Chuck Prophet decided he had had enough. A federal jury in San Francisco had just exonerated four police officers in a wrongful death civil rights lawsuit, ruling the officers had not used excessive force in the killing of Alex Nieto two years earlier. Nieto was a 28-year-old native of San Francisco eating a burrito and chips on a bench in his neighborhood when he was killed by police responding to a 911 call to report someone “menacing.” The ruling seemed to represent a distillation of the economic, cultural and demographic changes threatening to tear Prophet’s city apart.
So singer-songwriter Prophet did what he does best, the one thing he felt he could do that could make a difference and express the outrage felt by those suffering the negative consequences of the latest San Francisco tech boom. He recorded a song.
San Francisco is a city defined by change. The old joke is that for non natives, the city will never again be as great as when they first arrived. But even with that as a backdrop, what is happening to San Francisco today – the gentrification, the displacement, the exclusion – is unprecedented and unnerving.
Since the nadir of the Great Recession and with the advent of the current tech boom, San Francisco has added 50,000 new residents, seemingly all of them exceptionally well paid tech bros and broettes who as often as not display an overt sense of entitlement that has done little to endear them to the natives.
The influx of so many new residents with such high average incomes is bound to cause conflict. And gentrification and displacement are fundamentally and tragically upending peoples’ lives. “But hey, these are good problems to have, at least we’re not Detroit” is a common retort from the haves about the plight of the have nots, displaying a level of empathy only the privileged can muster. Beyond the economic disparity, beyond the countless evictions, it is this attitude, this clash of cultures, that San Franciscans are so passionately reacting to and fighting against.
While the extent of displacement and its effect on peoples’ lives is anything but trivial, occasionally this inexorable, slow-moving calamity is more immediate and visceral.
As was the case in 2014 when Alex Nieto – a son, a brother, a student, a Buddhist, a community volunteer, a contributing member to society, and a San Francisco 49ers fan – was gunned down by police in the neighborhood he grew up in because a couple of the aforementioned tech bros who were new to the area thought he looked hostile. And when the police arrived they claimed he was wearing his gang colors, a red Norteños jacket. The fact that nearly every other adult male in San Francisco wears a red 49ers jacket identical to what Nieto wore that day was apparently beyond their powers of observation. Claiming they thought his taser was a gun (he was a bouncer at a nightclub with a license to carry and use,) and that he was acting “menacingly,” the four officers fired 59 rounds at him. Just another Brown Lives Matter tragedy in the City by the Bay.
When the federal grand jury exonerated those four officers, Prophet felt compelled to respond. A long-time observer and commenter on the tribulations of his adopted city (“San Francisco is nothing like it was back in ‘83”) and among the few artist for whom a “protest song” remains the obvious way to express outrage and indignation, he resolved to do what he could to spread the word, make the greatest impact, and give musical voice to the outrage, frustration, and hopelessness felt by so many in today’s San Francisco.
So, while members of the Latino community and many civil rights activists were marching through San Francisco’s Mission District to the Hall of Justice in protest, Prophet and his cowriter Kurt Lipschutz hunkered down in Prophet’s South of Market “office” and hammered out a song, acutely aware of the weight of their responsibility to honor Alex Nieto’s memory.
Coincidently, Prophet had previously booked a session the following day at local producer Matt Winegar’s new studio in his garage in Oakland. (The resulting sound could only have originated in a garage.) “When I got there I picked up an acoustic and sang it to Matt,” Prophet stated in a recent newsletter. “Then, he simply handed me his Gibson Les Paul and got behind the drums. We passed instruments back and forth and within a couple hours we had a track.”
The result, ‘Alex Nieto,’ is extraordinary. A black blast of emotion expressed through distorted guitars and outraged lyrics. Sonically, it evokes a grungy Neal Young. Thematically, it echoes CSN&Ys ‘Ohio.’
Indeed, it conjures up a time when the response to an event like this was expected to be a song. A song of outrage. A song of condemnation. A song that distilled the anger and indignation at the injustice of yet another life senselessly taken:
Alex Nieto was a pacifist, a 49ers fan
He left for work one day at 4:15
He never made it home again
The protest song is not new to Prophet. As early as 2004’s Age of Miracles he recorded ‘West Memphis Moon,’ a song about the unjust conviction of three teenagers who, in 1994, were tried and convicted of the murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas (and who were ultimately exonerated in 2011when the courts could no longer ignore DNA evidence of their innocence.)
Arguably, Prophet’s entire ¡Let Freedom Ring! album is a protest. Nearly every song chronicles the psychological and emotional fallout from the 2008 financial crisis. The title track takes on the 1%: “Let there be markets let em run wild / As the sisters of mercy just laugh / All the lost brothers can drink themselves blind / While good fortune breaks hard work in half.”
And Temple Beautiful, Prophet’s paean to San Francisco, features both ‘Castro Halloween’ and ‘White Night, Big City,’ songs that document shootings at the annual Halloween party in the San Francisco’s Castro District in 2006 and the assassination of Supervisor Harvey Milk at City Hall in 1978.
Perhaps Prophet’s most poignant and moving protest song is ‘Dyin’ All Young’ from,The Hurting Business, a restrained lament for yet another life, a friend’s life, lost too early to drugs.
So, while Prophet’s penchant for social commentary is long lived, ‘Alex Nieto’ is different in both its timing and its intensity. Written and recorded within days of the federal jury’s findings, it bristles with outrage and indignation. It distills the frustration, the resentment, the rage of San Franciscans who see their city’s culture and values being evicted along with its tenants. As such, it is a powerful cultural artifact, a vital reflection of the times, on par with Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What It’s Worth,’ or Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Fortunate Son’ or Bob Dylan’s ‘Hurricane,’ or the aforementioned ‘Ohio.’
And it reinforces the belief that nothing, nothing, can communicate the cultural zeitgeist as well as a protest song.
If you want to read more about the Alex Nieto story, Rebecca Solnit wrote a comprehensive, if dispiriting, piece in the Guardian; Death by Gentrification: The Killing That Shamed San Francisco
Updates on the latest developments regarding the case can be found at Justice for Alex Nieto
The song ‘Alex Nieto’ can be heard on YouTube and is available for download on Soundcloud. Or, you can buy a download on Bandcamp, paying what you feel is appropriate, with 100% of the proceeds going to Justice for Alex Nieto in support of their efforts to find justice for Alex Nieto.