When Alex Nieto, 28 and Mexican American, was shot and killed in March 2014 by San Francisco police officers, his death set off questions about racial profiling and gentrification.
Lawsuits and protests have followed. Meanwhile, San Francisco’s Latino community has sought to heal through art and theater, including the play “On The Hill,” about Nieto's death, which had sold-out performances at the city's Brava Theater. There are plans to reprise the performance in San Francisco later this year.
Watch a video of "On The Hill" by KQED’s Omid Zoufonoun:
“We created ‘On The Hill’ as a means of documenting what the young people of the Mission felt after they learned about the police killing of Alex Nieto,” says Paul Flores, a San Francisco-based artist who wrote the play. He refers to the city's Mission District, once heavily Latino and now a popular spot to live for newly arrived and often highly paid tech workers.
On March 21, 2014, Nieto was eating a burrito in a park. He wore a red 49ers jacket, his security guard outfit, and carried a licensed Taser. He was a nightclub bouncer about to go to work when he got into an argument with a man, white, about the man’s barking dog cornering Nieto and trying to eat his burrito. A bit later on, another man in the park, also white, saw Nieto from a distance, allegedly agitated and holding his Taser. He called 911 and described him as an armed Latino.
The cops came. Nieto was killed minutes later.
“My kids go to Flint Elementary, which is three blocks away from Bernal Hill Park where he was killed," says Flores, who was with his kids at a school event the night Nieto died. “The initial alarm was not necessarily how close it was to school, but the fact that a Latino man had been shot at and killed in the neighborhood.”
Like the city's Mission District, neighboring Bernal Heights also was once heavily Latino but is now unaffordable for most locals as tech workers have moved in. With the changing demographics, Flores and others here questioned if Nieto was profiled as a dangerous brown man in a neighborhood that’s increasingly white.
Meanwhile, the autopsy report shows Nieto was killed by a hail of bullets. “We realized he had been shot 14 times and that he was shot while he was actually laying on the ground.”
Flores says that instead of taking the pain and limiting it to street protests, he is using it as an opportunity to create art, working with more than a dozen young Latinos here to produce the play. They interviewed Nieto’s friends and family, talked to activists and lawyers galvanized by Nieto’s death to bring justice to their streets, and came together to create the play.
“We wrote this poem called, 'Don’t shoot, I’m not who you think I am.' And that piece was all the youth expressing how, ‘regardless what your statistics tell you, police officer, this is who I really am,'" says Flores.
Since Nieto’s death, documentaries and concerts have also been produced. Graffiti of his face with “Brown Lives Matter” written underneath appear around San Francisco. “Alex Nieto’s death was a tragedy," says Flores. "It’s something that should not have happened. And at the same time, he’s now been converted into a symbol of resilience and community love.”
The local district attorney declined to pursue charges in the case, but Nieto's family filed a federal civil lawsuit again the police officers who shot and killed Nieto.
This past March, the jury found that the officers who killed Nieto, firing more than 50 bullets, did not use excessive force. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors requested the US Department of Justice conduct an independent investigation into the separate deaths of Nieto and another person of color, Amilcar Perez Lopez. The DOJ’s decision is still pending.
Meanwhile, artists here are still creating and keeping Nieto's story alive.