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Shooting of unarmed white teenager has racially diverse Fresno trying to make sense of Black Lives Matter

The diverse young crowd filled the pews at a Fresno church late last week to consider what Black Lives Matter might mean in their city. 

Like protesters around the nation, they were angered at the police-shooting deaths of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana.

But it was outrage over the June fatal shooting of Dylan Noble — a white teenager whose supporters at a vigil brandished Confederate flags and shouted “white lives matter” — that pushed many of them out to the streets this month.

“We’re as outraged about what happened with Dylan as about what happened to Philando and Alton,” said Ernesto Saavedra, the son of Mexican immigrants. “He’s white and he died in the streets the same way a lot of brown and black people have.”

Noble, a 19-year-old “country boy,” was unarmed when he was shot and killed following a traffic stop.

The shooting gained national media attention and a quick response from officials. Police Chief Jerry Dyer, who said Noble had refused officers’ orders, called the death a tragedy and asked the FBI to investigate.  

Soon after Noble died, his former high school teacher Lou Standifer organized a vigil that drew hundreds to the gas station where he was killed.

Friends, family and supporters lighted candles, signed Noble’s motorcycle and wrote messages of love on a curb and on the road.

The vigil soon turned into a chaotic protest as people chanted anti-police slogans. Under one sign that said “Justice for Dylan” was another that said “White Lives Matter.”

“I think it was motivated by anger and a lot of sadness and grief over the loss of a loved one,” Standifer said. “It’s frustration and it’s youth.”

Standifer remembered Noble as a “Clovis boy, a country boy,” who had a way of bringing people together and liked trucks and motocross, like many of his peers.  

“He was just an amazing young man,” Standifer said.

Last week, Dyer released footage of the June 25 shooting from body cameras worn by officers. 

Noble is seen ignoring officers’ commands to get on the ground. He holds something in his hand — which turned out to be a 4-inch plastic container with malleable clay — and at one point, he walks toward the officers, saying “I [expletive] hate my life.”

Officers shot him twice while he was standing and twice as he lay injured on the ground.

In the days after the shooting, a diverse group of locals not affiliated with the initial protesters also took to the streets. 

Many had followed on social media as videos of young black men’s deaths went viral and as protests took place around the country. Noble’s death became a catalyst to action. 

On a Saturday earlier this month, hundreds shut down roads, shouting “Black Lives Matter” and  carrying signs that said “Dark Skin is Not A Crime” and — like at the earlier vigil — signs that said “Justice For Dylan Noble.” 

Justice Medina, 20, who is black, organized the protest. While he was troubled by the use of the Confederate flag at Noble’s vigil, he said he was most troubled by how Noble died.

"He didn’t have a gun in his hand, but they put bullets in him and then hit him with a shotgun. Come on now," he said. "We have to hold them accountable."

The fact that Noble was white, he added, “shows to the richer side of Fresno … that this is possible to happen to you.”

An analysis by the Washington Post showed that while police in the U.S. fatally shoot whites more frequently than blacks, blacks are 2.5 times as likely as whites to be fatally shot by police. 

Arturo Gonzalez, an attorney who has worked for years on civil rights cases related to police killings in and around Fresno, said he frequently gets calls from people with stories of police overreach — most often involving Latinos. 

Fresno is about 50% Latino, 30% white and 5% black.

In 2012, Gonzalez reached a landmark settlement with Fresno police following the 2009 shooting death of Steven Anthony Vargas, who was unarmed.

In that federal civil case, Gonzalez argued that the Vargas shooting was part of a pattern of excessive and unnecessary force by police in Fresno.

In addition to agreeing to pay $1.3 million, police said they would change some policies involving officer-involved shootings, including working to complete investigations within one year and providing more information to families.

But Gonzalez says he’s still troubled by a number of police shootings of unarmed people in Fresno in recent years and says officers are not being held accountable.

Late last year, Fresno police shot and killed Freddy Centeno, a mentally ill man who pulled a black spray nozzle out of his pocket as officers approached.

There was little outrage over that case, said his brother Roger Centeno.

"With Dylan, they said it was a tragedy that happened. With my brother [the chief] never apologized. We never got a call from the police," he said. “They were both tragedies.”

Since 2014, Fresno officers have shot 23 people, 14 of whom have died, said Lt. Burke Farrah.

Each one is investigated by various teams including internal affairs, homicide detectives and the district attorneys’ office. 

“It isn’t a simple process, but it’s an important one and it’s a thorough one,” he said.

Councilman Oliver Baines said the numerous protests held in the city following Noble’s death have pushed Fresno officials to talk about police shootings and about the relationship between police and the community — particularly communities of color.

“I think we all believe we can’t ignore this issue any longer,” he said.

He said officials planned to meet again this week to discuss how the city might address those issues — including possibly setting up a committee on race relations and considering recommendations made by President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

At the church meeting last week, where a Black Lives Matter banner greeted attendees, protesters said they were trying to figure out what might come next for them.

Many said they were trying to find a way to translate the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement to the needs of their own city. 

Some expressed frustration that it had taken the death of a white man to draw attention to the local issue of police shootings.  

Others, like Damon Thomas, who is black, 19 and graduated high school the same year as Noble, said they saw themselves in the teenager. 

“That could have easily been me,” he said.

Because Noble was white, he said, he hoped those angered by police shootings in Fresno could find support across racial divides.    

“That gives us a stronger chance to build community,”  he said. “I feel like now’s our best chance to get something going.”

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

Twitter: @palomaesquivel

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