The Community Alliance newsstand in front of the Fresno County Jail has been stolen four times in the past year. After the second theft, we hid a GPS device inside the newsstand to find out where the stolen newsstands were going.
On New Year’s Eve (2021), the GPS indicated the newsstand was on the move. It went in a straight line to the old industrial section of downtown Fresno—south of Ventura Avenue. It stopped at 2900 E. Townsend Ave. I pulled that address up on Google Maps, showing the location to be a satellite jail of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.
On New Year’s Day, Pam Whalen (my wife) and I drove to see if we could find the newsstand. We arrived and quickly spotted the newsstand in a dumpster at the satellite jail. After taking a few photos of it in the dumpster, we retrieved it.
Not wanting to jump to conclusions, I wrote a letter to Sheriff Margaret Mims requesting her assistance in finding out who did this. I gave her the time when the newsstand was stolen and reminded her of all the video surveillance equipment they have that has a clear and unobstructed view of where our newsstand was located.
I see this as an outrageous affront to the First Amendment of the Constitution guaranteeing us free speech. Whoever removed this newsstand took it upon themselves to decide what anyone passing by the jail can read. Are they concerned that the Community Alliance, an independent/alternative newspaper, challenges the status quo, reports on corruption, police brutality and supports social and economic justice?
We returned the stolen newsstand and papers back to the front of the jail, with the GPS. Two days later, it was stolen again. This time, it was taken to the parking garage under the Fresno County Courthouse. We recovered it from a dumpster.
I filed a complaint with the Fresno Police Department (FPD) and an addendum after the newsstand was stolen for the second time. The letter I sent to Mims asked for her cooperation.
A few days later, Mims replied by email and a phone call saying “through my inquiry I discovered that jail personnel had removed the newsstand” and she went on to say “at the very least my staff should have contacted you prior to removing the stand and I apologize for that not being done.”
Assistant Sheriff Steve McComas and Mims both said the reason the newsstand was taken is because it was thrown through a window at the front entrance of the jail. McComas showed me the video of our newsstand being stolen by jail personnel but said that the video of the incident involving the newsstand being thrown through a window was not available.
Tony Botti, Fresno County Sheriff’s Office public information officer, sent us an e-mail clarifying why they do not have video of the attack (using our newsstand) on the Fresno County Jail. He wrote that “since the damage was to our property and an external report wasn’t filed, we may not need to preserve the video. We experience damage to our property on a regular basis, which we just repair and move on.”
I pressed McComas on the theft of our newsstand and asked if they were treating this as a criminal matter; he said “no.”
I said, “If I were to walk into the Sheriff’s department, steal a laptop, take it to some other part of town and throw it in a dumpster, you would investigate that as a criminal act, right?”
McComas claims that because the newsstand was taken from the sidewalk, it is the City of Fresno’s jurisdiction and that the FPD would be responsible for the investigation. He said this was strictly a personnel issue within the Sheriff’s Office.
I asked McComas if the FPD had contacted him to view the video of the theft, and he said “no.” The FPD has not contacted the Community Alliance newspaper either.
We want an investigation and assurances that law enforcement personnel will be held accountable, just like anyone else involved in criminal behavior. We would also like to be compensated for the two newsstands taken last year, before we had the GPS device.
Mims and I agreed that the Community Alliance newsstand can be returned to the sidewalk in front of the jail and that we can bolt it to the sidewalk to prevent it being used in an assault on the jail. If the City of Fresno objects, we will move it to county property, in front of the jail, and use bolts to secure it there.
This is not the first time government employees have taken our newsstands.
A City of Fresno employee, acting under the authority of his job, took a newsstand in downtown Fresno. We sent a letter to the City attorney, and we were reimbursed for the newsstand and our attorney fees were paid.
Before that, the City of Fresno tried to ban all newsstands in downtown Fresno unless they were in an expensive news rack they approved. We fought that and won.
A postmaster in Madera recently removed our newsstand in front of a Post Office. We resolved that incident and ended up with many more Madera distribution locations.
One of our newsstands was set on fire outside the FPD on Mariposa Street. The intensity of the heat turned it into a puddle of plastic, suggesting gasoline or some other propellant was used. The flames probably went 20 feet into the sky. A police representative told me they saw nothing and that the video surveillance cameras didn’t see anything either.
Previous to that, the Fresno County Library banned the Community Alliance telling us it was too controversial. More controversial than Mein Kampf or the Communist Manifesto? We appealed the ban of the paper and won.
A free press is worth fighting for, and the Community Alliance will always stand up for the First Amendment, which guarantees us the right to free speech and a free press.
Thank you for being a reader of this publication. It is your support that keeps free speech alive in Fresno.