Why we love Jeff Adachi

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San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, an official portrait

Editorial by Dr. Willie and Mary Ratcliff

Tears flowed throughout San Francisco Saturday, Feb. 23, but especially in its darkest and poorest neighborhoods and encampments, at the painful news that Public Defender Jeff Adachi, our champion, is gone. Jeff was the only official in this city we could trust to fight for us, the Black and Brown and poor San Franciscans being bulldozed out by a city drunk on its wealth and power.

Jeff Adachi was so determined to win the best possible outcome for his clients, not a one of them able to pay him, that he spent countless hours with them, respecting their superior knowledge of their case and situation.

San Francisco’s jails are 57 percent Black, yet Blacks are down to about 3 percent of the population. Those were his clients, and he visited them in their jail cells and wherever they lived – Mayor London Breed remembers him visiting her neighbors as she grew up in public housing. We believe Jeff had faith in London (pardon the first names, but in our part of town, we know them on a first-name basis) to carry on his legacy of compassion and inclusion.

Why do we love him? Primarily because he loved us. In a city where Blacks were never welcome and always pressured to leave, Jeff Adachi knew, he respected and he fought fiercely for Black people, a sense of kinship rooted in his family’s tales of the atrocity of World War II Japanese internment. He poured out his love and all the funds he could find for our children – held annual backpack giveaways so they’d be eager to start the new school year, held book fairs and science fairs to tempt their curiosity, even held proms for youngsters who couldn’t afford the one at school, outfitting them with formal clothes for free.

In a city where Blacks were never welcome and always pressured to leave, Jeff Adachi knew, he respected and he fought fiercely for Black people, a sense of kinship rooted in his family’s tales of the atrocity of World War II Japanese internment.

Yes, he even cared about Black teenagers, the ones with the mean mugs trying to scare you more than you scare them. He put smiles on their faces and hope in their hearts. Remember Tyrell Taylor, one of the four children, ages 12-14, corralled by cops on Martin Luther King Day 2002 on Kiska Road at the top of Hunters Point Hill? The kids were sitting in a parked car, a red car, listening to music at the end of a happy MLK Day barbeque for the whole neighborhood, when cops snatched them out, claiming they were suspects – someone having reported a suspicious red car.

Minutes later, after the four little children, two boys and two girls, were handcuffed, beaten and forced to sit on the curb by eight white cops with guns to their heads, everyone at the barbeque heard the bad news and ran up the hill – parents of the four kids who tried to retrieve them told, “If you move, I’ll shoot you,” as one mother watched a cop slam her little girl on the ground, grinding his knee into her back, then lifting her up by her handcuffs.

“Why are you doing this,” the crowd shouted at the cops, and that’s when we, the people of Bayview Hunters Point, learned for sure what we’d long suspected: San Francisco City Hall’s real “Black policy” is “We want you out of here.” The officer in charge could not have stated it more clearly when he said, “As long as you people are here, we will act like this.” And they have. We ran that cop’s picture on the front page.

“Why are you doing this,” the crowd shouted at the cops, and that’s when we, the people of Bayview Hunters Point, learned for sure what we’d long suspected: San Francisco City Hall’s real “Black policy” is “We want you out of here.” The officer in charge could not have stated it more clearly when he said, “As long as you people are here, we will act like this.”

In our editorial that week – the Bay View was a weekly paper for many years – Dr. Ratcliff described it as the “Third Hand,” Nelson Mandela’s term for a government’s clandestine efforts to destabilize the people it oppresses, writing: “In San Francisco, the Third Hand is trying to drive African Americans out of the city.” He called it “gentrification by terror.”

Another child, Jerome Brown, 14, tall for his age, called out from the crowd, “Take the guns off my li’l cousin,” and as soon as a cop called out, “Take him down,” all eight cops jumped him. When his dad finally talked him out of the police station and took him to the hospital, “His mouth needed stitches inside and out, he’d suffered a concussion, couldn’t stand alone and for a while didn’t know who he was,” the Bay View reported.

That’s the “Black policy” Jeff Adachi fought morning, noon and night. Those children’s families sued the city, infuriating the cops, who took it out on the kids. A few years later, Jerome’s “li’l cousin,” Tyrell Taylor, was chased by police shooting at him as he ran around the buildings in his public housing project looking for an escape. Hitting him several times, they didn’t stop until he’d been taken in by a neighbor and collapsed. The cops had noticed him with an old, rusty gun that wouldn’t shoot.

Every evening for months, Tyrell called us from jail for a shot of courage as jail personnel adopted the cops’ hostility toward a youngster who’d dared to sue them. One shot had gone clear through his hand, and he’d describe the nurse “cleaning” the wound daily, grinding her hand into it with undue pressure to torture him.

His solace was Jeff Adachi, who’d personally taken his case. Jeff visited him often, counseling him like a godfather.

Every evening for months, Tyrell called us from jail for a shot of courage as jail personnel adopted the cops’ hostility toward a youngster who’d dared to sue them. His solace was Jeff Adachi, who’d personally taken his case. Jeff visited him often, counseling him like a godfather.

Jeff, accused after his death of trying too hard to push cases to trial rather than settling them with a plea, ultimately let Tyrell take a plea because in court he’d face a wall of hostility from “law enforcers.” So “li’l cousin” did two years in state prison and, last we heard, was working and doing well.

Our own grandson, when he lived on the Hill, was almost 18 when he was charged with 10 felonies over a misunderstanding. Jeff Adachi assigned one of his stellar attorneys to the case, who eventually won the dismissal of all charges. Without Jeff, our beloved grandson would still be in prison; instead, he and his wife and child live happily in their own home.

Days after Jeff died, Bay View intern Sam Moore quoted Gwen Woods, the mother of Mario Woods, gunned down by an SFPD firing squad on Dec. 2, 2015; Gwen was speaking at a candlelight vigil for Jeff on Feb. 27: “’There are Black and Brown communities,’ Woods said to Mrs. Adachi as she spoke at the podium, ‘that would believe your husband more than they’d believe a pastor.’ Woods spoke of Adachi’s unrelenting support following her son’s murder and urged others to respect and continue his legacy.”

Jeff Adachi seated in his office in 2018 – Photo: Washington Post

We at the Bay View were such fans of Jeff and his work, we tried to run every press release from his office. A couple of recent ones we missed describe his swearing in for his fifth term on Jan. 8 and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ conference in Los Angeles on Jan. 18 that honored him with the prestigious “Champions of Public Defense” Award for his work to reduce or eliminate the need for money bail.

Accepting the award, Jeff said: “We will continue to fight until no one is held in jail before trial simply because they cannot afford to pay their way out. It is time for this draconian penalty to stop being imposed on our indigent clients not yet convicted of any crimes.”

As the only elected public defender in California and one of few nationwide, Jeff was independent enough to fight for a budget equal to the district attorney’s to level the playing field for the poor. In the press release on his fifth swearing in, Public Information Officer Katy St. Clair wrote:

“Since Adachi has been public defender, the office has indeed grown significantly into an entity with over 100 attorneys, 80 support staff and service to more than 20,000 clients each year. His 16-year tenure has brought critical resources to the department, such as computers and sophisticated research tools, as well as paralegals, social workers and a greatly expanded investigation unit.

As the only elected public defender in California and one of few nationwide, Jeff was independent enough to fight for a budget equal to the district attorney’s to level the playing field for the poor.
“Since Adachi has been public defender, the office has indeed grown significantly into an entity with over 100 attorneys, 80 support staff and service to more than 20,000 clients each year,” writes
Public Information Officer Katy St. Clair .

“In addition to boots-on-the-ground resources, Adachi has overseen the creation of the Clean Slate Program, which helps clear the records of approximately 2,000 clients per year. Mayor Breed also praised the office’s MAGIC programs – Mobilization for Adolescent Growth In our Communities – as well as efforts the public defender made to eliminate costly fines and fees associated with clients’ cases, a model that is being replicated nationally, she said. …

“He reminisced about moving into the office’s current location apart from the Hall of Justice, where clients can have the dignity of a space that is no longer directly adjacent to the Police Department. Adachi also said that he was proud to preside over one of the most diverse public defender offices in the country, with a staff that is 40 percent people of color, 20 percent LGBTQ and 50 percent female.” He closed with an important reminder: “A big part of [our work] is ensuring that our kids have opportunities.”

Jeff attended and supported every event in the Black community he could, including the Bay View’s. Here he speaks out on the Bay View’s 40th anniversary, on Feb. 21, 2016, in the SF Main Library’s Koret Auditorium about the Bay View’s contribution and the importance of keeping it alive. – Photo: Harrison Chastang

Jeff’s recent work was moving him closer to head-on conflict with the district attorney, which may be why the current DA chose not to run for reelection. Jeff believed that defending the poor was worth as much as prosecuting the guilty, and when police officers are clearly guilty, especially when they murder poor people, the DA should prosecute them. 

Last May, in response to the district attorney’s decision not to pursue charges against officers in the fatal shootings of Mario Woods and Luis Gongora Pat, an Indigenous man from Mexico, Jeff said:

“A hail of bullets is not an appropriate police response to people suffering mental health crises. In both the Woods and Gongora killings, officers were not in immediate danger when they fired their weapons. The San Francisco District Attorney’s decision not to prosecute any officer on any charge is mindboggling and fails to hold police to the same laws we, as citizens, are expected to abide.

“A hail of bullets is not an appropriate police response to people suffering mental health crises. In both the Woods and Gongora killings, officers were not in immediate danger when they fired their weapons.

“To date, not a single officer in San Francisco has ever been criminally charged as the result of shooting a citizen, yet citizens are charged with crimes every day despite prosecutors being unable to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It is clear prosecutors are using a different standard in judging police officers’ conduct.  The reforms proposed by the Department of Justice’s review are empty promises without officer accountability.”

Now you know why we love Jeff Adachi.

Contact Dr. Willie and Mary Ratcliff, publisher and editor of the SF Bay View, at editor@sfbayview.com or 415-671-0789.

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