When hate came knocking

Sergio Cortes

On May 12 Miguel Arias was confronted at his home by a right wing group with ties to the Proud Boys. The group was led by Ben Bergquam, who is known in the Central Valley community for inciting violence at rallies and marches in order to record it for his Facebook page, Frontline America. Here is uSpark’s summary of the events, updated and fact-checked:

May 12: Home of Miguel Arias

On Tuesday, May 12, Ben Berquam and a dozen supporters arrived at Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias’s apartment door. Bergquam runs a Facebook page called Frontline America, where he espouses xenophobic and anti-government messages including claims that “hundreds of illegal aliens ruined [Fresno]” and calling Gavin Newsom a “dictator.” In Instagram posts, he complains that Netflix is making him watch “gay sex” and he likens  Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients to MS-13 gang members. Many community members identify Bergquam as a white nationalist, although the Fresno Bee reports that Bergquam “flip flops” on his affiliation with the Proud Boys — a group the Southern Poverty Law Center names as a white supremacist hate group. Berquam has appeared in photographs with people holding up the “OK” hand gesture used by white nationalists. 

In a press release, Arias says the group attempted to “force their way” into his residence. Arias claims Berquam’s video from the incident is heavily edited and that it “depicts a small fraction of a much longer incident.” If true, it evokes the hallmark tactic of alt-right instigator James O’Keefe whose undercover video “exposés” feature heavily edited footage designed to embarrass supposed liberal misdeeds. 

Here’s some context to what happened: 

May 6: Fresno’s Freedom Rally

On May 6, a few hundred people attended “Fresno’s Freedom Rally” led by Bergquam and hosted in front of Fresno City Hall. Fresno Chief of Police Andy Hall, Fresno City Councilmember Garry Bredefeld, and Fresno County Board of Supervisors Steve Brandau and Nathan Magsig attended according to photos taken at the event. The organizers did not have a permit. A city spokesperson told the Fresno Bee that the crowd didn’t need a permit unless they were blocking a public street or sidewalk, per article 24, section 14-2404 of the city code. Photos circulated online show a vehicle and tents blocking a public sidewalk and fire lane. Community activists claim this was a case of selective enforcement: National Lawyers Guild legal observer Mariah Thompson tweeted that the city has cited Black Lives Matters protestors and has arrested ICE protestors over a bullhorn. During my previous work with a tenants rights advocacy group, No More Slumlords, a city hall security guard threatened to shut down our protest if our group blocked the sidewalk. 

May 10: Protest at the Waffle Shop

On May 10, a code enforcement officer accompanied by police attempted to deliver a citation to the owner of The Waffle Shop, a northwest Fresno restaurant that had been rejecting city and state orders by opening for dine-in service. As a police officer tried to enter the building, patrons outside the restaurant blocked the officer — a police spokesperson claimed one person grabbed the officer. That person was briefly detained, but no arrests were made. The police chief issued a statement questioning the officer’s handling of the situation.

May 11: Councilmember Garry Bredefeld Press Conference 

On May 11, Fresno City Councilmember Garry Bredefeld held a press conference in front of the Waffle Shop. Bredefeld criticized Mayor Lee Brand and other members of the Fresno City Council, saying that Fresno residents were all under “house arrest” by a “tyrannical and authoritarian government.” He compared the actions of code enforcement the day before to the Gestapo. Bergquam and his supporters were there. So were a variety of local media outlets. Fresno Bee photographer John Walker wrote in a Facebook post that there was a “…nearly physical confrontation between a reporter and three protestors- who accused him of being in front of one of them…” ABC reporter Corin Hoggard commented on that post: “I walked a female competitor [from another news outlet] away from a confrontation and got followed, harangued, and then shouted at by a growing group of people.”

Op-Ed: Bergquam and his supporters make me scared for my family’s safety

Hours after Berguam and his supporters showed up to my city councilmember’s door, I heard someone repeatedly ring the doorbell of my Fresno apartment. I froze then peeked out the window — to see an Amazon delivery person walking away. 

I was worried that Berquam had come for me. Over the past few days, he and his supporters have escalated their activities: Staging the freedom rally and physically intimidating law enforcement and journalists around the Waffle Shop incident. Bergquam says he isn’t a white nationalist, but all of his actions tell us otherwise. His group represents hostility towards immigrants and our Latinx community. What makes me scared for my family and my community is that they appear to operate unchecked  — perhaps even endorsed — by the people supposed to keep us safe. 

Something is terribly wrong. Over the next few weeks, I will be interviewing community members and leaders about not only what we want to see from our city, but what we can do ourselves. ¡La lucha sigue!

Update July 2: Fresno’s District Attorney will not file battery charges against Councilmember Miguel Arias. Saying that “…because this incident transpired at Mr. Arias’ residence within a private gated community and involved uninvited or unescorted persons, the prosecution must also prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Arias exceeded his lawful right to use reasonable force to remove trespassers from the private residential property.” Fresno’s DA also mentioned that the decision was made after reviewing unedited videos of the incident. ⁠

Leaders of the Central Valley National Lawyers Guild said in a Fresno Bee Op-ed that, “The police officers’ actions reflect a long history of institutionalized racism within policing and illustrate the ways police officers continue to fortify white supremacy through state-sanctioned violence.”⁠

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Sergio Cortes

Sergio Cortes

Visual Storyteller and Community Correspondent // There is beauty in your story

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