By Quentin Savage
Fresno is a segregated city. “How?” is a better question than “Why?” but perhaps “Where?” is the most important. Have you seen it? Have you felt it? Would you know what to look for if I sent you for proof ? Try the city budget. If you haven’t heard, the Fresno Police Department was appropriated $160 million from the city’s General Fund for the 2016 fiscal year. Except that the 2016 fiscal year begins July 1, 2015.
This matters because law enforcement has officially become the city’s largest public service investment, digging deep into residents’ pockets. This matters because 51% of Fresno households indicated that they were food insecure last year. This matters because the homeless encampments on the “east side” and below the Tower District weren’t vacant or abandoned; they were bulldozed. Fresno’s needle exchange programs are operating beyond capacity, and the hospitable greenspace belongs to the “north side.” The same is true of most privileged afterschool programs.
The General Fund is seeded with the sweat of the city’s residents, too many of whose property and income taxes aren’t being used to improve conditions for their children or the quality of their own lives. This matters because Fresno says it matters, and not all residents agree with an increasingly punitive landscape.
“I grew up on the east side,” says a longtime Fresno resident who asked to remain anonymous. “There’s a large concentration of cops on the east side. We might have the largest concentration of cops in the city…and probably the largest concentration of drug-use, gang activity and poverty as well. That seems counterintuitive to a heavy police presence, but it’s all too typical I think…Instead of recognizing these things as problems…as bad…we should consider that they might be due to the history of power and racism in the Central Valley.”
In a climate so preoccupied with “correction” and “consequence,” Fresno’s residents are growing more and more concerned about the motivation behind an increasing police presence.
I asked Grisanti Valencia, 25, to tell me how she feels about the role of law enforcement in Fresno. “I think for many years there’s been an effort to criminalize us. It feels like that’s the main function. It’s why they put checkpoints all over the place and impound [so many] cars. Each car is like $2,000 right? And that’s not really something any family can afford.”
I asked Iliana, 22, the same question. “Mostly, I just see them patrolling heavily. The last time I saw them stop somebody, it was a man with his son. They were towing his car.”
I ask Valencia if she was aware that her taxes fund the law enforcement in her city, “Yeah, yeah, of course. I think a lot of people don’t know that, but I never go to the grocery store and say, ‘Hey, I’m undocumented, don’t charge me sales tax!’ Because they’d probably laugh at me and then charge me double, right?”
That’s an interesting point. I want to learn more about the impact of law enforcement on Fresno’s immigrant communities, so I ask her whether she knows that her Sheriff ’s Department has a relationship with Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“Of course, of course!” she says. “We actually had a civil disobedience in front of the county jail because we know they work together. Our sheriff, she works together with ICE, and she refuses to meet with us about it because she knows that what she’s doing is wrong.”
According to the longtime resident who asked to remain anonymous, “A lot of immigrant folks that live in Fresno don’t have ‘official’ papers…I think that the FPD’s job in a lot of ways, particular to their administrative goals, revolves around this unspoken motivation to meet quotas… So they police heavier because of this… At a certain point, it turns into them just messing with people… pulling them over, writing tickets, towing cars and arresting individuals to put in jail to meet those quotas.
“By the time it becomes obvious that some people don’t have papers, or they show up in an ICE database somewhere, they just get deported! So yeah, I think the law enforcement here has a negative relationship with most communities of color, but particularly Latino immigrants. While San Francisco and other counties’ sheriff’s departments have severed their relationships with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, [Fresno County] still has one.”
Another young resident, Gelasio Rodriguez, spoke to similar concerns about the fractured relationship between residents and law enforcement. “I think it’s problematic because what they end up doing is marginalizing the immigrant and undocumented communities who no longer see them as protectors. They are sort of seen as people out to get us.”
Maria Chavez, 23, has “been personally harassed several times about my paperwork…I’ve even been arrested and threatened to be put into their tanks.”
When Chavez and Valencia were asked if they’d had any negative encounters with police, their responses were disturbingly similar and speak to the structural sexism and abuse visited upon women in the Central Valley.
Valencia: “Oh, man! I’ve actually never had a positive encounter with law enforcement. They’ve always been something…it’s always been negative…We grew up in a household with a lot of domestic violence. And they would take like two hours to respond, and then take [him] on a joyride just to bring him back… And since they wouldn’t record any of it, it cost my mom not getting her U Visa. So she remains undocumented.
“My sisters and I were able to get our U Visas later on, because of a domestic violence claim, but my mom didn’t because the law enforcement never told us, like ‘By the way, you’ve been the victim of a crime, so you qualify for a U visa.’ We had to do our own research like years later, to find out we qualified for that.”
Chavez: “I come from a very broken home, and the [local law enforcement] knew what I was going through and what was happening…with my parents… but instead of helping me they just told me to ‘suck it up’ and stop getting into trouble.”
Concluding, I was sure to ask my friends what they’d like to see the city’s money spent on in the future. Valencia smiles, “I would say the parks! Parks and recreation! Right now, we are No. 60 out of a total of 60 parks in all of the United States. Which means that our parks suck. Our budget spends 2% on parks, which is nothing!
“We see all these new neighborhoods and parks being built in north Fresno, some of them have outdoor gyms and meanwhile they aren’t developing any of the existing neighborhoods, and they really should right? They just built a park that the city’s really proud about, but that park’s adjacent to the highway. The city was so proud, like ‘Yeah, woo, we did such a good job’ but really it’s like no you didn’t that park’s right next to the freeway? How is that doing a good job?”
Chavez says that she “would invest it in our city, the resources for our children, and more accessible healthcare.”
Rodriguez wants “more youth after-school programs, our parks and better advocacy about the scarcity of water in California.” I think that’d be especially helpful for residents up north.
This is what it looks like when community resources are traded for jail beds. This is what it sounds like when Black and Brown residents are worth more in handcuffs than in homes, and they know it. Listen up.
Quentin Savage organizes with the California Prison Moratorium Project. He is a volunteer with the broad-based coalition Californians United for a Responsible Budget.