Community, faith groups support lawsuit on behalf of Guatemalan immigrant killed by police

San Francisco — Chanting "Justice for Amilcar," more than 125 peaceful marchers demonstrated in the heart of San Francisco's Mission District on April 24 in support of a federal civil rights lawsuit filed on behalf of the parents of Amilcar Perez Lopez, a Guatemalan immigrant killed by undercover police on Feb. 26.

The evening march was coordinated by the San Francisco Organizing Project/Peninsula Interfaith Action and other community groups. SFOP/PIA is part of the PICO National Network founded by Jesuit Fr. John Baumann.

Jennifer Martinez, SFOP/PIA director, said the march was planned to give the friends, neighbors and co-workers of Perez Lopez a peaceful way to express their grief and dismay about his death.

"I'm hopeful that there is a seed of change that is germinating in the community and that is connected to the national movement to stop state-sanctioned violence," Martinez told NCR.

Representatives from the Protestant, Jewish and Muslim traditions spoke during the march, saying to fight for justice is a right given by God. Although there was no official Catholic presence at the demonstration, Martinez said the faith community can play an important role in this effort "to call out the injustice and to show love for one another -- even the police, who are having to operate within these oppressive systems and are likely suffering as well."

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"I hope we can engage more Catholics as this progresses towards a systems-change effort to keep immigrants and Latino families safe from state violence," Martinez said.

The Mission District, where Perez Lopez was killed, has been home to the majority of the city's Latino community for decades. Perez Lopez was a Catholic, and a funeral and burial were celebrated in his hometown in northern Guatemala after his body was flown there.

At a press conference announcing the lawsuit, Arnoldo Casillas, an attorney representing the Perez Lopez family, said an independent autopsy by a medical examiner from a neighboring county showed Perez Lopez was shot six times in the back as he ran from undercover police, an account that contradicts San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr's account that officers shot him in self-defense when he lunged at them with a knife.

The confrontation began after police received a 911 call reporting a man armed with a knife arguing with another man. Casillas said witnesses reported that the altercation was between Perez Lopez, who had the knife, and a neighbor over a bicycle. Witnesses said the fight was resolved by the time police arrived.

According to the legal complaint, one of two undercover officers grabbed Perez Lopez, who was 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighed about 130 pounds, from behind. It is not clear whether either officer identified himself as a police officer and, if so, whether they spoke in Spanish, Casillas said during the press conference.

The lawsuit states that Perez Lopez, fearing he was being attacked by strangers, ran away. Police fired six shots. Perez Lopez fell down and died between two parked cars, the lawsuit says. Photos taken by a resident in an apartment across the street and displayed at the press conference show him lying in a pool of blood. Police say he died on the sidewalk.

During the evening march, demonstrators conducted a "die-in" on the street in front of the local police station in Perez Lopez's memory.

Casillas said he wants Suhr to say his officers shot Perez Lopez as he fled, that the young man did not pose a serious threat, and that the police have lied to the community about what happened.

A police spokesman said the department stands by its account.

Perez Lopez's parents, Margarita Lopez and Juan Perez, appeared at the press conference via Skype, saying in Spanish that when they sent their son to the U.S. to work, they never expected him to return in a coffin because of police action. Perez Lopez was working jobs in construction and sending money home to help his parents and five younger siblings.

The Rev. Richard Smith, vicar of St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in San Francisco, where a funeral service was held for Perez Lopez before his body was shipped to Guatemala, called the killing "brutal beyond words."

"If this were an isolated incident it would be horrific, but it is part of a larger fabric of racism in police departments," he told NCR.

Last year, another young Latino man, Alex Nieto, was killed by San Francisco police who responded to a 911 call saying a man with a gun was in a local park. Nieto, a native San Franciscan and a full-time college student, was spending time at the park before going to his job as a security guard. He was carrying a licensed Taser. As he left the park, police approached him. They said Nieto pointed his Taser, which they mistook for a pistol. They fired 59 shots. The district attorney ruled the death a justifiable homicide because the police were afraid for their lives.

A federal wrongful death lawsuit filed by Nieto's parents says eyewitnesses "did not hear Nieto threaten anyone nor see him attempt to grab or point any object at the officers prior to being shot."

In October 2013, 13-year-old Andy Lopez was fatally shot seven times by a sheriff's deputy in Santa Rosa. Hundreds of mourners filled Resurrection Catholic Church in Santa Rosa for his funeral Mass.

Andy Lopez had been walking through a vacant lot when two officers on patrol spotted him carrying what they thought was an AK-47. The officers walked up from behind Lopez and ordered him to drop the gun, which was a plastic replica of an assault rifle. According to police, as Lopez began to turn, the toy gun began to rise and the deputy, fearing for his life, shot him.

In a final report on the death, the district attorney said an autopsy showed Lopez had significant levels of marijuana in his blood that likely impaired his judgment and ability to respond quickly to the sheriff's command.

"While this was absolutely a tragedy, it was not a criminal act," District Attorney Jill Ravitch said in announcing that no charges would be filed against the deputy. A debate continues in the community on whether the fatal force was warranted. The Lopez family has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit.

Jonathan Melrod, part of the Perez Lopez legal team, said that the current "pandemic" of black men killed by police also applies to Latino men. "Black lives matter. Brown lives matter," he said.

Police departments have lost their "moral compass," Smith said. Noting that assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero had strongly criticized Salvadoran soldiers for killing innocent people, Smith said he too needed to cry out to law enforcement, "In the name of God, I beg you, stop the repression."

[Monica Clark is NCR West Coast correspondent. Her email address is mclark@ncronline.org.]


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