Gwendolyn Woods Blames San Francisco for Her Son's Death


Days after San Francisco police shot and killed 26-year-old Mario Woods on Dec. 2, 2015, his mother, Gwendolyn Woods, began building a memorial on the patch of sidewalk in Bayview-Hunters Point where he died. It was an effort to, as she put it, "transition the idea of it." 

Photos of Mario smiling, one of him wearing a black Golden State Warriors beanie, hang along the small patch of tan, corrugated fence where police first encountered him. Gwendolyn and her son share the same medium-brown complexion; high cheekbones; heavy-lidded, dark eyes; and bright smile.

A laminated photocopy of Mario's high school diploma, awarded to this mother after his funeral, is taped atop a sign that reads "End the War on Black Lives." Mario's godparents, who live nearby, have planted a flower box below, full of sprouting white calla lilies and small purple plumes of salvias.

On the ground, visitors have spray-painted in black, testifying that Mario "will live in our hearts." "SFPD" — the San Francisco Police Department — is written and struck through. Gwendolyn notes the sidewalk is still stained with her son's blood. If you look carefully, you can see brown smudges in the asphalt a few steps in front of the memorial. 

The place is quiet, an island of calm sandwiched between the Muni streetcar that runs down Third Street, the neighborhood's main thoroughfare, and 29 Sunset, a bus route that cuts across the city's nearly 47 square miles. 

Gwendolyn and her family had called the Bayview area home since her father migrated from Beaumont, Texas, in the 1940s. She now lives two hours away in Sacramento.

Jamilah King/Mic

Mario's death represents another bloody chapter in America's murderous approach to policing in black communities. He was one of 248 African-American men shot dead by police in 2015, 36 of whom were unarmed, according to statistics compiled by the Washington Post. The epidemic of black death has sparked a protest movement nationwide under the banner of Black Lives Matter, which has called for reforms in policing and pressured presidential candidates to address mass incarceration.

But in San Francisco, Mario's death represents not just the disposability of black life, but also its irony in cities reshaped by gentrification. Fueled by growth in the tech industry starting in the mid-1990s, affluent young people have flocked to San Francisco. The city touts new opportunities for wealthy, mostly white young people who want to drive social change.

But the influx of wealth has only magnified the city's racial disparities. It's driven up housing prices from an average of $265,000 in 1994 to $1.25 million in 2015, concentrating working-class black residents into the city's poverty-stricken neighborhoods or prompting them to leave altogether. In Bayview, real estate values skyrocketed 59% in a mere two years, from 2012 to 2014. One recent study from the University of California, Berkeley, found that residents in a majority of the Bay Area's low-income households were at risk of being displaced. As America grows browner, San Francisco — a city that has long celebrated its racial diversity — is getting whiter. Researchers predict that the population will have a non-Hispanic white majority by 2040. Already, the percentage of black residents has slipped from a high of 13% in the 1970s to 6% in 2010.

For longtime and lower-income residents of color like Mario, life is characterized not by the wealth of opportunity, but by the lack of it. Rarely do they get the chance to start over and reinvent themselves. If you are young and black, you're afforded very few mistakes, and even fewer second chances. Starry-eyed entrepreneurs come to San Francisco to dream big dreams and forge a future for themselves. But for the city's disadvantaged, life more often resembles a game of chance.

"When you are a black mother, we live our lives around this roulette spin," Gwendolyn said. "There's one spin that we don't want to hit, and that's to lose our children, whether it's to violence on the street or police violence."

"Unfortunately, for me, it hit," she said.

Gwendolyn Woods

"San Francisco took the best of me."

I was born and raised in San Francisco and lived there sporadically throughout my 20s. In a city where the black population has never topped 13%, it was perhaps inevitable that Gwendolyn Woods and I would know some of the same people. Through a cousin, I discovered shortly after arriving in the city that my aunt Janice was one of Gwendolyn's best friends; they lived next door to each other in the Bayview for 30 years. 

When Gwendolyn and I meet at Frisco Fried, a local soul food restaurant on Third Street, I tell her about our connection. "Janice!" she says, her eyes bright and her smile wide. "You should've told me." Gwendolyn and Janice have lunch every Tuesday at noon, when Gwendolyn drives into the city from Sacramento. 

"Let me see where she is," she says, pulling out her phone. Soon, my aunt is on the line. "You'll never guess who I'm with today," Gwendolyn teases. They talk. She hands me the phone. I talk, then hand it back. "Do you want to meet us down here or should we come and get you?" Before long, we hop in Gwendolyn's car and pull up along Jennings Street, a quiet road of neat two-story homes. Janice comes out, all smiles and hugs, and soon we're off toward the freeway.

Gwendolyn's father bought one of these homes in Bayview in the 1960s, part of the Great Migration of African-Americans fleeing racial segregation in the South. Many were drawn to San Francisco by work in the shipyards, and between 1940 and 1950 the area's population increased fourfold. The neighborhood was working-class and racially segregated by design; the Navy, which owned the Hunters Point shipyard as well as homes for workers, refused to build racially integrated housing on its base. When writer and social critic James Baldwin visited Bayview in 1963, he remarked on the urban blight. "This is the San Francisco America pretends does not exist," he wrote.

De-industrialization made already scarce jobs even harder to find. When the shipyard and shipbuilding facilities closed in the 1970s, much of the neighborhood's housing stock, then owned by the city, fell into disrepair. Bayview has since been one of San Francisco's poorest neighborhoods. 

Gwendolyn grew up in Bayview, and Mario spent some of the happiest years of his childhood there. A local historian of sorts, Gwendolyn once told Mario about the methadone clinic that used to be the Social Security building; the community swimming pool that was shut down and walled off for years after two young boys snuck in one night and drowned; the defunct Coca-Cola plant that once offered jobs in the neighborhood. Laundromats, soul food joints and burger stands dot Third Street. In the last several years, the occasional craft beer shop or cafe has moved in.

"Y'all can keep this," Gwendolyn says of the place where mail carriers still stop her on the street to ask how she's doing. "San Francisco took the best of me," she adds, her eyes welling up as she looks off into the distance. "Mario, he was the best of me."

Gwendolyn, Janice and I pull into Oyster Point Marina, a park about seven miles from the Bayview. This is where Mario and his mother would go to sit by the water and talk about the future. Now, it's where she comes to remember him.

"Where do you put all this hurt?"

Mario Woods was born on July 22, 1989, the youngest of Gwendolyn Woods' three sons. The family, including Mario's father, Michael Woods Sr., moved to Houston when Mario was small, but he continued to spend summers with his grandparents in Bayview. When he was 9, his grandmother got cancer. For a while, Gwendolyn flew back and forth from Houston to help care for her, but to cut travel costs, she and her three sons moved back to Bayview. To make ends meet, she took on two jobs, which meant she spent less time with her kids. Her marriage with Mario's father, who had stayed in Houston, fell apart.

Jeff Stewart Jr., 28, grew up a few doors down from the Woods family in Bayview. The two were so close, they called each other cousins. Mario was one of the smaller kids in the neighborhood, which made him sensitive to being taken advantage of. "If anybody ever tried to 'little bruh' him or act like a bigger person on him, he'd get real mad," Stewart said.

He remembered that Mario would always "stand up for what was right." As kids playing Sega Genesis or River City Ransom on Nintendo, "if somebody was cheating or doing something they wasn't supposed to do, he would go hard about it." 

But he was kind: "Mario just had this perfect smile, had this like perfect twinkle in his eye," Stewart said. "He always just seemed like he could do no wrong."

Derrick Bryson was a teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School who taught Mario's sixth-grade ancient world history class. "He was a good kid, he did his work like he was supposed to, behaved very well," Bryson said, remembering that Mario's favorite project was making scaled replicas of Egyptian pyramids, which he worked on with his mom.

Gwendolyn Woods

As a teenager, Mario produced a short documentary "about now and then in Hunters Point" with Conscious Youth Media Crew, a local nonprofit arts organization. Mario dubbed the documentary, which was uploaded to YouTube in 2010, a project of "Houston2HP" for Bayview-Hunters Point. At more than seven minutes, it's an indictment of the neighborhood's ills.

"It's dirty, man," one young black man tells the camera, describing the "crackheads" and "hookers" who walk the streets. Another talks about the high rate of homicides in the neighborhood. "The kids need something to do to stay off the streets causing all the drama making all the mommas cry because their kids is dying," an interviewee intones. 

Though Mario remains behind the camera during the film, he captured footage of his mother talking about the high rates of cancer in the area. "We talk about all the killings we do amongst one another, and we don't talk about the silent killers in this area," she says, pointing to a nearby power plant. 

While it was active, the Navy shipyard provided plenty of jobs, but also contaminated the neighborhood. It housed a secret lab that tested the effects of radiation on living organisms. After the shipyard closed, the contamination remained, making it one of the country's most toxic sites. The neighborhood is also home to a Pacific Gas & Electric power plant that residents have complained for years is making them sick with headaches, asthma and skin diseases. 

"I can't tell you how many friends of mine I know, [who] lived in this community for years, has cancer," Gwendolyn said. 

Months after the family returned to San Francisco to care for her, Mario's grandmother died. Gwendolyn noticed that her youngest son was more withdrawn after that.

"You're talking about a lifestyle when we were in Houston — the house in Houston, their dad," Gwendolyn said of the consecutive losses her son faced. "All these things, and it's like: What do you do? Where do you put all this hurt when it's in your system?"

At 18, Mario was arrested for felony possession of a firearm after a private security guard patrolling an apartment complex detained him and found a gun in his waistband. During the arrest, he admitted to taking three Ecstasy pills and was transported to San Francisco General Hospital. He was convicted of felony possession of a firearm and served 12 months probation.

Mario was eventually listed along with about 30 others as part of a controversial gang injunction against the so-called "Oakdale Mob," described by the city attorney as a "violent, turf-based, predominately African-American criminal street gang." The city attorney's office said it had existed since the 1990s, boasted 50 active members and was primarily involved in distributing drugs.

Such injunctions — court-issued restraining orders prohibiting alleged gang members from everyday activities like gathering in public — have long targeted black and Latino men; the American Civil Liberties Union found that the injunctions have never been used against alleged members of white gangs in California, despite their documented existence. In Bayview, they have long been sources of tension for residents who say that the line between formal gangs and groups of neighborhood friends is too thin to warrant restraining orders. The ACLU argues that the injunctions "raise a number of civil liberties concerns" by giving police broad powers to label people gang members without providing proof of crimes. Courts have ruled some of the restrictions placed on alleged gang members, including curfews, unconstitutional.

Gwendolyn disputes the idea that Mario was in a gang. "He did have to find solace with those in the neighborhood," she said. "It wasn't a gang or any of that. They were just friends from Bayview, from here."

"Prison did a number on him."

Gwendolyn Woods

Mario got into even deeper trouble in 2008, when San Francisco police officers arrested him after matching his image to surveillance footage of a holdup at a local pool hall. In 2010, he pled guilty to attempted robbery and was sentenced to three years in prison. A sentence enhancement, likely applied because he was among those listed on the gang injunction, added even more time, leaving him with a total of seven years behind bars. 

During his incarceration, Mario sat in some of California's most infamous prisons. He began serving his time at San Quentin, home to the state's death row. After two years, he was transferred to Folsom State Prison, where riots and violence are a regular occurrence. He finished his sentence at North Kern State Prison.

While he was incarcerated, Mario received news that his father had died suddenly in Houston. He was devastated. "My family took so many hits," Gwendolyn said. 

For Mario, the hits kept coming. In 2013, Gwendolyn's fiancé died of a heart attack at the post office where he worked in Bayview. 

Mario's mother tried to keep his spirits up during weekly visits. She encouraged him to look toward the future, when he could settle down, get married, have a family. He seemed to want to change his life for the better, too. A public information officer with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation confirmed that he was involved in self-help and vocational programs while in prison. He also earned his GED.

As Mario's release date approached, his mother hit him with more bad news: She had lost her job, and the family couldn't afford to keep their house in the Bayview. When Mario was paroled in September 2014, he and his family had only months left in the home that had been theirs for generations.

Mario was determined to start a new life after prison, but was deeply depressed at times. "Nobody helped him," Gwendolyn said of her son's release. "[Prison] did a number on him." 

Others noticed, too.

"When he first got out, he was like a shell," Stewart said. "He could still recall things and he still remembered stuff, but the life that he used to have, or the energy that he used to have, it wasn't there."

Gwendolyn and Mario relied on each other for emotional support. She was struggling to find stable employment, working the 7:30 p.m.-to-midnight shift at Target, a job she loathed. "Mario would say, 'Somebody would like that job, though, Mom,'" Gwendolyn said. "I knew that I needed him really to keep me grounded, and I knew that [he needed] me to keep him grounded."

Slowly, Mario began to seem like himself again. By early 2015, he had gotten a job packing lunches and dinners for Meals on Wheels, a charity that delivers food to the elderly. He studied for and earned a driver's license, then saved up to buy a used Pontiac Trans-Am. Though he'd gotten his GED in Folsom, in July 2015 he completed high school and earned his diploma.

"He was a very determined person to get his education, even though he had many starts and stops," said Steve Good, executive director of Five Keys, the charter school from which Mario graduated. "It was important for him — for his mother — to complete his high school diploma."

But Mario continued to struggle. "I think that it's in the public domain right now that he was battling substance abuse issues," Good said.

Mario spent his last Thanksgiving with his mother and brothers in Sacramento before coming back to San Francisco to stay at a cousin's place in Bayview. He'd landed a job with UPS, which he was slated to start on December 3.

"They shot him dead."

On Wednesday, December 2, police at Bayview Station received reports that a 26-year-old man had been stabbed while eating inside of a car. Several officers who were on patrol spotted Mario and confronted him. According to police, he then pulled a kitchen knife out of his pocket and said, "You're not taking me today." A crowd gathered as police drew their weapons. "You better squeeze that motherfucker and kill me," Mario said, according to a report officers wrote that was obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle

One video that was distributed widely on Instagram shows Mario crouched against a wall in tan pants, a dark-colored jacket and a baseball cap. He drags his feet as he stumbles away from officers. "Just drop it, please!" one witness yells from inside a bus nearby. At least half a dozen officers stand in front of him with their weapons drawn. Mario throws his hands up and looks toward them before staggering away.

An officer fires a small beanbag in his direction. Seconds later, another steps in front of him and begins firing his gun, setting off a cascade of bullets from other officers at the scene. Mario falls to the ground. Passengers on the bus scream, "Oh my God!"

The medical examiner later found that Mario was shot 20 times, including six times in the back, twice in the buttocks and twice in the back of the head. The report also notes that Mario had traces of drugs in his system, including methamphetamine, marijuana, antidepressants and cough medicine.

Mario's childhood friend Stewart was one of scores to see the video, which has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube.

"He was just trying to find somebody that he knew so he could get some help," Stewart said. "He's from that neighborhood. He grew up in that neighborhood since he was a little baby. It's people in that neighborhood that know him. It's people in that neighborhood that would have helped him if they'd seen him in some kind of distress."

Gwendolyn tried not to watch the video. But one day while the Tavis Smiley show was on TV, a clip of it aired before she could grab her remote control. "That's my baby," she thought.

"There is no racism in the police department, but there are members who are racist."

Mario's death quickly became national news. As San Francisco geared up to host its first Super Bowl in three decades, hundreds of people marched through the streets to protest Mario's death, which they said was unnecessary and racially motivated. Whether or not Mario committed the stabbing earlier that day, they said, he posed no danger at the time of his murder. "It was a modern-day lynching," said Frank Williams, a member of the Justice for Mario Woods Coalition, a collection of 30 local organizations that convened to protest his death. Beyoncé's dancers posed for a photo while holding a sign that read "Justice for Mario Woods" after the singer's Super Bowl performance.

The five officers who fired at Mario — Winson Seto, Antonio Santos, Charles August, Nicholas Cuevas and Scott Phillips — were given six weeks of paid administrative leave, after which they returned to work. 

City officials maintain that the shooting was justified. "People are screaming, 'Justice for Mario Woods,' but you have to understand that less than 30 minutes before this, he stabbed a man unprovoked," one officer told the San Francisco Chronicle. "We don't go out looking for color — we go out looking for criminal activity. We are not out there racial profiling."

But racism on the force is something the department has been loathe to acknowledge even when evidence shows it exists. In the last two years, the San Francisco Police Department has been embroiled in two scandals over racist text messages officers sent among themselves. In one, an officer wrote that "niggers should be spayed." Another referred to black people as "a pack of wild animals on the loose." The San Francisco Examiner reported that one member of the department said he "only transferred to the station to 'kill niggers.'" The station that the officer was referring to was Bayview.

In July, a panel of experts tasked with investigating the text messaging scandal released a report excoriating the SFPD. The report issued 72 findings, criticizing the department and its union for "function[ing] like a 'good old boys' club,' making it difficult to impose discipline." The panel recommended that the force implement mandatory trainings to help officers recognize their racial biases. One retired officer told investigators, "I can say with confidence that there is no racism in the police department, but there are members who are racist."

Gwendolyn has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and county of San Francisco, as well as the five officers involved in Mario's shooting. The suit calls his death a "horrific public execution" that represents an "entrenched culture and posture of deliberate indifference toward protecting citizens' rights." The lawsuit, as well as police investigation into Mario's death, is ongoing. 

"I just wanted to put everything back together like it was."

Gwendolyn knows that, over time, the media attention will fade, that the press conferences will dwindle, that the memorial she tends to may disappear. She knows the world forgets about black men like her son. She's hardened herself to that, but pledges to keep his memory alive.

As we drive into Oyster Point Marina, these things weigh on Gwendolyn's mind. We park near the shore and don't say much. It's an unseasonably warm day; the sun reflects off of the water ahead. This is where she used to come with Mario, where they'd talk about the uncertainty of the future, their plans and struggles. Uncertainty would be a relief now. Now, there's just the single fact that can't be changed: Mario is gone. 

To mark what would have been Mario's 27th birthday on July 22, Gwendolyn organized a series of events, including a party at a community center in the Bayview. She made sure that the events were open and accessible to the community. City supervisors declared July 22 Mario Woods Remembrance Day. 

But even in her most optimistic moments, Gwendolyn is galled by the city that betrayed her.

"The only thing that just always hits me hard is that I just wanted to put everything back together like it was, and what San Francisco didn't allow me to do was that," she tells me. "They shot him dead."