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Free Speech victory at Fashion Fair mall in Fresno

by Mike Rhodes Saturday July 05, 2003
Photos by Mike Rhodes

FREE SPEECH VICTORY ...
FREE SPEECH VICTORY IN FRESNO

FREE SPEECH VICTORY IN FRESNO
By Mike Rhodes

Free speech activists won an important victory in Fresno on July 4, 2003. Defying Fashion Fair mall representatives who had threatened arrests, over a dozen participants read from the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and other historical documents at the front entrance to the mall. A crowd of about 75 gathered and listened as the event unfolded. They too, risked arrest.

The significance of this victory is that participants were able to hold this action at the front entrance of the mall without getting arrested. Ever since 19 anti-sweatshop activists were arrested at this site in May 2000, Fashion Fair has maintained the position that they will arrest anyone who holds any event at the front entrance of the mall, without a permit. They refuse to give permits to hold events at the front entrance. What this 4th of July event did, was to force Fashion Fair to make an exception for their policy, thereby setting a precedent which can be used later.

As participants read from the documents, undercover police and mall security were visible but not threatening. It was nothing like the event 3 years ago when heavily armed riot clad police blocked off the area and conducted the arrests. At that time, there were over 100 police present, the police helicopter was over head, and several buses where in place to haul away the peaceful protestors. Go to: http://www.fresnoalliance.com/home/GAP.htm for more information about that Free Speech struggle. In the end, the Free Speech/anti-sweatshop activists won and all charges were dismissed. Fashion Fair and the City of Fresno paid a huge settlement to the activists in order to drop the civil suit charging them with violating their civil liberties.

July 4, 2003 event participant and union organizer Pam Whalen reminded the audience about Fresno’s long history of Free Speech fights. Starting in 1909-1910 the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) fought for the right to Free Speech. They were organizing farm workers in the Central Valley when the struggle began. IWW members would stand on a soap box in downtown Fresno and call on the workers to organize into one Big Union. The police arrested them as they spoke and eventually IWW members from around the country came to Fresno to join the fight. They filled the jails and eventually the City had to let them all go. The City was forced to change their ordinances to allow Free Speech on street corners. There is now a plaque and a Free Speech area at Mariposa Street and the Fulton mall commemorating the struggle. You can read more about this Free Speech fight at: http://www.fresnoalliance.com/IWW/

The origin of KFCF 88.1 FM, free speech radio for the Central Valley, had its origins in a Free Speech fight that took place at CSUF during the late 1960's and early 70's. The Fresno Free College Foundation formed to defend academic freedom at the University during the anti-war protests at that time. A good book to read about this period of Fresno history is Ken Seib’s The Slow Death of Fresno State. One lasting result of this struggle is radio station KFCF, which rebroadcast’s KPFA in Berkley. This station, for many, is an oasis of rational thought in an otherwise bleak landscape controlled by corporate media. KFCF has, in recent years, started more local public affairs programming which gives a voice to the voiceless here in the Central Valley. To find out more about KFCF, go to: http://www.kfcf.org

The July 4, 2003 event ended with the declaration that the area in front of Fashion Fair mall was now Fresno’s newest Free Speech area. While the success of this event was significant, it is not the end of the struggle for Free Speech in Fresno or at this location. Fashion Fair security still believes that they can control the front entrance of the mall and arrest anyone they want. Organizers and participants at this event, have shown that Fashion Fair’s power is not absolute and that they will back down. The court in Fresno did dismiss all charges against the 19 anti-sweatshop activists saying that they have a Constitutional First Amendment right to Free Speech. The Fresno Police Department showed no interest in arresting Free Speech activists at the July 4 event. Could it be that they learned something about the rights of people exercising Free Speech?

The role of the police at an event like this should be to make sure that participants Free Speech rights are not violated. Not, as was the case 3 years ago, to be the muscle for corporate bullies.

At the end of the event, as I talked with Fashion Fair head of security Greg Delphous he suggested that next year we should do this in conjunction with the Fashion Fair marketing committee. I had told Greg all along that Fashion Fair should embrace this event and join it. Issue a permit whether we ask for one or not. Put red, white and blue bunting up at the mall entrance and give us a podium to speak from. Fashion Fair knew it would have been a huge mistake to arrest people for reading the Bill of Rights on the 4th of July. They just could not get themselves to take that extra step and actually support the event.

Several TV stations covered the event but the Fresno Bee (this areas only local daily paper) was conspicuously absent. Several people have asked why they did not cover this event? 75 people were risking arrest for reading and listening to the Bill of Rights on the 4th of July! And that is not news? The Bee’s headline in the July 5 Bee was: “U.S. revels over birthday, Constitution, war troops” and “Californians put worries on hold to celebrate.” The last story had a nice picture of Mickey Mouse riding in a car with U.S. armed forces at Disneyland. The Bee’s reason for not covering the huge Patriot Act forum a couple of weeks ago was that there had been a shooting which diverted their reporter. To The Bee, another story about violence in Fresno is more important than the largest gathering of people (about 300) in recent history coming together to hear about the erosion of our civil liberties. The Bee prioritizes stories about crime and violence and ignores the events taking place in the progressive community. Their non-coverage of important events like the Patriot Act forum and this Free Speech struggle is further evidence about why we need alternative and independent media in this area. I encourage you to subscribe to the Community Alliance magazine and become a member of KFCF 88.1 FM so our voices will be heard.

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