Alex Nieto was shot at 59 times and killed by San Francisco Police at Bernal Hill Park off Folsom Street on March 21, 2014. A lot of folks know the story of Nieto, a 28 year-old San Francisco City College scholarship student who died in the neighborhood where he was born and raised. Nieto was killed on Bernal Hill, in Bernal Heights, a historically-Latino neighborhood next to The Mission District. New residents to Bernal Hill, who also worked in the tech industry, called the police on him because they thought he was acting strange after one of their dogs attacked him.
A hungry Siberian Husky running around with no leash smelled Nieto’s burrito lunged at him. Nieto, who had his security guard taser, reportedly told the guy to come get his dog, or else. The argument set off a 911 call made by another tech worker. The police killed Nieto four minutes after the call. Nieto’s parents filed a Federal Civil Rights lawsuit against the City of San Francisco, which The City won, leaving his family with nothing.
On The Hill: I AM ALEX NIETO is a new hip-hop theater piece I wrote about the death of Alex Nieto. I didn’t know Alex personally, but his best friend and mentor Ben Bac Sierra is a poet and activist in the Mission, who I have performed with several times at local venues over the years. Bac Sierra and local attorney-artist Adriana Camarena invited me to join the Justice 4 Alex Coalition activities very soon after Nieto’s death in March 2014. On The Hill is a collaboration with Loco Bloco, the Mission- based performing arts and liberation group who combine hip -hop, funk, and Brazilian samba with violence prevention, activism, and cultural healing. Pedro Gomez from the group Bayonics, the musical director of Loco Bloco Ensemble, wrote the music for the piece.
I wanted to write On The Hill because police are continuing to murder people of color without being held accountable or even charged. These times and our conscience demands we remember and record these stories and struggles. Alex Nieto’s death and the subsequent Federal Civil Rights trial in March 2016 exposed the corruption in the San Francisco police department and at City Hall.
But it also let us hear the whole story of why the police killed Nieto. The truth was exposed. The play focuses on the story of Nieto’s death and how it made the young people of the neighborhood feel when one of their own can so easily be killed by the police , who then assaulted Nieto’s character and called him crazy. As if he deserved to be shot at 59 times. We write and sing and dance, and pray to resurrect our ancestors; doing this production gives additional life to Alex Nieto’s story, and extends it past the incident on Bernal Hill.
Alex you were a good friend
It hurts our hearts the way it had to end
But we won’t rest
until we get justice
Your spirit and your love guides us
On The Hill is based on the testimony of real people who knew Alex, his friends and family, the San Francisco City Attorney, and Public Defender. We interviewed more than 30 people, including witnesses to his life and death, to create the script. Twenty young writers and artivists from Loco Bloco’s Artivist Program have been apprenticing with me since July 2015, learning how to make interviewed based hip-hop theater. We rap for justice, but we are too pissed off to be making a musical. Pedro Gomez and I wrote a song for the production about Alex inspired by the only witness who saw Nieto’s shooting, Antonio Theodore, singer for the group Afrolicious. Theodore is also co-writing the song “Alex You Were A Good Friend.” The stage production has a Latin funk reggae score consisting of empowering, defiant songs. Meanwhile, Afro-Latino dance represents the neighborhood’s polycultural traditions and activist roots. Co-director Eric Reid is black and Puerto Rican and a former Baltimore Police officer, as well as final owner of CellSpace before he was evicted last year. The Loco Bloco ensemble band, and dancers and spoken word are also highlights of the show.
This is my third play documenting powerful events connected to gentrification in the Mission District over the last 25 years. My last play PLACAS: The Most Dangerous Tattoo was about the clika on 20th Street and their neighborhood war with 24th Street—how they came together through the process of laser tattoo removal and therapy. On The Hill is also about the neighborhood around Bernal Heights. We used to go up to Bernal Hill Park to get wasted when we were younger. We had sex there, dreamt upon the stars, and wondered at the Mission District lights below us shining like birthday candles. Alex Nieto was a Buddhist and used to chant Na Myoho Rengekyo at on Bernal Hill. They killed him in the place he went to meditate. The police claimed Nieto pointed his taser at them. But how? If he was holding a burrito, and his other hand was in his jacket pocket when he was shot. More people have been shot and killed by police since then. We remember them all.
I’ve been to a few neighborhood funerals. I walk with angels on the street, just like Chance. You know you are from The Mission when you recognize that the “placas”, and nicknames on the wall next to RIP were your neighbors, the kids in school, the kids you met in juvie, the dudes I played basketball with at Dolores Park, or took Capoeira, painted a mural. Everybody’s always going through something in the hood; everyone has lost someone. You say “one love,” when you see those names. Because you share that. You say, Ashé. Ometeotl. El es dios. Amen for your dead. Who else is going to remember them? Not these urban pioneers. Not these urban safari tourists.
The Mission is a spirit more than just a place, a style or accent, though. On The Hill lets the young people in the cast feel that resilient spirit, hopeful spirit as their stories connect to Alex Nieto’s life. In the play, they learn about Nieto from his immigrant parents, his girlfriend, his best friend. They learn about the police shooting and then they become involved in the movement to get justice for Nieto through the Civil Rights trial. They learn the truth about what happened. The play is part of a movement demanding a memorial bench and plaque be put at Bernal Hill Park in Alex Nieto’s name. The City is considering whether they will allow a memorial to be placed where he was shot by police. The City won’t pay for it, though. We have to convince Mayor Ed Lee to let us honor Nieto’s life. We hope the power of On The Hill will attract attention to the issue and remind City Hall about our love for Alex Nieto.
Come hear how their lives matter. Come join the movement for justice for Alex Nieto. Help us keep fighting for our neighborhood to remain ours. Help us get a memorial bench in his name. We are not going to forget how a young man from our neighborhood was brutally murdered by four San Francisco police officers. We keep on fighting. Keep on marching. We won’t give up.
Loco Bloco Presents:
On The Hill: I AM ALEX NIETO
Written and Directed by Paul S. Flores
Co-directed by Eric Reid.
October 27-30, 2016 – 7:30pm
Brava Theater Center: 2781 24th Street, SF CA 94110
For tickets & info: www.brava.org
Tix: $13 advance, $20 door
More about my work: www.paulsflores.com