As the mayor of Fresno, I’ve dealt with some very difficult situations in my first six months in office, but none were as difficult or heart-wrenching as witnessing the pain in the eyes and voices of Kayla Foster’s father and grandmother.
On June 30, I joined Chief Jerry Dyer, many others for a community meeting at the Southwest Fresno Police Station where the Fosters, ex-gang members, pastors and others spoke about the scourge of gang violence in our city.
We’ve had 265 shootings so far this year in Fresno. The vast majority involve gang members fighting for territory. The result is an endless cycle of violent vendettas and retribution.
At that press conference, I reaffirmed and expanded my commitment to the community to do everything in my power as mayor to target gang violence. I realize this is no easy task, but we can’t surrender to gang violence in our community.
Chief Dyer and the brave men and women of the Fresno Police Department, are waging a gallant battle with street gangs. We need to continue to commit the resources necessary to Chief Dyer and the police department in both direct engagement and with community policing to take this issue head on.
We are also working with our educational partners to provide job training to give gang members workforce alternatives to crime, perhaps even filling some of the new jobs coming to Fresno when Amazon and Ulta open their e-commerce centers. We are helping a number of community organizations dedicated to showing gang members that they have better options and can be productive members of society.
We can take these and many other steps to deal with this appalling problem, but we also must now take this opportunity to target the illicit sources of income that fund the gangs in our community.
If there are fewer customers for illegal drugs such as heroin, meth, crack cocaine, or prescription painkillers, gangs will be financially crippled. If the demand for sex workers were to suddenly and miraculously evaporate, the unholy practice of human trafficking that also funds many of these gangs would be significantly reduced.
In short, we have to do everything in our power to eliminate these illegal markets and take away all economic reasons for gangs to exist. We must also provide viable alternatives in educational and employment opportunities. This will not be easy or happen overnight, but this is an important part of our community-wide effort to end this plague. The task is daunting and difficult, but we must take a stand now to protect our children, grandchildren and every child in Fresno.
Kayla Foster was only a few weeks away from graduating from high school when she died. She had a twin brother and when her grandmother attended the high school graduation ceremony at Central High School last month, she saw Kayla’s cap and gown on the empty chair next to her brother.
This poignant moment formed an indelible image of a beautiful life cut short needlessly. As a father and grandfather, I cannot fathom the pain families suffer when they lose a child.
In our world, with its 24-hour news cycle, social media and unlimited images of violence and death a click away on our computers or our televisions, we have become desensitized to violence.
Let Kayla’s untimely death and the deaths of other innocent children – as well as those who have suffered life-altering injuries – be an emotional milestone that reminds us that the lives of everyone in our city are important. We owe it to Willie Harris, Tiana Skinner, Andrew Mitchell, Janessa Ramirez, Rashad Halford Jr., Kayla Foster and all of the other innocent victims.
We are all in this together.
We must unite as one Fresno – no matter of our skin color, socioeconomic status, political beliefs, or neighborhood we live in – to fight this gang violence epidemic. I urge you to join me and the many dedicated members of our community who are fighting on the front lines of this battle.
It is time to take back our city from gangs – one neighborhood at a time, one street at a time and one innocent victim at a time.
Lee Brand is the mayor of Fresno. Follow him on Twitter, @MayorLeeBrand