Four hours in Mendell Plaza

Pub date March 28, 2012
WriterYael Chanoff
SectionPolitics Blog

Everyone stops what they were doing and ducks behind the plastic tables set up on the sidewalk. Flyers and  packaging rustle in the wind. There’s no yelling or chaos, but three police cars speed onto the scene from three different directions. 

I had been at Feed the People Day all of thirty seconds before gunshots were fired.

Feed the People Day, an international effort in which people get together to share food in black and poor communities from Australia to South Africa, was on its fourth year, and organizers from Bayview were joining in. 

A few minutes after the gunshots, we all get up from behind the table. “God is good,” one volunteer says. “That could have been us.”

The volunteers get back to serving food.

“It’s a typical day in the life,” says Jameel Patterson, one of the volunteers serving food. “Not every day. But every so often.”

They chose to set up at Mendell Plaza. It’s full of people, a common place to spend free time. It’s next to the Bayview Opera House, which holds frequent events, as well as a complex that includes a gym, elementary schools, a playground, and a 300-person auditorium. Those buildings don’t hold many events, though—they’re mainly used for storage by the school district.

Mendell Plaza is directly off the T train, whose installation was supposed to bring prosperity and foot traffic to Bayview. But most of the businesses on the few blocks surrounding the plaza are still boarded up. And this T stop has become well known for a different reason: it was here that Kenneth Harding, Jr, exited the train July 16, ran away after police asked for his transfer, got shot in the back and died.

And it was in Mendell Plaza that police stood around the bleeding Harding for 30 minutes, allegedly denying him medical care, before he died.

Tracey Bell-Borden, one of the organizers of Bayview’s Feed the People Day, wants to rename the spot Kenneth Harding Jr. Plaza. 

Fly Benzo, a musician and college student who has become well known after speaking out for Harding and a subsequent arrest–again at Mendell Plaza– while filming police, was a block away when the shots were fired. He was trying to take a young girl that he was looking after inside the gym to play. It was, inexplicably for a Sunday afternoon, locked.

“It’s never open,” said Benzo. “Where are we supposed to take our kids so they can be inside?”

The police, whose lightning-quick response time implies that they had a tip—according Patterson, it generally takes them 15 to 17 minutes to respond to gunshots– haven’t found a gun yet. Most of them are standing around three teenagers who, bystanders insist, were on the sidewalk doing nothing when the gunshots went off. The police run their IDs and take them to jail; probably on a gang injunction. 

20 minutes have gone by before a cop drives up to the tables. “What organization are you with?” he asks.

Bell-Borden replies, “the Kenneth Harding Foundation.” Denika Chatman, Harding’s mother who moved to San Francisco after his death to try and find out more details surrounding its circumstances, asks “do you have a contribution?” the cop gets back in his car and speeds off. 

“They didn’t want to know, is anyone here hurt? Are you guys OK?” says Patterson.

One man says he saw the smoke when the shots went off, directly behind him. The police rolled right past.

Patterson tells a story of the past Friday night, when lots of people had been out in Mendell Plaza. When one teenager who was playing with a remote control car accidentally steered it onto the street, a police officer pulled up and ran his ID.

Despite some dangers, neighbors continue to congregate in Mendell Plaza, and Bell-Borden says she is planning on turning Feed the People Day into a monthly event; the next date will be April 15.

Dewayne Isaacs, a community organizer who grew up in the Fillmore and Haight-Ashbury and had several Black Panther relatives killed in the 70s, says he, for one, will keep coming back for it.

“It’s us Bay Area natives,” says Isaacs. “We always fight back.”