From the Editor

By: Mike Rhodes

Like most Community Alliance readers, I want to believe that our lives in Fresno are improving as we work through the many serious problems that confront us. In the past year, the City of Fresno has established an Office of Independent Review to improve police accountability and hired a homeless czar to end homelessness. Those two developments should give us hope. Why then do I have this increasing feeling of uneasiness and concern?

My discomfort grew last month when I read about a proposal to change Fresno’s name. The argument for changing our city’s name is a sincere attempt to break free from the negative stereotypes that surround us. You know, to distance ourselves from the late-night talk show hosts that poke fun at us and the reports that show we have the highest concentration of poverty in the nation, that our air quality is terrible and that our high school dropout rate is off the charts. Changing our name would be similar to what corporations do when they have done something so awful that there is no way out, except to start over again with a new name. Blackwater, the war profiteer, comes to mind. After its employees, sometimes referred to as mercenaries, were involved in a series of civilian massacres in Iraq, Blackwater renamed itself Xe. But would changing Fresno to FresYes or any other name change anything?

Shortly after pondering this name change proposal, I drove toward one of this city’s sprawling homeless encampments. I passed by the baseball stadium in downtown Fresno, which the City of Fresno has pumped endless dollars into. As I continued on toward the F and Ventura streets homeless encampment (read more about what happened there on pages 4, 5 and 11), I started thinking about our priorities.

For the wealthy, government bureaucrats and the Visitors Bureau, the stadium was built to attract and encourage people to the downtown area. But to me, the stadium and other recent boondoggles represent the city’s attempt to put image above substance. Yes, the stadium looks nice, but it is an illusion that things are getting better in Fresno.

Where this illusion versus reality is really dramatic is with the City of Fresno’s policy on homelessness. By any objective measure, there are more homeless on the streets today than there were before the city’s 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness was developed. Greg Barfield, the manager of homeless prevention and policy (aka the homeless czar) for the city, does not have the resources needed to even minimally affect the number of homeless on the street.

What Barfield is able to do is give the illusion that the city has a plan to end homelessness. Unfortunately, instead of helping the homeless, Barfield was reduced last month to joining the police and city sanitation workers as they chased the homeless from one vacant lot to another.

Arriving at the encampment at F and Ventura streets, I thought about how much money the city spent when it built the stadium and more recently gave further concessions to the owners, while at the same time refusing to provide the homeless with drinking water, portable toilets or even trash bins.

How can the city subsidize a baseball stadium while this city’s most vulnerable citizens are literally dying from the lack of assistance? What is Barfield doing to help the situation other than providing a fig leaf for the city to stand behind?

I like Barfield, he is a nice guy, but even though he has been at the job for more than a year now, he has not brought us one step closer to ending homelessness. Yes, it looks good that the city has hired someone to focus on the issue of homelessness, but only giving the community the illusion that things are better, without the substance of change, is using smoke and mirrors to confuse and distract people.

As a close observer of this city’s policy on homelessness, I can tell you that the situation on the ground is not getting better. Barfield came into his job talking about Housing First, a program that gets the chronically homeless off the streets by providing them with housing. I was encouraged by the talk of this new direction, but Barfield has not delivered on the promise and is now engaged in actions reminiscent of the days when the city bulldozed homeless encampments.

Barfield says, on one hand, that he is so focused on finding housing for the homeless that he has no time to work on providing the homeless with a safe and legal place to stay. He says this knowing full well that it will be years before enough affordable housing can be developed to get a significant number of homeless off the streets. In the meantime, the homeless have no place to live. They are literally being chased around downtown Fresno from one vacant lot to another. How does Barfield have the time to work on chasing them out of one encampment after another, while claiming to have no time to help establish a legal and safe campground with drinking water, trash pickup and portable toilets?

The City of Fresno could make a profound difference if it used resources differently. Instead of spending money to evict the homeless from their meager dwellings, the city could open up abandoned buildings downtown or figure out a way to allow homeless families to be caretakers of vacant, foreclosed, bank-owned homes in Fresno. Studies show that it would actually cost less to house the homeless than to maintain the broken system we have today.

But there are powerful interests (social service providers, the police, business interests and a reactionary/Republican administration at City Hall) that would rather maintain business as usual and spin the illusion that they are doing something to end homelessness than to actually do anything about it. We have several articles this month addressing this issue.

I’m also concerned about the illusion of police accountability. We had a significant number of officer-involved shootings last year, with many of them ending in death. There was a young man who was shot and killed as he walked out of his house holding a cell phone. He was so sure the police were going to play judge, jury and executioner that he had pre-selected music for his funeral, giving the CD to his girlfriend.

Steven Vargas, 32, of Fresno was involved in a car accident on McKinley Avenue in central Fresno. A Fresno police officer arrived on the scene and ordered Vargas out of his car. When he did not get out fast enough, the officer opened fire killing Vargas. Vargas had no weapon.

Last October, Fresno police officers shot and killed John Cooper in northwest Fresno. According to Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, Cooper called 911 saying he wanted to kill himself. Officers saw Cooper, who had what appeared to be a gun pointed to his head. Dyer said Cooper pointed what turned out to be a toy gun at the officers and they opened fire. Scott Payne, an officer involved in this incident, was also involved in beating Glen Beaty.

The Beaty incident was probably the highest profile case of excessive force in Fresno last year. The video of two officers (one later involved in the Cooper killing and the other promoted) was shown around the world. It showed Beaty on his stomach, being handcuffed, while one of the officers beat him in the face. Beaty, who was never charged with a crime in that incident, was in the Fresno County Jail for seven months. He is still being detained in Los Angeles where he is being involuntarily given drugs.

After years of effort by the Central California Criminal Justice Committee, the Fresno City Council finally agreed to fund an independent police auditor. Late last year, Eddie Aubrey was hired as this community’s first director of what is being called the Office of Independent Review (OIR).

Although it is too early to analyze how effective the OIR will be, there are indications that this office has also been set up to give the illusion of addressing an important problem without giving the department the resources it needs to do the job.

Political insiders at City Hall say to watch what happens if Aubrey comes out with a report critical of any police action. The OIR’s support on the City Council is weak, the City Attorney is concerned that the OIR will be a liability if it finds and reports any information critical of police action, and the mayor’s support might evaporate if there is a crisis.

The smart money is saying that if Aubrey wants to keep his job he will be a lapdog for the police department. That will keep the City Council, the city attorney, the police chief and the mayor happy. But if there is a controversial case and he does release information that is critical of the police, his job will be on the line.

The reality is that Aubrey probably won’t produce a public report critical of the police because his office has no independent investigative authority. Aubrey will be able to review the findings of the Fresno Police Department Internal Affairs department, but he cannot contact witnesses in investigations of police misconduct. Also, Aubrey reports directly to the City Manager’s office, which is not a department that will rock the boat even if a controversial report is written. That report would probably never see the light of day.

The job of the OIR, like the homeless czar position, has been set up by the mayor and elected officials at City Hall to give the illusion that we are addressing serious problems, without the substance. Both jobs have been structured with limited resources and authority to guarantee minimal results. If either Aubrey or Barfield were to do what is needed to succeed, they would probably be fired.

A tip of the hat to our mayor for being clever enough to create all of these smoke and mirrors, making these grand illusions a reality. Former mayor Alan Autry, even though he talked repeatedly about these issues, could never have conceptualized such a scheme. The fact that we have a more skillful mayor is not something for the progressive community to celebrate.

The question that begs an answer is this: What is to be done? How do we process this information without becoming depressed or cynical? Fortunately, the answer is not all that difficult to find. Whether the question is how to create police accountability or how we end homelessness, the answer is that we need to ORGANIZE.

The only way to hold elected officials and government bureaucrats accountable is to build a movement they can’t ignore. For example, if the estimated 15,000 homeless in Fresno were to organize a march on City Hall demanding basic campgrounds and public services the situation would change quickly. Homeless advocates could support the march and help in other ways. Rick Morse, a local businessperson, got tired of government inaction and took it upon himself to clean up an encampment and paid for portable toilets out of his own pocket. Local architect Art Dyson is starting a project to build eco-villages for the homeless.

We need to pressure local government to do “the right thing” and use our creativity to organize a meaningful response to homelessness.

Community activists need to demand that the Office of Independent Review provide honest and useful reports on the recent officer-involved shootings. If the OIR is structurally flawed, as I believe it is, changes need to be made. In addition, public forums can be held to discuss past and future cases of alleged police misconduct. A community Police Review Board can be established where testimony is taken and community leaders question the police and persons involved in these incidents. More people should become involved with Copwatch. The point is, we don’t have to wait for local government to act. We need to organize, educate and agitate.

Ultimately, the progressive community will have to build enough unity to elect candidates to local office. Those elected officials will then carry out public policy that meets people’s needs, not the wishes and whims of this city’s builders, developers and other assorted fat cats. Another world is possible.

  • Mike Rhodes is a writer for the Community Alliance newspaper and author of the book Dispatches from the War Zone, about homelessness in Fresno. www.mikerhodes.us is his website. Contact him at mikerhodes@comcast.net.

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