People began gathering at around seven in the evening, congregating around a laminated poster display zip-tied to the fence of the elementary school. They lay bouquets on the ground below the poster. Someone brought out a candle; someone else had a light. A facilitator asked those gathered if they wouldn't mind introducing themselves and sharing how it made them feel to know that such a tragedy had happened. This began a round of heartfelt sharing. As we talked, several themes emerged.
One topic that stuck out was how little-known the crime was, even among lifelong residents and people deeply involved in the community:
"I didn't know the story. So the fact that I didn't know it, and I'm so involved in Fontana schools was just a little surprising to me," said one resident.
Another man expressed some awareness, but even that was shrouded in vagueness. The Randall Pepper alumnus explained, "We're long-term residents for four generations here in Fontana, and I know as a kid growing up, in this neighborhood in particular, my dad would tell me when we would come by here--and I thought it was a myth actually--he'd go, 'Right there, there was a black family here, and they burned 'em, kids and everything.'" His father's openness was the exception to the rule. "Everybody would ask about it," he explained, "but nobody wanted to talk about it."
"For me its not about forgetting; it's about never knowing it in the first place," one young woman offered.
Many people made mention of the history of Fontana and the area, including one man whose family had suffered from the persecution of Mexicans: "They went through that--my dad getting chased home from school, with the Africans above Baseline and the Mexicans below the freeway."
A young Fontana resident of Salvadorean descent shared that "Something people laugh about Fontana and joke around it is they call it Fontucky. Little do they know that Fontana has a history of the KKK, nazism--to this very day we have--there are neo-nazis working within Fontana. There's definitely a lot of history, not just including O'Day, but there has been recordings of lynchings in Fontana as well."
Some went even further back: "There was a village here in Fontana, it was called Wasingna if I'm not mistaken, and I went to the Fontana historical society and I was like, 'I'm doing research on village sites'--'cause I'm also trying to put indigenous solidarity at the center of my work--and I talked to the people upstairs in the library, which is a beautiful library, but it's sad that their historical society is so clueless, and I was like, 'I found this information, there was this village site right here, I'm trying to figure out where it was," and this guy was like, 'Oh, those people, they moved around a lot.' Like--this is ridiculous because I was telling Miguel cause he's in Rancho--Cucamonga? The reason why it's Cucamonga? Is cause of the village! Right here by Red Hill Park where Alta Loma High School is. And that is a historical archeological site. Thousands and thousands of years of habitation. And these white people around here, excuse me, but these people that colonized this place, they still wanna say, 'Oh, they're nomadic,' or 'they didn't have title to the land,' all this stupid shit."
And more specifically, the history of the settlement patterns, especially of Black people in California:
One succinctly summarized, "Their story is the story of the reason for moving to California. Moving here for access, moving here and creating something for themselves, the bootstraps story that we love to spew, to dream the American Dream--they had all of those perfect things. And they still didn't have that perfect outcome that we would've wished for our own friends and family."
Another tied the issue to her personal reason for fighting: "The reason I organize here in the Inland Empire is cause I'm from Compton. Certain areas around here, like Colton, Rialto, Fontana, San Bernardino, they remind me a lot of how Compton was 20 years ago. And there was a movement in Compton to flee Compton, and a lot of people left rather than staying and fighting for the community. So I'm very committed to fighting for this community, and I feel like this issue is like a direct example of that. This happened--it wasn't just a random event that happened. The city leaders did this. This was not just average citizens. This was the leadership of Fontana that did this horrible crime against this family, and really against the community and all people of color. And so the fact that this has gone unaddressed and ignored for so long is outrageous."
Another theme was segregation and comparisons with the South:
"It's crazy how the racial divides with housing is almost the same everywhere you go. Like it feels like it's always the south side, or the east side, no matter where you go. And I was like, you can tell that it's set up to be that way by an outside entity--in my opinion, the government," shared one woman, a local graduate student originally from the South.
Someone else shared, ""It's just a reminder that racism isn't just the South. It's everywhere. Just the fact that it was such a minimal investigation and that it takes so much to reopen an investigation like that, it just shows you that right now in law enforcement, there's still those connections from the past that people don't talk about. Even though we know that racism is still prevalent today, sometimes we just don't think about it."
Another attendee volunteered, "What strikes me is that it continues--the racial divide...is something that I think about a lot because I do environmental justice work concerning toxic companies or different businesses that are polluting the neighborhood or bringing things to low-income neighborhoods, things like that, that I draw connection."
"I grew up in this neighborhood, by the DMV, and where I'm living now, on that side of Fontana, it's a whole 'nother world. My kids, on that side--we're like in wonderland on that side. But on this side, the school district, and the police and all that...on this side, we get treated different."
"And it's not just the city," added someone else, "it's the schools. If you see the things Summit [High School] gets compared to what Kaiser [High School] gets!"
People spoke of current injustices in the city and the fear it instills in the community.
"I think it was just last year that the school district police--it has its own police force, mind you, which a lot of school districts are moving in that direction, which is horrible--they spent like a ridiculous amount ofmoney to buy, like, twelve assault rifles. Really big guns
. And why are they buying all this stuff if--the only thing you can use that for is for violence, really. And against who? Against the students? It makes no sense! It has no basis in reality. It's just about the police and about their need for power. And they are able to convince the powers that be and the school board that this is a good use of resources? And then with the stuff they did to Leticia García when she was on there, like complete harassment, just for being a woman of color and bringing up issues--because she asked questions about that kind of stuff! And that recall campaign
"The police here in Fontana have one of the worst reputations around. So I look at it as a road block, a sort of stumbling block. And I've had so many cases where people have called me up--police harassment and abuse...I remember when they killed Jonathan [Ordóñez]
. He was a parishioner at Sacred Heart which is right on the other side of the border in Rancho but his family was in Fontana, and he was coming home from Cal State cause he was a student, and he freaked out because his family was undocumented and they chased him home, and they said he had a knife, and they blasted on him like 27 times or something like that. [T]he family didn't want to do anything. Cause they were scared. And almost every time something has happened right here, and I've come and I've talked to the people, they don't want to step up, they don't want to speak out, because they're afraid. And that fear is rooted right here, in this firebombing right here, in this act of racial terror."
Someone empathized: "About fear...to me, as far as I'm concerned, its the principality that covers, really, the whole world. And we have to find that courage to combat those things, through organization, through unity, through solidarity."
Fear of the injustices committed by police and others is a definitive factor in demobilizing the community, as evidenced by the following testimony:
"I tried getting involved and organizing here, but kinda on the downlow. One time I got involved in an election here. It was just an election. I got involved. I didn't think it was going to be to that level. I had put a sign in--just from a sign in my yard! I had the Fontana police taking pictures while my kids were in the front. My wife was sitting in the front and my kids were on their slip-n-slide or whatever. And they called me up, 'They're here taking pictures across the street!' And I'm like, 'Who?' They're like, 'The cops.' And my sons even told me too. So things like that kinda hold me back from doing--cause I don't want no one to mess with my kids or my wife. That little fear kinda holds me back from getting involved and the organizing part of it. Cause I already know my face got labeled already."
The conversation shifted toward what can and should be done about the situation. One of those things was education: "This needs to be brought to light. The school--the parents don't even know about this at all. We need to have teach-ins at the PTA. It's good for us to be out here, in the public, but we really need to get in here inside the gate and start educating the people that work here, the people that send their children to this school, about what really happened on this site. And encourage them to take back the community."
Someone else echoed, "Because of what happened on this site, it's our sole duty to make sure that this gets public awareness, not just in the Fontana, but in the Inland Empire, and I think as community members in the IE who suffer from a lot of trauma, and who don't really get a lot of help from outside communities, I think we have to do what we can to kinds stick close together and preserve our history, and the fact that much of our history has been erased, not just in San Bernardino, not just in Colton, not just in Fontana, but all over the IE, especially for people of color, I think it's our job to do what we can to push the awareness as much as we can and I would love to see more involvement with the schools, more community, and that includes coming in and doing workshops, education, not just with the parents, but I would love to see a revival of culture within the school."
Also on education: "There are good things that can come from this. I am so glad that it's an Elementary School. There's so much opportunity here. There's so much that can come from this, in this place particularly--one of the heaviest influences on how children learn, the experiences they have, the way they understand their surroundings. And they have this, hopefully, a positive experience over here in the playground, hopefully is something that is working its way into the classroom, making sure that their understanding includes the complexities, and includes the things they didn't get to hear, and includes a diversity of material, and captures the essence of what happens."
And of course, of political action: "What this community needs is organization. It needs community--people that know each other, trust each other, people that are able to come together and combat these injustices that keep on going on, and make something much, much better out of this city."
"[They] just wanted to sweep this under the rug, and put a school on here like it never happened. With somebody else's name on it. What is it? Randall Pepper? I'm not sure how that name came about, but it is not as appropriate as it would be to honor the family that gave their lives, literally, to be residents of Fontana. And that's something we could all learn from, no matter what color we are, no matter what our background. We can all honor the members of the community that are martyred. Who give their lives for the community. And that's what this family did."
The idea of renaming the school was popular: "It seems like the fact that the school is built right on the site, and the school is just named after the streets there by it--so there's not some existing person who's been honored by having this school named after them, it seems like it's a real natural opportunity for the Fontana school district and the school board to choose to rename this school in honor of the [...] family."
One community member, in an effort to open a conversation with city and district officials that could lead to a renaming, proposed installing a peace pole on the school grounds. She passed around a petition
to that effect and is calling on community members, regardless of where they live, to sign it.
While no plans were finalized as to specifically when and where to follow up, there was a general commitment to pursue political action and racial justice in Fontana, beginning with addressing historical injustices and continuing to right current wrongs.
1. The white real estate broker was named J. Sutherland. The white sheriff's deputies were named "Tex" Cornelison and Joe Glines.