San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee spoke by telephone Thursday with a group of people holding a hunger strike in an effort to force him to fire police Chief Greg Suhr, but the mayor would not comply with their demands.
The hunger strikers, who have been dubbed the Frisco 5, have called for Suhr to be fired in response to recent police shootings of black and Latino men, including ones that caused the deaths of Alex Nieto, Mario Woods, Amilcar Perez-Lopez and Luis Gongora.
The chief has also overseen the department when racist text messages by officers have been revealed, among other scandals.
According to the hunger strikers, Lee told them he stood behind Suhr's record.
"The Frisco 5 told him that their blood would be on his hands," the group said Thursday afternoon in a statement, indicating that the hunger strike would continue.
Lee spokeswoman Christine Falvey said the mayor contacted the group to tell them that he respects their right to protest but hopes they will not harm themselves.
Falvey said the mayor had hoped to have a dialogue about police reforms now underway within the department, but one of the hunger strikers, Ilyich Sato, said he was only interested in talking about firing the chief.
"He let the group know that reforming the Police Department is bigger than any one chief and that this chief, mayor and police commission are fully embracing and leading the efforts to reform the department with the community and under the full review of the U.S. Department of Justice," Falvey said in an email.
In a news conference Thursday morning, the five protesters said that in the 15th day of their hunger strike and vigil sleeping outside the Mission Police Station, their health is suffering. The group, which looked visibly worn and subdued Thursday, is consuming only liquids including coconut water and some juice.
Ike Pinkston said he and fellow hunger striker, Edwin Lindo, a Board of Supervisors candidate for District 9, have both collapsed. Sellassie Blackwell was taken to the hospital Wednesday for tests after doctors expressed concern.
"I've lost 20 pounds already and I didn't have 20 pounds to lose in the first place," Lindo said.
"But we want people to know we are incredibly serious about this, we are incredibly serious about what we stand for, we are here to get the justice that San Francisco deserves," he said.
Pinkston said the thought of his two young sons helped motivate him, as did the sight of community members coming together in support of the protest.
"It's totally worth it," he said. "I'm not doing this just for myself, if I was doing this just for myself it wouldn't be worth it."
While the mayor and Suhr have emphasized that they are working on multiple reforms in the police department, including a review of use of force policies and improved training for officers, as well as enforcement of bans on racist language and behavior, the protesters on Thursday said reform was not the point.
"We don't care about the reforms, we want him out of there," Sato said.
"We don't have nothing personal against Greg Suhr, we don't care about Greg Suhr, we care about his record, we care about what he has done," Blackwell said. "This isn't a personal vendetta against Ed Lee and Chief Suhr. If we were in the position to do what they have done on their jobs, we would be fired."
The group has demanded a meeting with the mayor, but refused to speak with him when he arrived at the Mission Police Station without warning on Monday, calling his behavior "disrespectful" and aimed only at forestalling a planned march and protest on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, a group of around 800 to 1,000 people marched to City Hall and attempted to meet with Lee, but he was not there. They then interrupted a Board of Supervisors meeting, causing the meeting to go into recess for hours.
The group also marched to a planned forum involving Suhr and Public Defender Jeff Adachi Tuesday evening, prompting Suhr to cancel his appearance, citing security concerns.
The protesters are being monitored by a team of around a dozen doctors and medical students from the University of California at San Francisco.
Dr. Rupa Marya, a professor of medicine at UCSF, said she organized the medical coverage through the university's Clinica Martin Baro, which provides medical care to low-income and undocumented residents, and has been contacted by many other doctors and medical students interested in volunteering their time.
Marya said that the liquids being consumed by the hunger strikers were not enough to prevent them from suffering the effects of starvation, which can cause permanent damage even if the person starts eating again.
As physicians, she said that she and other doctors could not ethically force the hunger strikers to eat against their will but would do everything in their power to keep them healthy short of that.
"I really hope the mayor can take this seriously and that the people of San Francisco can take this seriously and make time to have a respectful and substantive discussion with these people," Marya said.