Early in the evening on Friday, Dec. 3, a small group gathered in South of Market, on the corner of Fifth and Folsom streets, to honor Ajmal Amani’s life. The group stood in front of the site where the San Francisco Police Department murdered Amani only days before—inside Amani’s home, a residential hotel.
The danzantes from Oakland’s POOR Magazine led a prayer for Amani. They turned to face the four directions, the group of mourners turning with them. An organizer reminded the group it was the beginning of Shabbat and the sixth night of Hannukah, “a holiday in which we celebrate resistance to imperialism, genocide and forced assimilation.” He lit Shabbos candles and a menorah, and asked everyone “to reflect on the acts of imperialism and genocide that led to Ajmal Amani’s death.” Amani, who was 41, had served as a translator for the U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan, and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
People lined the sidewalk with tealight candles and flowers. The group knelt together in a moment of silence.
Many others were there too, but did not kneel.
San Francisco Police Department SUVs lined up along Folsom Street and on either side of the vigil. A group of armed, uniformed and unmasked police stood just behind the vigil.
Others still were noticeably absent. Missing was Mayor London Breed, who, on November 20, the day after Amani’s murder, held a press conference and spoke with outrage about the recent theft of bags from the Louis Vuitton store in Union Square. Missing was the mayor, who on Dec. 17, declared a State of Emergency, calling for increased police presence in the Tenderloin, escalating street sweeps of the unhoused people living there.
“San Francisco values a handbag more than a life,” someone had written in bold letters across a paper bag at the vigil.
The vigil proceeded toward Union Square. As if to illustrate their commitment to designer handbags, a train of police SUVs and motorcycles closely followed and then surrounded the somber group, as they stood facing a block of stores including Louis Vuitton and Dolce & Gabbana.
Her face illuminated by the gaudy lights of the Swarovski jewelry store, Maria Cristina Gutierrez—the beloved local activist known as Mama Cristina—told the group she was tired of speaking out after senseless murders, tired of living in a city that put faceless altars to luxury capitalism at its center. She asked how many more deaths of Black and brown people have to occur at the hands of the City’s police force before meaningful change is made.
This is the question we all must ask ourselves. Amani’s killing continues a terrible pattern of murders by SFPD, most often of people of color. The day before the vigil, community members gathered to honor Mario Woods, who was shot 27 times by SFPD in 2015. On Jan. 20, SFPD killed Nelson Waynezhi Szeto, who was unarmed, at San Francisco International Airport.
Since the 2020 murder of George Floyd, San Francisco has only solidified its commitment to policing. As many organizers have pointed out, the more than $650 million budget of SFPD far exceeds that of the Departments of Children, Youth and Families; the Environment; the Human Rights Commission, and the Public Defender’s Office combined. SFPD’s budget will further increase next year. Mayor Breed’s recent State of Emergency seeks to expand coordinated sweeps of unhoused people and incarcerate them during an ongoing global pandemic.
We must do better as a city to protect and honor life. As Amani’s death shows us, the police do not protect public health, nor do they keep us safe. They are doing what they were hired to do: protect the property of the wealthy. Increasing police power in the Tenderloin and—as has already begun—sending vulnerable people to jails where the rate of COVID-19 is many times the rate outside, will only compound poverty with disease. What protects and honors life is clear: accessible housing; food security; mental and public health care; education; CART, the Compassionate Alternative Response Team for people experiencing houselessness; and reparations to the city’s Black residents.
As we rightly keep hearing, city budgets are moral documents. Every dollar spent on devastating sweeps of unhoused people or on putting sheriffs in our city’s hospitals is a dollar not used to house someone, to provide healthy meals for families, or to pay a teacher.
Building a city that cherishes life over handbags requires the work of many of us. There are many ways to add your voice.
You can contact the Board of Supervisors, asking them to focus on the real crises of homelessness and poverty in San Francisco. You can find Mama Cristina on Friday afternoons at 1 pm, protesting at the Police Officers Association at 800 Bryant Street. You can join others in the Bay Area reimagining community safety with POOR Magazine (poormagazine.org), Defund SFPD Now (defundsfpdnow.com), H.E.R.O. Tent (herotent.org), the CCSF Collective (ccsfcollective.org), among many others. You can take action with the Afghan Diaspora for Equality and Progress (adeprogress.org) or Afghans For a Better Tomorrow (weareafghans.org).