It’s a spring evening in San Francisco, and Alejandro Nieto is relaxing in the neighborhood where he grew up. He eats a burrito with some tortilla chips and then takes a walk along a familiar path. But although it may seem like a normal evening, the young man is about to find himself in the middle of a nightmare that will ultimately shake the city to its very core.
Nieto, known as Alex, was born on March 3, 1986, in Bernal Heights, an area in southeast San Francisco. His father, Refugio, had first met his mother, Elvira, while still a boy in Mexico. The pair had then been reunited after separately emigrating to California in the 1970s.
Together, they made their home in Bernal Heights, and they’ve lived there ever since. As for the neighborhood, although it used to be a multicultural area, it has undergone increased gentrification since the 1990s. At the same time, many believe that the persecution of the local black and Latino communities has grown.
Nieto himself was a young man with a clean record. He had never been in trouble with the law and was a practicing Buddhist to boot. On top of that, he’d spent the past half-decade working at the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center as a counselor helping troubled youngsters.
An active citizen, Nieto was involved with his community, taking part in events and campaigns aimed at making the city a better place. In the future, he hoped to become a probation officer, helping people to navigate the criminal justice system. Sadly, though, he would never get that chance.
On March 21, 2014, 28-year-old Nieto was passing some time in Bernal Heights Park, an open space close to the street where he grew up. Having already eaten a burrito, he continued his stroll with a bag of tortilla chips in his hand. Tragically, however, these innocuous decisions would turn out to be among the last that he would ever make.
At around 7:00 p.m., Nieto crossed paths with a young professional named Evan Snow. Soon, Snow’s young husky grew attracted to the chips that Nieto was carrying. In fact, while its owner was distracted, the dog chased Nieto until the young man was forced to take refuge on a nearby bench.
Nieto was angry at the dog’s inattentive owner, and the pair got into an argument during which Snow used a racist slur. While the confrontation soon ended, Nieto was, furthermore, clearly distressed by the encounter. In fact, when two other different dog walkers passed him not long afterwards, they could see that he was rattled.
For reasons that remain unclear to this day, these two men – Tim Isgitt and Justin Fritz – deemed Nieto’s behavior so disturbing that they decided to contact the police. And though no one knows for sure, it’s possible that Nieto’s clothing was part of the problem.
That day, Nieto was dressed in black trousers, a white t-shirt and a red jacket. But although red is sometimes associated with the violent Norteño gang, Nieto’s jacket simply reflected his support of football team the 49ers. Additionally, Nieto was wearing a taser in a holster, the weapon being one that he carried for his shifts as a bouncer.
Apparently, Isgitt mistook the taser for a gun and told Fritz to contact the police. Less than 20 minutes later, then, two officers arrived to confront Nieto, who had continued obliviously on his way. According to one of the policemen, Richard Schiff, he called out to Nieto, asking the man to show the officers his hands.
Nieto allegedly refused, however, instead drawing his taser and pointing it at Schiff and his colleague, Jason Sawyer. The officers claim that they mistook the object’s red light for a laser sight and assumed that Nieto had a gun in his hands. Schiff and Sawyer subsequently drew their weapons and emptied them in Nieto’s direction.
Soon they were joined by two more officers, Nate Chew and Roger Morse. Claiming to have seen the muzzle flash of a fired gun, the arrivals also opened fire. Nieto, then, fell to the ground, his body punctured by some 14 bullets. And although an ambulance came to the scene, the young man was already dead.
It would be almost two years before the case was brought to trial. During that time, Nieto had come to be a symbol for protest in the city. As the tech boom brought in rich, predominantly white incomers, many who had grown up in neighborhoods such as Bernal Heights felt dispossessed and ignored.
To many, Nieto’s death had been an avoidable tragedy – the result of a conflict based purely on the color of his skin. Not surprisingly, Refugio and Elvira sought compensation from the police. And when the trial finally began on March 1, 2016, citywide protests and demonstrations marked the event.
Many twists and turns would come to characterize the case. First, witness Antonio Theodore claimed to have watched as Schiff and Sawyer shot Nieto without provocation. However, under intense cross-examination by attorney Margaret Baumgartner, he appeared to change his story.
Other evidence, meanwhile, seemed to contradict itself, too. While one expert claimed that Nieto’s taser had been off and thus could not have emitted a red light, photographs apparently showed that the weapon had been discharged. What’s more, the coroner was able to determine that Nieto had been wearing glasses, and this appeared to contradict earlier evidence given by Officer Schiff.
Throughout the trial, Nieto’s family and friends were present. Elvira even took to the stand, in fact, to tell the jury how devastated she was at the loss of her son. The jurors were apparently unmoved, however; and on March 10 they delivered their verdict.
Despite the fact that Nieto’s body had been riddled with bullet holes and that witnesses had reported indiscriminate fire, the jury still ruled that the police officers present had not used excessive force. Schiff, Sawyer, Chew and Morse walked free, while the Nietos – and their community – were left to grieve.
Today, San Francisco remains a city divided, as gentrification continues to push out those who have lived there for generations. Meanwhile, protesters and civil rights groups still accuse the police force of racial bias, citing the unnecessary deaths of Nieto and many others. And, in among this chaos, Refugio visits his son’s memorial every day, paying tribute to a life that ended far too soon.