By Mike Rhodes
Fresno progressive activists are known for protesting at Shaw and Blackstone (Peace Corner), petitioning their government for grievances, or even establishing alternative institutions like the Community Alliance newspaper or KFCF 88.1 FM (free speech radio in Fresno). The issue of police violence, officer-involved shootings and allegations of excessive force, has moved one group to take more militant actions—like throwing rocks through the window at the Fresno Police Officers Association and burning up police cars. These actions have many in the progressive community concerned that this violence will spiral out of control or lead to greater police repression that will have a negative impact on our civil liberties.
What the militants and progressives have in common, though, is a great deal of frustration about the lack of oversight of police actions in Fresno. If a police officer is involved in allegations of excessive force, if there is an officer-involved shooting or someone wants to file a complaint against an officer, there is not a process that can be used, where community members feel confident that justice will be served. Without a “relief valve,” most people’s only option is to file a lawsuit against the City of Fresno.
The lack of police accountability led a group, which has yet to be identified, to throw paint on the police memorial in Courthouse Park in July 2010. In a statement posted on Indybay.org the group said this action was taken in solidarity with protestors in the Bay Area who were demonstrating against the killing of Oscar Grant. Grant was killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer on New Year’s Day 2009. The group’s statement on Indybay said that “because Police show so little respect for the life of the people they so viciously gun down, i.e.[,] Oscar Grant, concerned citizens in Fresno vandalized a police officers[’] Memorial in Fresno’s courthouse park tonight. If the cops aren’t going to show any respect for the people they are supposed to ‘Protect and Serve’ we are not going to show any respect for their fallen.”
The next incident, on Christmas Day 2010, happened at the Fresno Police Officers Association office on Van Ness in the Tower District. Again, posting on Indybay.org, the group wrote “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas! Jacky Parks and the FPOA have been very naughty this year. By greedily taking over half of the city budget they are responsible for lost jobs and cut services. I went to fill his stocking with coal but couldn’t find the chimney so the coal was delivered through several of the building[’]s windows.” Pictures of the boarded up windows at the FPOA office were shown on the TV news that night.
In August 2011, the attacks reached a new level of intensity as an explosive device (probably a Molotov cocktail) was thrown at a police vehicle outside the police station in southwest Fresno. The group again linked this action to solidarity with Oscar Grant, but this time it included a comment about an incident where an officer killed a man in the Tower District. The posting seemed to call for more violent attacks against the police.
Here is the group’s statement from that attack: “This action is done in solidarity especially with those in the East Bay standing up against the murderous BART police who most recently executed Charles Hill. BART then used fascist type methods by shutting down all cell phones in stations where they thought protestors might be showing up. WE WILL NOT BE SILENCED!
“All police are murderers. FPD recently executed Carl Maggioroni and have a reputation for executing people of color whether they are armed or not. The time to fight back is NOW! We live in a police state, this is all ‘business as usual’ for them. We have to come together and fight back, F**K THESE PIGS! This is war, play time is over, join the fight.”
In early September, an attack on a police officer’s home (she works at the Southwest Police Station) was linked by the police to the firebombing. The attack happened in the middle of the night, shortly after the officer had arrived home from work.
The group involved in the previous attacks denied participation in the firebombing of the officer’s home. Its statement said, in part, “We do not claim responsibility for the recent firebombing of a FPD officer[’]s home. We are actually somewhat confused and somewhat concerned about this act. Our group does not feel that things have come to the point where actions which put individuals in harm[’]s way are suitable. At the same time, we cannot condemn someone who does feel this way since many feel that we have committed actions which are not suitable.
“The real question is whether this action was political or not. If this was someone who has answered the call to war then we commend you, but was it? There are too many things that smell funny about this. The news reported that 6 months prior to this the same officer had her car burned up. Maybe an upset ex who came back? Also the house is for sale in a dried up market, fire insurance pays pretty well. Beyond anything it seems that this was the perfect opportunity for Dyer to gain support against those of us who fight back.”
Law enforcement classifies actions like the burning of police cars as an act of domestic terrorism. When Jeff Luers, who was affiliated with the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), was arrested for burning up SUVs in Oregon, he was sentenced to 22 years in jail, later revised to 10.
The Fresno police requested information from Indybay.org about who posted the article about the firebombing of the police car. Indybay.org is an open publishing forum where anyone can post an article, without identifying themselves. Indybay.org does not maintain a log of IP addresses, so there is no way to identify who posts to the site, unless the writer provides that information. The police, including Chief Jerry Dyer himself, have been asking questions to progressive activists, asking them if they know who is involved.
It is unlikely that progressive activists in Fresno know who is involved, because the people engaged in those clandestine actions have a culture of security and information is shared on a “need to know” basis only. Past police investigations, looking into what they define as domestic terrorism, have led to the infiltration of community groups by law enforcement. In extreme cases, the informants seek to entrap political activists by suggesting violent actions and encouraging them to become involved in illegal activities. Possible targets include groups like the Central California Criminal Justice Committee (CCCJC), the Brown Berets, Copwatch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The CCCJC has been working on police accountability issues for years. It holds public meetings, which anybody can attend, and focuses on ways to improve (now, restore) the Office of Independent Review, making sure that the public has accurate information about how to react when they come into contact with the police, and informing people about where to get complaint forms if there is an allegation of excessive force.
Recently, the Brown Berets have been visible on the streets of Fresno protesting police abuse. The Community Alliance newspaper featured a photo from one of their demonstrations on the front page of the September 2011 issue. While they have been vocal advocates for police accountability and protesting against the use of excessive force, there is nothing illegal about that. In fact, it is explicitly protected under the Constitution of the United States.
The Copwatch group uses video to monitor the police when they stop community members, to make sure that nobody has their rights violated. The local chapter of the ACLU is involved in a wide range of issues but focuses on legally protecting the civil rights of this community’s most vulnerable citizens.
A vigorous investigation by the police of progressive community groups working on police accountability issues will not address the root cause of the problem. Better training, new practices and procedures, a functioning complaint process and a less violent culture within the police department are what the progressive community believes would end the spiral of violence.
Those engaged in these symbolic attacks against the police seem to believe that they will create the spark that leads to a prairie fire that will engage the masses into a rebellion against “business as usual.” But, up to this point, there has been no evidence to support that theory—only one incident (the attack on the police officer’s home) that is more confusing than revolutionary.
Because of the clandestine nature of the group involved, it is impossible for the public to understand much about the motivation, goals, purpose or ideology behind these actions. That is one of the shortcomings of clandestine groups—they can’t be very public. The mainstream media reports what the police tell them about these incidents and the alternative press, like the Community Alliance, is limited to brief statements on Indybay.org.
As this drama plays itself out, groups in the Fresno area like the American Civil Liberties Union, the CCCJC, the Brown Berets and Copwatch, which are concerned about police accountability issues, will be working both behind the scenes and on the streets to change a badly broken system.
If you are interested in working for a more transparent police force, where people with complaints are listened to and treated with dignity and respect, and ultimately to have the police there to protect the interests of poor and working people (rather than the rich and corporations), see the sidebar to this article.
On Oct. 22 at 5 p.m., there will be a No More Stolen Lives rally at N Street and Mariposa Mall across the main library east of the Fresno Police Headquarters. Organizers are encouraging participants who have had someone they care about shot by the police to bring pictures of your loved ones, bring candles and wear black. For more information, contact Gloria at email@example.com or 559-268-2261.
Attempts to contact the group involved in the attacks against the police were unsuccessful
Mike Rhodes is the editor of the Community Alliance newspaper. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
American Civil Liberties Association (ACLU)
Greater Fresno Area Chapter of Northern California
4974 N. Fresno St., Suite 185
Fresno, CA 93726-0317
Civil liberties hotline: 415-621-2488
The Brown Berets
Central California Criminal Justice Committee
P.O. Box 4555
Fresno, CA 93744