By Hannah Brandt
On one of the first cold days of the season, the glow of lights from a TV news crew in the distance amplified the foggy halo around Fresno’s downtown water tower. Eaton Plaza has been the scene of many gatherings for activists and citizens in the city over the years. On Nov. 25, more than 100 Fresnans came out to express their feelings of sadness and anger about Ferguson, Mo.’s failure to indict White police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown.
The local chapter of Faith in Community, a multi-faith group, organized the event, which was part peace and justice rally, part vigil to honor Black and Brown lives lost. Everyone who attended was encouraged to sign posters proclaiming “Systemic Racism Kills” and “Black Lives Matter,” which were draped across the front of the podium.
Clergy of different faiths led the service by giving speeches to mourn the loss, then inspire and galvanize to action an audience looking for healing and direction about the longstanding problem of police shootings of unarmed Black and Brown people in America. While systemic abuse of power by law enforcement was emphasized; so too was institutionalized racism throughout American society. Rev D.J. Criner said, “Black and Brown lives matter. We stand united. We are angry. But we stand for peace.”
Addressing not only the officer’s killing of Michael Brown but also the aggressive, militaristic police response toward those in Ferguson protesting it, Rev. Criner added that “our call for peace applies just as much to law enforcement as to protesters. The Fresno Police Department would not have reacted as the Ferguson Police Department has; still, Fresno has similar factors of racism and discrimination.”
A special focus was made on youth of color in the crowd, who are most often the targets of violence. Two of them spoke about the bias they face and that “hate is as painful as a bullet.” Follow up to that discussion emphasized the responsibility of White Americans. “We need White allies to stand up. While Whites cannot know the Black and Brown experience firsthand, Whites must have honest conversations on racism. All lives matter. For racial justice, we need to show up in the streets, in the courthouses…Will you show up?”
I spoke to a few of the people in the diverse crowd who showed up that night. I asked each of them the same question: Why are you here? A young woman named Andrea Wilson started by saying she believes that “all lives matter.” She and her friends, Kelly Caplan and Courtney Lopez, agreed that although the militarization of police forces is disturbing for all citizens, the vast majority of all forms of force used by police departments is used against people of color, not Whites.
A recent study revealed that an 18–25 year old Black male is three times more likely to be stopped and detained than a White male in the same age range. He is also much more likely to be charged with resisting arrest. An African American is killed every 28 hours by law enforcement. This disparity became a lightning rod on Twitter where Whites shared stories of getting away with illegal activity under the hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite and Blacks responded by disclosing their experiences to the contrary using #AliveWhileBlack. Every American should read these hashtags side-by-side, as they reveal the flagrant racial inequalities in our justice system.
Picking up on what the minister said during the vigil, Caplan noted, “The conversation on these issues should not rest solely on the backs of people of color. Whites have a responsibility to discuss racism and take actions to end it.”
Lopez added, “You know there is a problem when the KKK is making a comeback in part by passing out fliers in Ferguson that involve death threats while they support the fund-raising for Darren Wilson. Just like the KKK operates in the shadows, so does the secret war on our streets. These do not only happen in ‘third world’ countries, but take place in American neighborhoods, too. Police are trained and equipped not only by our military, but the Israeli Defense Forces, as well. This militaristic approach creates enemies of citizens, but profits for the military industrial complex.”
Wilson went on to say she anticipated efforts to discredit Ferguson protesters by calling them rioters. “There is dignity in rebellion, which is a more fitting word.” Caplan continued, “The tendency to focus on the minority of looters instead of on the peaceful majority is a way of distracting the public from the real message of the movement. Also, the approach by police impacts the tone protests take. When police become aggressive, the natural human impulse is to respond in kind.”
All three expressed frustration that much of the media has focused on looting and rioting by a handful in Ferguson.
Jennifer White was tired. She said, “How many times can you say, ‘Black Lives Matter’?” Yet she said she “feels a duty as an African American woman to be here and to make sure our voices are heard. As a teacher of middle school children I need to give them fresh information and show solidarity with the youth, my colleagues, and former students here.”
I told her my 17- and 18-year-old students of color said they would not or did not vote because they did not think their vote would matter. White shared my sadness about that stating, “It is so important that we get young people of color to realize the power of their vote and to mobilize them as young people.”
Many in communities of color are tired: tired of living in a racist America, tired of the killings of unarmed Americans of color, tired of systemic inequalities as the average White American makes 13 times as much as the average African American and 10 times that of the average Hispanic American.
Since Nov. 25, we have also learned of the decision not to indict the Staten Island officer who used a chokehold maneuver that killed Eric Garner, an unarmed Black man with asthma. Many see the denial of charges against NYPD officer Daniel Panteleo and the failure to bring him to trial as an even more egregious example of injustice than Ferguson’s Michael Brown case.
While protests in New York City have so far been peaceful, with officers respecting the rights of demonstrators, those in Berkeley/Oakland have been fraught with vandalism and violence. The mainstream media has reported only the broken windows and fights between protestors, despite accounts of police brutality on social media. A Unitarian minister says she was hit in the head with a baton by a police officer while she was retreating peacefully. Journalists report being hit with batons by police as well.
Jennifer White was concerned that African-American voices might not be heard in this movement to fight injustice. That is a growing worry among people of color as the movement grows larger and Whites often monopolize the microphone.
Hannah Brandt is a freelance journalist who has previously published in Community Alliance and the Fresno Bee. She can be reached on Twitter @HannahBP2 where she runs @FresnoAlliance.