Last month, a Black man raised in chaos and scarcity shot and killed a Black man living in chaos and scarcity on the sidewalk in front of a downtown Walgreens.
It was a dispute over the alleged shoplifting of $14 worth of snacks and a Sprite.
Since then, the killing of Banko Brown, 24, by security guard Michael Earl-Wayne Anthony, 33, has incited protests, blame and frustration in this troubled city, where chaos and scarcity are as common as the political divisions they breed.
On Thursday, one of San Francisco’s great civil rights leaders, the Rev. Amos Brown (no relation to Banko Brown), will preside over the funeral, expected to draw hundreds, at the church where the slain man once attended Sunday school.
For the pastor, the answer to why Banko Brown is dead — the bigger context — is obvious: racism. For all of San Francisco’s liberal legacy, for all of the political success of leaders including Willie Brown and Mayor London Breed, he told me, it has long been one of the hardest places in California for Black people to thrive — a reality that the city has confronted in recent years, but that persists. A reality that left Banko Brown and Anthony struggling in a city that has never been fair.
“It’s been so subtle, so hidden, so sneaky,” Pastor Brown said. “But Black folks are on an island of poverty.”
That ugly truth has been lost in the politics of the moment. Banko Brown’s killing has become another fraught crisis in a city that is in political upheaval over homelessness, mental illness and drug use — as is much of California and the nation.
Some folks are angry that Anthony is not being criminally charged, Brown’s life seemingly written off as unworthy of justice. Others, already irate over conditions in the nearby Tenderloin, are using the death to push for the kind of policies that would have further marginalized Brown, a transgender Black man living an unstable existence: more policing, more incarceration and potentially even forced treatment for addictions. But there is little acknowledgment of the role race and history played in bringing Anthony and Brown together.
Thirty-seven percent of San Francisco’s homeless population is Black, despite Black people making up only 6% of the city as a whole. Black households had an average income of $31,000 compared with $116,000 for white families in 2019. Los Angeles, with its many disparities, has a median Black household income of $51,000, about $40,000 less than white households.
Nowhere are San Francisco’s divisions more apparent than in the area where Brown and Anthony met: a stretch of Market Street popular with tourists shopping at places such as the Levi’s store one door over from Walgreens, or catching the cable car at its nearby turnaround.
But it’s an area also filled with homeless people — some clearly suffering from mental health issues, drug use or both. It’s not far from United Nations Plaza, a hub of drug dealing and homelessness, where right-wing media (including now, apparently, CNN) loves to film their doom-loop narratives about a “failed city” of progressive policies. Shoplifting — both by organized retail gangs and amateurs — is common.
“That whole area down there is a place where people have been forced to congregate because they have no other place,” said Pastor Brown.
In those volatile surroundings, Anthony was expected to provide security for shoppers and staff inside the drugstore, while maybe also preventing robberies, though what that means was unclear even to him. His instructions from supervisors, according to what he told police, flip-flopped from taking a hands-off approach to physically stopping thieves from leaving with goods.
“They kept changing it back and forth,” he told an officer after the shooting, calling Walgreens’ policies “confusing.”
He wasn’t particularly well-trained in either approach, left largely to his own devices to figure out how to do his job well enough to keep it. “Damned if we do, damned if we don’t,” he said.
Like Banko Brown, Anthony came from a hard life. In an interview recorded on body camera video after the shooting, he told an officer he had been on his own since he was young. His parents, he said, rarely worked. His stepfather belittled him for having a job. Still, Anthony became a security guard at 18 and an armed guard at 19.
“It’s the first job I had that paid a decent amount,” he said.
But it wasn’t easy. He dislocated his shoulder in a “tussle” at another job location, and has been worried about the joint popping out again. His life has been falling apart in recent months. He separated from his wife after a year of marriage. He got stuck with bills — his ex took even his piggy bank, he said. His car was stolen, with some of his security gear inside. His brother was shot seven times, but survived. His guns, which he was required to have for work, were confiscated by police though he hadn’t broken any laws — they were returned days before the shooting. He’d been passing off a BB gun as the real thing.
“My whole … life has been shitty,” he told police.
Brown had his own struggles as a Black transgender man, marginalized in so many ways. Friends said he had lacked stable housing for years and was sleeping on public transit, according to media reports. He had been convicted of second-degree robbery in the past, giving him the stigma and challenges of a criminal record. In recent days, he was distraught at being unable to find help.
He was also loved, and is missed.
Banko Brown’s father, Terry Brown, described his son as genuine and kind, an activist who helped others.
“I’m so hurt,” he said in a TV interview, “just to even know my baby is gone.”
San Francisco Dist. Atty. Brooke Jenkins has declined to press charges against Anthony based on his claims of self-defense, but released surveillance footage and police investigation findings in an attempt to quell outrage. The video, however, is deeply disturbing and has led to calls for an outside investigation.
Civil rights attorney John Burris, who expects to file a civil lawsuit Friday on behalf of the family, sent a letter to the state attorney general asking him to review Jenkins’ decision. On Tuesday, Attn. Gen. Rob Bonta said he would examine whether Jenkins’ failure to file charges was an “abuse of discretion.”
Burris said he is “not particularly empathetic” to Anthony and believes he should have been charged with manslaughter at a minimum, because “at the time he shot [Brown], the officer’s life was not in danger.”
The video shows Anthony tried to stop Brown from leaving the store with a bag that may have contained stolen items. Brown refused to give it up, and the two fought. Anthony wrestled Brown to the floor. Anthony told police Brown threatened to stab him, though ultimately no weapon was found on Brown.
After Anthony released him, Brown walked outside, only to turn back and allegedly spit on Anthony. It was in that second, when Brown spun around to face Anthony then backed away, that the guard fired a hollow-point bullet from one of two modified Glocks he carried.
Beyond the debates about Anthony’s criminal culpability, the situation — a guard attempting to stop a shoplifter in a neighborhood overrun with petty crime and homelessness — is fodder for San Francisco’s ongoing battle between progressive harm reductionists who believe housing, services and compassion are the solution to the problems plaguing streets, and the don’t-call-them-conservatives (they really hate it) conservatives who want an old-school crackdown because things are out of control.
On Wednesday, Breed, who grew up in public housing and lost a sister to an overdose, declared that “compassion is killing people,” and promised to impose order through force if necessary, while speaking about conditions in the Tenderloin.
“When you know what it feels like to grow up in chaos, you want nothing more than change,” she said at a public meeting in UN Plaza, which lasted about 10 minutes before heckling shut it down. “You want nothing more than something better for the kids and the next generation.”
To be fair, things are out of control.
When I visited that Walgreens on a recent Thursday, a memorial to Brown that had hung on the chain-link fence outside was gone, except for a few shiny ribbons dangling limply.
Inside, shoplifting was rampant. A man with what looked and smelled like vomit on his sweatshirt barreled past a security guard — from a new subcontractor whose employees do not carry any weapons — and through the checkout line in search of candy bars. He grabbed a few handfuls, stuffing them in his pockets, along with a Mountain Dew. Then he walked out, despite the guard’s feeble pleas that he have some self-respect.
“Oh, Jesus, help me,” yelled the woman in front of me, offended by the scent, not the stealing. She was an off-duty security guard who worked at the French Consulate, preferring its lower pay to the pandemonium of retail jobs.
“The thing is, we’re walking on eggshells,” another guard at the store, Christoper Rivers, told me later — unknowingly using the exact same phrase Anthony had with police.
It was at least the third incident in that Walgreens that day, Rivers said — and it was just past lunch. Rivers is also Black, as was nearly every security guard I came across in the neighborhood. He was born and raised in Bayview-Hunters Point, historically a poor neighborhood. He isn’t particularly enjoying this posting, but he needs the job, he said.
“I’m always looking over my shoulder while I work here because you never know who [has] a gun or knife or anything,” he said. “Corporate is telling us not to do anything about nothing.”
Like Anthony, he worries about doing too little and is scared to do too much. Which raises the question, what is Walgreen’s responsibility in all this, putting ill-trained, often minority security guards on the front lines of this crisis that it helped to create?
A few days ago, Walgreens settled a lawsuit with San Francisco and agreed to pay the city $230 million for its role in the opioid epidemic (though the company claims no wrongdoing). A federal judge called the results of Walgreens’ actions in filling prescriptions without due diligence part of a “catastropic” outcome for the city, overwhelming hospitals and neighborhoods such as the Tenderloin with people who were introduced to their addictions through prescription medication.
Walgreens, for the record, told me via email: “We do not discuss our security procedures,” but the “safety of our patients, customers and team members is our top priority.”
I asked Pastor Brown what he thought of Walgreens, and he told me he believes there “is corporate guilt for what happened to Banko Brown.”
It reminded him of something he learned from his teacher, Martin Luther King Jr., about the “thingification” of Black people, first through enslavement, now through systemic oppression: the guards as less-than-human things to be used by corporations to handle the people seen by many of us as less-than-human things due to their poverty and addictions.
“I just threw my whole … life away,” Anthony wailed when police told him Banko Brown had died at the hospital. “Who ever thought life would be like this?”
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