Some of Fresno’s top faith and community leaders aimed to promote “peace, justice and human dignity in Fresno and beyond” during a panel at Fresno High School attended by more than 100 people.
Darius Assemi, president and CEO of Granville Homes, opened the event, titled “Healing Our Community,” by identifying injustices that face central San Joaquin Valley residents: poverty, violence, addiction, depression, lack of mobility, exploitation of youth, and not being able to access resources.
Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, added to that list by describing what prompted the Wednesday night event, co-sponsored by the Interfaith Alliance of Central California, Human Rights Coalition of the Central Valley, Granville Homes, Faith in Community, and the Central Valley Islamic Council.
“There is injustice being committed by police. There is injustice being committed against police,” Nekumanesh said. “There is injustice being committed against marginalized groups of people. There is injustice being committed against students.”
Pastor Jim Franklin of Cornerstone Church said that in the end, everyone is fighting for “our children.”
“A little over a month ago, I stood at the head of a casket of this 20-month-old who was gunned down in the streets of Fresno,” Franklin said. “To me, this is what this is about. … This is injustice. This has got to stop.”
A video with comments from Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer was shown. In it, Dyer said witnesses not coming forward to help police solve crime qualifies as injustice, as does all police being broad-brushed as brutal because of the mistakes of some officers.
Nekumanesh asked panelists to respond to Dyer’s statement – rebuttals that lasted longer than each panelist’s original statements, which were confined to two minutes each.
Rabbi Rick Winer of Temple Beth Israel focused on Dyer’s statement that “the truth is, we all know black lives matter. All lives matter.”
“When I first heard the term ‘black lives matter,’ my response – as many people who did not know and had not heard – was, ‘all lives matter,’ ” Winer said. “Not knowing the depth of pain that is behind that and why it is such an important acknowledgment to make, and why saying that all lives matter – which we all believe – is not giving proper credence to the institutionalized ... racism that exists in our country. Saying black lives matter exclusively, and not cheapening it with something else, is not diminishing any other thing. It is lifting up and acknowledging a deep-seated, systemic brokenness that we have yet to fix.”
One of the most passionate speeches of the night came from pastor D.J. Criner of St. Rest Baptist Church, responding to Dyer talking about crime and policing in the city. In the video, Dyer said: “The truth of the matter is, the reason we are in many of these neighborhoods and policing – because we know that’s where the violence occurs. We unfortunately know that 53 percent of the shootings that occur in Fresno are committed by African Americans, even though they only make up 7.7 percent of the population, or 8 percent. … The people that live there, sometimes they are prisoners in their own home, and they want us to be there protecting them.”
“Don’t give statistics that will scare individuals … so that when they see a black face, instantaneously they think I’m a threat,” Criner said.
He also stressed that, “As a black man, I am so sick and tired of people comparing the police shootings to black-on-black crime.”
Tanisha Sorrell with Black Lives Matter in Fresno shared a plea: “When young men and women want to make a change in their community, they should be approached with love,” she said. “Now is the time to bridge those generational gaps.”
Bishop Armando Ochoa of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno stressed the importance of listening: “In order for there to be some like-mindedness … there has to be an acknowledgment of some legitimate concern for the lives of all people of color.”
Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson said his school district is made up predominately of children of color – 77 percent are black or Hispanic – and that their concerns are real and need to be addressed.
Panelists took several questions from audience members, including one about how to improve impoverished neighborhoods in Fresno. Criner said what needs to be removed from these communities is just as important as what needs to be added to them.
A “statement of unity,” drafted by all panelists, was read at the end of the event by Nekumanesh: “If we are to unify our city, we must define our shared goals: respect for the rights of our neighbors, condemnation of injustice wherever it occurs, and the commitment to lawful and orderly resolution of our conflicts. By openly and honestly addressing our ideological differences with dignity and compassion, we will heal Fresno.”
Sharnjit Purewal, of the Sikh Council of Central California, stressed the importance of standing united as a community in facing problems plaguing the Valley.
“America is a quilt made of many different colors, and it’s beautiful because of its colors. … But underneath, we are all made of the same fabric,” Purewal said. “The tighter we are sewn together, the stronger we’ll be.”