Deep into Fresno Bee writer Marek Warzsawki’s recent column on anti-vaxxer disruptions at Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) board meetings comes this oblique reference: “All but one of the 22 speakers lashed out at the board for some reason or another.”
I felt like that “but one” on Feb. 19. Speaking under the public comment that evening, I offered a rebuttal to the invective being thrown at Trustee Veva Islas by angry speaker after angry Bible-quoting speaker.
However, I wasn’t focused on vaccinations and masks. I was following the money. And Facebook. Those factors didn’t interest the columnist; he was there with a preconceived storyline of disruptive anti-vaxxers versus violent Brown Berets, with both sides looking equally ridiculous from his perch.
For my part, rather than contradict the ill-informed opinions of anti-vaxxers, I asked trustees to instead recognize the real firestarters: Granville Homes President Darius Assemi, Fresno County Supervisor Steve Brandau, Fresno City Council Member Michael Karbassi and their weekly online broadcast, the unselfconsciously titled Unfiltered. I argued that Trustees Keshia Thomas, Terry Slatic and Elizabeth Jonasson-Rosas were throwing gasoline on flames by granting interviews to GV Wire or appearing on its incendiary “digital news site” known for platforming fascists.
Just last April, attorney Mariah Thompson of the National Lawyers Guild–Fresno Chapter praised the Bee for not giving fascists a platform for deception and normalization of their views. “Passing the mic to members of hate groups, neo-fascists or White nationalists allows them to gloss over” their violent history and intent, wrote Thompson in her critique of GV Wire.
Yet that’s what Warzsawki did in his Feb. 19 column. He indulged himself in an easy put-down of the uninformed anti-vaxxers, akin to shooting fish in a barrel, and when presented with lies from the fascist agitator present, he platformed them without question. He liked the false, simplistic framing of the issue as “red versus blue” rather than Thompson’s more intellectually challenging dichotomy of fascism versus freedom. He wasn’t going there.
But fascist extremists do not reflect the “red” Republican Party, rather its internal struggle driven by people who reject the mores of democracy, and Warzsawski failed to seek any counterpoint.
Instead, he leaned in and amplified a racist dog whistle, implying the Brown Berets had attended the board meeting two weeks earlier with violent intent—the meeting he missed—writing: “No sign of Brown Berets or any civilian group with militaristic tendencies.” A stunning oversight, considering he was surrounded by White, nondenominational churchgoers agitated by the militaristic individual whose Facebook livestream offered repeated suggestions of violence leading up to and during the Feb. 2 board meeting
This merger of church prayer meetings and school board sessions just happens to be the biggest radical political movement in America today.
Warzsawski swallowed and repeated the fascist lie that they had only organized a defensive action two weeks earlier, but the agitator had been harping GV Wire agitprop articles from Jan. 28 and 29—days before their first board meeting attack—as justification to be angry and go on the attack, saying Islas was suspect for supporting Brown Berets, labeling her racist and a “brown supremacist.”
Islas received threatening phone calls for days before the Feb. 2 meeting; word spread through the community that she was at risk, and people turned out to keep her safe. Good thing, too. An angry, unmasked, unvaxxed crowd was waiting for her outside afterward; earlier, the agitator had initiated a loud argument with an Islas supporter inside the meeting room and later referred to a group of Islas supporters as “insects.”
Yet in his column written two weeks after the fact, Warzsawski stroked the fascist with a warm, colloquial voice, ignoring the sequence of events and online evidence, offering instead: “He made darn sure his side was well-represented, too.” Darn sure? His side? Golly gee, what a swell guy, Marek. Sounds like you two made a connection.
The false controversy, which stems from a funny tweet about impotence among anti-vaxxers as a public health “win-win,” was ignited and fanned by the overpowered Assemi political machine and a former colleague of Warzsawki’s, GV Wire’s Nancy Price (“GV Wire Sparks School Board Attack,” Community Alliance, March 2022).
But they’re just pawns. The real power stems from decades of increasingly obscene profits from the development of residential sprawl subdivisions, city apartment complexes, and rural almond and pistachio orchards and processing plants, all bolstered by public subsidies.
In the last two-year election cycle of 2019–20, a network of 15 Assemi family members, companies and employees gave more than $200,000 in Fresno County campaign contributions alone, excluding state and federal races, money that arguably should have been paid into public coffers.
Area politicians must either agree to accept the lucre and sign onto the developers’ agenda of meager public health protections, road subsidies and low impact fees or face online articles and videos critical of them that later serve as fodder for Assemi-funded political attack ads.
And now officeholders must weigh the added threat of violence characterized by some as “legitimate political discourse.” The corruption is so blatant now that FUSD board candidate Daniel Renteria has a billboard at Olive and Van Ness avenues actually labeled, “Paid for by Granville Homes.” Indeed he is.
In Death of the Liberal Class, Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges lists the press, liberal religious institutions, labor unions, universities and the Democratic Party as the five pillars of the liberal establishment needed to sustain Western Democracy. He warns that journalists sell out their constituents when they treat fascism as mainstream politics. We all do.
From those standing daily for human rights with the We Are Not Invisible coalition of directly impacted homeless advocates, to the antifascist frontline being held by the Save the Tower Theatre Demonstration Committee every Sunday morning, there are Fresnans who are resisting. Bravely. Notably missing in action are the institutions of media, academia, Democratic Party politics, liberal religions and labor.