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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
In the video on Shotwell Street I see you rushing toward Luis with your hand on your pistol. I’m sure you’ve played the scene over and over in your mind. Maybe you’ve watched yourself in the video? Did you even wonder that Luis may not speak your language as you barked commands in English at him that morning? Was the note tucked into the corner of your senior yearbook page indicative of a bias tucked into the corner of your mind? Maybe you thought he understood your commands; maybe if he had spoken English instead of his native Yucatecan Mayan, he’d still be alive. I don’t know. But I do know that rushing and killing a man in 28 seconds eliminated any attempt at communication, compassionate or otherwise.
I’m going to assume that behind that Blue Code of Silence there’s not much encouragement to take responsibility for taking a life “in the line of duty,” as they say. And I imagine you’re trying hard to shrug it off and move on. Your bullet, his life.
Did you know that there’s not a lot of support for the families of the people killed by police officers?. They’re left to grieve on their own as they struggle to find supportive lawyers, health resources, community accompaniment, and to hold protests at the City Hall gates in the distant hope for justice, restoration and the ever-elusive emotional closure. As you well know, the system and the police unions have a pretty good record protecting officers from having to answer directly to the lived impacts of their forceful actions.
In fact, even if the wrongful death court trial scheduled for October 2018 results in a positive verdict for Luis Gongora’s family, the wound opened on April 7, 2016 will never be completely sutured. A jury trial may bring more evidence to light, and that may ease some of the family trauma. A jury may decide, as it rarely does, that the City owes Luis’s family some measure of financial compensation. But that court won’t return a father to his children, a husband to his wife, a son to his parents, a brother to his siblings. The court can’t send Luis on a Christmas visit to see the three children he supported with remittances, the parents and wife who are incapacitated by grief, the granddaughter he never met, and the family home he built from afar. That court will never erase the memory and pain of what happened. And most importantly, that civil court won’t make you personally accountable for his killing.
The shooting of Luis Góngora Pat on April 7, 2016 is seared into the collective memory of the Mission. And, similarly, it is seared into your memory too, Nate. The wound opened on that day that will not easily be healed. The Nathaniel I remember was strong enough to flatten a 6’2” lacrosse player who got too close to the crease, but without taking responsibility for your actions that day, you will likely be powerless to block out the haunting memories.
The auto-replay in your head will not go away on its own volition, but I want to humbly offer an option. Simply put, speak truthfully. Put aside the Blue Code of Silence and the script that protects you from consequences… and be accountable to those you harmed. I know Luis’s family and I know that for them the first step towards any purposeful reparation is for you to take true accountability for killing Luis. From there, perhaps, we can begin to explore another way. As your former classmate and community member in contact with the family, I am willing to learn with you how accountability, consequence and restoration looks like to Luis’s Mayan Mexican community in order to try to make meaningful amends.
And hopefully, you can make a formidable step toward creating some closure and healing from the inescapable whispers that continue to echo through the Mission’s streets. Your act of killing in this land is now strung onto a long line of unaccountable homicides that traces back to the first time a Spanish soldier shot dead an indigenous man on this land centuries ago. How things get dealt with from here on out is pretty much up to you. I await your response.