The big Confederate flag was what caught the attention of the news cameras at the protest following Saturday’s killing of an unarmed white teenager by police in Fresno, California.
“White lives matter!” protesters were heard to shout.
The coverage of what started as a vigil on Sunday for slain 19-year-old Dylan Noble might have made you think of the neo-Nazis who had battled with the anti-fascists at the state Capitol in Sacramento the same day.
But it is a big American flag that flies off the back of Noble’s jacked up pickup truck in photos he posted on Facebook in the months before his fatal encounter with cops. A half dozen smaller American flags ring the impromptu memorial of candles and flowers that appeared at the Chevron gas station where he was shot.
“I never saw Dylan Noble with a Confederate flag,” says his onetime high school English teacher, Lou Standifer. “He loved everybody.”
And neither Noble’s race nor the race of others who had been shot by cops at other times was mentioned in the many online postings by those who loved Noble, friends who seem to include every race and ethnicity and sexual orientation.
What these messages were saying was how much Dylan Noble’s life mattered. One friend wrote: “We lost a very unique and beautiful soul. He was a man who never believed in a day without laughter… He made everyone feel like family… He’s made his mark on this earth by always making people filled with laughter and joy.”
On Saturday afternoon, Fresno police responded to a report of a man walking down the street with a rifle. The man was not in evidence, but two officers did come upon a jacked up pickup truck doing donuts in a dirt field one block into Fresno from the adjoining country boy town of Clovis.
The driver was Dylan Noble. The truck was likely the very one that flew the American flag off the back at other times. Police say the officers sought to pull him over, but he drove a half mile before pulling into the Chevron station. His friends believe he was either initially unaware that the police were behind him or was looking for a good place for a stop that would be complicated by the elevation of his perch.
With the cab of the truck as high up as it was, Noble could not have just waited in the driver’s seat for the police to come up to his window and ask for his license and registration. The concrete apron of the gas station gave him more room than the side of the road as he hopped out.
Officers like drivers to remain in their cars, and they may have already been riled and wary if they thought he had been evading him. They had their guns out.
“The subject was told to show his hands,” Deputy Chief Pat Farmer later told the press. “The solo occupant of the pickup truck would show the officers one hand at a time and kept one hand hidden during the contact.”
Farmer added, “The subject made a statement that he hated his life and made affirmative movement to the small of his back at which time he was shot several times by officers at the scene.”
Noble’s friends surmise that he was reaching for his wallet. They cannot conceive of this happy go lucky young man saying he hated his life.
“None of us who knew Dylan believe that for a second,” Standifer says. “This kid loved everything about life.”
Standifer and others suggest that at most Noble might have said something rueful along the lines of the widely muttered “fuck my life,” which translates to nothing more despairing than “just my luck.”
Both officers were wearing body cameras. The footage should clarify what exactly transpired before they fired, hitting Noble multiple times.
That was said to be the department’s seventh police-involved shooting of the year, putting Fresno on pace to exceed last year’s total of nine. The 2015 number when adjusted for relative population is nearly two times the rate in Los Angeles, more than twice that in Chicago.
Last September, two Fresno officers with body cameras responded to a call of somebody with a gun posing as a federal agent and instead came upon a shirtless mentally ill man named Freddie Centeno. They climbed out with guns drawn and ordered him to get down. Centeno reached into the back pocket of his shorts for an object and the officers fired, killing him. The object proved to be a black garden hose nozzle.
That shooting was ruled justified on the grounds that the officers had reason to be in fear for their lives. The body-camera footage reached public view only in March, after a lawyer for the dead man’s family got hold of it and released it.
There seems to have been not even a garden hose nozzle on Saturday. Decency requires that the body-camera footage be released as soon as possible.
Word that Noble had been shot four times and was in emergency surgery first reached his former teacher Standifer via text. A subsequent text reported that the doctors had been unable to save him.
On Sunday, Sandifer attended the vigil at the scene of the shooting that turned into a protest. He viewed the Confederate flags as something less out of Dixie than of the Dukes of Hazard, a symbol from a backroad lifestyle of driving motorbikes and jacked-up trucks through the dirt and mud. He suggests that you would have to be from Clovis to understand, and even then you might not.
“It’s not race,” he says. “It’s a country boy thing.”
Standifer explains the shouts of “white lives matter!” as a way some of Noble’s friends sought to get attention for a killing that they themselves could not believe happened. Noble was not a street kid; he was a member of his high school poetry club. He was the one who spun records between poets at the poetry slams.
“No one expected this,” Standifer says.
The killing had sparked little response from officials and the world beyond Clovis. Standifer suggests that the protesters feared that Noble’s death would be ignored. He had a great passion for dirt bikes, and at the protest those who shared that love with him filled a lot across from the Chevron station, revving their engines as if to rouse the world.
“It wasn’t just a rumble of hundreds of bikes but the rumble of a thousand hearts, determined souls that want justice for our sweet Dylan Noble,” a friend posted. “It’s time to make a change, what I saw in those faces last night was a community of people who are not just onlookers, we will fight for what’s right and we are coming for the truth and will not stop until we find it.”
Even so, the long history of killings where unquestionably race was a factor guaranteed that the Confederate flags and shouts of “white lives matter!’ were viewed as racist by many outside Clovis who live in constant trepidation of such a fatal encounter. The truth is Noble was a truck-jackin’, dirt bike-ridin’ country boy who was in no way a bigot.
“He had friends of every background,” Standifer says. “That kid loved reggae, hip-hop, and country music and rock.”
Noble was always of the opinion that all lives matter, that life itself matters.
“He was a beautiful soul,” Standifer says. “He really was.”