Police separate and calm opposing factions at Fresno event featuring Joe Arpaio
All the elements were in place here Friday evening for violent clashes outside a fundraiser featuring polarizing former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. But the Fresno Police Department was determined to calm things down and avoid making arrests.
The effort won respect from protesters who could agree on little else.
“We have to be the voice of calm,” said Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer. “And when we do walk into the middle of it, we know at times it’s with risk and that there’s always a potential we’re going to be the ones injured. But it’s well worth it.”
At the heart of the protest was the speech by Arpaio, who was convicted for actions related to alleged racial profiling of Latinos, and then pardoned by President Trump.
Inside a banquet hall, local Republicans celebrated Arpaio, at a cost of up to $200 a person.
Outside, police cordoned off the entire block of the venue. Beyond that zone, up to 75 officers were available to guide the anti-Arpaio protesters to one side of a street and the much smaller group of counter-demonstrators to the other.
As demonstrators began to assemble, officers walked among them, repeating the message that they were not on hand to take sides, but to keep the peace.
Dyer said he became concerned, however, when some in the larger group began to cross the street and interact with their ideological opposites. People became visibly agitated, raising their voices, starting to get in each other’s faces.
A stick holding a sign could suddenly become a weapon. One person carried a long knife in a sheath on his side.
Dyer set the tone for officers, jumping into possible confrontations himself at least 20 times. At one point, he stood in the middle as people on one side shouted: “Racists go home.”
A man retorted: “Then why are you here?”
Dyer stood silently, with an expression that was sometimes almost bemused, but attentive.
Nearby, Capt. Mike Reid walked into a group that included a man with his face masked.
“How we doing guys? We good?” he asked. “Would you do me a favor? Can you take a step back?”
He added: “I’m going to get right in the middle of this because I love a good argument.”
The comment drew laughter.
In another instance, a person gesticulated and accidentally struck another. Reid pulled the first person aside and extracted an apology to the person who was hit.
Dyer said such interventions had already proven themselves during earlier situations, notably an appearance last year by then-candidate Trump. A thousand people gathered in the streets and a couple of thousand more were going to and from events.
On Friday, as the sky darkened, the crowds thinned, but some hard-core protesters seemed to get angrier, and the cover of night raised new concerns.
“All it takes is somebody to feel that someone’s got too close, then the fight’s on and then we’ve got 100 people fighting,” Dyer said.
“Eventually they’ll wear down and they’ll leave,” he said about 7:30 p.m., expressing a hope as well as a prediction.
Brenda Carrasco, a Fresno resident, carried a sign that read: “Veterans Against Racist Arpaio.”
“When things got heated, the police officers stood in just to make sure everyone was safe,” she said.
“They were putting out fires,” said Darrell, a middle-aged man who declined to give his last name but made his pro-Trump sympathies clear with his Make America Great Again hat. “If not for law enforcement it would have gotten violent.”
The final tally was no one injured, no arrests, no property damage.
Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this report.
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