By Hannah Brandt
On Jan 18, 2016 Fresno’s annual March, ‘Mountain of Food’ collection, and Commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. began at Fresno City Hall with speeches from local leaders including Fresno County Board of Supervisors’ Henry R. Perea, followed by a march through downtown to an assembly at the Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium. This is the 36th year Fresno has had an observance to mark Dr. King’s birthday. It was put on by the Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Committee in collaboration with many other local organizations, including the Fresno Police Department. The message of the event was one of unity toward King’s goals of equality, liberty, peace, and justice for all.
The memorial was spearheaded from the start by Sudarshan Kapoor, California State University Fresno Professor Emeritus of Social Work. Since immigrating from India 50 years ago, Kapoor has worked in Fresno for the message of peace and social justice, 39 of them teaching at Fresno State. Kapoor helped establish the Fresno Center for Non-violence, the Fresno Human Rights Coalition, and the Multi- Cultural and Gender Relations Committee. He said, “Dr. King’s message against hate, violence and intolerance should not be only celebrated on this day, it should be celebrated throughout the year.”
Unfortunately, Fresno has seen too much hate, violence, and intolerance throughout its history. For too many, it is all too recent and personal. Many marched with signs denouncing racism and proclaiming that Black and Brown Lives Matter, calling for action on climate change and the environment, and in opposition to war and continued U.S. military action around the world. The aims of many marchers seemed at odds with views expressed by some of the speakers or with actions made previously by those speakers or the organizations they work for.
For example, Supervisor Perea said, “When I look at this city … I think one of the biggest disservices we did to ourselves and the community was about 15 years ago when we coined ‘A tale of two cities’ in Fresno,” he said. “I think on one hand it may have sent the message that there are things we need to work on, but we really did create two cities, and that was a mistake.” Fresno has been a Tale of Two Cities since long before the phrase was coined. Poverty and inequality are long standing issues in Fresno, as they are in almost every American city. Calling that out and endeavoring to change it did not create the problem. Many would argue it is quite the opposite.
In a discussion on Facebook between local activists it was mentioned that city officials and the Hillary Clinton spokesperson had declared that, “We are all in the same boat.” Vickie Fouts of Uprooting Racism, a Fresno-based organization, said that officials are delusional if they think “we are all in the same boat.” She also argued that, “The speakers on Martin Luther King Day should be the grassroots, not authorities at the top who have no idea of the plight of the majority and only seem to care on this one day. Tuesday they are back to their normal classism, racism, and all the other isms. Such hypocrisy. This is the main complaint I have about Fresno Martin Luther King Day activities and why I am no longer on the committee.”
Pastor Chris Breedlove added, “For the past few years, that I’ve been in Fresno, I’ve marched with others on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to Fresno City Hall to honor the cherished memory of King. On most of these occasions, I’ve carried various signs of protest against some hypocrisy of the City of Fresno against the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. There are plenty of City of Fresno hypocrisies to his spirit, just as there are across this whole nation. But, my blood especially boils when at the end of the Martin Luther King Jr. march in Fresno, there are local elected leaders and officials that co-opt the name of Rev. Dr. King.”
Another who wished to remain anonymous remarked that, “None of them referenced the plight of the poor, which the city has a hand in, such as slum lords like the negligent owner of the Summerset Apartments and the profiling the Fresno PD uses in targeting individuals! We’ll be in the same boat when the politicians and police look to raise the city to be an equitable one where the plight of the poor is a priority and all residents become a priority.”
This has been a criticism around the country, as activists use the mantra ‘Reclaim MLK’ as a call for citizens to examine King’s work in more depth than is often done and refrain from ignoring his vehement opposition to war and U.S. military action as well as his indictment of American capitalism for continuing to disenfranchise African Americans and other marginalized groups through entrenched poverty. King would not like what he would see in Fresno, where African Americans are still isolated on the West Side with far fewer resources than the rest of the city.
Once inside the auditorium, a gospel choir sang a few moving pieces and Punjabi dancers performed. Dr. Kapoor explained that the dances are performed for the Vaisakhi festival, which celebrates the harvest season in Northern India and is important for the Sikh faith. The festival commemorates when Sikhs were bestowed an ethical code. Kapoor said “Sikhs are united against hate, violence and intolerance, and united in love, peace and compassion… Today is about xenophobia, Islamophobia… Dr. King’s message applies to all of us, whether you are Hindu, Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, man or woman.”
The Sikh community has been the target of hate crimes, including the December beating of Amrik Singh Bal, an elderly man waiting for the bus, and possibly the January killing of convenience store worker, Gurcharam Singh Gill. A vigil was held outside the liquor store were Gill worked and was killed a few days before the King commemoration. His death and Bal’s beating follow several other attacks on Sikhs over the years by bigots mistaking Sikhs for Muslims. As Reza Nekumanesh wrote in his letter to the Fresno Bee, although some have described Sikhs as the wrong targets, there are no right targets of the disturbing rise in Islamophobia.
After the dancing, a 15-year-old African American girl, named Colby Lee, took the stage. She described her recovery after a serious accident on the basketball court impacted her speech, vision, and ability to walk. Although it set her back, after extensive therapy and lots of hard work, she is catching up as president of the Black Student Union with a 4.0. She is doing credit recovery at Cambridge High School, a continuation school that people often ridicule and insult. But she defended her peers there saying these students “are not stupid or bad, they just learn differently.”
Lee said she could have thrown in the towel, but she was inspired by the activists before her, like Martin Luther King Jr. “Dr. King said “If you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl, but by all means keep moving.” We must all keep moving and never give up on peace, equality, and justice.
Hannah Brandt is the editor of Community Alliance newspaper. Contact her at editor@ fresnoalliance.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @HannahBP2.