by Jeremy Miller
Typically in this country as the month of December rolls in, people begin to enter a period of gathering. There are ceremonies for various religious traditions: Hanukkah for Jews, Mawlid (the birth of the Prophet) for Muslims, Christmas for Christians, Kwanzaa for New Afrikan culturalists, and of course the inevitable following of Santa Claus for those acculturated to the peculiar faith of Dollarism. It is a time of remembering, and generally preparing for the closure of the old year and the birth of a new one.
But for the last couple of years in San Francisco, the beginning of December has been marked by a bloody tradition: the murder of Black men by San Francisco police.
Two years ago, the City, and indeed the world, was rocked by video of the gruesome and indefensible firing squad-style execution of Mario Woods by five members of the San Francisco Police Department. The community response to the killing led eventually to the termination of then SF police chief Greg Suhr, separate DOJ and Blue Ribbon Panel reports making recommendations for police reform, a new use-of-force policy, and dubious technological initiatives such as the long suggested (and embattled) deployment of body-worn cameras and tasers.
Yet despite all this, the community has still not received any justice or respite from police killings. And just one day before we were set to gather around the family of Mario Woods to remember his life on the two-year anniversary of his killing (he died Dec. 2, 2015), the SFPD shot and killed another of Bayview Hunters Point’s own sons, Keita O’Neil aka Icky Nori Hollister.
Just one day before we were set to gather around the family of Mario Woods to remember his life on the two-year anniversary of his killing (he died Dec. 2, 2015), the SFPD shot and killed another of Bayview Hunters Point’s own sons, Keita O’Neil aka Icky Nori Hollister.
For the sake of coherence, I must begin with a note on the name. Despite the fact that it appears that our brother’s government name was Keita O’Neil, no one ever called him that. His family addressed him as “Kyonte” O’Neil, and all his friends and community knew him as Icky, a name that he gave himself as an adolescent. Thus, out of respect, I will refer to Mr. O’Neil by his chosen name as I describe the circumstances of his life and death.
A child of the streets
Icky and his mama Judy moved into the Bayview in the late 1980s. Icky was around 12 or 13 years old. The neighborhood was in a period of transition both economically and politically.
Economically, the neighborhood, once a nationwide beacon for Black housing and employment, had been devastated by the closure in fits and starts of the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. The shipyard had employed roughly 50 percent of Blacks in the area, and when it closed – a process that spanned roughly 1974-1985 – it became much more difficult for a Black man, let alone a Black woman, to earn a living wage.
Hand in hand with economic disempowerment was political disempowerment. Despite a beautiful resilient Black community, which is still here, the spirit of ‘66 with its Black Power ethos had been largely marginalized and disrupted by urban decentralization, the destruction of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense – remember the Party officially shut down in ‘82 and Huey was killed in ‘89 – and the second Maafa (crack-cocaine epidemic) with its attendant “War on Drugs.”
Those strong positive Black male role models were replaced in large by a population of Black men who were either absent (incarcerated, deceased or just pushed out of the city), unemployed or severely underemployed, and hustlers. Understanding this circumstance is critical to understanding Icky’s life.
Icky got to town when the Black Panther transitioned from a symbol of people’s liberation into a video game. “Icky was a video game junkie!” remembers his close partner Squirrel. The boys used to hang around a burger joint near Hollister Street playing arcade games, and then go around the way to play more at Kelsey’s Corner, a notorious pool hall where all the OGs kicked it. When they weren’t on the video game tip, they would hang out at each other’s houses along with other neighborhood kids.
Icky’s mom had a spot on Third Street above what, at the time, was another burger joint. Being Creole, Mama Judy cooked up a famous gumbo that the boys used to love. Despite a loving home, the street was alluring because that’s where it appeared that you could get what you wanted. And the boys wanted what all the boys wanted. They liked the Reeboks and the Kangols, wanted bikes and later cars.
Being from families that didn’t have a lot of means, Icky and his friends came up on the hustle. And the hustle started innocently enough. Icky would park cars for people during 49ers games at Candlestick, collect cans, any kind of little work that provides a come-up. Sometimes the boys would get out with men from the neighborhood going to the flea-market or Lake Berryessa. Every once in a while they would make it further.
Icky’s friend Squirrel recounts how as teenagers one of them would have a car and they would ride all the way down to Malibu, sitting on telephone books and wearing hats to make themselves look old enough to drive! That was the creativity and beauty of the hustle. As Icky and his partners got older, the hustle changed a little bit, and became less innocent, but Icky always loved and respected his mama.
According to Squirrel: “We bought toys, remote control cars, everything … we was kids, but we hustled, so we was living the kid life, fast life, kinda all mixed into one. We was doing things that grown men couldn’t do and having money that grown men wasn’t having, and we still through it all we still had our morals and loved our mamas and respected our mamas. You know our mamas were single parents so we didn’t have our fathers. So that’s why we really looked up to the hustlers on the streets, because our fathers wasn’t there.”
As he grew up, Icky dreamed of things like owning a nice home, having a wife, driving nice cars, but the hustle – Icky’s primary source of income – had its alligator pits. Eventually in the early 2000s Icky got caught up in some bad decisions and, like so many of our young Black men, wound up incarcerated. He only came back a few years ago.
When Icky got back to his mama’s place, he was older and optimistic. He got a girlfriend and reunited with friends and family. But it was difficult for him to catch a fresh start economically. This is a common difficulty of re-entry. It’s easy enough to say you’re going to turn a new page, but that doesn’t speak to the question of how to make ends meet when no one is trying to offer you a legit living wage.
Nevertheless, for several years Icky tried to maintain a new life. He spent a lot of time on Third Street because Icky loved his community. I met him during this time. I was living off Third Street then and we were rallying around Denika Chatman, whose baby, Kenneth Harding Jr., had just been killed by SFPD. Despite historically not being overtly political, Icky stood with Denika and supported her in her time of grief.
He had an infectious smile. As Squirrel relates: “When he’s a friend, he’s a friend. When he’s with you, he’s with you. When you’re down, when you’re up, when you’re bad … that’s what I can say about Ick, he would never judge a friend. He wouldn’t come hang with you because of what he could get from you. You ain’t gotta have nothing and Icky gonna come hang with you.”
But a grown man needs more than hangin’ for fulfillment. In his last days, Icky spoke about wanting to go down to Mississippi where a step-father figure named Leon had been living, to try and “put his life together.” Also, Squirrel, who has been driving a paratransit bus for a living, long since out of the game, offered him a job opportunity to try and help Icky come up. Unfortunately, for unknown reasons, Icky made a different decision.
Dec. 1, 2017
On the morning of Dec. 1, 2017, San Francisco police responded to an alleged carjacking involving a California state lottery van. The van was apparently stolen from the 1800 block of 23rd Street in the Potrero district of San Francisco by a reportedly unarmed man. By approximately 10:30 a.m., SFPD patrol car 081 began pursuing a white minivan through the Bayview neighborhood which the officers understood to be the vehicle in question.
Icky was driving the white minivan. With officers still in pursuit, Icky turned a corner and wound up at a dead end where Fitzgerald Avenue and Griffith Street meet in the Alice Griffith housing project. Icky got out of the van and attempted to run past the passenger side of the pursuing squad car.
He was visibly unarmed, appeared to be trying to get away, and had no way to effectively harm either officer. Despite these crucial details, the officer in the passenger seat opened fire at Icky through the closed window of the patrol vehicle with a precision shot that struck Icky between his neck and collarbone. This one bullet proved to be the end of Keita “Icky” O’Neil’s life.
Icky was visibly unarmed, appeared to be trying to get away, and had no way to effectively harm either officer. Despite these crucial details, the officer in the passenger seat opened fire at Icky through the closed window of the patrol vehicle with a precision shot that struck Icky between his neck and collarbone. This one bullet proved to be the end of Keita “Icky” O’Neil’s life.
Patrol car 081 was being driven by Officer Edric Talusan operating in the capacity of a field training officer, and his passenger, the killer, was a 28-year-old recent San Francisco Police Academy graduate named Christopher Samayoa. Samayoa was only on his fourth day of field training!
Despite all the fanfare for the introduction of body-worn cameras, neither officer had his body-worn camera activated at the time of the shooting. But Samayoa activated his camera after he fired his service weapon and, due to a feature that records the 30 seconds prior to activation, accidentally captured his murder on bodycam.
Six days later, the SFPD held a “town hall” meeting at True Hope Church of God in Christ (COGIC) during which time this footage as well as other surveillance footage was released alongside a provisional police account of Icky’s death. The majority of those present were outraged at another police murder, with especially moving testimony from Gwen Woods, mother of Mario Woods.
At one point in time an unidentified member of the public asked an important rhetorical question: “I thought you were going to stop using us for training ground?!”
On Dec. 19, a press conference was held during which the Law Offices of John L. Burris, representing Judy O’Neil, Icky’s mom, announced the filing of a federal civil rights lawsuit, and called Icky’s killing “flat-out deliberate, premeditated murder.” In a rare move, Burris announced that his office had petitioned District Attorney Gascon’s office, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice, to press criminal charges against Samayoa.
A civil rights lawsuit will focus on the constitutional violations of Icky’s killing, as well as establishing SFPD policy violations in support of this, e.g. shooting from a moving vehicle, not having body-worn cameras turned on, not taking action to prevent a trainee from committing violations of protocol etc. A criminal probe would go further, taking the appropriate position that Officer Samayoa’s killing of Icky while unarmed and in no position to harm another was a criminal act.
Inevitably the state will fight back against either or both of these positions by trying to assert facts that no one who cares about Icky, up to and including his mama, is trying to dispute, i.e., that he had no business being in that van or that he had a history of hustling. But to leave the question of guilt there is to merely scratch the surface of justice and largely operates in parameters that favor the continuation of our oppression at the hands of SFPD.
I am haunted by the “training ground” question. What about Officer Talusan?
On Feb. 19, 2013, Officer Talusan (the field training officer of Icky’s murderer), gun drawn, attempted to effect the arrest of Antolin Marenco for an alleged auto theft. When Marenco, who believed he was being carjacked, attempted to drive away and crashed, he was beaten mercilessly by multiple officers present – possibly including officer Talusan, though the record is inconclusive on this – to the extent that he nearly was killed. Among other injuries, his neck was essentially broken. On Oct 3, 2014, Antolin died in SF Sheriff’s custody, where he had been held since the beating under questionable circumstances that are still being litigated.
On March 5, 2013, Officer Talusan and three other officers were involved in a situation that was nearly an exact cross between the fact sets of Marenco’s beating and the killing of Icky save the extremely salient fact that the carjacking in question this time involved a suspect who was alleged to be potentially armed with a shotgun. In this case, officers spotted a vehicle without plates that matched the description of the vehicle reported stolen the prior day.
After watching Eddie Tillman enter the vehicle and drive away, these officers pursued him into George Court, a dead end. Using nearly identical verbiage from the Marenco incident, exactly two weeks earlier, the claim was made that this suspect had reversed the vehicle (the presumed threat) and then moved the vehicle forward. This was used to justify Officer Talusan and his partner Officer Rightmire opening fire on Tillman resulting in one non-lethal hit in the left side of his chest. (No mention was made of seeing a weapon!) Among other excuses that DA George Gascon used in justifying this shooting was that Eddie Tillman “posed a grave threat to members of the public on the road” despite the fact that he was driving forward in a cul-de sac with no outlet!
A few months later, in July of 2013, a Bayview resident named David Lloyd was attempting to leave a liquor store in the neighborhood but was obstructed from accessing his bike by three plain-clothes cops who were searching another individual. While attempting to retrieve his bike, he was shoved and thrown to the ground by Officer Charles August – one of the killers of Mario Woods – and then subsequently punched and kicked on the ground by the other officers. Lloyd was handcuffed, but according to his claim the beating continued “for almost four minutes” after that. Surprise, surprise, the lawsuit filed over this beating named Talusan as a defendant.
Thus in less than six months of 2013 Officer Talusan was engaged in three incidents of extreme violence, two involving allegedly stolen vehicles, one where he illegitimately shot a suspect and one in collaboration with a killer of Mario Woods. Due to various court rulings protecting officers’ personnel files, we cannot cite more examples of violence involving Officer Talusan that probably occurred in the subsequent four years prior to Icky’s death. Burris can figure that one out.
Given this information, it seems reasonable to question Talusan’s role in Icky’s killing. Officer Talusan’s body-worn camera was never activated and, because Samayoa’s was not turned on until after the murder, there is no audio.
But given his trainer’s history, should we only be asking why Talusan didn’t stop his pupil? Maybe we should be questioning whether or not he ordered it.
In less than six months of 2013 Officer Talusan was engaged in three incidents of extreme violence, two involving allegedly stolen vehicles, one where he illegitimately shot a suspect and one in collaboration with a killer of Mario Woods. Given his history, should we only be asking why Talusan didn’t stop Samayoa, his pupil? Maybe we should be questioning whether or not he ordered it.
Finally, and perhaps most damningly of all, we must ask what our own role is. How many times have we abdicated our responsibility to brothers like Icky by accepting the promises of an endlessly corrupt City administration, a rotten to the core police department, and a guileless and ethically challenged DA?
Let’s talk about guilt. Yeah, Icky shouldn’t have been in that van. Yeah, Samayoa shot him in cold blood. Yeah, Talusan either let Samayoa shoot Ick or ordered it. That one, we don’t know yet.
What we do know is that the result of letting Icky’s murder go without response is the same result that happens by not continuing to fight for Antolin Marenco or Mario Woods or Jessica Nelson Williams. Another one of us gets killed. They didn’t kill Icky because he was a hustler. They killed Icky because in San Francisco our Black and Brown lives are considered expendable.
James Baldwin comes to mind here: “Guilt is a very peculiar emotion. As long as you are guilty about something, no matter what it is, you are not compelled to change it. Guilt is like a warm bath, or to be rude, it is like masturbation: You can get used to it, you can prefer it, you may get to a place where you cannot live without it, because in order to live without it, in order to get past this guilt, you must act.”
Time to act, San Francisco! Justice for Icky!
End Police Terror NOW! All Power to the People!
Jeremy Miller is co-director of the Idriss Stelley Foundation, part of the POOR Magazine family, member of the San Francisco No-Taser Task Force and a graduate of San Francisco State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.