Dear Justin Keller,

Thank you for expressing your concerns to Mayor Ed Lee and Chief of Police Greg Suhr about the increasing numbers of homeless, mentally ill, and drug addicted people living in the streets of San Francisco. I am a white mother of young children and the daughter of elderly parents. I have lived in San Francisco since 2012 and share your sense of urgency about homelessness in our city and the way it impacts all of us. Certainly our elected and appointed public officials should be accountable. At the same time, it is every San Franciscan’s responsibility to ask ourselves: How am I contributing to homelessness in this city? What can I do to reduce homelessness in San Francisco?

Far from being “riffraff,” the people living on our streets are our brothers and sisters, and in fact, contributors to San Francisco’s unique culture.

Do you ever ask yourself: why is San Francisco so innovative? Why is it different from say, Santa Barbara, Denver, or Rochester?

San Francisco is a mecca for innovators because we have always challenged the status quo.

The San Francisco Bay Area’s unique culture is rooted in our history as an Underground Railroad destination, as well as a center of the black liberation, feminist, hippie, LGBT, antiwar and labor union movements. San Francisco is also where the United Nations was founded and has long functioned as a prominent sanctuary city for those fleeing severe oppression in other countries, including tens of thousands of Latinos from Mexico, Central and South America.

The black power movement, for one, was so revolutionary that when it posed a threat to the status quo the government sent in COINTELPRO to break it up. Following this, the US government swamped neighborhoods of color with drugs, further decimating their power.

Currently we have the worst combination in San Francisco: a large and growing number of people living in our streets, many of whom are mentally ill and/or addicted to drugs; a system that is poorly designed to serve them, from our warrior police culture to our overwhelmed emergency rooms to our tent-filled streets; and rapidly rising cost of living due to people like you and me.

Meanwhile, the descendants of people who struggled to forge the unique San Francisco culture we benefit from today are locked out of working with companies like by systemic racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. By you, your bros, and your arrogance and entitlement.

Look around your company, Justin.

How many people are white, college educated, and not from San Francisco? Now look at the homeless people you see on the streets; even better, sit down and get to know them. What are their stories? How did they become homeless?

You assert that “wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, worked hard, and earned it.”

Actually, Justin, your education and great career are not only the product of your hard work.

You benefitted from the unearned privilege of being a white man, descended from white people who themselves benefitted from being white. As countless other white people in this country, your family had innumerable opportunities to accumulate wealth and power that positioned you for what you do today.

Young tech industry entrepreneurs have moved to San Francisco from all over the country and all over the world to earn six-figure salaries, driving the median rent for a San Francisco apartment to $3880 per month. Meanwhile, the median annual income for men who live in the Bayview, San Francisco’s last remaining predominately black neighborhood, is $34,168. The unemployment rate in the Bayview is 10%. Some calculate the Bayview jobless rate as 40%.

James Baldwin brilliantly documented racism in San Francisco in his 1963 movie, Take this Hammer — racism that persists today. The Bay Area Equity Profile issued by the San Francisco Foundation in 2015 demonstrates that the San Francisco Bay Area is the second most diverse region in the country, yet also home to racial barriers to prosperity. For example, women of color with a college degree in the Bay Area earn $14 an hour less on average than white men with a college degree.

Because of bold leaders including Jesse Jackson and Erica Baker we know how few people of color are employed by companies like yours, Justin. Facebook, for example, is 2 percent black and 4 percent Hispanic, according to its latest diversity report. Google’s most recent report said it is 2 percent black and 3 percent Hispanic.

Because of courageous folks like Lesley Miley and Megan Rose Dickey, we know about the discrimination the few black and brown people who work in tech face in a daily basis.

Across every indicator, black and brown communities fare worse in San Francisco: only 57% of black students and 61% of Latino students graduated from SFUSD high schools in 2015.

They are pushed out by racism and schools that poorly serve them: in January, 2016, white students at several elite private high schools in San Francisco hosted a “wigga party,” prompting expulsions and a very sad Medium post by a black graduate of one of the high schools describing the racism he experienced there. And just this week students walked out of Lowell High School to protest a sign hung in the school by a student negatively depicting black Americans.

Racism in the San Francisco Police Department has been well documented, as well: a 2015 study showed that African American San Franciscans make up 6% of the population and 40% of the people arrested, 44% of the people booked in county jail, and 40% of the people convicted. In 2011 SFPD officers sent racist and homophobic texts, using racist slurs to describe fellow officers and the public. The texts were reported to the Internal Affairs unit, who did not investigate the officers. Now the statute of limitations has run out, and the officers are still on the job without punishment. And lest you think that white privilege shields you from the ire of the SFPD, I encourage you to google Peretz Partensky.

Worst of all, while you and your bros move to San Francisco and thrive, police are literally killing young black and brown San Franciscans.

On December 2nd, 2015, SFPD officers shot and killed Mario Woods, a 26-year-old black man and Bayview resident. The shooting was captured on video by young people in the neighborhood. It is clear watching the video that Woods’ death was unnecessary and that SFPD could have apprehended him in another way. His autopsy shows he was shot 20 times. Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez Lopez, and Kenneth Harding, Jr. are other young men of color whose lives have been taken by SFPD, as well as Oscar Grant, shot in the back by a BART police officer on a BART platform.

Action Imperative

Justin, you say you care about homelessness. Could I offer a suggestion?

Take a break from whizzing in and out of San Francisco on luxury busses to hermetically sealed work environments, and applying yourself exclusively to raising your next round of funding or releasing the next version of your app.

Talk with homeless people. Listen to them. Learn how they became homeless and what they think would be effective to serve them. Learn about the organizations serving the homeless. What challenges do they face? Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.

Study discrimination and commit to becoming more inclusive. Work on yourself, reach out to the community. Get personally involved in dismantling systemic racism in San Francisco.

Hire native black and brown San Franciscans for roles other than custodian, administrative assistant, and security guard. Serve as a mentor to a young man struggling to stay in school. Teach coding to young people whose parents are not as wealthy as yours.

Take it a step further- convene homeless people, community members, the health care system, public officials, and nonprofit organizations. Offer your analytical, technical and design skills to design a system that connects homeless people to the mental health care, addiction treatment, housing, job training, and employment opportunities they need to rejoin the economic mainstream. Fully support the system with the funds and technology needed to be effective.

Design a new way to police San Francisco, rooted in a guardian culture where the police serve to protect the community. Develop a corps of mental health first responders and a way to care for drug addicts.

Once you are informed and knowledgeable, continue to express yourself to public officials.

Call Mayor Ed Lee (415) 554–6141 and tell him he needs to listen to the community and reign in the SFPD. Demand that he fire Chief Suhr and seek an independent investigation of the Mario Woods killing. Ask what he is doing to prevent another police shooting in San Francisco. Ask what he is doing to address drop out rates, poverty and joblessness in black and brown communities. Ask what he is doing to address homelessness. Urge him to do more and tell him how you can help.

Call Chief Suhr (415) 553–0123 and ask him to resign. We need new leadership and new culture at SFPD.

Call District Attorney George Gascon (415) 553–1751 and urge that he charge the officers involved in the Mario Woods killing with murder.

Testify at public hearings and join in protests. There are many upcoming opportunities to speak out:

FEB 24: The U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) wants to hear your perspectives, concerns, and suggestions regarding the San Francisco Police Department and its interaction with the San Francisco community.

FEB 26: Amilcar Lopez vigil at the site of his shooting (Folsom btw 24th and 25th), and then march to Mission Police Station.

MARCH 1: Federal Trial for Alex Nieto. We invite you to an unprecedented action of love: join us for a massive community rally at 8:00 A.M., the morning that the federal trial for Alex Nieto begins. We will rally, share love, sing songs, make speeches, and show unbreakable unity.

You see Justin, we are all in this together.


Karen Fleshman

Founder, Racy Conversations Inspiring the antiracist generation.

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