Although Ferguson, Missouri, is nearly 2,000 miles away from the Valley, the Fresno area has ties to the incidents that have unfolded – from people joining in on the protests to a history packed full of similar racial undertones.
The community group People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO), alongside Fresno’s Faith in Community, joined people protesting on the streets of Ferguson following the police shooting of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown.
One of the organizers, Bryston White, was taken aback by what he saw during the protests.
“It felt like I was in a militarized foreign country,” White said. “The level of military presence was horrifying as they were suppressing people for exercising their right to protest. It was demonstrative.”
The recent events surrounding the city of Ferguson has brought race to the foreground once again in U.S. politics.
According to a 2010 census report, St. Louis County – which includes the city of Ferguson – has long been one of the nation’s most segregated metropolitan areas. Until the late 1940s, blacks weren’t allowed to live in suburban areas being kept out by restrictive covenants, legally-enforced contracts that prevented African-Americans from owning property, and other methods of preventing blacks from moving in.
Fresno shares a similar history to Ferguson, also possessing the same covenants. Additionally, most African-Americans living in Fresno are in much of the poorer, poverty-stricken areas while generally white-populated areas are further north, according to U.S. Census data.
A similar story of racism even occurred on the Fresno State campus in 1997 when African-American student Malcolm Boyd was beaten by white supremacists during a fraternity party. The incident sparked racial tensions and the Ku Klux Klan even held a rally, which took place in the Free Speech Area under police supervision.
Fresno State professor Matthew Ari Jendian, chair of sociology, said the country’s deep-rooted historical racism affects the result of events in places such as Ferguson.
“From naming African-Americans as three-fifths of a person in the Constitution, to having the people who were here before us completely erased and land given to white settlers, racism is embedded in the U.S.,” Jendian said. “Just because things weren’t the same in 1860, doesn’t mean the mindsets have evolved.”
Professor James E. Walton, Fresno State chair emeritus of English and Africana studies, said incidents in Ferguson are both a national and systematic problem within U.S. law enforcement.
“The police and the protestors live in two different cultures,” Walton said.
“The job of a cop is to report to the judge and jury, but in this country we’ve made cops executioners and keep the middle class, simply middle class,” Walton said.
However, retired Lt. Karl Micotti of the San Jose Police Department said the job of a police officer is to change with the times, not be complacent and always examine what they can do better.
“The department wants to reflect the population of the community they serve,” Micotti said. “So why is it the case that only three officers in Ferguson are African-American in a city that is over 80 percent black?”
“Is there something wrong with the hiring process? Are they purposely making it difficult for them?” Micotti added.
Micotti also expressed the importance of the community and law enforcement working together to settle differences and come to a peaceful agreement.
“In a tense situation like that, people must work together so they can exercise free speech, but to lessen the violence,” Micotti said, “People need to wait and shouldn’t rush for judgment, but this could be a case of that 1 percent that’s doing a disservice for all police officers.”
Jendian emphasized the importance of shifting the mindset of judging a book by its cover, and instead embracing our similarities as humans.
“People see an image and assume they know that person, and you cannot know a person based on one image, incident or one aspect based on who they are,” Jendian said. “We can’t think this situation will go away by pretending it doesn’t exist – not to be color blind, but color conscious and realize we have more in common then we do different.”