After a nine-minute speech two weeks ago in which he criticized NFL athletes for kneeling during the national anthem, City Councilman Garry Bredefeld was confronted Thursday by a two-hour backlash over his remarks that Fresno’s African-American community described as “divisive,” “inflammatory” and “ignorant.”
The furor at Thursday’s Fresno City Council meeting was sparked on Sept. 28, when Bredefeld launched into a patriotic tirade over widespread protests at NFL games across the country and in London the previous weekend by players and, in some cases, by team owners. Those protests, in turn, followed President Donald Trump’s description of protesting players as “sons of bitches.” He also said that owners should fire players who refuse to stand for the national anthem.
Bredefeld said that as a veteran who has “an unabashed love of this country,” he found the kneeling protesters to be “repugnant, disrespectful, misguided, and they dishonor the country and themselves.” He then bemoaned the firing of the white police officer who shot and killed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and the prosecution of officers who were eventually acquitted in the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who suffered a severed spinal cord while being transported in a police van in Baltimore in 2015.
Bredefeld’s original speech also castigated “these million-dollar athletes” for protesting racism in the U.S. “We fought a Civil War to end slavery; white men died to free black men,” he said. “Jim Crow laws ended in the 1960s with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, signed by a white president.”
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Councilman Oliver Baines, the only African American on the council, was in Spain when Bredefeld made his remarks, but met with Bredefeld upon his return. “He knows full well the pain and damage he caused me personally,” Baines said of his conversation with Bredefeld.
You had an opportunity to bring our community together and you missed it by a mile. Instead, you drove a wedge between us.
City Councilman Oliver Baines, responding to Councilman Garry Bredefeld
“I thought your remarks really lacked thoughtfulness or any historical context or compassion,” Baines said to Bredefeld on Thursday while both sat in the council chamber. “You decided to address probably one of the most difficult issues in the history of our country. You had an opportunity to bring our community together and you missed it by a mile. Instead, you drove a wedge between us.”
Baines noted that the kneeling athletes were engaging in peaceful protests, not violent conflict. “I don’t understand why, in this country in this day and age, why a peaceful protest is still viewed as something so offensive,” he said. “I find it offensive that people are telling these athletes how they should protest so it makes them feel more comfortable. That’s not what it’s about.”
Several pastors – blacks and whites – also took Bredefeld to task. “It was necessary to publicly denounce the extremely inflammatory and disconcerting remarks made by Councilman Bredefeld under the guise of patriotism and love of flag, anthem and country,” said B.T. Lewis, pastor of the Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church in southwest Fresno.
“You chose to make statements that drive the chasm of racism and division in this city instead of building bridges of peace,” Lewis said to Bredefeld. “If you find it repulsive to serve the whole of our community, perhaps your service is no longer needed.”
D.J. Criner, pastor of Saint Rest Baptist Church, said he felt for City Clerk Yvonne Spence, who is black, for enduring Bredefeld’s original comments. “The pain I have is that you were by yourself when those comments were made,” Criner told Spence. “But if you look in front of you, you can see that you are not by yourself anymore.”
Criner said Bredefeld’s speech not only hurt the city’s black community, “it angered us.”
“You made remarks that whites fought and died so that blacks could have freedom, without once referencing the fact that our freedom was taken from us when we were taken from our country and brought to a country we did not ask to be in,” Criner told Bredefeld.
This has been one of the most difficult days, if not the most difficult day, I’ve ever served. To realize that I’ve caused this much pain is painful for me.
Councilman Garry Bredefeld, after two hours of criticism for his remarks on NFL protests and race
In declaring a commitment to stand for the national anthem, Bredefeld “stooped to a low place that revealed your oblivious nature to your own privilege, what’s known as white privilege,” said Charles Dickerson, pastor at Pearly Grove Baptist Church. “Claims of inequality and racial victimization are not a false narrative, as you called them, but are a reality for black, brown, and minorities at large.”
After the string of critics, a chastened Bredefeld offered his apologies to Baines and the community. “When (Baines) told me that the words hurt him, it pained me because when I said the words, I didn’t think it was going to have that kind of effect, but clearly it did. … This has been one of the most difficult days, if not the most difficult day, I’ve ever served. To realize that I’ve caused this much pain is painful for me.”
Said Bredefeld: “As a psychologist, my work has always been about healing people, certainly not creating wounds or pulling off scabs from old wounds, which clearly I did. … And for the pain I have caused, I sincerely apologize.”