An Open Letter to SFPD Sgt. Nate Steger from a former classmate, on the one year anniversary of the killing of Luis Góngora Pat

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Dear Nate, 

It’s been thirty years since we graduated high school, back in 1987, when time seemed to open before us with un-imagined possibility. We haven’t been in touch, but it’s time to reach out to you. I regret that it’s not under better circumstances. I would have rather reached out to congratulate you on the birth of a kid, or some professional achievement.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. On April 7, 2016, a year ago today, Luis Góngora Pat lay dead in a pool of blood on Shotwell Street, between 18th and 19th Street in the Mission District of San Francisco. His name was added to the list of young men and women of color killed by Bay Area police, including Mario Woods, Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez-Lopez, Kenneth Harding, Oscar Grant, Yuvette Henderson and so many more. His story was added to the stories of so many working class men and women of color who wind up dead at the hands of the police, all across the U.S.

Shortly after Pat’s body was returned to his home village in the Yucatan Peninsula of his native Mexico, your name emerged as one of the two officers who fired the fatal shots. I’ve been thinking a lot about Góngora’s death and your involvement in it. That a former high school classmate transplanted to the Bay Area, just like me, killed this man whose family I’ve come to know… hits too close to home. So, with a year gone by since his killing, this seems a good time to reach out to you.

Since I pay attention to police violence in my community and across the country, I’m used to the rage that wells up inside and to the anger and grief that rocks our communities each time a young person of color is killed by the police. But when I learned that that this gun – the one that killed Luis - was fired by a former classmate, someone I knew, someone I’d looked up to, that knocked me for a loop.

Unlike every other needless death, where the officers’ names are simply ink on paper, reading your name staring up at me in the same sentence as Luis’s roused something beyond the familiar outrage. More than anything, it raised a lot of questions.

Like us, Luis was a transplant to the Bay Area, though his journey was different than ours. After Luis’s killing, I met his brother, his cousins, and one of his workmates. They gave me a snapshot of his history and it was clear that his struggles—for housing, for work, for a community—, mirrored the struggles faced by so many poor people of color already from here and immigrants who move to the Bay to find a better life.

Luis was from Mexico, where thousands of small sustenance farmers and indigenous peoples have been displaced from their ancestral farm lands due to economic policies designed in Washington, DC and implemented through the corporate boardrooms of Monsanto and Cargill. When NAFTA was enacted in 1994, the US forced the Mexican government to eradicate financial support for small farmers and to privatize collectively held Indigenous lands. Large US-based agribusiness flooded the Mexican market with cheap corn, pricing small farmers out of their most profitable crop. It's true: we came to San Francisco with dreams for a better life, but neither you nor I had been cut off from our livelihoods and forced to hit the road, like Luis.

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In high school you were a year ahead of me, and I looked up to you. Maybe you remember the day you invited me over and we sat in your room strewn about with records: The Ramones. Minor Threat. You had all the best bands. You asked if I had ever heard the Misfits and when I shook my head no, your face lit up, “Oh, man, you gotta hear this,” as you dropped the needle on the record.

The music churned and we schemed about who could give us a ride to the next punk rock show. When we talked it was like talking to an older brother: your self-confidence gave me some kind of protective comfort. Maybe that was just the unearned power of a high school senior or maybe it was your charismatic personality. Of course, I wonder now what role all that bravado played in your decision to join law enforcement. Ultimately I wonder how much of that overplayed high school self-confidence influenced you to pull the trigger on April 7, last year.

Our high school in suburban DC was run by Quakers – anti-authoritarian pacifists who had us sit in silent meeting for worship twice a week. They taught us the nuts and bolts about how slavery was abolished, about civil disobedience, and the rights of immigrants. We had Black South African classmates who were made refugees by the Apartheid regime.

The school itself stood near a spring that was a landmark on the underground railroad. In a nation where very few of us are taught racial injustice, we learned about race, and racism, and the violence in it. So everyone was surprised when, after graduation, we heard the rumor that you’d become a cop. Initially, I was impressed: you’d made a decisive career move while most of us were either working minimum-wage jobs or road-tripping around the country. There was something admirable in that.

But, really? A cop? And not any cop, but a DC cop? All through our high school years, the 80’s crack epidemic was blooming in DC, especially devastating the Black community. Reagan’s and Bush’s wars in Central America and the Middle East disgusted us. Those times forged in me a healthy suspicion of authority. But not in you, I suppose.

As we drained pitchers in Dupont Circle dive bars we wondered, “How could Nate, a white suburban punk kid like us, want to join the shock troops of this violent system, in one of the Blackest cities in the US? It didn’t make sense.

Then, who was I to judge? I was wrenching bicycles forty hours a week at $6.50 per hour. Most of our peers were too strung out, dropped out, or zoned out on video games to compare our lives to anyone else’s. The gossip sessions usually ended by accepting your decision at face-value. “If Nate’s doing something for himself, good for him.”

A couple years later, a few of us had migrated out to the Bay, and then we heard you’d moved out to SF too. I never ran into you, but someone said: “Guess what? I saw Nate the other day. He’s a cop. Undercover.”

We had taken different paths, and whenever your name came up, I’d wonder what life was like for you as a cop. How much of yourself did you have to suppress to wear that uniform? How much did you have to contort the old Nate to fit in behind the famed Blue Wall of Silence? Did your fellow officers know you’d gone to a Quaker high school? How you were taught to reject the authority of the preacher, to question leaders, to challenge the racism in our society? Were you embarrassed to tell them how you were taught how to meditate; and how you learned to listen to the thoughts that remained after everything else washed away to guide important decisions?

I’m asking because I’m trying to reconcile the Nate that I knew in high school and the Officer Steger who I saw on YouTube rush from his car on the morning of April 7, 2016. When did Nate morph into that Officer who, less than 28 seconds after arriving on the scene, planted the fatal shots into a man seated on the ground?
——————-

Yearbook page

When I look back at our yearbook from 1986, your smiling face is peppered across the pages. Your charisma beams through. The youthful spark in your eye radiates. I turn to the page you designed. (Remember how we seniors fretted over cutting and pasting those pages?) In the center, you put a big photo of Bob Marley. You added all the obligatory words of appreciation for the pals who helped you through. But one thing catches my eye that I didn’t notice before. A short message is tucked in the lower right corner in your handwriting: “Speak English” What did that mean to you in 1986? And what does it mean now?

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Hundreds of people came out to hear a SURJ-sponsored panel discussion on Feb 23, 2017 "Movement to End Jim Crow: A Conversation on Ending Mass Criminalization and Mass Incarceration" with, pictured below left to right, Aya De Leon, moderator, author, poet; Fania Davis, Executive Director, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth; Dorsey Nunn, Co-Founder, All of Us or None and Executive Director, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children; and Zachary Norris, Executive Director, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.


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Come all you good workers
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I don’t remember when I first learned that talking about money was distasteful and classless, but it’s been so integral to my development that my heart still pounds as I write this. I feel like a child, again—born of the working class with a built-in calculator to count every cup of coffee paid for which I could not reciprocate, every assumption about my family’s ability to experience or provide. Growing up, I surrendered to the myth that our access to resources was a fair consequence of the efforts of our families and histories. That there was nothing different between us so long as I not speak about the material differences which make everyone so uncomfortable. I invested in this myth. But now that I know differently, I won’t do it anymore.

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Last week, I attended my first SURJ meeting in Oakland. I introduced myself as a white guy from a xenophobic and racist country in north-western Europe. I'd say that most Oaklanders would associate the Netherlands with Amsterdam, tulips, Van Gogh, and smoking weed. Some might even recall the legalization of gay marriage in 2001 and euthanasia in 2002. So why does this seemingly liberal country have white people put on blackface to play “Black Pete,” the foolish servant of Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas), as part of a national tradition?

Image: Joris Leermakers (license)

Perhaps the simplest explanation is that many Dutch people do not consider “Black Pete” to be racist. In 2013, the UN High Commission for Human Rights received an official complaint about Black Pete. The Dutch government’s response did not acknowledge that the blackface tradition was racist, stating that “people’s opinions about this festival differ.” 

 

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This morning, hundreds gathered outside San Francisco's City Hall for a sunrise ceremony of prayer, song and solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota as part of a national day of massive action against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The group then marched to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to demand permit denial and the completion of a full environmental impact statement. Here are some images from the day. Accompanying the photos are additional suggestions for action, many previously outlined here.

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