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As violent protests dotted Minneapolis and the rest of the country after the death of George Floyd, nearly 200 peaceful protesters gathered for a vigil Friday night in northeast Fresno.

“Black lives matter! It bears repeating,” organizer Karen Polnitz told the crowd, most wearing masks and practicing social distancing.

Video of the Minneapolis officer, Derek Chauvin, with his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck, led to condemnation from Fresno civic and police leaders. Chauvin was arrested on Friday and charged with Floyd’s death.

Vigil Quiet, Peaceful

Protesters lined up for a half-mile on the north side of Alluvial Avenue centered around the Unitarian Universalist Church, many carrying signs. The diverse crowd spanned ages, skin tones, and cultural styles.

They heard speakers talk about injustices that minorities face under unfair policing practices. While the focus was on Floyd, the names of other African-Americans killed in recent shootings that have raised concern such as Breonna Taylor of Louisville, Kentucky, and Ahmaud Arbery from Georgia were mentioned as well.

Erin Hubbard attended with her husband and two young girls. She worries about her husband, who is black.

“I fear when he goes out that he’s not going to come back to his kids and he’s not going to be there to raise them and to see them grow up just because someone thought he looks threatening,” Hubbard said. “It’s important for me to be here and support my community because I want my children’s father to watch them grow up.”

Erin Hubbard attended a vigil for George Floyd with her two young daughters. (GV Wire/David Taub)

Mistrust Between African-Americans and Police

“There’s a level of mistrust that exists within the African-American community with the police department like any anywhere else in the country.” — former Fresno City Councilman and police officer Oliver Baines

Oliver Baines is a former Fresno police officer and city councilman and now is CEO of the Central Valley NMTC, LLC. He shared his perspective on the relationship between the black community and Fresno police Friday.

“There’s a level of mistrust that exists within the African-American community with the police department like any anywhere else in the country,” Baines said.

Baines said that mistrust comes from decades of negative relations between law enforcement and African-American residents.

“I think people fail to realize how historical the sentiment is. It is way beyond what we see happening in this 21st century or 20th century. It extends way beyond that,” Baines said. “It’s deep and it’s visceral and it’s really baked into the DNA of African-Americans around the country.”

Fresno Police Union: Contrary to Our Training

“I’m a white male and I’m not an African-American person living through their spectrum. So it’s harder for me to obviously see what they’re seeing.”FPOA President Todd Frazier

“I was shocked,” Todd Frazier, president of the Fresno Police Officers’ Association, said after watching the video of Floyd.

Frazier talked about how officers are trained to restrain a suspect.

“There are times when we have to get on a person’s back to restrain them, put them in cuffs. But then we are also trained to immediately, once the situation is controlled, get that person off their chest … or at least on their side so they can have a normal chest compression so they can fill their lungs, breathe normally,” Frazier said.

What happened in Minneapolis “was the last thing we wanted to occur.”

“Other (police union) presidents like myself have come out strongly against this. … It’s contrary to our training,” Frazier said.

Motivation for the Vigil

Polnitz, a worship associate for the UU church, had a story similar to Hubbard’s.

My husband “is the most loving man I’ve ever met in my entire life. Yet someone might feel threatened because of his skin color and call the police. That could end in disaster.” — Karen Polnitz of Fresno

“On the national level, it’s very traumatic and very painful. It’s also personal for me. My husband is black and my son is half black. And I fear for them,” Polnitz said. “I think it’s really important for us to spread the word, for us to have a physical presence.”

Polnitz said her husband has reservations about going out food shopping with a mask in the COVID-19 era.

“When he said that to me, it made me realize that the color of his skin could potentially make somebody see him as a threat. He is the most loving man I’ve ever met in my entire life. Yet someone might feel threatened because of his skin color and call the police. That could end in disaster,” Polnitz said.

Polnitz also shared the story at the vigil.

The Unitarian Universalist Church is known for its large “Black Lives Matter” sign that has been a source of controversy in the past.

“I think it’s really important for us to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement and talk about the work that needs to be done to reduce bias, to reduce prejudice so that this type of thing doesn’t happen.”

Karen Polnitz with her husband Troy Polnitz and son Anthony Polnitz. (Karen Polnitz)

A Pastor’s Perspective

“It’s difficult to be black and live in America. It’s a different experience than other people have,” said Pastor B.T. Lewis of Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church in Fresno. “(Police) listen to us differently because we are black. The bias is so implicit and is so embedded in our personalities, our biases against other races. So they don’t hear me the same way that they might hear somebody of a different race.”

“I’m not saying that our city is not without flaws. I’m still afraid. I need to know where my grown children are. The issue of bias and prejudice and racism still exists.” — Pastor B.T. Lewis of Fresno

He says the relationship between the black community and police is better in Fresno than places like the Twin Cities, or Greenville, Texas, where he grew up in the 1960s.

“We have a pretty good communication with police leaders,” Lewis said. “We have developed a level of communication that I think other communities don’t have.”

Lewis still has concerns.

“I’m not saying that our city is not without flaws. I’m still afraid. I need to know where my grown children are. The issue of bias and prejudice and racism still exists,” Lewis said.

Fixing Police-Community Relationship

Baines and Frazier say that community involvement is the best way to build relationships.

“Every bit of evidence shows us that when you engage in community-based policing, it endears a level of trust between all communities, especially African-American communities,” Baines said.

Frazier said the department and FPOA often attend local events to meet and engage the community.

“Maintaining the public trust and relationships between the police officers and our community is vitally important. And we really believe that,” Frazier said.

But Frazier said he understands the damage negative incidents can do.

“We try to take one step forward, but then something happens and we end up having to take two or three steps back,” Frazier said.

Pastor Lewis hopes Fresno police will learn from the Floyd death.

“I want our police department here in Fresno to use this as a teaching opportunity, an awakening opportunity,” Lewis said. “We need this kind of awareness to trickle down to the officer riding around in our neighborhoods. We want our neighborhoods to be policed safely.”

Allies Within White Community

Baines hopes the death of George Floyd elicits sympathy from the white community, rather than blame.

“Every bit of evidence shows us that when you engage in community-based policing, it endears a level of trust between all communities, especially African-American communities.” —  Oliver Baines

“There should be a moment of pause for a white person when they see that happen,” Baines said.

Baines said incidents leading up to George’s death, or others in similar police-custody deaths, shouldn’t matter.

“As if any of that justifies killing an unarmed person. It’s ridiculous. I think that’s what white people have to do,” Baines said. “You have to pause in these moments and stop treating them as isolated incidents and realize there’s a pattern of behavior that exists with law enforcement against African-Americans in this country.”

Frazier said that he is sensitive to perspectives from communities of color that differ from his own experience.

“I’m a white male and I’m not an African-American person living through their spectrum. So it’s harder for me to obviously see what they’re seeing. We’re seeing something different and it’s just for that alone, we need to be more diligent and trying to see what they’re seeing and try and sympathize with what’s going,” Frazier said.

Fresno Chief Troubled by Minneapolis Incident

Asked for a comment, Fresno Police Chief Andrew Hall deferred to his Wednesday Facebook post criticizing the actions of Minneapolis police.

“I am troubled by what I saw and feel compelled to speak out,” Hall wrote. “This officer’s actions and those officers that stood by and watched the death of George Floyd, violated the oath of the more than 800,000 men and women who dedicate their lives to serve their communities. I am angry over the actions of these officers and they should be held accountable. The behavior demonstrated by the Minneapolis officers erodes the trust of our profession.

“I am saddened over the loss of George Floyd and I pray that God will comfort not only his family and friends, but that God will continue to provide leadership and guidance to Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo. The actions of these officers should not and cannot diminish the relationship we have with each other.”

Sunday Protest Scheduled

Another protest and march is scheduled for Sunday, May 31, at City Hall starting at 2 p.m.

This story has been updated with additional coverage of Friday’s vigil.

5 Responses

  1. B.P.

    Meanwhile, our scofflaw sheriff and board of supervisors remain silent, invisible, and therefore complicit.

    Reply
    • LawAbidingCitizen

      Agreed… 100%
      She is for law abiding citizens first, politics and herd mentality second. That is completely honorable and respectable. It would make for a much better world if more people put people first and politics second…

      Reply
  2. Bill

    It would be great if these white protestors would stand when white people are abused too. Maybe we don’t matter as human beings. 2 weeks ago a black male nurse video taped himself at a nursing home beating up an elderly white male patient. Yet crickets from this group of social justice unitarians.
    Being quiet is being complacent and George Floyds life somehow matters more than a helpless elderly white man is illogical. Until ALL LIVES MATTER and are valued the conversations are slanted and biased. This particular organization on Alluvial also believes in Abortions and that human life is a mere ” choice” their entire social justice mantra is hypocritical and selective. I have heard this same group scream ” white privilege” and label local leaders as fascist , Nazi or supremacist .
    This is not a way to have a sensible dialogue with attacks or labels . This is unfortunately politically charged and motivated. They are largely against anyone not liberal Democrat or leftists Progessives. They add in 7-8 other social gripes they have like ” red lining Fresno” “inequalty in education” and “income equality” etc. Making it more about their politucal social agenda then about a man named George Floyd.
    How does burning buildings, crashing windows of cars and destruction of black owned businesses resolve toward working through bad policies and procedures in police training or weed out bad apples? This puts further stress on a black mother going to a market to buy diapers and food buts its now shuttered because a group of radicals decided destroying a black persons livlihood would make police brut force disappear. They miss the opportunity to make changes with the police chief and mayor by allowing destruction of neighborhoods and looting. This behavior is not justified it overshadows Floyds tragic murder. This group is actually not supportive of helping fellow American citizens out that struggle with illness, loss of income or other issues instead go out their way to help illegals and meth vagrants before a struggling white American. Anti White American sentiment is apparent with this group.
    Hopefully their protest doesn’t turn hostile or an opportunity to blame President Trump when this police brutality has existed long before Trumps last 3 years in office.
    Several area churches are having a prayer vigil for George Floyd . One is at St. Anthony of Padua at Bullard and Maroa. Prayer, dialogue and unity gets a lot resolved within our community attacks fall on deaf ears .
    If they use this as another political protest exploiting the death of George Floyd they once again lose their point.

    Reply
    • Winston

      Bill, respectfully, your perspective is your opinion, but starting your reply with the following words “It would be great if these white protesters would stand when white people are abused too” epitomizes your lack of empathy and demonstrates your lack of understanding of the plight of the oppressed.
      I hadn’t heard of the elderly gentleman being beaten, but you are absolutely right that act is reprehensible and should never be tolerated. Yet, to stay on topic, the protests are attributed and a direct response to the level of accountability afforded an officer whom willfully takes a life while on duty.

      Personally i support the riots, but not the looting. Stealing does nothing for the cause! Burn a police department down and it can be re-built. Take a life while on duty and that Human Life can NEVER be replaced. The riots are the outraged language of the unheard. America, for as great as it is, has yet to tell the truth, let alone teach the truth of Americas History. Perhaps empathy could be easily reached if the history of the United States of America was not shied away from but held accountable in history lessons taught and discussed in all American schools. Anger and frustration that has fallen on deaf ears and is now beginning to manifest itself in riots. This is when the frustration and source of our anger becomes misinterpreted, misrepresented, and no significant change occurs. But peaceful calls to action have garnered no significant change. This what happened to Colin Kap. He protested police brutality against African Americans, but just a short time later he is now associated with protesting the salute of the flag. Rather than his act of peaceful demonstration drawing attention creating a space to intelligently, honestly, to discuss the brutality and injustice suffered by police, he instead became known for protesting the National Anthem.

      Unfortunately in my opinion, Mr. Floyd will not be the last. More Americans will fall victim to police brutality and still many Americans will deny the fact that African Americans are killed at an alarming higher rate than any other race before significant change will occur.

      Bill you speak of prayer and dialogue, but you forget, move your feet when you pray. The local police shooting of Dylan Noble, illustrates that while police brutality is particularly harsh on African Americans it isn’t isolated to one race of people. Still, African Americans are killed by police officers at astonishing higher rates than any other race and no one wants to admit the obvious and discuss the elephant in the room: Racism still exists.
      That is the continued reasonable assumption reached until a more scientific explanation can be deduced, but to date none have presented themselves.

      Reply

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