Happy Birthday Mario Woods
To understand where we are, we need to know where we’ve been.
Mario Woods was a son, brother, friend, and San Francisco resident who was shot 21 times on December 2, 2015, by San Francisco Police. Regardless of what anyone may say, Mario Woods was denied his right to due process. Instead, in that moment, the Police decided to be his judge, jury, and executioner. He deserved de-escalation, he deserved the wrap around support he needed after enduring the brutality of our prison industrial complex, he deserved the right to redeem himself without the systemic barriers placed in his way.
His mother, Gwen, deserved to have dinner with her son that week. She deserved to watch him get married, have kids, and grow old with him by her side. She was also deprived of the sacred right to grieve for her son, because like most mothers of Black men killed by Police, she had to immediately defend Mario’s character in the court of public opinion.
Five years after “Happy Birthday Mario Woods” was made, George Floyd was murdered. It’s impossible to decouple Mario from George. When people, specifically certain people in San Francisco, were posting Black squares on Instagram, using it as an opportunity to express how "shocked and appalled" they were at the knee guillotine broadcast across our screens, all I could think about was Mario Woods –– and those 21 bullets.
And then I think about Alex Nieto, and then I think about Sean Monterosso... If you live in San Francisco especially, and those names don’t ring a bell, it’s important to ask “Why?”.
One coded expression of indifference is to protest passively and to protest things far away. I think a certain sector of San Francisco has developed this problem. Perhaps it’s because a certain demographic of our city didn’t see Mario Woods as one of us, just like they didn’t see Alex Nieto, or Sean Montesorro. Perhaps if we could ask ourselves if the "progress" the city has achieved is complicit in the marginalization of the communities that Mario and many people like him come from. We also have to ask ourselves what we need to sacrifice (money, time, resources) in order to participate in the hard work of community building and equity necessary for making people like Mario visible to everyone. Or perhaps the apathy has a more cynical side –– that unless there is social currency involved that improves the optics of our individual brand, then it’s not worth our time. This is where I stop and remind myself of the words of Bryan Stevenson, and for me a mantra that Mano Raju, San Francisco’s Elected Public Defender quoted during his community oath –– “hopelessness is the enemy of justice”.
For me, “Happy Birthday Mario Woods” is a gut check.
It reminds me of why I and we need to do more than perform, post, or wait for a name to trend nationally. It reminds me that each of us, especially if we have benefitted from this city and country, have a civic duty to our local community and a requirement to mobilize our skills, energy, or whatever the hell else we can give so that people like Mario Woods can be remembered as catalysts of awakening & lasting commitment to change.
It also reminds me that we need to put an equal amount of focus on protecting the living as we do mourning the dead. We can’t toggle an on/off button in our minds because a news cycle tells us to care about something, we cannot treat these issues as seasonal trends like fashion. Because for the communities affected by inequity and injustice, there is no airplane mode for the onslaught of chronic stress. They live this daily, no matter what President is elected, no matter how many times people post “solidarity”. They see their own son, brother, father, friend, neighbor, when they see George Floyd, Mario Woods, Philando Castile, Dujuan Armstrong, Breonna Taylor, Alex Nieto, etc…
This is why for us, supporting the work of the Public Defender is paramount, because they work on behalf of the thousand names we've never heard of, who have been failed by the tentacles of our system and by us as society at large.
They do this work without headline, notoriety or judgment, which is critical, especially in San Francisco, a place undergoing one of its most crucial reckonings in the city's history. And especially this city, a place that to me, represents a microcosm of the most current & critical reckonings that history will judge us for.
Note: Defender is presenting Happy Birthday Mario Woods with permission from the Woods family and Even/Odd.