Dead over a $2 train fare

July 25, 2011

Neha Sobti, Nikolai Smith and David Russitano look at the outrage provoked by the shooting death of Kenneth Harding--and the violence of San Francisco police.

ON JULY 16 at 4:44 p.m., 19-year-old Kenneth Harding was shot at as many as 10 times by San Francisco Police Department (SFPD). Bullets pierced his leg and neck, and entered his brain, killing him.

This was the third fatal shooting in the past two months by the SFPD, and the second public transit-related shooting in a span of two weeks.

According to witnesses, police chased Harding from the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni) light-rail after he ran away from them for not paying the $2 fare. After Harding was shot, cops surrounded his dying body without offering him medical assistance, as a crowd of angry community members began to gather.

A disturbing video of the event shows an agonizing scene--with many police, guns drawn, threatening bystanders and watching as Harding lay bleeding to death on the ground.

Since the shooting, Harding has been vilified in the corporate media. Most reports focus on his criminal record to try to prove that he was a "bad man"--with the implication that he deserved to die.

San Francisco police train their guns on Kenneth Harding as he bleeds to death
San Francisco police train their guns on Kenneth Harding as he bleeds to death

Police are trying to shift the blame and conversation away from themselves, but these reports do little to answer the larger questions raised by the recent upsurge of violence by Bay Area police. Why, for example, were armed officers chasing a man for not paying a Muni fee? And why are tax dollars being used to arm, train and fund police to ensure someone pays that $2?

INCREDIBLY, POLICE now claim that Harding died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. The San Francisco medical examiner released findings last week that the bullet recovered from Harding's head was from a .380 caliber firearm, while police on the scene were supposedly armed with .40-caliber weapons. The medical examiner also claims to have found gunshot residue on one of Harding's hands, and a .380 caliber bullet was allegedly found in one of Harding's pockets.

If police are to be believed, Harding shot backwards through a crowd at officers while running and somehow also--whether accidentally or intentionally--fatally shot himself in his neck.

As noted, this story has led many in the community to believe that police are covering up a murder in cold blood. In what can only be called an understatement, Police Commander Mike Biel said at a recent press conference that "he understands there may be skepticism about the latest evidence revealed by authorities."

Police claims that Harding was not only armed during the chase, but shot first at officers, are contradicted by the reports of multiple witnesses, who say Harding had no gun. "I just saw shots going forward," resident Henry Taylor told channel 7 ABC News. " I didn't see shots coming backwards."

Additionally, no gun was ever found on or near Harding at the scene. Initially, police claimed to have caught a suspect who supposedly removed the gun from the scene, with San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr telling Channel 7: "[W]e believe we have it in custody."

But now the cops' story has changed, and they claim the gun is still missing. Desperate to find a justification for the fatal shooting of the young man, police are now offering a $1,000 reward for the phantom gun.

Police are also making much of Harding's criminal record--announcing publicly that the young man was on parole in connection with charges that he tried to force a 14-year-old girl into prostitution in Seattle, and that he was a person of interest in a shooting in that city that killed one and wounded three others.

But whether or not Harding had a criminal record or was wanted for another crime doesn't justify police chasing him down over a $2 fare and killing him in what many bystanders describe as closer to an execution.

"Regardless of if they found a gun or not, it's the fact they chased him from the T-train over a transfer, and while there's real crime going on," resident Debray Carpenter told ABC News.

Those in the community who experience everyday intimidation from police know that the police lie to cover their tracks. Bayview, the site of Harding's murder and San Francisco's last largely Black community, has the highest poverty rates in the city and an unemployment four times higher than the rest of the city.

Although San Francisco has a civilian review board to supposedly hold violent cops accountable, activists point out that if officers think they will be disciplined, they quit the day before their review board hearing to maintain their pension.

NOR IS Harding's death the only recent police-involved death. Just 13 days before Harding was killed, Charles Hill, a 45-year-old homeless man, was fatally shot three times by two Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officers moments after the officers responded to a call at the Civic Center Plaza BART station in downtown San Francisco.

The entire incident took only one minute. The media's limited coverage of the killing emphasizes BART and BART police's claims that Hill was intoxicated and wielding a knife and glass bottle. Witnesses, however, claimed that Hill posed no threat and "moved slowly" toward the armed officers, who almost immediately responded with lethal force. The police have refused to release footage of the incident and have not conveyed information of their investigation with the media.

Hill's death came just one week after BART police reached a $1.3 million settlement with the family of Oscar Grant III, who was murdered in the early morning hours of New Year's Day 2009 by BART officer Johannes Mehserle. Mehserle was released from prison this June after spending only 292 days behind bars. The message was clear: shoot and kill an unarmed Black man in the back without provocation, and the system will let you off easy.

The deaths of Harding and Hill also follow the June 7 fatal shooting of a suspected bank robber who allegedly tried to run over SFPD officers with his car, and a June 29 shooting and wounding of a wanted parolee who allegedly shot at the SFPD.

Hill's death also poses larger questions over police action: Why are Bay Area police so quick to shoot? Why didn't BART police utilize any of the non-lethal methods at their disposal before fatally shooting Hill? Why are police and the media emphasizing that Hill was "drunk" and "wielding a bottle" instead of asking why, within a minute of encountering officers, he had been fatally wounded?

This surge of police brutality has sparked anger, pushing community members and activists to the streets in protests, speak outs, and other actions.

On July 16, the day that Harding was shot, there were spontaneous demonstrations in the Bayview and Mission neighborhoods that closed down BART and Muni cars.

A July 20 march in San Francisco called by No Justice No BART, a group formed in the wake of Oscar Grant's killing, saw 150 protesters marching and 46 activists arrested. As the march route passed under a Muni station, a Bank of America window was smashed, and a hammer and flares were thrown at a police station as protesters chanted: "How do you spell murderer? S.F.P.D.!" Protesters carried a large banner that read, "You can't shoot us all!"

As one woman on the demonstration said, "The cops are just trigger-happy. They're trained to shoot young brown and Black men first, and avoid questions later."

That evening, Police Chief Greg Suhr was booed off of the stage by angry residents during a town hall meeting at the Bayview Opera House.

Days earlier, a quickly planned demonstration on July 11 at the BART platform where Charles Hill was murdered had 150 protesters chanting, "No justice! No peace! Disband the BART police!" as they walked in and out of train doors, climbed on trains and successfully shut down three of the busiest downtown San Francisco BART stations for over two hours.

By bringing together diverse community organizations and activists, the recent demonstrations have highlighted the strength in numbers of Californians challenging police violence.

Activists are now planning an August 20 teach-in and protest titled "Freedom from Violence and Police State Terror." Sponsored by the Idriss Stelley Foundation, a San Francisco-based group that works on law enforcement accountability, the protest at San Francisco City Hall is meant to launch a citywide police accountability and transparency movement that can hold police and politicians accountable for the daily violence poor and minority communities are subjected to.

Francois Hughes contributed to this article.

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