A heated exchange emerged as the defining moment of last Tuesday’s Speak Out and Listen In: A Teach-In on Building Community Power, between USF senior Alejandra Mojica, and San Francisco Chief of Police and USF Alum, Greg Suhr. During the Q&A session, Mojica confronted Suhr with questions regarding his actions as Police Chief during the Kenneth Harding Jr. incident in 2011. The following interaction between Mojica and Suhr caused the atmosphere in the room to rapidly grow tense, and left the audience divided on both sides of the issue.
According to the DailyMail, Kenneth Harding Jr. was a 19-year-old Seattle native who was allegedly shot dead by San Francisco police after failing to pay for a $2.00 Muni transit fare. Harding, who was allegedly under the impression that he was being approached for breaking the terms of his parole, which restricted him from leaving Washington state, began to run in an attempt to evade the police. According to the police report that was filed, Harding fired the first shot at the officers who were in pursuit, and as a response, the officers immediately fired nine rounds back.
Another article for California Beat, however, reported that the San Francisco medical examiner attributed Harding’s death to a bullet wound not fired from a police weapon, but instead, the weapon Harding himself was carrying. After Harding’s mother later filed a lawsuit against the City of San Francisco, new claims arose — witnesses denied seeing Harding carrying a weapon, and a video surfaced of Harding bleeding to death on a sidewalk without receiving any medical attention. Ultimately, Harding’s muddled case became the initial cause of the heated exchange between Mojica and Suhr.
Calling on Suhr to comment on the shooting of Harding, Mojica said, “We are hurting; we are living in fear and we don’t trust you.” She then added, “We are not responsible for police killing unarmed people for not having a bus transfer.”
This prompted both Suhr and Dr. Joe Marshall, the moderator of the session, to tense up and attempt to interject.
“Let him speak,” said Marshall, as students and attendees snapped their fingers in support of Mojica’s comment.
Mojica, reflecting over how she felt both men reacted strongly to her comment, said in a follow-up statement, “I think at the end [when] I kind of shouted out, ‘People are not getting killed over bus fare,’ [Suhr] immediately latched on to that, and he and Joe Marshall went on and on and basically defamed Kenneth Harding Jr.”
When reached for comment after the event, Suhr remarked that Mojica did not completely understand the facts surrounding the incident involving Harding. He stated, “Kenneth Wade Harding died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound while running from police he had just fired upon,” adding that he also “felt it important to set that record straight with regard to what actually happened there.”
At the same time, Suhr also understood that Mojica’s comments were apt given the context of the day’s events. He said, “I wasn’t at all taken aback by her question. I felt it an appropriate forum for her to express her concerns and expect for me to have an explanation.”
Audience members themselves had a mixed reaction to the nearly palpable tension in the room. “Basically, it went down like she [Mojica] seemed prepared with a statement. She knew what she going for, and she went in ready to grill the guy,” said sophomore Matt Hughes, a student in attendance for one of his courses. “Alejandra seemed to phrase her question in the form of an accusation, and no answer of Chief Suhr was going to change what she already felt was true,” he added.
Professor Candice Harrison, a faculty member who coordinated the day’s events, offered a different perspective on the exchange witnessed between Mojica and Suhr. “I think some audience members and panelists came prepared to address difficult questions and speak their truths — ‘truths’ which often conflict because we come to the table with different life experiences, backgrounds, and worldviews. That’s far different than ‘looking for an altercation,’” she said.
She then added, “If anything, I think the vast majority of those that attended the event came looking for solutions. Most came wanting to know how we might step across deep divides and harness our power as a community to stop the murders of people of color at the hands of police.”
In the end, Harrison, Mojica, and Suhr all agreed on the need for more time to address the issues in question. “I wish there had been more questions like hers, and more time for me to explain why we try so hard here in San Francisco to have the difficult conversation(s) so that we can build trust,” said Suhr.
“If anything, I wish we had more time,” said Harrison. “We were only able to scratch the surface of these issues, and I look forward to additional campus events that move us toward action.”
Photo Credit: Shawn Calhoun