My Baby was going to be 24 years old-A 911 Call Meant Death for a Young African-American San Franciscan

POOR correspondent - Posted on 23 June 2010

Leroy Moore and Tiny
Tuesday, June 19, 2001

On Friday, June 15th 2001, I sat in my chair at the Mayor’s Council on Disability under the gold dome of City Hall, listening to a representative of the San Francisco Police Department talk about the first graduation of the new Police Intervention Training. This training is geared to improve the safety and outcomes of police encounters with people with mental illness. However, two days before this meeting, a young African-American man with mental illness became target practice for three White police cops, who fired twenty shots at Idris Stelley, a twenty three year old college student living with mental illness. The shooting took place at the Sony Metreon movie theater in San Francisco while the movie Swordfish was showing.

Idris Stelley knew what many Black men know. He knew that if you are a Black man the quickest way to end your life is to call the police, especially if you’re a Black man with mental illness. From Margaret L. Michell of LA. to Errol Shaw of Detroit, the police have put many Black men and women with mental illness in the coffin. This is why Police departments from Memphis, Tennessee to Los Angeles and now San Francisco, California are forced by community organizations, advocates and parents to get training on how to deal with people with mental illness.

But is the training working? In San Francisco only one officer per station graduated last month from this new training, and only those who volunteer are signed up for this training. After almost two years of fighting, community organizations and advocates convinced the police and city political leaders to make the training a part of SFPD. Idris Stelley knew that the confrontation with police would end up in his death; that is why he told people in the theater to “Go home now,” if they wanted to see their loved ones, because he was going to die. He knew that the police were coming. He even kissed his girlfriend and told her to go home.

Unfortunately he was right, as the confrontation with the six White officers ended up with three officers firing twenty shots at Stelley. According to the San Francisco Examiner, Stelley had a keychain knife and was approaching, trying to stab one of the officers, who had a bulletproof vest on. The article, quoting Homicide inspector Holly Pera of the SFPD, said that the officer had tried to pepper spray him.

“My baby was going to be 24 years old, he had a 4.0 grade point Heald College.. he was a lover of animals and people- they butchered my baby...” Idris Stelly’s mother, Mesha Irizarry spoke at a rally at the Hall of justice on Tuesday, June 19,when I heard her speak those impassioned words, I realized while reading the Examiner article that the only voice I heard was Holly Pera, of the SFPD. What happened to the voice of this mother, who is a dedicated community activist?

“I am extremely upset about what the SFPD did- there were eight officers present- it was wrong”, Summer Galbreath spoke to the crowd while holding back tears,” Summer had told me in an interview the night before that the officers were very rude to her when she asked questions about the shooting, and that they knew about his illness.

“The reports have said that he had a “large knife”... we believe that the investigation will show that the knife was no bigger than this , as he spoke to the crowd, Van Jones, from BayArea PoliceWatch dangled a two inch pocket knife in front of his face for the crowd to see, he continued, “the rush to judgement on the part of the police was wrong, the SFPD training protocol is about escalation”

Why were twenty shots fired over a keychain knife, knowing that the officer had a bulletproof vest on? Were the officers scared of a Black man with mental illness and a keychain knife approaching them? Did they think that a keychain knife could slice open a bulletproof vest, or were they not thinking, just reacting!?

Back in 1999 Margaret L. Mitchell, a Black college graduate who became homeless and mentally ill, was shot by Officer Edward Larrigan in LA. Larrigan claimed he had feared for his safety. Mitchell was 5 feet tall, one hundred and five pounds, her only weapon a foot long screwdriver. In Detroit last year Errol Shaw, a black man who was deaf and mentally ill, was shot to death because he was swinging around a four-foot rake, even though his family was screaming to the police that he couldn’t hear.

The shooting of Idris comes three weeks before a groundbreaking forum entitled Senseless Crimes: Brutality against People with Disabilities. Cases like Idris Stelley’s are why Disability Advocates of Minorities Organization, in conjuction with Crime Victims with Disabilities Initiative, the Coalition on Homelessness and Poor Magazine will be hosting the Senseless Crimes Open Forum. This is only one avenue of educating, empowering and providing a supportive network for our disabled brothers and sisters and their families who have dealt with crimes and brutality. We also need to pressure the San Francisco Mental Heath Board, political leaders and our own Black community to take action politically and at the grassroots level in a proactive way.

Idris Stelley and many other Black women, men and youth with mental illness are screaming for help, but many of us in the Black community also know that we can’t call the police for help. Did the action of Idris prove that 911 is not in the business of protecting us, but will serve to eliminate us!?

A prayer was led by a friend of the family at the rally..Idris's mother, Mesha, spoke the last words to the silent crowd, “ My son is here... he is protecting us... he is watching over us and he wants to make sure that there are changes in the system... so no more children suffer like he did - we don’t want revenge.... we want justice”

Check out the Po' Poets Tribute to Idris Stelley by clicking the Po' Poets button on the front page. (URL "


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