London Breed on Racism: 'I Have Lived This My Whole Life'

3 min
Mayor London Breed at a press conference at City Hall about the first two confirmed novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in San Francisco on Thursday, Mar. 5, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

As calls for fundamental changes in policing echo across the nation, San Francisco Mayor London Breed wants people to know that while the SFPD is not perfect, the city has implemented many of the changes being called for in other cities after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

"I mean, the work that we did to get rid of the chokehold, people are just now having this conversation," Breed told KQED in a wide-ranging interview Wednesday. "San Francisco hasn't used tear gas in over 30 years. We don't use rubber bullets. We don't do this kind of thing."

The mayor talked with us via Zoom from her home in San Francisco about her own family's tragic experience with law enforcement, her frustration with white people telling her what's best for the Black community and the challenges of working with the San Francisco Police Officers Association (POA).

Here are some excerpts of our conversation, which have been edited for clarity and brevity.

On Her Recent Statement: 'I am the Mayor, but I am a Black woman first'

"First of all, I'm proud to be Black. But I also wanted people to remember that, sadly, the racism, the frustration and the things that African Americans have endured in this country for far too long are things that I sadly have had to endure throughout my entire life.

"Part of what I wanted to remind people, especially people who are not Black who are basically trying to tell me what to do for people who are Black, that it's really offensive. I just want to remind you that I have lived in this my whole life."

On Protesters Outside Her Home

After George Floyd's death, while some were protesting in the streets, a group of people gathered outside the mayor's home in San Francisco.

"It (was) reminiscent of what the Ku Klux Klan did when they would show up at Black people's houses, burn their houses down ... and pull African Americans out of their homes and hang them by the trees. Like that's what it reminded me of.

"They were chanting 'Black Lives Matter' after 11 o'clock at night with this fire, with their ranting and raving and shaking the gate and all the stuff that they were doing, like taunting me and telling me to come outside. And I couldn't help but think 'you're doing this for Black lives?'"

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On Racism and Being Removed as Acting Mayor by Her Colleagues 

After Mayor Ed Lee suddenly died in December 2017, London Breed automatically became acting mayor, by virtue of being president of the Board of Supervisors. Six members of the Board, who were hoping to elect a progressive as mayor in 2018, voted to remove her and replace her with Supervisor Mark Farrell, who served as mayor until the election to fill out the rest of Lee's term, which Breed won.

"They accused me of being beholden to white men because I'm too stupid to have my own mind. And they replaced me with a white man. They said, 'you're beholden to wealthy white men and then we replace you with a wealthy white man' (Sup. Mark Farrell). That's how I experience racism.

"Stop telling the Black woman what to do and work with me. Don't make a demand. Don't talk to me like I'm a kid or I belong to somebody, because that has been, sadly, a lot of the behavior of people towards me. I'm not suggesting that I have a monopoly on ideas. I want people to work together and to get along and to genuinely feel like they want to be a part of the solution. But I don't want to be dictated to.

"That's how I experience racism. It happens on a regular basis. And it's unfortunate, but what I won't do is let it get in the way of doing my job for the people in this city."

Changing the San Francisco Police Department

"Changes are not going to happen 'right now.' The real change begins when genuine people care about working together on real solutions, and I think we've come to that place and that's what gives me hope because I feel like we're there and I feel like people want to see something different. And that's been pretty incredible.

"The work that we did to get rid of the chokehold, people are just now having this conversation. ... When you draw your gun, automatic report. When you think about just even a couple years ago, there were seven officer-involved shootings in San Francisco. And over the past two years, only three and none resulted in deaths because of the work we did, the fighting with the Police Officers Association to get changes to policies."

The San Francisco Police Officers Association

"From day one, I have extended an olive branch to the POA here in San Francisco to really try to work with them. It's been hard. The fact is, as the mayor of the city, I am responsible for every police officer in this city. I take that responsibility very seriously ... and so having a good relationship with the police is important. And I have tried. I will continue to try. It is very challenging.

"I think that their comments oftentimes about my decisions or about other things that happened in the city can be inflammatory and disrespectful to me and to people in this city. They don't want people to draw a conclusion about every police officer, but then they draw a conclusion about every citizen. And I think that is wrong on both sides. So how do we reconcile that?"

On Calls to Defund the Police Department

"I think it's understandable that people are feeling that way, but the fact is you have people who kill people, you have people who rob people and commit really horrible acts. And in those particular cases, there is a very strong need for law enforcement. And the question is: what kind of law enforcement do we produce out of San Francisco?

"I think it's important that our policies are adjusted and that we work to make our department better. And that definitely takes time. But to completely dismantle? It is not something at this time that I think will serve the public."

On the Board of Supervisors' Rejecting Her Appointments to the Police Commission 10-1

Earlier this week, the Board of Supervisors rejected Mayor Breed's appointment of Nancy Tung to serve on the city's Police Commission. Tung, a prosecutor in Alameda County, ran for San Francisco district attorney last year as a relatively moderate-to-conservative candidate and lost to liberal Chesa Boudin. Supervisors said they disliked Tung's support from the POA and that she was not an advocate for reform.

"Not one of those members of the Board of Supervisors has experienced what I experienced with my family growing up in San Francisco in poverty and police brutality. They can't even imagine what it feels like, wanting to see serious reforms because they don't have to walk down the street and be concerned or have that talk with their sons or African American brothers about the challenges that exist with Black people and law enforcement.

"So there's no way that I would just appoint anyone to serve on the Police Commission if I didn't think that they were capable of doing the job and helping to implement the reforms that I, as mayor, lead on. There is no way. So this was completely political."

On Joe Biden's Choice for Vice President

"Well, I think what's happening in the country right now is an incredible opportunity. I would love to see an African American woman serve in this capacity. I think Kamala Harris is incredible. I think (Atlanta Mayor) Keisha Lance Bottoms is incredible.

"I mean, when you look at Lori Lightfoot, who's running Chicago, we've got some Black women who are really doing amazing things all over the country. And I'm really proud to be in that club. It does come with a real burden and a lot of weight. And we are strong. We are capable of handling it."

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