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‘They want me to run’: Black San Francisco dog walker faces down racist threats

A man in a blue cap and jacket walks with two dogs in a sunny, tree-lined path.
Terry Williams, a dog walker and Alamo Square native, says two packages, each containing a blackface doll with a noose around its neck and racist slurs written on it, were left at his front door. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

This article includes a photograph containing racial slurs and violent imagery.

Terry Williams tossed tennis balls for his Rottweiler Mino, her 3-year-old pup, PJ, and a black and white dog named Chuck at Alamo Square Park Tuesday. The dogs loped through the bushes and sniffed at flowers dotting the iconic San Francisco park as Williams greeted another four-legged friend.

“Hey, Phife! How’re you doing?” Williams said, scratching the mid-size black dog’s head.

In between instructing the dogs to sit, lie down and fetch, the 49-year-old, who runs a dog-walking business in the neighborhood, pointed out an open expanse of grass where he played football as a kid.

“Tourists come back and recognize my dogs,” Williams said. “They love coming here.”

A person in blue walks with two dogs on a sunny grass field near buildings.
Williams walks through Alamo Square Park with his dogs, PJ, left, and Mino, on Tuesday. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

But as familiar as these surroundings are for the lifelong Alamo Square resident, he can’t help but feel a certain uneasiness walking through the park he visits daily since packages, each containing a blackface doll with a noose around its neck and racist slurs written on it, started showing up at his front door.

The first package arrived on April 26, followed by a second on May 5, he said. Police are investigating the incidents as hate crimes, but as of Wednesday, investigators had not identified a suspect or made any arrests.

A racist doll in a plastic bag.
Williams says he found packages, each containing a racist doll, left on his doorstep on April 26 and May 5. | Source: Courtesy Terry Williams

“I don't know who to trust right now, man,” Williams told The Standard. “This is hard. I'm walking in the park; I don't want to be around anybody now. It's bad. I don't know who. I don't know where it's coming from.”

‘It brings back memories of being down South’

As tourists and locals strolled by him on Tuesday, Williams greeted fellow regulars and spoke plainly about the packages’ psychic toll. He said he worries not only about his safety but also that of his 81- and 79-year-old parents, who live in the apartment above him.

“My dad, he’s from Louisiana, and my mom, too. They’re leery about all this,” he told The Standard. “They said it brings back memories of being down South.”

After he called police to report the incident, friends and clients reached out to offer solace and support. A GoFundMe campaign launched April 30 to help his family install security cameras on their property surpassed its $10,000 goal Tuesday.

Phife's companion, neighbor Clara Applegarth, told Williams she donated to the fundraiser. 

A person in a Yankees cap listens intently to a man in a blue cap, with a tree and clear sky in the background.
Williams, left, talks with his neighbor, Clara Applegarth, while walking through Alamo Square Park on Tuesday. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard
People with dogs in a sunny park with city and hills in the background.
Williams greets dogs at the park. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

"He's known my dog since he was a puppy," Applegarth said of Williams. "We see him all the time, and he's such an uplifting spirit. I know these things happen, but I was really upset when I saw that. Terry's loved by all the dogs. He knows how to handle them.”

Williams estimates he's trained dozens of dogs in his life. In addition to walking dogs at the park, he takes care of clients’ animals overnight and during the day.

“Every doggy’s different up here. It’s funny,” he said. “We got the lovebug dogs, the dogs who don’t do too much; it takes a lot to get them going. You’ve got the dogs who just want to play with their toys.”

Williams stood up straighter, talking with his hands as he described the ins and outs of developing and maintaining a good relationship with canines. 

At bottom, he said, it’s the dog’s job to figure out how to tell you what they want. The human’s job is to reinforce good behavior to help them learn. “Some people hear the dog barking and go, ‘Oh, that’s so cute,’ and give them a treat,” he said. “No, you’re reinforcing that behavior!

“We could learn a lot from dogs. They don't care if you're rich, green, poor, whatever,” Williams added. “If you treat them with respect, they'll love you.”

‘I’m not going nowhere’

Over the years, Williams has faced some incidents of harassment, ranging from stares to outright slurs, in and around the park, he said. In one incident about three years ago, Williams said a woman and a few of her friends falsely accused his dogs of being aggressive with other animals.

"I'm not a threatening guy,” he said. “I just walk my dogs, say hi to everybody and try to help everybody. If dogs get in a fight in the park, I break up the fights. I try to give people advice."

A man in a blue tracksuit sits on a bench beside a playful black and white dog in a park.
Williams sits on a bench in Alamo Square Park with dogs Chuck, Mino and PJ. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Williams said he plans to install outdoor lights with the help of an electrician friend in addition to surveillance cameras, which he expects to arrive this week. In the meantime, Williams said his parents are weighing whether to leave town for a few days, noting that he doesn’t think they’ve been sleeping much due to the threats.

"They want me to run," Williams said of the unknown individual or individuals leaving the packages at his door. "I'm not going to run. My grandfather raised me better; my great-uncle and my dad taught me better than that. ... I'm not going nowhere."

George Kelly can be reached at gkelly@sfstandard.com