Members of the group Justice For Amilcar Perez Lopez marked the second anniversary of Perez's shooting death with a rally and die-in at San Francisco's Hall of Justice on Feb. 27, 2017. (Bert Johnson/KQED)
Advocates seeking justice in the case of Amilcar Perez Lopez gathered on Sunday and Monday to mark two years since the 20-year-old Guatemalan immigrant was shot to death from behind by two San Francisco police officers.
The shooting was not captured on video, unlike that of Mario Woods about nine months later. The Woods shooting propelled the San Francisco Police Department into an era of chaos and reform, but the Perez Lopez case hardly registered beyond the tight-knit group that formed around the young carpenter's death.
They were all present in the pouring rain at the scene of the shooting on Sunday for what the Rev. Richard Smith, a Mission District priest, called "heart work."
"Amilcar's story has touched us all very deeply and has given us an energy that I suspect many of us didn't even know we had to keep fighting and to keep saying our message, even when it seems like nobody's listening," Smith said.
Perez Lopez's story began in rural Guatemala. He left his family there to work in the United States. The Department of Homeland Security confirmed he encountered immigration officials along the Southern California border in 2013 and was released "pending the outcome of immigration removal proceedings." He met a network of Guatemalan immigrants who work construction in San Francisco sometime that same year, according to interviews with people who knew him, and worked carpentry and other odd jobs until his death on Feb. 26, 2015.
Years later, the details of the shooting remain unclear. Perez Lopez had some sort of altercation with a man on a bicycle outside his apartment on Folsom Street, between 24th and 25th streets. Perez Lopez allegedly grabbed a kitchen knife from inside his house.
It's unclear how the fight ended, but the bicyclist wasn't stabbed.
Perez Lopez was walking back toward his home when SFPD officers Craig Tiffe and Eric Reboli approached him from behind. The officers were in plainclothes, and one of them tried to grab Perez Lopez. He wriggled free.
Former San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr originally said that Perez Lopez turned and charged at one of the officers with a knife held above his head, and both officers shot him.
But when an independent autopsy showed all six gunshots came from behind Perez Lopez, a new theory emerged: Perez Lopez was running toward the bicyclist, and the officers fired to protect him.
Tiffe and Reboli have remained on duty in the city's Mission District, while a criminal investigation into the shooting remains open at the district attorney's office.
Members of the Justice for Amilcar Perez Lopez group reconvened on the steps of San Francisco's Hall of Justice on Monday, where they were joined by Public Defender Jeff Adachi and Mission District Supervisor Hillary Ronen.
Protesters proceeded to lie down on the staircase, draping themselves in sheets spattered with fake blood and chalking outlines around their limbs.
Demonstrations criticizing the role of prosecutors in officer-involved shooting investigations have become a weekly ritual at the Hall of Justice, where the San Francisco District Attorney's Office is located.
"We're not satisfied with the time it takes to resolve these cases," DA spokesman Max Szabo said last week, adding that a charging decision in the Perez Lopez case would come in a matter of weeks.
He said the creation of a new unit in the district attorney's office -- called the Independent Investigations Bureau -- would speed officer-involved shooting investigations. Protocol around prosecutors taking a lead role in police shooting investigations is currently the subject of negotiations with the police officers' union.
"In the interim, it's really important that we get these cases done correctly and not just expediently," he said.
District Attorney George Gascón has indicated in the past that prosecutions in this and other high-profile police shooting cases are unlikely, due to legal standards set decades ago by the U.S. Supreme Court concerning police use of force.
But the long criminal investigation has also indefinitely stalled a federal lawsuit on behalf of Perez Lopez’s family.
Florencia Rojo brought a message from Perez Lopez's father at the vigil on Sunday.
"With the money he sent, we managed to get a corn sheller, electricity, potable water, and he will never see these things," she said, translating the message from Guatemala. "He was earning a living and they took his life. The officer is corrupt. He took the life of my son. The death of my son cannot go unpunished."
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