Sitting For the Frisco Five
The first time I remember sitting in front of San Francisco City Hall was at my high school prom, 12 years ago. I was barely politicized back then.
The last time I sat in front of San Francisco City Hall, the steps were completely blocked off by a police barricade. By then, I had seen my fair share of post-protest backlash, so these strategically placed metal bars, while unusual, came as no surprise.
Stern-looking officers stood stiffly behind the barricade, with their arms crossed like palace guards, questioning anyone who happened to walk by. Over the weekend, a group of unarmed protesters had overtaken City Hall in support of the recently hospitalized hunger strikers, the Frisco Five. A huge swath of community was rising up to demand that Mayor Ed Lee fire SFPD Police Chief Greg Suhr, for allowing deep racism to fester for years in the police force, with deadly consequences for Black, Brown, and poor people in San Francisco. After shutting down City Hall, some of the activists known as the Frisco 500 — including four journalists — had experienced violence at the hands of cops cloaked in riot gear.
By the time we had gathered to meditate in solidarity with the Frisco Five a few days later, the public steps so often used as the backdrop for tourist and wedding photos were accessible only to those in police uniform.
I arrived at the designated meeting spot slightly to the side of the building to find a contingent of BPFers I’d never met before. To pass the time, I joined in on sign-making. Writing and making use of my hands calms me in new situations when my anxiety flares up. I ended up bonding with some folks over trying to find words that rhymed with “sitting” or “meditation.”
After reflecting on the kind of future I imagined most of us strive for, I came up with “Meditate to end our police state.”
(“Meditate on our police state” was out and so was “Sitting to end police brutality” because those statements sounded too much like doing nothing, which was simply business as usual.)
Someone else had written out hashtags in support of the demands from the hunger strikers: “#FireChiefSuhr #FriscoFive.” Clear, to the point, and easy to share on social media!
Once more folks trickled in, including those I knew from previous direct actions and other BPF-related organizing, we huddled up for introductions and intention-setting. Name, pronoun, and what brought you here. Even the smallest gestures of trust-building are essential to the success of an action, where next steps are often ambiguous and the situation can escalate quickly.
The walk to City Hall was calm. We formed two lines and silently made our way to the front of the building in meditative movement.
Our group formed a circle on the concrete directly in front of the barricade. It was cold; I immediately regretted wearing such a thin jacket that evening. Then I recalled the Frisco Five, who we were out there supporting, going without food for 17 days. Surely I could sit in this momentary discomfort, having had a warm meal shortly beforehand.
I felt more at ease as my friend and BPF Co-Director Katie Loncke began a guided meditation, which honored the lives lost due to police violence and also reminded us that today’s police are an extension of slave catchers from the not-so-distant past.
We had gathered in the spirit of interconnectedness. With the Frisco Five, with one another in the struggle for racial justice, and with the collective desire to end SFPD’s racist killings of Black and Brown people.
Many of the people sitting in the circle were unfamiliar to me, but I could feel their love and good intention as we continued to sit together, grounding into the space breath by breath.
While I am all for diversity of tactics, I believe there’s also something to be said about slowing down to hold sacred space within moments of urgency, as activists and as Buddhists. These types of actions can also be more accessible to people with disabilities and/or trauma histories.
I thought again of the Frisco Five, who were now recovering from their over-two-week-long fast. All five had to be hospitalized after their bodies deteriorated from the prolonged lack of nourishment. Coconut water and liquid vitamins provided by allies and community members, and their determination to make a difference, had been the only fuel keeping them going. Their sacrifice had made international news and even inspired a new generation of Third World Liberation Front students to start their own hunger strike demanding the reinstatement of Ethnic Studies courses and faculty at SF State.
I thought of the Frisco 500 demonstrating inside of this same building a few days prior, of the folks assaulted by military-style cops simply for demanding to speak with the mayor.
My heart felt tender as I continued to breathe, thoughts and emotions welling up from deep within. The faces of Alex Nieto, Mario Woods, and countless others floated through my mind. I couldn’t help tearing up. Alex, a Buddhist himself, was killed in his own neighborhood. Mario was shot with his hands down, trying to walk away. So many lives lost to trigger-happy cops.
Once we ended our sit, the sadness stayed with me. But also, a fire to continue fighting. And butterflies in my stomach at what might come next.
When three of our meditators crossed the barricade, the police immediately became flustered. These grown adults with their shiny badges reminded me of bullies on a playground. They couldn’t give us a clear answer as to why they wanted us all to remain on the other side of the border. I wondered how often they experienced having their authority called into question.
Finally, they took away the BPF banner, which read “The Karma of Slavery is Heavy. I vow to work for racial justice.” The three BPFers remained on the off-limits side of the barricade, and the cops started to pace and shuffle around while intermittently telling them to move back.
The calm of our folks juxtaposed with the irritation of the officers was so telling. I wondered if they would further escalate or attempt an arrest just to release their frustration at not being perceived as an authority.
As those of us still seated in the circle looked on at our comrades, we passed around a mic sharing words of encouragement and continued solidarity with the Frisco Five. At one point I was worried the officers would arrest the three, and distractedly rambled on about how the cops were not being peaceful in this moment, hoping to call attention to their behavior.
I wanted to call the majority-POC cops traitors, but I didn’t want to risk escalating more than necessary. I tried to cultivate compassion for whatever life circumstances that drove them to choose the wrong side. I felt righteous anger rising up, and tried to hold that reaction with compassion too.
A few passersby stopped to observe and document the scene: law enforcement so intent on “protecting” the City Hall steps while Buddhists sat trying to reclaim public space. Someone else took over the mic, and I relaxed in my seat.
One man stayed for the rest of the action, recording the cops’ every move with his cell phone.
After we were there for the allotted time, the three stepped back over the barricade unscathed. One cop handed over the BPF banner, also unscathed.
Unlike so many of San Francisco’s Black and Brown residents, we were allowed to go home.
Immediately afterwards, I felt the emotions that often come to me post-action: numbness. Loneliness. Sadness. For me, this happens when adrenaline spikes and then dips. When we go from cohesive affinity group for what feels like an extended period, to what feels like an abrupt separation. When it’s unclear as to if we accomplished what we needed to and the amount of impact versus effort seems ambiguous. Something else to meditate on.
A few days later, deeper feelings came up.
Gratitude for the opportunity to link spiritual practice and a thirst for justice, with people who hold similar values.
A stronger feeling of interconnectedness, and a desire to continue building beloved community with widening circles of spiritual activists.
Renewed belief in the power of meditation and reflection to help sustain social movements.
Abundant love for the limitless energy, enthusiasm, and efforts of badass Buddhist activists.
On May 19th, nearly one month since the Frisco Five began their hunger strike, Greg Suhr resigned, just hours after the SFPD shooting of an unarmed, pregnant Black woman: Jessica Williams (birthname Jessica Nelson). #SayHerName. It’s sad that it took another stolen life for these original demands to be met.
And even now, there is much work to be done.
I know that it will take more than meditation as silent protest to put an end to the injustices that are only increasing in this city. The problems are systemic and they run deep.
But in taking a stand (or a sit) as activists and as spiritual practitioners, we can show others the hypocrisy of the institution that in our current reality “protects and serves” the elite few, while claiming to “protect and serve” the people.
And these moments of meditation can give us the space to keep going on this path, instead of burning out or running away.