When 500 people marched in Fresno against police brutality for hours last month, the protest – one of the biggest in recent years – marked a turning point for social justice in the city, local leaders say.
Over the years, rallies in Fresno over police shootings have typically drawn small clusters of demonstrators. But the spate of recent high-profile shootings nationwide, spread by videos and social media, has fueled unprecedented engagement that activists hope will finally improve relations between police and Fresno residents.
“People are at a point when they’re really starting to wake up,” said Taymah Jahsi of the nonprofit Faith in Community. “And I don’t just mean our white brothers and sisters. Black, brown, those who thought a problem didn’t exist, they’re starting to experience fear.”
It started with the shooting deaths in early July of two black men by police in Baton Rouge, La., and Falcon Heights, Minn. Then at a protest for those deaths in Dallas, a black former Army reservist opened fire on police, killing five officers and wounding nine others. Less than two weeks later, a black former Marine ambushed and killed three officers in Baton Rouge.
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More shootings have followed, including that of Korryn Gaines, a black woman holding a shotgun who was killed by police in Maryland on Monday morning after an hours-long standoff over an arrest warrant for traffic violations. Her 5-year-old son was also shot and injured.
In June, the fatal shooting of 19-year-old Dylan Noble, who was white, by Fresno police also drew heavy criticism.
The July 9 protest thrust 20-year-old Justice Medina of Clovis into the local spotlight. Medina, an aspiring rapper, organized and promoted it through social media. It was his first experience as an activist.
Medina’s post said the protest was for the deaths of Noble, the black men shot by police in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights and others “murdered by corrupt officers.” His phrasing was pointed, telling protesters to “bring your will to show these (expletive) cops that we will not tolerate their abuse.”
Later, Medina was given a citation for violating city code after protesters left sidewalks and marched in streets and through intersections, causing Fresno police to shut down major streets.
Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer said the department has staffed larger protests centered on immigration issues. But he and other community leaders agreed July 9 was one of the largest police brutality demonstrations in recent years.
Noble’s death localized the issue of police excessive force, and ‘made it more real, especially to the white community.’
Justice Medina, community activist
Some black leaders question Medina’s approach. The Rev. B.T. Lewis II of Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church in west Fresno said he wasn’t in town for Medina’s protest but advised his congregants not to go.
“I explained to them that like Dr. King, our opposition should be expressed through the principles of our faith,” he said. “We can’t align with people who say, ‘(expletive) the police.’ ”
Lewis said some people protest to get back at police for personal reasons, not necessarily to help the community better its relationship with law enforcement. Those people may not be ready for an honest and open conversation, he said.
“I’m not against protesting, but when I protest I want to have an end game,” he said. “I want to be able to have a meeting with those in power to say, ‘What can we do to avoid this in the future?’ ”
Medina has criticized Dyer and called for his removal from the department. Lewis disagrees with that position. Instead, he said, people should push for the mayor and city manager – who the chief reports to – to hold him accountable.
Lewis said it’s concerning that no one protested the June death of toddler Rashad Halford Jr. – Lewis’ cousin – who was killed in southeast Fresno by a gunman in front of his parents. And though Medina’s protest included Noble, it didn’t happen until after black men were killed in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights.
Recent protests also made no reference to slain police officers. Lewis said Fresnans should be just as angry about those deaths.
“There was no protest when we shoot each other – not just black people shooting black people but people shooting people,” he said. “But when somebody gets shot outside our city, then we get upset.”
Medina had a different take: Noble’s death localized the issue of police excessive force, and “made it more real, especially to the white community. It was a kid from Clovis.”
Lewis, who spoke Wednesday at a public forum on justice and healing, said he’s still trying to figure out why he didn’t get as mad when police killed Noble as he thought he should have been.
“My own personal experience as a black man causes me to be more concerned – I don’t know if that’s natural, I don’t know if that’s right – but I do get more upset when black people are harmed,” he said.
Some advocates say the killings of Latinos by police – many of them in California – don’t get the same attention nationally as the killings of blacks. Juan Avitia, a local activist and member of the Fresno Brown Berets, said he makes a point at protests of mentioning the names of Latinos killed by police here, such as Freddy Centeno. The mentally ill man was shot seven times last year after taking a painted garden hose nozzle out of his pocket.
Avitia said there are numerous reasons why the deaths of Latinos don’t draw as much attention. Many times the families don’t speak English and are not able to advocate for themselves. Other times, family members are afraid to speak up because they lack legal status.
“The black community nationwide, they’ve demanded equality,” he said. “There’s more of a passive streak in our community, going back to the fact that many of us may not be documented. That kind of fear prevents them from speaking out when an injustice has been committed against them.”
‘I’ve seen worse’
Oliver Baines, a former Fresno police officer, is the only black City Council member. He took part in a west Fresno summit on racial tensions last month with Dyer and Mayor Ashley Swearengin.
Baines grew up in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, a time of heightened tensions after police beat a black taxi driver named Rodney King.
Baines and his friends were afraid of police. He said they were pulled over and handcuffed countless times for no reason. They learned to instinctively stick their hands out of the car to avoid having guns drawn on them.
“For me, that was almost normal,” he said. “I didn’t even realize that it was illegal. We were always on high alert.”
As a black man and a former cop, Baines said he understands the emotions on both sides. At the same time, he said, the targeted shootings of police officers have diminished the discussion about policing and race.
Baines watched livestreamed video that television news outlets shared on Facebook of the July 9 protest in Fresno. The comments posted by the public appalled him.
“It really shed a light on the racism that still exists even in Fresno,” he said. “As diverse as we are, you still have at least a minority of folks that felt brazen enough to say these comments publicly. We know we have some work to do.”
But he cautioned that Fresno is not Los Angeles. Even before becoming an officer, he said, he had drastically different interactions with local police.
Lewis agreed, saying that people who have been harassed or racially profiled here have good reason to be upset. But he grew up in Greenville, Texas, where he said police were 100 times more racist. When he visited Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, after unarmed black teen Michael Brown was killed by a white officer, Lewis noticed police there were much more aggressive than in Fresno.
I’m not willing to blame our police department for things that happen all over the country.
The Rev. B.T. Lewis, Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church
“Fresno thinks this is bad. Yeah, this is bad, but I’ve seen worse,” he said. “I’m not willing to blame our police department for things that happen all over the country.”
Fresno doesn’t have the same killing of black people by officers that exists elsewhere in the country, Lewis said. Still, he thinks some people are waiting for a black person to be killed by police here because it would reinforce their beliefs.
But people do need to understand why black men are disproportionately killed by police, Lewis said.
Dyer said there’s a perception in Fresno that police frequently shoot black people. But over the past three years, he said, police shot three black men – all armed – and only one was killed.
Fresno officers are under immense pressure because of the recent scrutiny, Dyer said. At the same time, he said, there’s been an outpouring of kindness. Many people have sent pastries or cards to the department headquarters. Others have bought coffee or meals for officers anonymously.
Officers “certainly are concerned for their safety because they know what happened in Dallas and Baton Rouge could easily happen in Fresno,” he said. “But they’re always concerned for their safety, living in a city that has a lot of violence.”
What needs to change
Leaders on all sides of the issue agree change is needed but not about how that should happen.
Jahsi, of Faith in Community, said law enforcement needs better training on how to de-escalate tense situations and to connect with community members less confrontationally. She said the police department’s longtime Operation Ceasefire program, which helps gang members change through social services, would do better in the hands of community organizers, as in cities like Oakland. But she said Fresno police are trying, and she commended them for implementing some of the recommendations set by President Barack Obama’s 21st Century Policing Report.
Baines said police are asked to do too much and would have a better chance to make a positive impact if communities were equipped with more social services. “Sometimes policing agencies don’t want to get involved in public policy beyond criminal justice, but this is a time when they will probably have to,” he said.
Medina said violence needs to end on both sides. That means creating more positive outlets for Fresno youth so they don’t resort to drugs or worse. He also wants increased community policing. He remembers getting stickers from police as a kid. “Now all they do is look for suspects.”
Lewis and other longtime leaders have been asking for changes to law enforcement policy for decades. Last year, he spoke in front of around 250 people at a town hall on race issues and policing at a west Fresno church.
He said complaints made against the police should be publicly accessible. He has called for changes to the independent police auditor’s investigations, saying the auditor should live in Fresno and investigate incidents as soon as they happen, rather than after the police and district attorney finish their reviews.
“I know the job is dangerous, but I think that our officers shoot too quickly,” he said. “I have no idea what it’s like, but we do have to find a better balance so that we do not shoot people that are unarmed or kill people that we have the chance to save.”
Dyer said officers need feedback so they can become aware of when they may unintentionally offend people. For example, he said that when officers make contact with someone, they routinely ask whether the person is on probation or parole. That’s standard procedure but could come off as condescending. He said officers are starting to discuss at team briefings how to approach people differently.
We’re the only ones left that you can pick up the phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week and we will come.
Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer
Other things, however, are deep-rooted. He said police can’t fix poverty, homelessness, mental illness, broken families and other social ills.
“We’re the only ones left that you can pick up the phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week and we will come,” he said. “So we will be on the front line, and we’re going to be the ones that oftentimes get blamed.”