When Hunters Point rappers Yung Lott (Arthur Stern, Jr.) and Joeski (Joseph McGowan) set out with friends and videographer Brian Storm (Brian MacArthur) to shoot a music video last March, they'd intended to unite artists from different corners of an often-fraught community through music. Instead, they wound up united as co-plaintiffs in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against the SFPD, alleging illegal detainment and unreasonable search and seizure motivated by racial bias.
Part of what triggered the case was captured by MacArthur’s video camera and widely viewed on YouTube: Yung Lott, Joeski, Dante Andry and 16 other young black men were suddenly surrounded at a Hunters Point playground and forced to the ground by an almost equal number of police officers. Precipitating the officers' actions was the arrival at the playground of a man with a gun, later identified as Richmond resident Taj Williams, whom the plaintiffs said they did not know. The lawsuit describes a nearly two-hour long detainment in which both uniformed and plainclothes officers questioned, photographed, and confiscated the possessions of each person.
The lawsuit -- which proceeds to trial if a settlement is not reached by May 24 -- comes on the heels of SFPD shootings of Mario Woods and Luis Gongora, revelations about racist texting on the force, a highly critical preliminary report from a panel of judges convened to the assess the department, and pressure from an array of protesters (including the 'Frisco Five' hunger strikers) to reform the department and remove Police Chief Greg Suhr.
In their first group interview since the incident, Stern, Andry, and MacArthur -- three of the lawsuit’s four plaintiffs, less McGowan -- provided new details and context about the disrupted video shoot, describing it as the culmination of routinized police harassment in Hunters Point. Speaking in the downtown San Francisco office of their lawyer Richard Richardson, they reported that their forced detainment only served to intensify a climate of fear towards the police in San Francisco’s last predominantly black neighborhood.
Andry, in particular, said that the experience and evidence relevant to the lawsuit had thoroughly eroded his trust in the police, and stirred concern for his safety among friends and family. “I’ve just been going to work or in the house, not really being outside,” he said, appearing crestfallen. “And how [the police] said in the audio like, ‘Oh, we gon’ pay ‘em a visit’ -- that made it deeper.”
Andry's quote referred to a recording released last week from the Public Defender's office, wherein multiple officers recap the mass detainment with Sgt. Leonard Broberg. (Considered an expert on local gangs, Broberg is one of the seven officers named as defendants in the suit.) According to SF Weekly, who originally posted the audio, the Public Defender's office had "complained about it to the Police Department but has not received a response."
In a cavalier tone shortly after the incident, officers call the men “fat” and “retarded.” Broberg calls another an “ugly fucker.” One officer says the ambush was “beautiful.” “They were trapped in there, eh?” says another, “No getting out.” Broberg says, “Brian MacArthur, Arthur Stern, that’s who it was with the beard: Dante Andry... Damn, you guys had everybody up there.” He continues, “This is good!”
(After the audio was made public, Broberg told SF Weekly that the recording was released in “retaliation,” and apologized for his crude language.)
Initial statements from the SFPD last year and city attorneys’ defense argues that the detainment occurred due to the group’s incidental proximity to Williams, and that it was justified on the grounds of officer safety. However, the newly revealed recording strengthens plaintiffs’ belief that the 19 men were targeted.
Stern, Andry, and MacArthur said that during the day's shoot, they initially noticed watchful cops while leaving the first film set. Later, at the playground, they informed passing officers that they were shooting a video. Those officers then parked nearby to continue observing the crowd with binoculars, according to the plaintiffs, and after about 20 minutes, saw Williams pull the slide back on a handgun in front of two other men at the periphery of the park and then walk toward the group.
Williams was 10 to 15 feet away from the officers when he brandished the gun, according to the complaint, but he had time to walk over to the group and pace back and forth before the police arrived, guns drawn, without identifying themselves. (Williams, wearing a grey hoodie, is in the frame of the video for at least thirty seconds before the police arrive.)
The complaint alleges that the police “recklessly and/or intentionally” allowed Williams to intermingle with the crowd in order to create a pretext for the mass detainment. "By doing so," it reads, "the above-named SFPD officers created a scenario where if these young African-American men had moved out of innocent fear, the SFPD officers would have gunned down the entire group."
“With all of the incidents going on not only in San Francisco but nationwide, I thought we was about to die,” said Andry. “They came in screaming and all it take is POW, then everyone shooting.”
Once Williams was arrested, all 19 men were detained for approximately two hours, according to the complaint, contradicting initial police claims that they were held for approximately one minute.
Three days after the incident, the Bayview Police Station newsletter characterized "many" in the group as "gang members" (a label all too easy for young black men to be slapped with), and reported the arrest of Williams, as well as that of another man for possession of cocaine found during the mass search. In 2015, the San Francisco Chronicle quoted from the SFPD response:
...police said officers detained members of the group “for officer safety reasons” before releasing them. “The detention for this whole incident was for a man with a gun — not for making a rap video,” police said.
For the four plaintiffs, questions remain: If the officers observed no wrongdoing until Williams brandished a gun, and no action was pre-planned, then why were approximately 20 cops already poised to pounce on the set?
Ultimately, MacArthur went on to complete the video, punctuating footage of Candlestick Park’s demolition -- which, along with the destruction of housing, gave the song its title, “Demo” -- along with clips of the detainment while nine local artists trade boasts about their respective neighborhoods and cliques. But it doesn’t have nearly as many views on YouTube as the 11-minute detainment footage.
Richardson, their lawyer, said that a significant portion of city attorneys’ defense with respect to damages is that the plaintiffs actually benefited from the attention. Stern and Andry strongly disagree. On account of the negative publicity, Stern said, it’s been exceedingly difficult to book shows, previously a significant source of income for him and his family. There are no local gigs announced around his upcoming album Tha Flood, which features prominent guest artists such as Mozzy and J. Stalin.
Stern and Andry, who grew up together in Bayview-Hunters Point, contextualized the incident with personal histories of often seemingly baseless police attention, including random stops and goading from officers in unmarked cars. As Stern said, “I’ve been getting stereotyped and harassed in my neighborhood since I stepped off the stoop as a young kid.”
MacArthur -- a full-time videographer whose portfolio includes videos featuring rappers such as Philthy Rich and Keak Da Sneak -- learned his craft in a youth program and built a career through references. He also directed the 2008 feature film A Choice of Weapons, which follows young Hunters Point residents making a documentary about the neighborhood while struggling through eviction, violence, and environmental pollution. Such systemic disadvantage would increasingly align with his personal experience.
Like Stern and Andry, MacArthur said last year's detainment follows a pattern of countless stops by the police, including a 2013 arrest after matching the description of a black man with a beard, an incident also included in the lawsuit. The 'Frisco Five' protest at Mission Station proved especially resonant to MacArthur: that’s where he was held for two days before being released without charges. Referring to the hunger strikers -- which include rappers Equipto, Selassie, and Ike Plump -- he added, “Musicians are our politicians.”
Although MacArthur believes his experience with a “pattern of harassment” spans much of San Francisco, he said that it feels especially pronounced in the southeast neighborhood where he was born.
“I feel like Hunters Point is its own little world,” he said, “where the cops feel like they can bend the rules.”