Black Lives Matter in Fresno

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Members of the One Hope Community Choir directed by Hope Garcia. Lead solo by her daughter, Dawn Garcia. Photo by I. smiley G. Calderón

By I. smiley G. Calderón

On Nov. 14, before Fresno County reverted back to “purple tier” status with regard to the coronavirus, a group of local, passionate activist-artists and community members came together for a Covid-careful (with social distancing, mask-wearing and frequent hand sanitizing) outdoor benefit concert in honor of Black Lives Matter in downtown Fresno, with ticket proceeds going to the local Fresno State chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

It was a small yet mighty event that brought LA comedians and Central Valley musicians together alongside visual artists who displayed their beautiful and evocative paintings in celebration of Black lives. Despite the cold weather, these dedicated artists came out and shared their flame of passion with the audience and rekindled a warm sense of community, something that has been missed for months because of the pandemic. And the audience was diverse too.

Thanks to Dr. Daren Miller, longtime Fresno educator and community leader, a group from Tulare came in support of the concert with a beautiful and colorful wall-sized Black Lives Matter banner that was prominently displayed on Fulton Street.  

Organized by local producers Tanya Salzer and DocTV33 in collaboration with SG Productions at La Maison Kabob restaurant in downtown Fresno, the benefit concert featured the following hilarious comedians: Katrina Davis, Felicia Folkes and Amir the Amiracle.

As an extra special treat, local comedian Isaiah Washington did a surprise guest set that kept the crowd rolling in mask-covered laughter. All the comics brought the funny to the stage and helped ease a bit of this horrible year’s built-up tension and stress with their comedic medicine.

Before the comedians hit the stage, the audience was blessed by the beautiful vocals of the local One Hope Community Choir, led by the youthful Dawn Garcia. Her mother, popular Fresno singer Hope Garcia, also captivated the crowd with her beautiful rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” accompanied by Visalia musician Edward Hernandez on the ukulele.

(Top left) Fresno State NAACP Student President D’Aungillique Jackson addresses the crowd. Artist Martin Townsend’s painting can be seen attached to the podium. (Top right) Artist Brandi Nuse-Villegas displays her artwork and portraits of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. (Bottom) Tulare Black Lives Matter banner displayed on Fulton Street in front of La Maison Kabob in downtown Fresno. Photos by I. smiley G. Calderón

Hernandez, a ukulele virtuoso and accomplished singer, energized everybody with his dynamic musical artistry and strong baritone voice. And, as icing on the cake, the concert didn’t miss a beat with the signature style of the lovely and multi-talented local singer sensation, Keysha Isler, who hosted the event.

Fresno painters Brandi Nuse-Villegas and Martin Townsend had adorned the south entrance to the patio with their skillful portraits and paintings. Villegas and Townsend both came on stage, and each delivered remarks about their work and passion, their very presence echoing the sense of community so clearly seen in the performing arts portion of the evening.

It was refreshingly beautiful to see a full spectrum of artists safely gathered in a united purpose for social justice, especially during such difficult times.

D’Aungillique Jackson, Fresno State NAACP student president, addressed the audience with a heartfelt message of gratitude and unity for the evening. “In times like this, it’s important to understand that we are really nothing without community,” she emphasized.

“And that it doesn’t start nor does it end with protesting…but, it’s important to have things like this and to continue to show up in these spaces as well as to encourage yourself, your friends and your families to show up to the city council meetings and the places where things are actually moved.”

Jackson talked about the need for continued peaceful social accountability with our government leaders in enacting positive change for our community here in Fresno. She connected with the crowd and encouraged resilience and perseverance in the face of difficulties. Her deep message and strong energy glowed with bright hope for a better future. 

The backdrop mural for the outside backstage area at La Maison Kabob is a beautiful yet provocative memorial of paintings of dearly missed George Floyd, Gabriel Fernandez and an Unknown Masked Nurse, representing those affected by the ravaging Covid-19 virus, especially our dedicated frontline medical responders. It was an inescapable provocative triad of powerful images that popped out from behind each performer and onto the audience as the spotlight and stage lights bounced upon it throughout the night.

Of course, Black Lives Matter, the nationwide and international political movement as we know it today, was founded by three strong Black American women—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi—in response to the 2013 acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer only seven years ago.

Since then, #BLM has organized community members in response to countless other atrocities against the Black community across the nation. Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Mya Hall, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland…Breonna Taylor. The list seems never ending. But their lives mattered.

Our community’s lives matter—the lives of fellow Fresnans Isiah Murrieta-Golding and Lorenzo Lavar Neal, who both tragically died at the hands of Fresno law enforcement in recent years.

And this movement has become a “political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.” This powerful assertion and declaration that Black lives matter “is an affirmation of Black folks’ humanity…and resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”

It’s a simple message that tells it straight and to the point: Our lives are not disposable objects that can be discarded at whim with impunity—not unlike yours. The NAACP has been saying the same sort of thing for a century longer in a slightly more nuanced way: “The vision of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is to ensure a society in which all individuals have equal rights without discrimination based on race.” 

That is, for example, we all should enjoy the “equal rights” of a society where a police officer treats a Black person the same as any other person, and if a Black person is wrongly injured or killed by the state, an “equal rights” society would mean the state should be held fully accountable in the same way it would be if a White person were injured or killed. It’s really not that complicated at all. Simply put: Black Lives Matter.

But, before there ever was an organized modern social movement affirming Black lives, our communities already knew that our lives mattered even as our racist society and police state tried to convince us otherwise. Even when they’ve shown no regard for our lives.

We’ve come too far to acquiesce, and we owe it not only to our ancestors who have paved the way for our freedoms and protections in this country with their blood, sweat and tears but also to our future generations to stand up for one another and declare and affirm the most basic tenet of humanity: that our lives matter.

Black Lives Matter in Fresno—and we can prove it.

*****

I. smiley G. Calderón is a Gen X Chicano and lifelong educator who spent a career in academia in Southern California but is most proud of being a father.

Notes:

  1. https://lamaroarts.wordpress.com 
  2. https://martindtownsend.wixsite.com/mtstudios 
  3. https://blacklivesmatter.com/about/ 
  4. https://blacklivesmatter.com/herstory/
  5. https://naacp.org/about-us/