In one of the largest demonstrations in Fresno’s recent history, about 3,000 people peacefully protested following George Floyd’s Memorial Day death while in Minneapolis police custody.
During the downtown Fresno demonstration on May 31, attendees held signs, banners and chanted in a call for justice and action. The event was organized by the Fresno State NAACP chapter, including Denise Rogers-Heydt, a sociology student from the College of Social Sciences.
“We did it this way because we wanted our elected officials to not have an excuse to not hear or address our concerns,” said Rogers-Heydt, a senior who helped organize the protest. “Doing this in a violent or aggressive way would have been distracting, it would have taken attention away from the black community and the actual struggles.”
Rogers-Heydt said that what she’s learned while studying sociology has given her a better understanding of humanity. She’s become more empathetic and wants to do more for the community.
She has researched eviction rates in Fresno County, and she said she found inequalities across the Central Valley. In helping organize the protest it was important to her to address the issues people are facing, and demand for change in a peaceful manner.
“We had a point we wanted to get across, and now that we’ve had such a successful, massive peaceful protest here, and we have such a large community backing, we have people to hold city officials accountable for our demand, for not addressing our demands,” Rogers-Heydt said.
She added that she could not have imagined such a great turnout and support. Being on the platform, addressing thousands of people felt surreal, she said. She leveraged what she has learned in the classroom to educate people about the poverty rate and inequalities and to advocate for change in the community.
Rogers-Heydt is part of the Fresno State NAACP chapter that was one of the key partners for the planning and execution of the protest. The chapter’s adviser, Professor Thomas Whit-Ellis, said the student leadership provided the help to keep things calm and secure.
“The current events surrounding the George Floyd murder in combination with the horrible list of other lynch-like events have really galvanized and given urgency and additional direction to the group,” Whit-Ellis said. “At this point they are suddenly called upon to do more event planning, consultation and guidance. All of which is a testament to their success and organization.
In a press conference after the demonstration, Fresno Police Chief Andy Hall said what he saw was truly beautiful.
“Our community came together,” he said. “I heard their words, and we are ready to reach out to those organizers and start working with the community to build a better stronger community,” Hall said.
Rogers-Heydt said she feels all her work and efforts were worth it, and she is excited to continue to be an advocate in the community. “We’ve had so many people reach out to us now, and we’ve had messages from the black community telling us about how they feel healed in some way.”