One of Police Chief Jerry Dyer’s harshest critics said Wednesday that he is a victim of harassment by the Fresno Police Department because of the color of his skin.
But Dyer said the Rev. Floyd Harris Jr.’s actions got him in trouble.
“This has nothing to do with race,” Dyer said.
Harris, a prominent African American leader in Fresno, made his remarks about police harassing him after he pleaded not guilty in Fresno County Superior Court to misdemeanor charges of obstructing traffic and participating in or sponsoring an anti-police protest outside the downtown federal courthouse on Aug. 10 without a permit.
Fresno civil-rights lawyer Robert Navarro, who is defending Harris, contends the case has wide-ranging implications: “This could have a chilling effect on anyone wanting to express their First Amendment right to free speech.”
Navarro said Harris, 45, is being singled out for his anti-police views. While other protesters were given traffic infractions, only Harris was charged with misdemeanors, the lawyer said.
In addition, Navarro said his preliminary investigation showed that only minorities were cited by police when the demonstrations included white protesters who gathered in the streets to protest police shootings, both in Fresno and nationwide.
“I’ve been told there will be no plea bargain,” Navarro said of his conversation with Larry Donaldson of the City Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting the case because the misdemeanor charges are alleged violations of city ordinances.
“They contend (Harris) is the instigator for all the ordinance violations relating to protests,” Navarro said.
In court, Navarro asked for “discovery,” evidence that the lawyer said could help Harris prove his civil rights were violated. His discovery motion included any police surveillance and intelligence reports of Harris and of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations up to the Aug. 10 incident.
“This is a clear case of selective prosecution because the police have been gunning for Rev. Harris from the beginning,” Navarro said. “Hopefully, at trial, cooler heads will prevail.”
I speak for those who have no hope.
The Rev. Floyd Harris Jr.
Harris, who has marched for various causes around the country for more than 25 years, is an assistant pastor at the New Light for New Life Church of God in southwest Fresno. He went to court wearing a preacher’s robe and clutching a Bible. About a dozen supporters attended his court hearing.
After the hearing, Harris likened himself to slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and said Fresno police are no different than those in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and Cleveland, where police shootings have led to civil unrest.
“I speak for those who have no hope,” Harris said. “I have done no different than what Dr. King had done.”
Harris said he doesn’t preach hate toward police. Instead, he said, he advocates self-respect, hard work and civic activism. “I don’t advocate violence. I have not burned down a building. I have not occupied a federal building,” he said, referring to the group of white armed ranchers who have taken over federal property in Oregon.
But Harris said he knows he has ruffled Dyer with his comments.
At one protest on Aug. 15, Harris led a group of 50 people, including children, to protest racial profiling and police brutality. At the protest, he mocked police to a Bee reporter: “They (Fresno police) are doing this ‘community policing,’ where they give our kids hot dogs and bring them bounce houses. And then when those kids turn 15, they shoot them in the back.”
It was his actions on Aug. 10 at a Black Lives Matter demonstration that got him in trouble.
About 50 protesters declaring “Fresno is Ferguson” blocked Tulare Street at O Street to mark the one-year anniversary of the deadly police shooting of Michael Brown in the Missouri city, which sparked nationwide protests. A grand jury in Missouri later exonerated the officer who shot Brown.
After several near-hits between demonstrators and frustrated motorists, Fresno police routed traffic around the blockade.
This is not about race. This is not about his title. This has everything to do with Floyd Harris’ actions.
Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer
Dyer said Wednesday that Harris has been organizing anti-police demonstrations without permits since December 2014. During the demonstrations, Harris uses a bullhorn to encourage protesters to get into the street to impede traffic, putting their lives at risk, the chief said. To ensure no one was hurt, police diverted traffic, including those vehicles responding to emergencies, the chief said.
At one protest on Dec. 20, 2014, Harris encouraged 50 to 100 demonstrators to go into the intersection at Kings Canyon Road and Chestnut Avenue. He later told the protesters to block the entrance to Walmart during the Christmas rush, Dyer said. About 20 officers were called to divert traffic. There were no confrontations and no one was given a ticket.
A week later, Harris, armed with a bullhorn, urged 50-75 people to disrupt traffic on Blackstone Avenue near Nees Avenue in north Fresno, Dyer said. Again, 20 officers were called to the area to divert traffic and ensure the safety of the public, the chief said.
The protest on Blackstone sparked 911 calls and complaints to police and City Hall, Dyer said. Residents wanted to know how protesters could block traffic without getting into trouble, the chief said.
After consulting with the City Attorney’s Office, Dyer said, Harris and other key protest leaders were sent letters. In the letter, they were told they have a right to protest, but they had to do so in a legal manner, Dyer said. If they failed to comply, they would be arrested, the letter said.
Dyer said the letter offered Harris and other protest leaders the opportunity to meet with police and learn how to get a city permit so they could exercise their right to free speech. With the permit, police would block the streets for the protesters.
But none of them accepted the offer, the chief said.
Dyer said the Aug. 10 case is not an example of selective prosecution. Harris was charged with two misdemeanors, Dyer said, because a police video of the event clearly shows him using a bullhorn to incite protesters to get into the street. Dyer said the video also shows Harris telling protesters about the letter he received from police and that he might be arrested for his actions. But during his speech, according to Dyer, Harris said “he needed to do it anyway.”
Others were cited only for traffic infractions because they were not leading the protest, Dyer said.
Dyer said Harris needs to take responsibility for his actions.
“This is not about race. This is not about his title. This has everything to do with Floyd Harris’ actions,” Dyer said.