The Death of Kathryn Steinle: Turning Tragedy into Racist, Anti-Immigrant Hysteria

On the evening of July 1, 2015, a young woman named Kathryn Steinle was shot in the chest while walking with her parents on San Francisco’s Embarcadero.  She died shortly thereafter and police arrested Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, a 45-year old undocumented immigrant. He has since been charged with murder.

While Lopez-Sanchez had no apparent connection to Steinle of any kind and he stated that he accidentally fired a gun he found under a pier bench, practically from the moment of his arrest he’s been the target of demonization and his guilt for murder has been treated by the media and various politicians as a foregone conclusion. Far worse than the rush to judgment on Lopez-Sanchez has been an effort by the media and politicians (both Republican and Democrat) to use these events to put ALL immigrants on trial.

Politicians like Jeb Bush, Diane Feinstein and Hillary Clinton, among many others, wasted no time after the shooting to get on record attacking San Francisco’s Sanctuary provisions which are considered to be among the strongest in the country.  Clinton told CNN, “I have absolutely no support for a city that ignores the strong evidence that should have been acted upon”.  Feinstein sent a letter to San Francisco’s mayor Ed Lee stating, “I strongly believe that an undocumented individual, convicted of multiple felonies and with a detainer request from ICE, should not have been released.”  Jeb Bush called for the withholding of funds from cities that don’t work with immigration agents. This piling on of attacks on Sanctuary was accompanied by repeated hysterical assertions that San Francisco’s Sanctuary law allowed a “dangerous felon” back on the streets!

San Francisco’s Sanctuary law has been one of the few bright spots in the life of immigrants providing some measure of relief from the horrific effects of what has been a sustained war against them for daring to come to this country to escape the economic devastation of their home country – largely due to their plunder by this country. The United lettucewarsStates likes to pride itself on its “standing up for freedom” and “welcoming immigrants”. The truth is, quite literally, the opposite!

Millions of people in this country have been denied documents as part of a system that thrives on cheap, vulnerable labor.  The “Secure Communities” law passed earlier in Obama’s administration empowered police to arrest and hold undocumented people for even the most minor offenses and turn them over to the immigration authorities for detention and deportation. The resulting deportations, detentions family separations created a widespread climate of terror in immigrant communities. It also provoked opposition from employers who depend on immigrant workers.  Outcry and protests of these conditions helped bring about measures like Sanctuary laws in cities (there are an estimated 300 cities with such laws) and the Trust Act on the state level in California, that aim to place a wall between police and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and protect immigrants, arrested or convicted of non-violent offenses from being deported.

Ironically, after the racist murders at a Bible study class in South Carolina perpetrated by Dylan Roof, an avowed white supremacist, politicians of every stripe fumbled over themselves to make sure we understood that this was the act of a single, mentally ill individual (and that no generalizations can be drawn from it). Similarly, as there has been an epidemic of police murders of black and brown youth, politicians and media have been sure to call this the act of a ‘few bad apples’ and no systemic change was called for. Now, with this single shooting, those same politicians can’t race in front of a camera fast enough to exclaim how this crime is really about immigrants and immigration.

Neither in the numerous articles written in mainstream media nor from the outpouring of “outrage” vomited from the mouths of establishment politicians, has there been reference to the fact that in the U.S. today people like Lopez Sanchez are arrested and detained, sometimes for years, by the hundreds of thousands! This was not always the case.  It wasn’t until 1996 under Clinton’s administration with the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIIRIRA) that large numbers of people crossing the border began to be detained. Today, a staggering 400,000 immigrants a year (in 2012 it was 477,000) are imprisoned in an ever growing number of jails and private detention facilities — about 75% of them for crime of “unlawful entry” or repeated “unlawful entry”.  More recently detention camps for women and children have proliferated as tens of thousands of mothers and children have fled horrific conditions in Central America and are being held in detention camps notorious for wretched and oppressive conditions.  No country in the world imprisons immigrants on the scale this country does. 

Lopez Sanchez is almost universally referred to as a “repeat felon” with “a long criminal record” and so on.  Rarely is there any mention of what this “criminal record” consisted of – arrests for minor drug offences and for repeatedly crossing the border without papers.  Prior to coming to San Francisco in April, Lopez Sanchez spent most of the last 13 years in three different prisons for the “crime” of crossing the border without the proper documents. After serving nearly 4 years in detention in Victorville for “unlawful entry” to the U.S. he was brought to S.F. on a warrant for a 1995 possession of marijuana charge.  When S.F. Sheriffs found they had no basis to hold him on that charge, he was released.

It was Donald Trump, whose “presidential campaign” began with racist attacks on Mexicans, who got out in front of the pack using Steinle’s death as platform to launch an anti-immigrant message and the time worn chauvinist call to “secure our borders”.  Trump is the bullying billionaire who in the late 1980s spearheaded a lynch mob-like campaign against a group of 14 an 15 year old Black and Latino youth in New York accused of sexually assaulting a young white woman in Central Park.  Only after serving 13 years in prison did the truth emerge that these youth were falsely accused, falsely convicted and jailed but Trump never apologized. Now Trump, as presidential candidate, has become a virtual point man for the ruling class spewing white supremacist poison against immigrants.

The liberal media sometimes criticizes the unabashed racism of Donald Trump but they endlessly repeat his lunacy — like calling people from Mexico “rapists” and “murderers” – and they have given him and his “presidential campaign” a seal of legitimacy.  While Republicans and Democrats alike seek to distance themselves from right-wing nut jobs like Donald Trump, nothing ‘liberal’ Democrats like Hillary Clinton or Diane Feinstein have said in connection with this case is fundamentally different from Trump’s anti-immigrant ravings. They are taking their political talking points from Trump and engaging in a time tested practice of electoral politics. Collecting the votes of an angry and politically disaffected electorate by directing their anger against the most vulnerable in society.

There is something about the timing of this latest frenzy against a community of color that bears comment.   For decades the ruling establishment has kept up the ugly fiction that Black and Brown people, youth in particular, were “criminal elements” thereby justifying the mass incarceration, widespread brutalization and police MURDER.  Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow” helped break through that lie exposing the “war on drugs” and mass incarceration as a conscious assault on Black and Brown communities.  (Keep in mind that aside from “unlawful entry” Lopez Sanchez’ crimes have all been around drugs).  Then Ferguson shattered a terrible passivity and brought thousands of people across the country into active opposition to what Carl Dix has called the “slow genocide” of Black people.  The movement also shined a brighter light on the murder by police of Latino youth and immigrants in places like Los Angeles, Santa Rosa, Half Moon Bay, Oxnard, Salinas, San Francisco in California, and Pasco, Washington. There have been numerous protests and rebellions against the racist and murderous policies of police against immigrants and their children.

Seizing on the tragedy in San Francisco has provided the ruling authorities with a way of diverting the conversation, turning it in the direction they are comfortable with – creating fear and division, making the people, especially people of color, out to be villains and themselves and their murdering police the protectors of the people.  Demonizing someone like Lopez Sanchez and through him Latinos in general is just their cup of tea, especially as we enter election season.

The Trumps, Bushes, Clintons, etc. have jumped on the tragedy in San Francisco with hope of putting the movement for justice and against oppression, police murder and white supremacy on the defensive.  This cannot be allowed to happen.  If the reaction to the shooting in San Francisco shows anything it’s that the movement to end the horrific system of repression against people of color needs to get stronger and broader.  That means also building the movement against this whole capitalist order whose foundation and functioning are deeply embedded and dependent on human exploitation and merciless oppression.

It also means recognizing that so long as this exploitive system of capitalism continues the people will face continuous outrages. There must be a fundamental, systemic, radical, socialist change to bring an end to the nightmare of exploitation, racism and oppression. Despite being told incessantly of the need to make change through the ballot box, the truth is that the kind of change we will need to make will look much more like the festival of struggle in Ferguson, and Baltimore, than forming an orderly queue at the voting booth. This is worth remembering as politicians begin to stoke up division and hatred among the people as we enter the election season.

Bruce Neuburger is a long time political activist, an ESL teacher in San Francisco, Vice President of a CFT Local in San Mateo. He is the author of the book, Lettuce Wars: Ten Years of Work and Struggle in the Fields of California. Published by Monthly Review.

Andy Libson is a high school science teacher at Mission High School, a member of UESF, and on the UESF Executive Board. He is also a member of the reform caucus Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU). He can be reached at: