Mayors Navigate the Lines Between Anger, Pain and Violence

San Francisco Mayor London Breed spoke in very personal terms at the City Hall rally on Monday, June 1, 2020. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

In a city where social distancing has prevented large gatherings for months, hundreds of people jammed into San Francisco Civic Center Plaza Monday afternoon to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and to demand one thing: social justice.

The pandemic has mostly kept people apart, but under cloudless blue skies Monday, the need to be together in grief and anger seemed to outweigh the call for social distancing.

Emcee and social activist Felicia Jones did her best to keep everyone safe, telling the crowd to come up and get a mask if they didn't have one. Most already did.

Jones organized the group Justice for Mario Woods in remembrance of the 26-year-old San Franciscan shot 21 times by San Francisco police officers in 2015 as he appeared to be walking away. No charges were ever brought, and Jones expressed frustration that demonstrations by well-intentioned people never seem to amount to much.

"Many of you, you're gonna stand here today. You got signs today. You're going to chant today. But tomorrow, you will be nowhere to be found," Jones said.

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No one captured the frustration and simmering anger better than Mayor London Breed. Breed, who grew up blocks from the plaza in public housing, recalled her own family’s deadly brush with the law when she was young.

"In 2006, sadly, my cousin was killed by the San Francisco Police Department," Breed said quietly.

As police officers and sheriff’s deputies stood by in front of City Hall, Breed described the anger and hurt her family felt at the time.

"When his mom showed up wanting to know what happened, she was treated like a criminal," the mayor said. "There was no independent investigation. And I didn't understand why."

Breed said she was angry and hurt, but also hopeful that maybe, just maybe, with the death of George Floyd, things will be different this time.

"I don't want to see one more black man die at the hands of law enforcement. That's what this movement is about," Breed said. "Not one more."

The mayor is also clearly out of patience with those who use the Black Lives Matter name to wreak havoc in cities in the name of justice.

"For those of you who are using this movement as a way to push violence, to go after other black people, to tear us down. We will not tolerate that," the mayor said.

Jessica Brown brought her three sons Jace (left), Jovan and Jordan to the rally. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

Across the Bay in Oakland, Mayor Libby Schaaf — sensitive to the racial history of curfews — resisted using one Sunday night. By phone on Monday, she sounded overwhelmed by the level of despair, injustice and violence she is seeing in Oakland.

"Looting, vandalism, graffiti, messages of hate everywhere. I have seen a lot in my life in the city of Oakland. I have never seen anything like this," Schaaf said.

Schaaf was especially upset that so much of the property damage occurred in neighborhoods like the Fruitvale, which has already disproportionately suffered from COVID-19 and the broken economy. One bright spot she said — seeing members of the Oakland Police Department kneeling for social justice at the request of the protesters.

"It was wonderful for people to see that our officers believe in this cause as well and that together we can be a more powerful force for change," Schaaf said.

In San Francisco, Police Chief Bill Scott also took a knee at the rally in front of City Hall. But it’s clear it will take more than well-intentioned gestures to make meaningful changes going forward.