, and the crimes are most frequently crimes “of passion.” These, however, were killings of strangers by strangers—in one case, with no apparent motive whatsoever; in the other, robbery for next to nothing. But while unusual, this isn’t unique:

Taja DeJesus, a transgender woman about Steinle’s age, was stabbed to death in February of this year. Her murderer has not yet been caught. The Chronicle stopped covering her story after three days. Despite the spate of killings of transgender women—especially trans women of color—in the United States, the Chronicle never used its editorial page to advocate for community or government action that could be taken to protect the lives of transgender people in San Francisco. Not once has it covered any of the actions of TAJA’s Coalition—the group that formed in the aftermath of DeJesus’ murder “to stop the genocide of trans women of color.” (Mission Local and the Bay Area Reporter have both covered TAJA’s Coalition actions.)

A volunteer at the Coalition on Homelessness was murdered by an apparent stranger in broad daylight the same weekend that Carey was killed. His killer is still unidentified and at large. The Chronicle has run nothing beyond a brief announcement. Despite recurring acts of violence against homeless people in this city in 2015, the paper has never run a column or editorial calling for policies that could greater protect homeless people from their attackers, or even the elements—a far more predictable killer than random violence. (People experiencing longterm homelessness have a life of expectancy of only 48 years.)

So it is not apparent randomness that has spurred the Chronicle’s numerous stories. Two other things stand out: First, that the victims in the high-publicity stories were cisgender white women, engaged in activities that evince easy middle-class empathy. One month’s worth of murders provides an example of Chronicle coverage. January is only atypical in the relatively high number of murders that month: Four men killed in a quadruple homicide on January 9—Harith Atchan, Yalani Chinyamurindi, Manuel O’Neal, and David Saucier—were the subject of five Chronicle stories. Da Cong Wu was shot while protecting his mother from armed robbers on January 20. He merited passing mention at the end of one Chronicle story. Charles Williams, shot under mysterious circumstances on January 25, was never even mentioned in the Chronicle. Maria Lourdes Soza, killed by a stray bullet in front of her children on January 27, was the subject of only two articles, printed in the same issue, until police asked for assistance identifying the shooter’s vehicle seven months later, prompting a follow-up story. Donte Glenn, the apparent intended target of the bullet that killed Soza, was also killed in the shooting. The Chronicle acknowledged his death in the course of one of the stories about Soza. Omar Shahwan was discovered dismembered on January 28. The Chronicle covered his death with nine stories. All of these victims were people of color. The stories—alternatingly heart-breaking and terrifying—include family members killed by chance while looking after loved ones, a quadruple homicide, and a dismemberment. There are stories here, whether a newspaper wants to cover the lurid or the human. And for ten people of color killed, the Chronicle averaged about two stories per individual. The average number of stories about Steinle and Carey was roughly thirty per person. It is apparently easier to ignore the deaths of people of color, transgender people, and poor people. The Chronicle has shrugged off the deaths of marginalized people with dog-bites-man nonchalance.

Secondly, it is striking that in these high profile murders, the alleged killers belong to criminalized, suspect classes: Mr. López Sánchez is an undocumented immigrant. Lampley, Angold, and Alligood are homeless. Alleged killers from marginalized communities make an appealing political target, and the worst elements of our public conversation have wasted no time in making political hay out of human tragedy.

The great violence that is done to a person when they are killed is only partly physical. The worse violence is the loss of potential: We treasure the actions and words of the people we’ve lost, and we keep those memories alive with us. But we will never know what they might have become, what they might have chosen, what new words they might have spoken. Their potentials have been foreshortened. That initial violence is perpetuated when we prop up the dead as if we were sinister ventriloquists, filling their forced silence with messages they may or may not have ever chosen.

Two days after Kate Steinle’s death, Donald Trump took to Twitter with his usual lack of delicacy and reserve, railing against “lawless criminals from Mexico,” and demanding, “We need a [border] wall!” He capitalized on Kathryn Steinle’s having been “viciously killed b/c we can’t secure our border… Stand up for US.” On July 10, he called a meeting with multiple families of US citizens killed by undocumented immigrants, highlighting yet again his plans for a wall to keep Mexican migrant workers out of the United States, and lashing back at criticism he had received for characterizing Mexicans in the United States as drug dealers, criminals, and rapists.

Despite the unnerving evidence of polls, it is tempting to characterize Trump as a buffoon, unrepresentative of any serious strain in US politics. He’s wealthy, but he’s a wingnut birther. But his vituperations have found echoes in San Francisco. Chronicle conservative columnist C.W. Nevius compared the offensiveness of Steinle’s murder to the offensiveness of the Confederate flag’s continued presence at South Carolina government buildings. Nevius and Chronicle Editorial Page Editor John Diaz both ran columns using Steinle’s death to push the Sheriff’s Department to collaborate more closely with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and to undermine San Francisco’s Sanctuary City law. Supervisor Mark Farrell picked up the cause, and introduced a non-binding resolution that would have urged the Sheriff to collaborate more closely with ICE. Fortunately, Farrell’s resolution was shot down. A Federal proposal dubbed “Kate’s Law” was introduced to Congress a week and a half after Steinle’s death (HR-3009). It passed 241–179. If it passes the Senate as well, Federal funds will be pulled from municipalities like San Francisco which have “Sanctuary” policies—policies that prohibit local government bodies from collaborating with ICE in the deportation of undocumented immigrants.

The Chronicle has similarly politicized the killing of Ms. Carey. In an October 19 editorial entitled “Time for San Francisco to pay attention to the Haight,” the editorial board called for increased criminalization of homeless people as a response to the murder of Ms. Carey. The exact call for action was vague, as befits the pearl-clutching something-must-be-done-ism of the board’s 2015 politics: “Since sit/lie isn’t working, it’s time for city leaders to either strengthen it—or come up with something more serious.” But it is hard to imagine what “strengthen it” might mean other than harsher penalties, broadened prohibitions, or increased enforcement.

The “sit/lie” that they mentioned is section 168 of the municipal Police Code—a law which makes it a misdemeanor to sit or lie down on any sidewalk in the city between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. The law was passed at the ballot in 2010 after an campaign funded by conservative tycoon Ron Conway with unprecedentedly intense support from the Chronicle: The Chronicle’s coverage of the sit/lie campaign was so unbalanced that it prompted a Scott James story in the New York Times. The overwhelming quantity of opinion pieces supporting the proposed sit/lie law prompted the director of the Knight Fellowships for Professional Journalists at Stanford to say, “For anyone to write that much is a lot… That skews everything, in terms of perceptions.” Part of the Chronicle’s argument for a sit/lie law was that a law prohibiting sitting down on sidewalks would allow police to get at criminals before crimes happened.

The Chronicle’s Carey column follows a summer in which they’ve run an astounding number of opinion pieces associating homeless people with urine and feces, and demanding increased criminalization through a policy of what more enlightened columnist Jon Carroll has denominated “urine-shaming.”

In the Chronicle’s push for increased deportations after the murder of Ms. Steinle and increased criminalization of homeless people after the killing of Ms. Carey, the paper is going beyond a demand of justice for the individual, and instead calling for preemptive punishment for whole classes of people.

Sitting down is not a prelude to crime. And the Chronicle’s editorial board doesn’t actually think that it is. Neither does it believe that every homeless young person is a potential murderer. The Chronicle is using a person’s death in the smug, shabby cynicism that has become the hallmark of its editorial pages.

If the Chronicle wanted to focus on the people who have committed the greatest portion of murders in San Francisco over the past year, decade, or century, the editorial board wouldn’t be clamoring for an extension of the sit/lie law or a doubling down in enforcement: It would be trying to make it a crime to sleep in a bed. But that’s not what’s going on. The board is not actually bothered by Ms. Carey’s murder, any more than it is by that of Ms. DeJesus—the Latina transgender woman killed in February, and invisibly shrouded in the Chronicle’s grey pages. No. The editorial board is bothered that wealthy new San Franciscans and old money still see homeless people in the Haight, in Mid-Market, in the Tenderloin.

Collective punishment is not a rationale: It is a justification. There is no example of collective punishment in our collective history of which we can be proud: The Mark of Cain. The Blood Curse. Operation Anvil. My~ Lai. Black January. You can be certain that any time a political actor justifies a proposed policy or action through punishment of a group for the actions of individuals, that policy or act is ultimately unjustifiable.

Since 1949, every United Nations member state has signed onto the ban on collective punishment in the Fourth Geneva Convention. In the context of war—in the context of humanity at its most violent, its most inhumane—collective punishment is never an option. It is unsurprising that the most belligerent, most hawkish boor in national politics rejects the baseline global standard of decency. But we should expect more from the editorial pages of this city’s paper of record.

May all of the neighbors and loved ones we have lost this year rest in peace and in power.