Race & Justice

Alex Nieto and Gentrification, Criminal Justice Research Center Moves, and Catholics and the Death Penalty


On March 21, 2014, four officers—three white and one asian—killed a 28-year-old Latino, Alex Nieto, in a hail of bullets on a hill in Nieto’s San Francisco neighborhood. The officers, whose stories are conflicting, said Nieto, who worked as a night club bouncer, pointed his tazer at them and took a shooting stance, and that they mistook the tazer and its laser light for a handgun. The four cops fired dozens of shots, 14 of which hit Nieto’s head and body.

Nieto was an aspiring probation officer, practicing Buddhist, and criminal justice degree-holder.

On the day he died, Nieto was wearing a new, red 49ers jacket. Unfortunately Nieto’s jacket color led responding officers, as well as the man who called the police, to believe that Nieto looked suspicious and might be a gang member.

Alex Nieto and his parents had lived in San Francisco’s Bernal Hill since the 1980’s. Gentrification—which involves spikes in property values that wipes out neighborhood diversity by forcing out poor and minority residents—has swept through the Bay Area, including Bernal Hill.

The Guardian’s Rebecca Solnit explores the dangerous side of gentrification and the role it may have played in Nieto’s death. Here’s a clip:

In that springtime of Nieto’s death, I had begun to feel that what was tearing my city apart was not only a conflict pitting long-term tenants against affluent newcomers and the landlords, estate agents, house-flippers, and developers seeking to open up room for them by shoving everyone else out. It was a conflict between two different visions of the city.

What I felt strongly at the funeral was the vital force of real community: people who experienced where they lived as a fabric woven from memory, ritual and habit, affection and love. This was a measure of place that had nothing to do with money and ownership and everything to do with connection. Adriana and I turned around in our pew and met Oscar Salinas, a big man who was native to the Mission. He told us that when someone in the community is hurt, the Mission comes together. “We take care of each other.” To him, the Mission meant the people who shared Latino identity and a commitment to a set of values, and to each other, all held together by place.

The sense of community people were trying to hang on to was about the things that money cannot buy. It was about home as a whole neighbourhood and the neighbours in it, not just the real estate you held title to or paid rent on. It was not only the treasure of Latinos; white, black, Asian and Native American residents of San Francisco had long-term relationships with people, institutions, traditions, particular locations. “Disruptive” has been a favourite word of the new tech economy, but old-timers saw communities, traditions, and relationships being disrupted. Many of the people being evicted and priced out were the people who held us all together: teachers, nurses, counsellors, social workers, carpenters and mechanics, volunteers and activists. When, for example, someone who worked with gang kids got driven out, those kids were abandoned. How many threads could you pull out before the social fabric disintegrated?

Two months before the funeral, the real-estate website Redfin looked at the statistics and concluded that 83% of California’s homes, and 100% of San Francisco’s, were unaffordable on a teacher’s salary. What happens to a place when the most vital workers cannot afford to live in it? Displacement has contributed to deaths, particularly of the elderly. In the two years since Nieto’s death, there have been multiple stories of seniors who died during or immediately after their eviction. Gentrification can be fatal.

It also brings newcomers to neighbourhoods with nonwhite populations, sometimes with atrocious consequences. Local newspaper The East Bay Express recently reported that in Oakland, recently arrived white people sometimes regard “people of color who are walking, driving, hanging out, or living in the neighborhood” as “criminal suspects.” Some use the website Nextdoor.com to post comments “labeling Black people as suspects simply for walking down the street, driving a car, or knocking on a door.” The same thing happens in the Mission, where people post things on Nextdoor such as “I called the police a few times when is more then three kids standing like soldiers in the corner.” What’s clear in the case of Nieto’s death is that a series of white men perceived him as more dangerous than he was and that he died of it.


UCLA’s Center for Policing Equity, a national research center aimed at improving police-community ties, is leaving Los Angeles and moving to John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York—the perfect “laboratory for policing practices and innovation in law enforcement,” according to John Jay president, Jeremey Travis. The center will open this summer and begin gathering and analyzing data to find disparities in policing.

With $1.5 million in funding from the Ford Foundation and $1 million from Atlantic Philanthropies, John Jay will relocate the center’s president and co-founder, Phillip Atiba Goff, who will also teach at the college.

The New York Times’ Sam Roberts has more on the research center and its new home. Here’s a clip:

The move will place John Jay at the forefront of a national conversation on race and policing prompted by a spate of deaths at the hands of the police, including those in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island.

The appointment was approved on Monday by the City University of New York’s board of trustees.

“We’re having a moment in police and criminal justice reform in the United States, and the beating heart of police reform begins in New York,” Dr. Goff said in an interview. “New York is in the vanguard, and when you have the entire of New York City agreeing on the need for some kind of a change, that’s a powerful thing.”

He will direct the center and also teach at John Jay.

Mr. Travis said, “John Jay is the most diverse of CUNY’s senior colleges, so these issues involving interactions with the police are not far removed from the lives of our students.”

“This research fits with the DNA of John Jay,” he added.

It also coincides with the Ford Foundation’s focus on inequality. Darren Walker, the foundation’s president, said one of its priorities was “improving relations between communities of color and law enforcement.” He described New York as “a laboratory for policing practices and innovation in law enforcement.”

In 2014, John Jay, in partnership with Yale Law School and U.C.L.A., among others, received a $4.75 million grant from the Justice Department to establish the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. Directed by David Kennedy, it has a goal of improving relationships between communities and the criminal justice system. Dr. Goff was one of the principal partners in the initiative.


Speaking the night before an international anti-death penalty conference in Rome last month, Pope Francis called for an end to capital punishment worldwide, urging Catholics to make the “courageous and exemplary gesture” of imposing a moratorium on executions in honor of the church’s Holy Year of Mercy.

In a story for the New Yorker, Paul Elie, author and senior fellow at Georgetown University, goes behind the Pope’s announcement to reveal the Catholic movement to end the death penalty worldwide, propelled in large part by the passionate work of a man named Mario Marazziti. Here’s a clip:

Popes have denounced capital punishment for four decades, drawing on a much longer history of religious revulsion toward the practice; but, by calling for a moratorium, Francis turned opprobrium for the death penalty into a simple step that governments and their executives can take.

Marazziti had hoped that Pope Francis would offer a statement of support for the moratoria. He and his compatriots in the Community of Sant’Egidio, a progressive Catholic movement based in Rome, were instrumental in bringing it about. They had asked Francis to consider making such a statement in advance of a conference against the death penalty they had planned for the coming week.

It’s the sort of request that Marazziti has made of public figures many times. He is a founder of the World Coalition against the Death Penalty, an alliance of more than a hundred and fifty N.G.O.s, unions, bar associations, and other groups, which emerged out of a conference held at Sant’Egidio’s headquarters, in Rome, in 2002. Meanwhile, the Community of Sant’Egidio has made the Colosseum—where Christians were thrown to the lions—a symbol of resistance to capital punishment, arranging for it to be lit up especially brightly at night each time a government renounces the practice. Marazziti and the movement he represents have created a patchwork consensus against the death penalty, and, in countries that still have the death penalty, such as the United States—retentionist countries, the movement calls them—it is a consensus that politicians are finding harder and harder to resist.

He sat down to lunch with his family: wife, mother-in-law, son, daughter-in-law, grandson. They talked about what they had just seen and heard. After the meal, he sent an e-mail to several thousand people with whom he has made common cause over the years (myself among them). “I am very happy,” he said, and summarized Francis’s message: “No Death Penalty, no executions, during Mercy’s Year. And never again.”

1 Comment

  • Regarding the story on gentrification, the article gives absolutely zero facts on how Nieto’s death had anything remotely to do with gentrification. The story is simply a cut and paste a Guardian reporter’s opinion that it was obviously whe work of “white men’s” perception. (Guess the Asian cop doesn’t count). Pretty awful excuse for journalism , even by Witness La standards.

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