Around 70 community members and activists from across California gathered Saturday morning at New Light for New Life Church of God in southwest Fresno to march through the surrounding neighborhoods and protest racial profiling and police brutality.
Taylon Salley, 6, led the group for much of the march. He carried a sign that read “Am I next?” and was flanked on either side by fellow members of The Freedom School, a youth group organized by New Light’s Rev. Floyd D. Harris Jr. to teach children about respect, hard work and activism.
About 50 people left the church at 1106 W. Woodward Ave. at 10:20 a.m. carrying signs with slogans like “black lives matter” and marched through several impoverished southwest Fresno neighborhoods. The group grew throughout the march.
Harris, who has marched for various causes around the country for more than 25 years, organized Saturday’s event.
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“We’re here to uplift and educate the next generation,” Harris said. “The church was at the heart of the civil rights movement, but it is silent today. These police violence issues going on around the country are also going on here, and New Light is on the front line for the Valley.”
Harris and another protest veteran, Juan Rafael Avitia, president of the Mexican American Political Association and leader of the Fresno Brown Berets, walked behind a half-dozen or so young boys, most of whom were black. Each held megaphones and alternated between leading the chants and delivering statements to the crowd.
“We are showing the little ones,” Avitia said to the crowd at a brief stop near the intersection of Tielman and Myers avenues, “because they will be marching against the same things in 20 years.”
Several people stepped out onto their porches during the march to join in during the chant of “hands up, don’t shoot,” which was popularized after the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, by police in Ferguson, Missouri last August.
Tensions among the group grew slightly when they encountered a Fresno police officer on a motorcycle in the parking lot of Edison Bethune Charter Academy on Fruit and Hawes avenues. Many of the protesters shouted at the cop, who was apparently waiting to catch people speeding near a curve on Fruit.
The officer ignored the group, but then followed the marchers to True Foundation Community Church, which is in an area that Harris said is common for police violence against minorities.
Harris silenced the crowd and seemed to grow angry when he noticed the police officer parked under a tree near True Foundation.
“He gets paid $90,000 to sit under a tree,” he told the crowd. “That’s our money being wasted.”
Harris then turned to the Fresno Police Department as a whole.
“They (Fresno police) are doing this ‘community policing,’ where they give our kids hotdogs and bring them bounce houses,” he said. “And then when those kids turn 15, they shoot them in the back.”
Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer responded in a statement to The Bee.
“I am very proud of the officers who monitored this protest and for the restraint they used while being subjected to such unnecessary verbal abuse,” Dyer said. “These types of comments are inflammatory and do nothing more than create a divide between law enforcement and communities of color.
“Regardless of the comments made, we will continue with our community policing efforts as we strive to maintain the trust of our citizens.”
The event began with a 9 a.m. rally at the church brought the activist leaders to the microphone for more than an hour.
Among the speakers was Dionne Smithdowns, a Stockton woman whose 16-year-old son, James Rivera, was shot and killed by police in 2010.
Justice for those killed throughout the country was the main theme of the march. However, it also branched out into subjects like Sheriff Margaret Mims’ stance on immigration issues, the number of officer-involved shootings in Fresno and violence against the gay, lesbian and transgender communities.
The marchers paused for lunch before hosting a town hall meeting at 1 p.m.
Much of the food provided at the lunch was grown and harvested by students in Harris’ Freedom School. Over the past five months, Harris taught his 15 or so students how to farm on a 22-acre plot near Kearney Park owned by the church.
Evron Burton, 13, is a member of the Freedom School. As he watched the protesters eat the vegetables he helped harvest a few days before, he said he had another reason for attending the rally.
“For black people to have a future, we need to look back. It’s not over. There’s still killing in the streets.”