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Column: Homicides are up in Fresno. This activist is right to call for defunding the police anyway

D'Aungillique Jackson, second from left, raises her fist in the air during Fresno protest of the death of George Floyd in May
D’Aungillique Jackson, second from left, and other members of the NAACP chapter at Fresno State during a May 31 protest prompted by the death of George Floyd.
(Fresno State NAACP)

It was the moment that Black people everywhere were supposedly waiting for.

Kristen Welker of NBC News, the moderator of the final debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, asked the presidential candidates what they would say to Black parents who must have “the talk” with their children about the police. Did they understand, she pressed, why these parents feel they have no choice but to prepare their sons and daughters for the possibility of being targeted “for no reason other than the color of their skin”?

What followed was a tortured back and forth, in which Trump insisted he wasn’t racist while sounding racist and Biden offered up yet another mea culpa for his involvement in the 1994 crime bill that led to the overpolicing of Black people.

“It was a mistake,” Biden said. “I’ve been trying to change it since then.”

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Dare I say we have more immediate concerns?

Because, at the moment, the biggest hurdles to criminal justice reform aren’t coming from the federal level, but the local level. And for the foreseeable future, the local level is where I suspect many will be tempted to return to some of the failed tough-on-crime policies of the past.

Just look at what’s happening in Fresno.

This Central Valley city has seen a surge in homicides in recent months, much like in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego and dozens of other cities nationwide. As of last week, at least 50 people had been killed in 2020, mostly in the poorest and, yes, Blackest neighborhoods of west and south Fresno. Shootings have topped 560 — more than double the total at this point last year, Fresno Police Chief Andrew Hall has said.

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But unlike L.A., where the City Council decided over the summer to slash the LAPD’s budget by $150 million and reduce the number of sworn officers to fewer than 10,000 for the first time in years, Fresno has yet to settle on its final spending plan. That has left an opening for Hall to request a $10-million increase for his department’s budget, alongside other crime reduction programs, such as Advance Peace.

“A lot of our victims are involved in the gang lifestyle, but sadly many are not,” Hall said at a recent news conference, according to the Fresno Bee. “And that’s where it really started to impact me personally. When an 18-year-old girl, a woman, was killed simply because she attended a party — she got in between two gang members — that was kind of the final straw.”

Members of the Fresno City Council, no doubt hearing from worried constituents, seem poised to grant Hall’s request. But if that happens, a nascent effort to defund the police would be left in limbo, again prioritizing the department over the predominantly Black neighborhoods in the city that have long been plagued by disinvestment and overpolicing.

Hall, for his part, has blamed the rise in violence on public antipathy toward police and on policies implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19 by preventing crowded conditions in jails and prisons. In short, he thinks too many people with gang affiliations are being released too early and are committing murder.

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“We need to get our prisoners in prison and our suspects in a jail until they can be tried or released or put in prison,” he said in comments to the City Council earlier this month.

Officials from other California cities with rising homicide rates have focused their blame more on the economic fallout from the pandemic, including widespread job loss and soaring rates of housing insecurity.

Either way, since COVID-19 will likely be around for a while, apparently so will the violence in American cities.

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That’s a prediction that gives D’Aungillique Jackson pause.

“It’s something that’s weighing heavy on me,” she said. “I can be very transparent and say that.”

At 22, Jackson is one of the youngest members of the Fresno Police Reform Commission, formed in the weeks of rage after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And as chair of the commission’s community input committee, she’s leading the fight to defund the Fresno Police Department — something, according to multiple surveys, the public very much supports.

Jackson is an outsider, a military brat who moved all over as a kid but calls San Diego home and never wanted to move to Fresno. But her parents didn’t give her much choice.

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“I just thought to myself, like, man, I’m just going to stay low, do my four years and get out,” she said of her decision to attend Fresno State.

But a lot can change in a few years. After growing up in predominantly white neighborhoods and attending predominantly white schools, Jackson said that attending college is what prompted a journey of “understanding and loving my Blackness.”

Jackson said she didn’t know about the Black fraternities and sororities known as the “Divine 9 until I got to Fresno State’s campus. I didn’t know about the NAACP. I didn’t know about Black student unions.”

Today, Jackson is president of Fresno State’s chapter of the NAACP. And it’s Jackson who helped organize a peaceful protest in the days after Floyd’s killing that attracted almost 3,500 people.

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She is the latest in a long line of people who, for decades, have been fighting for a more equitable existence for west Fresno — a pollution-choked, formerly redlined swath of the city that has been largely abandoned by elected officials as developers have transformed orchards into malls and subdivisions. Life expectancy there is more than 20 years lower than in northeast Fresno, according to a 2012 study from the Central Valley Health Policy Institute.

People in Los Angeles protest a Kentucky grand jury's decision in the case of Breonna Taylor's death by Louisville police.
People in Los Angeles protest after a Kentucky grand jury declined to indict any police officers in the death of Breonna Taylor.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“I don’t want to lead people into a situation that’s going to cause more harm than good,” Jackson said. “And right now, I’m wondering for myself, like, is that what’s happening? And is it a direct result on what we’re advocating for? And if so, how do I live with myself for that? My only answer is showing up and making sure that we’re staying focused on our goal, which is to decrease violence, decrease the amount of poverty and increase community safety and trust and morale.

“It’s not the answer that I want to give,” she added. “But data doesn’t lie, right? These statistics of these murders don’t lie. Accountability and responsibility are important, which I wish the Police Department would take some of that instead of deflecting everything.”

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Jackson’s description of her internal struggle over how best to prevent more Black women from being shot to death on Fresno’s streets reminds me of many of the conversations I overheard as a teenager over the 1994 crime bill. You see, the thing that doesn’t get talked about enough with that bill and the many locally driven tough-on-crime policies that preceded it, is how many well-intentioned Black people wrestled over supporting it, desperate to stop the violence.

No one wanted to see their fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins arrested and thrown in prison at disproportionate rates — and, like every Black person in America, that happened to some of my family members — but no one wanted to see their fathers, brothers, uncles and cousins shot dead in the streets either.

We all know how that turned out, of course, which is why Biden keeps apologizing.

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We can’t let history repeat itself, letting our fears and desperation inform public policy decisions over logic and common sense. So Jackson is absolutely right to double down on her efforts to shift money from the Fresno Police Department’s budget and toward residents who have long been denied even the most basic public amenities, such as decent parks.

“I believe crime rates will go down,” she said, “if people can wake up and love the neighborhood they’re living in.”


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