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Upholding the law or picking on protestors? Fresno officials, activists point fingers

Rally protests charges against four who attended sanctuary city demonstration

About 50 gathered outside Fresno County Courthouse on Wednesday, May 10, 2017, as an arraignment was scheduled to begin for the first of four people charged after a demonstration against Mayor Lee Brand's refusal to designate Fresno as a sanctuary
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About 50 gathered outside Fresno County Courthouse on Wednesday, May 10, 2017, as an arraignment was scheduled to begin for the first of four people charged after a demonstration against Mayor Lee Brand's refusal to designate Fresno as a sanctuary

At a time when protests are on the rise nationally, some Fresno activists say Mayor Lee Brand and police are handpicking which demonstrations to regulate – pointing to the arrest of protestors who claim they peacefully rallied for immigration rights.

Community and faith leaders gathered outside Fresno County Superior Court on Wednesday to allege that four people who face misdemeanor charges for obstructing the sidewalk during a protest in March are being wrongly targeted for their activism. 

But both Brand and Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer denied accusations that the city is inconsistent and politically motivated when it comes to cracking down on protests. 

“I don’t care what your cause is. You have the same rights as everybody else,” Brand said. “I think some of these groups are looking for reasons to elevate their issues.”

Luis Ojeda, Cesar Casamayor, Dawn-Marie Luna and Shannon Kurtz were served arrest warrants for their participation in a protest held to oppose Brand’s refusal to declare Fresno a sanctuary city. While the charges relate to their alleged actions at the March 5 protest, it wasn’t until March 17 that police served the warrants. 

The time gap has alarmed critics who claim if the protestors were truly unruly, they would have been arrested immediately instead of nearly two weeks later. 

“I was very shocked. This is a big overreaction. I pose no threat to the community,” said Casamayor, 35, who was arrested at his Fresno home for obstructing the sidewalk and not having a protest permit. “I’ve never been arrested before. I’ve always gone by the law. I just feel like I’m being targeted because I’ve been outspoken.” 

Casamayor is active in several immigrant organizations, and is now on probation at his job with the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, pending his arraignment next month. 

He and Kurtz were both arrested; Ojeda avoided arrest by proactively scheduling his arraignment; and a warrant is still pending for Luna.

Dyer denounced any theories that wrongful arrests were made, and said it’s department policy to often avoid escalating tensions at protests by making arrests after the fact. In this case, officers videotaped the incidents to use as evidence later. Dyer did not immediately respond to requests to view those videos.

“We have a practice in our organization when dealing with protests to not force confrontations,” he said. “We choose not to enforce those laws at that time in order to avoid a confrontation.” 

Ojeda’s arraignment was held on Wednesday – the first of the four to go before a judge. The city offered to drop Ojeda’s $20,000 bail fees and to dismiss the case if he obeys all laws for a full year. A city spokesman said that the same offer was extended to the whole group by Wednesday afternoon. It’s yet to be seen if that offer will be accepted. 

Many of the people in attendance at Wednesday’s rally were also at the March 5 protest, and say nothing warranted an arrest and that police were visible – but seemed to have no problem during the event. 

“The police were there. I did not feel threatened by their presence,” said James Mendez, a 77-year-old retired physician who was at the protest. “This is not right. Why didn’t police do or say something the day of the event? These arrests hurt the community’s trust in the police system and the legal system.”

Others claim that the four were not acting any differently than the other nearly 100 protestors that day. Wednesday’s attendees held signs that asked, “Am I the next target?” 

In Kurtz’s case, she chained herself to two others and lied down in the street. Kurtz – who has been active at several recent protests in Fresno – declined to comment, but Dallas Blanchard says he was one of the people who laid in the street with her that day. 

“I was actually there risking arrest knowingly, deliberately. And I was not arrested. Yet folks who were not there doing any of that were arrested,” he said. “I definitely feel that it’s politically motivated – that they’re going after alleged organizers of events rather than folks who are actually just there. Only one of the three of us who were sitting in the road locked together were arrested.”

Dyer said that there have been 47 protests in Fresno in 2017, and this was the only one that has led to arrests.

“This is the only one that we had problems with because people refused to leave the roadway when they were asked to multiple times. That was why we sought arrests,” he said. “I really think it’s important to understand the incredible amount of patience that our officers utilize when dealing with protestors.”

Last year, a Fresno activist was served a warrant for his arrest for not having a special protest permit during an anti-police protest. Three of the four involved in the March 5 protest also face charges for participating in a special event without a permit. 

Dyer contends Fresno police go “above and beyond” when supporting protests – pointing out that officers have offered water to protestors during the summer months. He called local advocates’ concerns a distraction.

“Because of their unlawful acts they are trying to divert the attention away from themselves and blame everyone else,” Dyer said. “I think there has been an attempt to divert the focus away from themselves and their wrongfulness of what they did and the disruption they made that day.”

Wednesday’s rally, led by Faith in the Valley, was local immigrant advocates’ latest attempt to get Brand to drop the charges against the four protestors. Brand reiterated that he would not intervene in the legal process, and said that allegations that the protestors were punished because of the subject matter of the event are “absolutely absurd,” praising the police response. 

“Our police department is a model of restraint. If you look around the country, these are types of events that could have really escalated and become really ugly,” Brand said. “If I dropped the charges or made something different, then I’m not doing my duty as the mayor of Fresno. I’ve got to treat everybody the same. Since I’ve been here, you can’t cite me one case where somebody has been treated differently regarding these first amendment rights to process.”

But Rabbi Rick Winer of Temple Beth Israel, who helped lead Wednesday’s rally, is skeptical.

“Frankly, the police department is using their discretion to pursue these individuals,” he said. “We understand that the city is telling us that these charges are not meant to stifle free speech, but it certainly feels that way.”

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays

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