Will There Be Justice in a 'Sundown Town'?
FRESNO, Calif. – Four months after Patty Dawson was chased and beaten by three suspects believed to be associated with white supremacists, she faced one of her alleged attackers, Jennifer Davette Fraser, in court for the first time on October 17.
Fraser—a tall, heavyset woman bearing numerous tattoos on her arms, hands and neck—walked past Dawson and her family outside the courtroom and apparently did not recognize the woman she had, according to Dawson, viciously attacked near Clovis, California—near Fresno—on the afternoon of June 14.
But once inside, Fraser noticed the large contingent of American Indians seated behind her—they were there to support Dawson, a Navajo and Apache nurse and mother.
Fraser, 27, sat close to an older man who had white hair and a long goatee, and would not look at the victim. She was charged with felonious assault, defined as an attack on another individual in which the attacker uses a dangerous weapon and seeks to cause serious harm but stops short of an attempt to kill the victim.
Dawson was found unconscious on the street near the intersection of Ashlan and Clovis and rescued by Good Samaritans. Fraser and her two male accomplices allegedly fled the scene of the crime, but eyewitnesses chased them and wrote down the license plate number of Fraser’s 1995 green Dodge Neon. Fraser was arrested in September and posted bond. Her two male accomplices have not been arrested.
According to law enforcement officials, Fraser’s charges will likely be upgraded to federal hate crime charges based on eyewitness accounts and the extensive injuries to Dawson. Under federal law, a hate crime is “a crime in which the defendant intentionally selects a victim…because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability or sexual orientation of any person against a person or property motivated by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”
“We want justice and medical treatment for my daughter who suffered a concussion, broken nose, crushed nasal passages, broken ribs and severe bruising,” says Dawson’s father, John, who drove up from Los Angeles with his wife, Wanda, and daughter Cindy, a social worker. He says the financial toll of his daughter’s beating has been devastating since she could not work for several months, and the family lives in a rural area that got running water and electricity only a few years ago. “She’s also suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and has not received any medical treatment since the attack, since she didn’t have insurance,” John Dawson says. “The irony is that she’s a nurse and the kind of person who is always helping others.”
Speaking tearfully about her assault for the first time, Dawson testified that she’d worked a long nursing shift earlier that day before taking her uncle, Pascal Casey, to the train station in Fresno. She was on her way home when her car was bumped from behind at a stop sign. She says she looked in her rearview mirror, saw three people in a car and decided not to stop and get out since she was in Clovis, which has a reputation for being hostile to Indians and other minorities. As she drove on, the car, with Fraser at the wheel, according to Dawson, continued to follow her.
“She was driving wildly in and out of traffic, even driving on the right shoulder of the road trying to force me into oncoming traffic,” said Dawson. “As I try to remember it, it’s like a silent movie. I can see their angry faces screaming at me, spitting at me and making gestures, but I can’t hear it anymore. I knew they wanted to hurt me.”
Scared, Dawson says she decided to pull into an Arco gas station up ahead, where she thought she’d be safe. She didn’t make it.
Only 30 feet from the service station, according to Dawson, she stopped for a red light with Fraser’s car behind her when she felt something wet on her arm. Dawson says Fraser had spit on her, then reached through Dawson’s open window and punched her so hard in the face that she immediately lost consciousness. Dawson does not remember being dragged from her car or the beating that caused her other injuries.
She woke up in an emergency room, disoriented and in pain, where she was briefly questioned by a police officer who—Dawson claims—asked what she had done to cause the attack. “There I was bleeding, and I was surprised he asked me what I did to provoke the attack,” she said. “He tried to make it sound like it was road rage and asked if I cut them off in traffic or flipped them off—like I had done something wrong. I don’t know these people and did absolutely nothing to them.”
Michael Youngblood Konkle, a Maidu from northern California and a former police officer who came to the hearing to show his support for Dawson, says Clovis is known as a “sundown town,” where it’s common knowledge that Indians and other people of color are expected to “get out of Dodge before the sun goes down or face violence and incarceration.
“There are KKK and white supremacists living in the mountains near Indian lands, and it has been a problem for years,” he says. “This is out of hand and we have to take a stand to protect our families.” He says additional charges need to be filed in the case to help elevate it to federal courts for hate crime prosecution. “When they hit her car from behind, that’s assault with a deadly weapon. There are other charges that may be considered as well.”
Leonard Pine Flower, a young Apache and Yaqui father wearing an American Indian Movement T-shirt, said he had come to support Dawson because “this hit close to home. These are women and children they are attacking, and we won’t tolerate it. [Dawson] is the kind woman who does not deserve this.”
Pine Flower, a counselor in a local group home for youth, says he routinely hears about widespread discrimination, bullying and harassment of Native students. At one time, students were told they must cut their hair to play sports in Clovis and Fresno, until someone sued the district. “I know one student was targeted at school by white boys who threatened to cut off his long hair’” he says. “When it was reported to school officials, they blew it off and said the boys were just teasing. I don’t think so.”
Three days after Dawson’s attack The Fresno Bee reported that three juveniles were arrested on felony vandalism and hate-crime charges after going on a “graffiti rampage” during which they tagged about 20 homes, cars and fences with swastikas and white-supremacy slogans.
According to residents, Clovis has a long history of discrimination and racial violence against Indians and other minorities. In California’s Central Valley, where agriculture is a mainstay of the economy, many migrant farm workers say they have been attacked but are afraid to go to law enforcement because of their illegal status. In June 2010 ABC’s San Francisco affiliate reported swastikas were carved into the fence surrounding an African American family’s property in Fresno.
In December 2010, the city of Clovis approved new policies designed to crack down on white supremacist gangs trying to stake out certain parks in Fresno as new territory, said Clovis Police Captain Vince Leonardo. Police now have more power to prevent gang members from loitering in public places and intimidating passersby.
The California Attorney General’s Native American Affairs section has promised to help the press for a full investigation into Dawson’s attack. Local law enforcement is still investigating the crime and requests that anyone with information contact the Fresno District Attorney’s Office at 569-600-3141 or via e-mail at email@example.com. Fraser would not comment to ICTMN for this story.
Cindy Dawson said a fund has been established to help with her sister's medical expenses. "You can go to any Wells Fargo Bank and ask for the Patty Dawson One Love Fund. We are very thankful for the support and prayers.”
Indian Country Today Media Network's West Coast Editor Valerie Taliman will cover the next hearing on this case October 31 in Fresno Superior Court.