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Then-California KKK Imperial Dragon Chris Johnson shouts a "white power" message in the Fresno State Free Speech Area on Nov. 17, 1997. (Archive)

A brief history of ‘free speech’ unrest at Fresno State

Happenings at Fresno State’s Free Speech Area have been testy lately.

Street preachers have been back on campus, purveying their intolerance and trying to incite particular reactions from students they then can use to raise money with.

The Thursday before spring break, I walked past the speaker’s platform and saw university police officers hanging out a short distance away from the action.

There was a time university police kept their distance from events in the Free Speech Area, and occasionally gave their tacit seal of approval to what would today be dubbed vigilantism.

In the 1970s, Fresno State hosted the largest contingent of Middle Eastern foreign students in the U.S. They typically majored in engineering and the sciences. The majority were from Iran. At the time, their homeland was in the throbs of great unrest against the ruling family. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi had ruled since 1941 after his father was forced to abdicate after a British-Soviet invasion.

Internal Iranian politics often spilled over on campus. The Iranian students were split into anti-Shah and pro-Shah factions. One or the other of the two groups would protest in the free speech area regularly.

Due to the supposed presence of Savak (the Iranian secret police) agents and informers on campus, the anti-Shah group wore paper bags over their heads with eye holes cut into them.

The opposing faction would inevitably charge the protesters and a wide-ranging brawl would ensue. Innocent bystanders often got caught up in the violence. Campus police would eventually break the fighting up.

American students finally became disgusted by the happenings.

On at least two occasions, students led by agricultural majors (including my late husband) charged into the battling groups, laying into them with fists and the occasional club. Years later, my husband told me the campus cops weren’t unhappy about the American kids breaking things up.

Then, there was the near-violence when the Ku Klux Klan came calling in November 1997 after leaving leaflets on cars at a home football game. Despite the 100 police officers surrounding the small group, they were hustled away from the extremely hostile crowd after about 10 minutes.

Preachers have always wandered onto campus with their condemning messages aimed at students. They’re about as regular as the professional bicycle theft rings that haunt colleges at the beginning of every semester. Students have always rejected them.

In the mid-2000s, we had a street preacher show up with hateful messages targeting the LGBTQ community on and off campus. The reaction from students was immediate and hostile. As now, administration emphasized he had the right to say whatever he wanted if it didn’t amount to shouting “fire” in a theatre.

Students and the community came up with a wonderful counter protest—a kiss-in in front of the evening news cameras. Gay and lesbian couples showed up and had a wonderful time kissing one another to outrage this visiting preacher.

Personally, it was rather satisfying for me to see him nearly blow an artery or two.

He showed up every semester for a couple of more years after the kiss-in. Eventually a crowd unnerved him and he jumped onto what he thought was a table in front of the University Center.

The ‘table’ was a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., installed shortly after his assassination in 1968. A hostile crowd of black students surrounded him and tried to pull him off it.

Campus police eventually intervened to remove him from danger and from campus.

Dan Waterhouse writes The Collegian’s Campus Column, which prints on Wednesdays. Waterhouse  is a lifelong Fresnan. He has written for the Fresno City College and Fresno State student newspapers over the years, including other local publications. Follow him on Twitter:@WaterhouseDan