The car pulled up outside a party on South Bardell Avenue early Monday morning. The driver flashed the car’s high beams at the crowd and then someone in the car started shooting.
Kayla Foster, just 18, was killed – another promising young life lost to the streets of Fresno and the gangs that deal in murder, drugs and prostitution. She leaves behind her twin brother – her date for the recent Central High School prom – and other grieving relatives.
I saw Foster’s grandmother, Cheryl Sumler, on ABC30 in a story reported by Brian Johnson on Monday evening. Sumler is one of the people who founded the Take a Stand Committee, which mentors Fresno youth and steers them away from gangs and violence.
The anguish in Sumler’s voice was heartbreaking.
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“My baby was innocent. She just happened to be an innocent bystander,” Sumler said.
“Now we gotta go bury my baby. She’s not even going to graduate with her twin coming up in 10 days. So I need ya’ll to take a stand and help us, join us. We gotta fight this together.”
Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer said much the same in a news conference Tuesday: “From a long-term strategy, we need the help of every person in this community. Or we’re going to be facing this 15 years from now.”
This knot of gangs and violence is not easily undone. All of Fresno’s mayors going back to Jim Patterson in the 1990s have tried mightily to protect innocent citizens, young and old, from the bullets of gang activity. Thus far, there’s been little headway in breaking the cycle of multigenerational gang membership.
The reality is that there are parts of Fresno where gangs rule by intimidation. Some kids are born into gang families and raised to become criminals. Others are recruited with a promise that they will be protected from rival gangs or they’ll make easy money.
But even for kids like Kayla Foster who are determined to do the right thing, simple acts – walking to the store, chatting on the front porch or accepting an invitation to party – can turn deadly in a split second.
All too often, the tragedy of losing a loved one is followed by another kick in the gut. The killers are not brought to justice because a code of silence prevails. People know who pulled the trigger. Sometimes they even tell police what they know. But they’re not willing to testify in court.
I remember what Brian King, founder of the anti-gang Fresno Street Saints, told me in May, 2012: “We have been brought up with this code of no snitching. We allow things to go on as they are. We allow our kids to be murdered.”
There is no doubt that city leaders long ago enabled gangs to flourish. They didn’t much care about what went down on the south side of town, especially in southwest Fresno. As long as the violence there didn’t leak out to the “good part” of Fresno, it wasn’t seen as a big problem. Toss in the lack of economic investment on the south side and high unemployment, and the spread of gangs was inevitable.
The question remains: What can be done to protect children and families from gangs intent on protecting their turf and profiting from crime?
In the short term, the police will increase patrols, serve warrants and pick up as many illegally owned guns as they can. They will answer the killings of Foster, Manuel Lopez, 22, and Paul Cerrato, 40, over the Memorial Day weekend with a show of force to gang members.
Such tactics often send gang-bangers into temporary hiding. But, again, the knot is difficult to untangle. Memories and grudges don’t fade. With gangs, the colors and the turf must be protected. Someone will have to pay the price – even if it’s a decade later.
The cycle continues, and innocents are caught in the crossfire. Families are ripped apart. Dreams give way to fear and despair.
I go back to what King said five years ago: “How many kids are we going to lose? The fear of retaliation for speaking up is real, but fear needs to be a motivator. We need to be afraid of what’s going to happen if we don’t fix this situation.”
Indeed, who will step up for Kayla Foster’s family and help police find her killer?
Who will help see that the killer of 20-month-old Rashad Halford Jr., who was shot to death on June 22, 2016, is brought to justice?
And who will enable police to solve the puzzle that is the 2015 murder of Fresno City College baseball player Deondre “Day Day” Howard?
The list of victims and the unsolved cases goes on and on.
Silence only perpetuates the violence. It’s past time for good people to take a stand.