There is much work ahead, but Mayor Ashley Swearengin and other Fresno leaders have taken an important step in addressing concerns about racism and police shootings that led to recent public protests.
The mayor, police Chief Jerry Dyer and Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims were among the participants in a closed-door meeting Saturday with several pastors at the Westside Church of God in southwest Fresno.
In a July 13 editorial, we called on Swearengin to lead a community conversation in the aftermath of police shootings locally and nationally and the deadly ambush of five Dallas police officers. Fresno needs to hear from its leaders in challenging times. Indeed, citizens look to their top officials for reassurance and guidance that can help calm tensions.
We are pleased that the mayor heeded our call. We also want to recognize the roles that Fresno Councilman Oliver Baines and the Rev. Paul Binion performed in bringing local leaders together.
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Based on public comments after the meeting, it appears that the effort was fruitful and could be the beginning of a serious attempt to elevate trust between law enforcement and residents in Fresno’s poor neighborhoods.
Dyer’s department has become the object of national scrutiny after the police shooting of Dylan Noble, an unarmed 19-year-old, on June 25. Dyer said tears were shed as some participants shared their experiences with injustice.
“I know that there are people in this community who feel that they have been unfairly targeted for a long time, and so to balance all of that … it hurts, it hurts deeply,” Dyer said. “I want to see us get better. I want to see us work together.”
The Rev. D.J. Criner of Saint Rest Baptist Church told Bee reporter Megan Ginise: “Communities are hurting at the moment, feeling disenfranchised, feeling as if there’s nobody to hear them, so some of our leaders came together with the intent to hear each other out first, to hear the pain that’s being done to each and every one of us, and then to try to find some sort of remedy.”
Swearengin said she hopes that, through town halls and forums, people will move beyond accusations. We concur. Progress begins when people who stand for justice unite. The much bigger challenge is getting at root problems.
In Fresno, this will require graduating more students of color prepared for college or a job that pays more than minimum wage. It will require eliminating gangs and keeping law-abiding citizens safe in poor neighborhoods. And it will require solutions assembled with input from everybody – not just the ideas of the powerful and their political allies.
Swearengin hit the nail on the head when she said, “This isn’t just about law enforcement. This is about things that trigger us as community groups, and sometimes it manifests through law enforcement issues, but if we just make it about law enforcement we are probably missing a bigger opportunity to deal with deeper racial tensions in our community.”
No city can outrun its past.
Fresno’s long history of racial segregation, its what’s-in-it-for-me politics and its developer-controlled land practices have lit a fuse that won’t be doused until the high concentrations of poverty in south and central neighborhoods are reduced and more citizens are active participants in our democracy.