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Since the beginning of last month, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” actor Jamal Trulove has led an initiative to give out 15,000 bottles of homemade hand sanitizer, 2,500 masks, and other items associated with Covid-19 care to underserved communities in the San Francisco area and California prison system.
But this is not a typical Hollywood do-gooder story. Seven years ago, Trulove was not waiting tables nor going into auditions and hoping for his big break. He was locked up in a jail cell, serving a 50-years to life sentence after being framed by the police for a murder he did not commit when he was 25 years old.
In 2014, that verdict was overturned and the following year he was acquitted in a retrial. Last year, the City of San Francisco agreed to a $13.1 million civil settlement.
But the feeling of being ignored by society, something that was reinforced during his upbringing in low-income areas of San Francisco, has stayed with him—and was the driving force behind why he decided to act a month ago.
“I come from a very poor, underserved community here in San Francisco… I grew up in a two-bedroom with eight people living in the house,” Trulove told Direct Relief. “We relied on other families around our community in order to survive,” he said, about his upbringing in the Sunnydale public housing project and Bayview-Hunters Point.
“And I understand in these areas about them being underserved, and not having access to the right type of information or even the right type of food. And in these communities, there are a lot of pre-condition issues,” he said, referring to ailments like diabetes, high blood pressure, and asthma.
After the CDC advised all Americans to wear a mask, Trulove, a father of four, went to his local corner store in San Francisco to pick up a few for his family, along with some hand sanitizer – only to find that they were sold out. So he went to another one, but no luck.
Finally, he found some masks, at $5 apiece. Disturbed by what he had experienced, and suspecting that people in poorer areas would have an even harder time finding – and being able to afford – masks and cleansers, he checked out some stores in those neighborhoods. As he thought, they were stocked out of masks and hand sanitizer. But he also found out that there was a lack of information regarding the necessity of such items as well.
“I felt like this is something that I care about and I want people to take it seriously. So I wanted to buy a lot of hand sanitizer and facemasks to ultimately pass them out to the communities and to show them that, look, this is free, so people could understand that that’s how serious it is, that somebody is going to give it to you for free,” Trulove said.
“To survive in a lot of communities, it’s impossible to social distance. With there being false news out there… I figured there would be a big issue,” he said, referencing social media, notably Instagram, as a main culprit of misinformation.
“I do have a couple dollars. I am fortunate enough, due to my civil suit of the San Francisco Police Department to be able to give back a little bit more, when it comes down to it. It was just something I felt like that needed to happen and I felt like the government and the City were failing them.”
But, as so many Americans would come to find out at that time, items associated with Covid-19 care, such as masks, disinfecting wipes, hand sanitizer and, for some reason, toilet paper, were pervasively sold out online as well.
Trulove tuned to the city’s new district attorney, Chesa Boudin, who ran on a criminal justice reform platform. Boudin connected him with Elina Kostyanovskaya, a PhD student and social activist who was making hand sanitizer.
Trulove made a donation to enable her to make more and he helped distribute it around the city to communities he felt needed it most. He was eventually able to find 3,000 masks online and purchased them. Or so he thought. The masks never arrived. He ended up buying them retail for about $1 per mask.
His relief work also got a boost from NFL star Marshawn Lynch, who had been able to get access to a bigger supply of masks, sanitizer, and other supplies. Lynch and his team ended up donating over 100 gallons of hand sanitizer, amongst other items to Trulove’s cause.
Trulove has donated the goods in several low-income San Francisco communities and state prisons, including San Quentin, Folsom, and Solano, as well as county jails in Santa Rita and San Francisco.
Asked how it felt to be going back to San Quentin — where he was once incarcerated in what he described as “atrocious” conditions — Trulove said, “It felt good to be able to know that people on the inside, where I once was, are being looked out for, I’m able to look out for them. Hopefully, the feeling that they get is that ‘there’s somebody on the outside looking out for us’.”
Reflecting on his bid, Trulove said “little perks” like bake sales always gave him a “feeling of comfort.”
Beyond his personal experiences, though, Trulove had a broader perspective.
“You know, if the virus gets in, and it turns into anything that we see happening in Rikers Island out in New York, then we’re going to have a big issue on our hands here in America.”
Regarding this experience, Trulove said one of his takeaways is that the African American community, as well as those with low incomes in general, are disproportionately impacted and “trampled on,” pointing specifically to the differing ways minority communities have been treated by police during this pandemic.
“If people feel like all people are equal, then it’s a human rights issue. We all have a right to live. We all have the right to have the same services and the same freedoms and it doesn’t feel like that right now, in America, and it’s not only Covid-19,” he said. “The only way all lives can matter is if black lives matter.”
“People need to really pay attention to a big demographic here in our country in order for us to sustain life in general. If we are not altogether as one people, then we’re gonna fall apart.”
Though in the midst of executive producing two movies, an upcoming documentary about USC football’s 1972 season and an animated feature, in which he is voice acting, called “Pierre The Pigeon-Hawk” starring Howie Mandel, Whoopi Goldberg, Nick Cannon, Luis Guzmán, and Keenan Thompson, his activism and volunteer work are things he intends to continue pursuing.
“I’m focused on anything that has to do with my people and is hurting my people. My people are just people who just come up with not enough access to wealth or knowledge or food,” he said.
To anyone thinking about how they can help with Covid-19 relief or in general, Trulove said it does not require money nor fame.
“It doesn’t take money all the time, it really just takes care. You have to find something to care about. Don’t just waste your time on a daily basis just wondering what you can do to help. Activate it.”
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Direct Relief has shipped requested medical aid, including N95 masks, surgical masks, eye protection and hand sanitizer, to correctional facilities across the United States.