By Vic Bedoian
The Fresno City Council acknowledged local journalist, newspaper publisher and political activist Mike Rhodes with a day in his honor. Rhodes is widely respected in the community for his decades of work in pursuit of free speech and advocacy on behalf of the city’s homeless population.
It isn’t often that an activist who has sued a city, and more than once been arrested by that city’s police, is honored with a proclamation. But that’s what happened when the City Council proclaimed Aug. 16 as Mike Rhodes Day.
City Council Member Luis Chavez stood with Rhodes, proclamation in hand, before admirers in the Council chambers, “One of the biggest challenges the city is facing is the homelessness issue, and we know that previous councils have tried to tackle this, and previous mayors, and we’ve come up short. We know that you’ve brought a humanistic approach and oftentimes we as policy makers tend to see that in terms of infraction and punishment, but there’s much more to this challenge that we have.”
Seeing the importance of alternative media 20 years ago, Rhodes founded and published the Community Alliance, the San Joaquin Valley’s most important and longstanding progressive newspaper. He has also been active as a programmer on KFCF radio and has contributed reports to KPFA News. Rhodes said that in honoring him the city was also acknowledging the progressive movement in Fresno, in which he has played a leadership role over the past 40 years, “The fact that they are declaring today is Mike Rhodes Day is an indication that we’ve been somewhat successful in bringing a more progressive perspective to the Fresno City Council.”
Rhodes has been an activist on a wide range of social and political concerns including the U.S. role in the Vietnam War, its actions in Central America, social justice issues at home and promoting free speech in numerous venues. These activities often clashed with the city’s political and business establishment.
But it was in advocating for the rights of Fresno’s homeless people that he gained the most distinction, and no small amount of friction. His persistence in confronting a city policy that criminalized homelessness crystalized widespread social action and has helped transform Fresno’s orientation toward homelessness and forced city officials to change their policy.
Recognizing the city’s resistance to change, Rhodes declares that the difficult struggle paid off, “I was a part of the homeless class action lawsuit against the city of Fresno, which we won and the city ended up having to pay $2.3 million to the homeless to compensate for their losses. That was a big deal. That was the largest settlement of its kind in the country.
“Whether they liked having to do that or not, it was the right thing to do because it provides homeless people with more dignity and respect and it recognizes their constitutional right.”
In 2016, he crafted his coverage of the homeless situation into a book entitled Dispatches from the War Zone. City Council President Esmeralda Soria noted that the significance of Rhodes’ journalism is especially important on a day that newspapers around the nation are standing up for the media in the face of continuous assault by the President of the United States: “It is, I think, an acknowledgment of your work, your work as a journalist, particularly when we’re going through times where journalism is being attacked and journalism is extremely important to speaking the truth.”
Vic Bedoian is an independent radio and print journalist working on environmental justice and natural resources issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at email@example.com.