FRUITA, CO – The Fruita Community Center gym undoubtedly sees a lot of tension, albeit usually of the athletic kind that involves a lot of sweat and competition. Tonight, though, the discomfort and shocked silences came from a different narrative, as Fruita City Council members, the Fruita chief of police, and other local government officials and representatives sat in a quiet gym with members of the Black Citizens & Friends (BC&F) and heard their stories of racism, stigma, and hurt, as part of a special council workshop. The meeting began at 7:00 pm and ended shortly after 9:00 pm.
Jose Chavez, 65, is a Fruita resident, former law enforcement officer, and longtime advocate for minorities in the Valley. He shared his personal experiences of racism, an all too common experience that BC&F president David Combs says is even more common among the Hispanic community than is among the Black community.
“I see it a lot,” Chavez said. “I walked into City Market [in Fruita]. A lady was standing halfway down the aisle, and I can see her fighting with herself, wondering if [she] should grab the spaghetti or grab her purse.”
Chavez said that when he was a probation officer, wearing the uniform would inspire confidence and respect, but now that he’s no longer in law enforcement, it’s a different experience altogether.
He said that although he hasn’t had any problems with the Fruita police department, when he’s simply walking along the street, “I make sure my hands are out of my pockets and I wave.”
He points out other seemingly “minor” incidents and observations such as the lack of transgender bathrooms in facilities like the community center where the meeting was being held, and no instruction about the transgender community in the schools.
“It all seems very minor, but they’re very harmful to the community.”
When asked by city council members if he believes that the issue is specific to Fruita, Chavez was emphatic. “Yes. I think it’s specific to Fruita. People feel comfortable here to show their racism [because] no one is holding them accountable for that.”
He went on to say that he likes Fruita “because it’s quiet, but that’s surface — underlying it’s ugly.”
Wells Fargo banker and community activist Eric Ward also shared his experiences, calling out the frequent experience of being the object of unwanted stares from strangers, both children and adults. “People just stare. Not saying anything, they just stare. It’s very uncomfortable.”
Fruita police chief David Krouse said that hearing these stories, especially those that involve interactions with law enforcement, “breaks our hearts a little bit because the reason we took this job [in law enforcement] was to be a source of help for the community.” He said that, speaking on behalf of his officers and department, they’re “definitely interested in being engaged, and being at the table.”
City manager Michael Bennett said that he and many other Fruita city leaders such as the finance director, parks and recreation director, and others, recently committed to learning and listening. They each read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” and he recalled reading about the “white moderate who sympathizes but doesn’t do anything else.” He said city leaders are committed to doing more.
Although the meeting ended without a clear resolution, everyone agreed that while much work needs to be done, and that while city administration and the leadership are used to tackling issues and “problem-solving”, change won’t happen overnight. Bennett invited BC&F to speak to other groups within the Fruita city government and continue these conversations.
Ward suggested that council members simply to use their positions as city leaders to reach out, engage, and welcome community members, especially those of color.
“It’s a small place to start,” he said. “We probably won’t fix [racism] for a couple of generations, but we have to start.”
Photos by Brian Lochlaer.