Activists in Fresno’s Tower District neighborhood say they won’t back down in a dispute over a church’s attempt to purchase the historic Tower Theatre even though symbols of white supremacist groups have been discovered graffittied on buildings.

The swastika, an ancient religious symbol that was used by Nazis in World War II, was noticed by activist Dallas Blanchard on March 7. The swastika symbol along with the words “Real Will,” were tagged on two buildings near the Tower Theatre. The Fresno Police Department has not replied to inquiries about the graffitti and no arrests have been made.

The hate graffiti was discovered a week after about a dozen members of the Proud Boys began rallying every Sunday as a counter protest to rallies against the sale of Tower Theatre to Adventure Church.

Proud Boys walked through the Tower District neighborhood in response to the Save the Tower Theatre Demonstration Committee rally on Feb. 28, 2021. Photo courtesy of Tower District resident Dallas Blanchard.

Save the Tower Theatre Demonstration Committee protestor Miguel Gastelum live streamed the arrival of Proud Boys on Feb. 28. “We have quite a large group of Proud Boys out here joining us today. Lots of big guys trying to be scary and intimidating obviously because that is what they like to do,” Gastelum said. He described the Proud Boys group, who can be heard speaking into megaphones in the background, as “a bunch of bullies.”

The Proud Boys are supporting the Adventure Church’s attempt to purchase Tower Theatre. In a public speech across the street from the church, Proud Boy protesters spoke against “Satanic culture” and the “fight coming up against the church.”

“We are not going to back down. We run to the fight!” said one of the Proud Boys members with a Bible in hand.

Footage shows the two groups in verbal and physical altercations that day.

The church, which is currently renting the space, has been in a dispute with its neighbors since January when the community found out they were attempting to buy the theater. In February, the protests escalated when the Theatre’s marquee was updated to read, “Thank you Rush for teaching us,” a tribute to Rush Limbaugh who died on Feb. 17. Limbaugh had a history of using his large radio audience to make homophobic comments.

An individual waves a rainbow flag next to another individual holding an American and rainbow flag, across the street from the Tower District Theatre. The Tower Theatre can be seen in the background displaying a marquee advertising Adventure Church’s message, “Adventure Church 2020. Grow with us, every Sunday” along another marquee displaying, “Thank you Rush for teaching us, You will be missed very much but never forgotten. RIP.”
Supporters of the Save the Tower Theatre Demonstration Committee held rainbow flags and LGTBQ+ affirming signs at a rally on Feb. 21, 2021. Jennifer Emerling/uSpark Valley.

A Fresno County judge halted the sale of Tower Theatre to Adventure Community Church until it is reviewed in court on March 17, according to reports by Thaddeus Miller at the Fresno Bee.

The Proud Boys have been classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a white supremacist hate group and recently made national headlines for their involvement in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. A Central Valley school board trustee was among those who took part in the assault.

Tower District resident Nishea Balajadia, director of Mighty Community Advocacy, says that collective trauma, the kind caused by the appearance of the Proud Boys and swastikas in a diverse and LGBTQ-friendly neighborhood, is often overlooked.

“The Proud Boys caused a lot of terror on the community especially since they participated in the attack on the Capitol,” she says. “The reason it is so overlooked and why the Proud Boys are so overlooked is that society views trauma as something that happens to an individual such as a verbal assault or sexual assault. Collective trauma is just as big as those things.”

Balajadia believes that in order for the community to move forward there has to be healing.“We need to hold our officials accountable in denouncing white supremacy and the Proud Boys. We need to create a safe space for those neighbors who felt the violence of the Proud Boys presence and allow the community to share and hear from others,” she says.

The Fresno Police Department has been present at protests and counter protests but a press officer declined to comment and other officials have not responded to uSpark’s inquiries about safety in the neighborhood.

Tower residents and business owners say that Adventure Church’s purchase of the building will lead to the rezoning of the neighborhood and the loss of many LGBTQ+ events. The fight to save the Tower Theatre is viewed by many as a fight to save the heart and soul of the community, a community that for a long time has prided itself on inclusion.

Adventure Church denies they intend for any drastic changes to the neighborhood in their social media posts and via a press release but has not commented on the Proud Boys’ support for their cause. uSpark has attempted to connect with church officials many times since January but they have not responded.

“It shows you how disconnected Adventure Church is from the community they claim to want to serve,” says Kaitlyn Nichols. “As a resident of Tower District, their silence is deafening.”

The Tower District is home to many LGBTQ+ events that take place throughout the year including Fresno Rainbow Pride and Fresno Reel Pride. Fresno Film Works and the Rogue Festival also feature LGBTQ+ themes and topics. The neighborhood has seen white supremacy before. The KKK appeared with their hoods on at the first annual Lesbian/Gay Freedom Parade in 1991 and again in 1994.

Two individuals dressed in white hoods and robes of the Ku Klux Klan stand at attention among onlookers, two of whomes are wearing shirts with the words “Queer” and “Loud and Queer.”
In 1994, the KKK made their presence known at the Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day Parade in the Tower District. Photo courtesy of John Walker/Fresno Bee.

“There is a reason they are coming out in their Proud Boys uniforms. They are sending a message,” says Mariah Thompson, a Fresno attorney and member of the Central Valley Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. “Just them being there is an act of violence.”.

On March 11, interfaith religious leaders and the Save the Tower Theatre Demonstration Committee held a prayer vigil across the street from the Tower Theatre. Several clergy spoke before a crowd of Tower District residents and business owners, many in support of the LGTBQ+ community.

Rev. Raygan Baker from The Big Red Church, United Church of Christ, spoke about his church’s commitment to the Tower District neighborhood since 1949. He said his church chose to stay in the neighborhood even as many churches left the area for “developments north of Bullard.”

“So it’s especially heartbreaking and tragic to me that anyone looking at this community doesn’t already see an abundant, wild, mysterious, and loving God already on the loose here,” said Baker. “I know that Adventure Church has a place in the community. We all do, but it’s not to take the place or to trample over anyone else’s place or safe space that we have either.”

22 clergy signed an open letter to the Fresno community, posted on Instagram. “We acknowledge the importance of preserving the Tower District, and the role of the Tower Theatre as a beacon for those who have been marginalized, ostracized, and demonized here in Fresno and throughout the Central Valley,” the statement reads.

Community members line up holding individual letters to spell out the word “community” before a crowd of supporters and the media.
The Save the Tower Theatre Demonstration Committee and interfaith religious leaders held a prayer vigil in the Tower District on March 11, 2021. Photo courtesy of Save the Tower Theatre Demonstration Committee protestor Miguel Gastelum.

The message of clergy at the March 11, 2021 prayer vigil at Tower Theatre was clear: Hate will not be tolerated in the Tower District neighborhood.

Editing support for this story was provided by Angilee Shah and the Listening Post Collective.