After delivering an impassioned speech on the steps of City Hall following a day of protest last Tuesday, San Francisco rapper Equipto left the scene in a wheelchair, looking hopeful despite his visibly famished appearance. The musician and educator had reached the thirteenth day of his ongoing hunger strike against police brutality, mass incarceration, and gentrification — issues disproportionately affecting people of color, who are being displaced from the Bay Area's urban centers at alarming rates. According to a 2013 report issued by the San Francisco Controller's Office, 56 percent of inmates in San Francisco jails are Black, although only 6 percent of the city's population is Black. In light of such statistics, Equipto decided to take action.
Equipto is a well-known underground rapper who's been at the center of San Francisco's conscious hip-hop scene since the 1990s. And now, he's using his considerable platform — and risking his physical health — to galvanize Bay Area residents to lobby local politicians to address issues of systemic inequality. Equipto's mother, Maria Cristina Gutierrez, the executive director of Compañeros del Barrio preschool; rapper Sellassie; educator and poet Ike Pinkston; and activist and candidate for San Francisco District 9 Supervisor Edwin Lindo joined Equipto in the hunger strike, and together call themselves the Frisco 5.
The Frisco 5 had been camping out in front of the police station on the corner of 17th and Valencia streets for two weeks starting on April 21, and on May 3, they led a march from their camp to City Hall to spread their message and present their demands to Mayor Ed Lee. They called for the immediate firing or resignation of San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr, whom the protesters say has enabled a culture of racist law enforcement practices, resulting in the deaths of several mentally ill or unarmed individuals at the hands of SFPD in recent years. The other two key goals of the protest were to mandate independent investigations of officer-involved shootings, and to indict the officers involved in recent San Francisco police killings, particularly the deaths of Mario Woods and Alex Nieto.
Away on business in Bayview, Lee never showed up to meet the protesters on the May 3 day of action —though he did unexpectedly visit the camp the day prior. However, the Frisco 5 did not meet with him at that time because they said they wanted to wait until Tuesday's march. In a phone call with Equipto the following Thursday, May 5, Lee said he has no intention of firing Suhr, explaining that the search for a new police chief would only slow down his plans for police reform. Equipto and the other strikers said they would continue the fight, and that given the numerous accusations of police misconduct against Suhr, his firing is necessary to create any tangible progress.
However, on the sixteenth day of the hunger strike, all five members of the Frisco 5 were hospitalized due to their deteriorating health. And, according to a statement on Facebook from their spokesperson Yayne Abeba, they decided to suspend the hunger strike on the seventeenth day — so that they could continue to organize the movement against police brutality. Citing patient confidentiality, the doctors monitoring the Frisco 5 refused to give specific details about their health conditions during a press conference last week. But a prolonged fast can cause irreversible organ damage and, eventually, death. Doctors said the Frisco 5's conditions had also been exacerbated by sleeping outside.
Indeed, the hunger strike has been said to be one of the longest in San Francisco history. As of press time, the Frisco 5 remain in the hospital for what will likely be a lengthy re-feeding process. But their supporters, numbering in the hundreds, continue to demonstrate outside of City Hall, with 33 people arrested during an occupation there on Friday night. And on Monday, May 9, the organizers called for a city-wide general strike accompanying another demonstration in front of City Hall.
Abeba wrote: "As the health of #Frisco5 grows uncertain, the whole San Francisco community took the step to demand the hunger strikers suspend their hunger strike so they can return to the front lines and help shape this movement and the pursuit of justice for the Black and brown citizens of San Francisco. They have decided to listen to the community that they love."
"Please continue showing support, this is just the beginning," said Equipto in his concluding remarks on the City Hall steps during the May 3 day of action. He continued, quoting the Bay Area Minister of the Nation of Islam: "Like Minister Christopher Muhammad said, 'It's a marathon — it's not a sprint.' So let's make sure we keep staying around for the long haul and keep showing support."
In addition to the rappers among the Frisco 5, several prominent figures from music scenes on both sides of the Bay have been involved in the protests. During last week's day of action, Raw-G, an Oakland rapper by way of Mexico, was helping to direct the crowd throughout the march. "This is a global issue. This is not just one cop killing one person," she said in an interview during the protest. "We're getting killed all over the world, and being targeted because we're Black and brown. I'm here to offer my support to Equipto and Sellassie, whatever I can do. ... As artists, we have the power to create a huge message and a big impact."
Art Sato, Equipto's father and the host of KPFA's Latin jazz program In Your Ear, spoke to the crowd about the need for Asian-American solidarity with Black Lives Matter (Sato is Japanese-American, and Equipto is of Colombian and Japanese descent).
Naima Shalhoub, a Lebanese-American Oakland jazz singer whose last album included contributions from women serving time in San Francisco Jail, was also among the protesters linking arms to protect the Frisco 5 from traffic and police during the march.
"I'm here to support the Frisco 5 and them demanding justice — not just for the many young Black and brown people and any innocent lives that have fallen because of police injustice, but that connected to the rise of incarceration, and incarceration as a concept of keeping Black and brown people confined. ... If one person isn't free, none of us are free."