San Joaquin River Board vote could be inspiration for nooses dangling from River bridge

Activism may be turning toward outright threats to public officials on the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board after their vote on the River West trail.

Somebody apparently thinks the eight public servants who recently voted for a particular access point to a proposed river trail should be lynched.

Or perhaps someone wants the public to think that way.


People earlier this week spotted eight nooses dangling from the support structure of a railroad bridge over the San Joaquin River in Northwest Fresno. Officials of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad were contacted.

The nooses are gone.

KMPH reported the incident on Tuesday. The station’s online report includes photos of the nooses.

The unanswered question: What’s going on?

Fresno County Supervisor Andreas Borgeas has a good guess. Keep in mind that Borgeas is a lawyer. He knows to hedge his bets until all the info is in.

At the same time, Borgeas isn’t afraid to call them as he sees them. And, as chairman of the San Joaquin River Conservancy board, he’s one of the eight public servants who last month cast the winning votes on a controversial river access issue.

Begin, Borgeas told me by phone on Wednesday evening, with “the specific number of nooses – it wasn’t one and it wasn’t 15. It was eight. So, given the specific number of nooses, the timing of when they were put up, and the purposeful location, one cannot help but interpret (that) the eight nooses were to symbolize the eight board members who voted for the river access at Palm and Nees. If someone can tell me how these coincidences can make sense outside of that, I’m all ears.”

Borgeas added: “I’m very skeptical when I hear of certain types of news. But when you hear of these circumstances, it makes for an extraordinarily compelling case. It’s very sad.”

The context of that case is complex.

In a nutshell, the Conservancy has been trying for years to extend the Eaton Trail located on the Fresno side of the San Joaquin River. When it comes to authority and advocacy, various government agencies and private-sector players are involved. When it comes to funding, the same holds true. When it comes to the trail’s mission, no claim for greatness is too much.

The trail extension of about two miles isn’t built yet. But everyone for years has been up in arms over how best to provide the wisest public access to the extension when it is built. For this particular piece of our geography, we’re talking about the to-and-fro between river bottom and river bluffs.

It’s obvious that the trail extension could be accessed by simply starting the trek from the trailhead. But the powers-that-be decided at some point that the trail extension also needs public access via a flank approach.

Some parts of the concerned public want the flanking path to run through an upscale residential neighborhood. Other parts of the concerned public want the flanking path to run from the intersection of Palm and Nees avenues, just a short jaunt away from the residential neighborhood. Palm/Nees is largely commercial.

The long debate has been full of thunder about process. Needless to say, all of the noise is cover for another battle in America’s endless Class War.

The Conservancy board in mid-December voted 8-6 for the Palm-Nees option. Borgeas was among the eight.

Fast forward to the 48-hour period of Dec. 31-Jan. 1. Borgeas said it’s his understanding that that is when someone (or a group) tied the eight nooses to the support structure of the BNSF bridge that connects the river bluffs of Fresno and Madera counties.

The bridge is a working bridge; freight trains make good use of it. The San Joaquin River – you know, the one that is supposed to get a community-bonding trail extension – runs beneath it. Anyone teeing off on the back nine of Riverside Municipal Golf Course gets a great view of the bridge. And there’s a considerable distance between the bridge and the river bottom.

This last point is worth giving special attention. Simply put, the bridge’s height and the bridge’s complex structure mean it was no easy (or safe) feat to get the nooses in place.

Said Borgeas: “Someone had to go to extraordinarily great lengths and expose themselves to significant danger by presumably accessing it from the rail bridge area and climbing down to the pillar, and then from the pillar, without any support system, going into the underbelly of the under-girders and affix eight nooses – prominently displaying them for those who camp or recreate or walk in the river bottom area.”

The risk worked in one sense: People noticed. There was KMPH’s enterprising report on Tuesday. And on Wednesday, Borgeas said, people were calling on the phone and sending him text messages.

Borgeas contacted the railroad. He said a BNSF official gave him objective details about the incident – how many nooses, their location, etc. – but offered no suggestion of the incident’s subjective meaning.

“They’re conducting their own investigation,” Borgeas said. “When they went to retrieve those nooses, they were very clear on how precarious and dangerous that location was. They were wondering why anyone would subject themselves to that much risk and danger.”

Where to go from here?

Certainly some lawyer-like caution is in order. We don’t know who did the nooses. We don’t know the motive.

At the same time, it’s an unpredictable world out there. A noose hanging from a high bridge is volatile symbol. It can portend an escalation.

“I don’t fear for my safety,” Borgeas said. “And I don’t think that other members of the Conservancy board – without more (information) – should be fearful. But we should always be concerned and disappointed to hear this news. Our community is better than this dark and cynical attempt at intimidation. It was my interpretation, and I think reasonable people would probably agree, that given the number of nooses, the timing and the location, you can’t interpret it other than those were meant to symbolize the eight board members who voted (for Palm/Nees).”

Finally, there is the Conservancy itself. At this point, it doesn’t matter whether the eight nooses were a form of terrorism directed at eight public servants or a hoax done with some other endgame in mind. Either way, the eight nooses are an attack on the Conservancy’s legitimacy, integrity and mission.

“As chairman,” Borgeas said, “my recommendation to the board is 1.) that they should be informed and know about this event, and 2.) that they appreciate how divisive the (access) issue was. Passions were in full force over the last year and in particular in mid-December. But what’s most important is that we show by our leadership that we are creating an outcome that is beneficial to all segments of our community and region, and without delay (we must) move forward on implementing a river trail and system for everyone’s enjoyment.

“There’s no reason to ever be steered off course by the bizarre acts of a few individuals.”

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