Music, activism go hand in hand for protest organizer Justice Medina

The track starts with Bob Marley. It’s slow, smooth, familiar.

“Sheriff Brown always hated me. For what, I don’t know. Every time I plant a seed, he said kill it before it grow, but I said –

“Fist in the air, screaming power for the people!” Justice Medina, protest organizer and activist, comes charging in, energetic and impassioned.

“You need, I need, I need power for the people!”

“(Expletive) Jerry Dyer, (expletive) the system, ’bout to burn it down.”

The rest of the verse takes a sharp turn, however.

“Kill ’em off with kindness, tuck your burner, you can put it down.”

Outside his mother’s nonprofit organization in Fresno several days after he released the song, Medina explains that a “burner” is a gun. “We don’t have to go out here and kill cops to get our message across,” he said. “We don’t have to go out here and kill each other to get our message across.”

Medina was the organizer behind the July 9 rally where hundreds of marchers in Fresnoprotested the recent shootings of black men at the hands of police across the nation. Since then, Medina has organized other rallies and attended council meetings at City Hall to demand that the Fresno police change their policies when officers are involved with shootings. He uses his passion for music and his family’s history of community involvement to continue demanding change in Fresno, namely with the city’s continued employment of police Chief Jerry Dyer.

Medina said his song starts off profanely, and disrespectfully, but that was a deliberate decision.

“It’s all good marketing,” he said. “People have a problem with me being loud, and, you know, cursing and stuff, but I’m doing it for a reason.”

Being loud and aggressive in the beginning, Medina said, allowed him to process his emotions the way he always has.

“That’s what music was for me. If I didn’t have music, I would have killed myself three years ago.”

Growing up

Medina was born in Fresno but lives in Clovis. His father is Mexican, and his mother, Mysti Medina, is black. Medina and her husband said the name Justice in unison one day while thinking about names for their son.

“It was just on my heart,” Mysti Medina said.

Being a mixed-race kid in Clovis, Justice Medina said, earned him a lot of scorn in school.

“I was a short, fat black at a predominantly white school, was called (racial slur) a lot by other kids, in front of teachers, and the teachers would never do anything,” he said.

Medina recalled that at Clovis East High School, a white student called him a slur aimed at black people, so he responded by calling the boy a cracker. Medina was sent to the office. When he asked if the other student would be punished, Medina said, the teacher “swept it under the rug.”

That bullying left Medina depressed, he said, even suicidal at one point. He felt ostracized and isolated growing up, something that wasn’t made easier at home.

His father struggled with methamphetamine addiction. Medina saw firsthand the effects of drugs.

“I’ve seen him go through hell, and my family go through hell,” Medina said. The two of them don’t have the greatest relationship, he said.

Mysti Medina dropped out of UC Davis, where she was a pre-med student, to raise her son and later his three siblings. Her parents were willing to take care of him, but Medina said she felt it was important to be a part of his life. She worked two jobs while raising Justice.

At a young age, Medina turned to music. “The only thing I had was my headphones,” he said, “and you know, my  laptop, my boombox and a case of CDs.”

“I grew up listening to a lot of Tupac, Eminem, Biggie,” he said, listing popular rap artists from the ’90s. His freshman year at Clovis East, he engaged in a rap battle with another student. It didn’t end well.

“The dude made me cry,” Medina said, laughing. “Like, ridiculed me and made me look real stupid. And at that point I was like, ‘I have to be the best at this, this will never happen to me again.’ So I never stopped.”

A couple of years later, he met Mikendra McCoy, an English and forensics teacher at Clovis East. Medina was about to be suspended for some off-color remarks he had made about McCoy on social media.

“And so McCoy came and was like ‘no, let’s put him on the debate team as his punishment, and that   just turned me into the person I am today,” Medina said.

McCoy was instrumental to helping him develop his creative process.

“I learned how to write better, how to formulate better and find evidence and stuff like that. And she taught me how to write poetry better, too,” Medina said.

McCoy, who worked at Clovis East for 14 years, said she sent Medina to poetry slams in Fresno. When he tried a rap there, she said, most of the people listening liked it but didn’t love it.

Medina saw people bare their soul, McCoy said, and he saw how to do it better.

“His writing elevated after that,” McCoy said. On the debate team, she said, Medina learned the importance of supporting his arguments with facts.

His mother said she was grateful for McCoy’s influence during what was a difficult time not only for Medina, but the entire family.

She was running three businesses, in the middle of a divorce, and facing mounting health problems while Medina was on the debate team. He didn’t express his feelings to his mother often, she said.

“He would write a lot,” Mysti Medina said. “I think that was an outlet for him.”

McCoy would help Medina get to team meetings. She said he could count on the debate family, and the consistency of that routine.

“Debate is the place where they become safe,” McCoy said. “They have the right to fall apart and then pull it back together again.

Medina agrees that he suffered from depression, but now he does everything he can to stay busy. Part of that, he said, is the activism he’s thrown himself into.

“I don’t allow myself to fall into that pit of despair anymore,” he said.

It runs in the family

Medina’s maternal relatives are known for working to improve their communities. His great-grandmother, Dorothy Hill, has a street named after her in Sacramento for her activism. His grandparents run a group home in Fresno.

Mysti Medina initially worked at her parents’ group home while raising her son. She describes Hill as an 89-year-old woman “who makes her presence known” in her neighborhood.

“Just like Justice is doing, she’s at City Hall meetings, she’s standing up for her rights and her community,” Medina said. Hill regularly talks with her neighbors and makes sure “things are right, things are safe,” her granddaughter said.

In Clovis, Mysti Medina runs a group home and a clothing store. The center where her son works is in Fresno.

Trinity Development Center is a nonprofit residential day center that helps adults with disabilities secure skills in the workplace and get a job.

Justice Medina runs the front desk of his mother’s business, filing paperwork and helping where needed.

Medina said he’s definitely inspired by the work his mother does: “I’d do anything for my mom.” He’s worked at the center for two years.

His interest in social justice spiked after learning about the deaths of black men in Minnesota and Louisiana at the hands of police officers and the shooting by police of Clovis teen Dylan Noble. Medina had never organized a protest previously.

He still faces a $20,000 fine after being cited for his July 9 protest, where several hundred marchers took to the streets of north Fresno, blocking intersections and attempting at one point to run down a freeway onramp at Bullard Avenue.

Medina has appeared at two council meetings since then and organized other smaller protests in Fresno.

Mysti Medina supports her son’s work wholeheartedly, but she is concerned about his safety. “I feel that something definitely needs to be done,” she said. “I just have to figure out a way to keep him safe.”

After the Fresno Police Department posted information about Medina’s misdemeanor citation on its Facebook page, Medina knew why his mother is so concerned.

“There’s people like, ‘He should have been shot, they shoulda had the 50 cals out at the protest,’ ” Medina said, talking about comments left on the Facebook post.I don’t allow myself to fall in that pit of despair anymore,” Justice Medina says.

Dyer said he does not condone hateful or threatening comments on social media.

“I’m not a big fan of social media for that reason. It allows people to hide,” he said.

“The difficulty is, people say a lot of things on social media, people vent, people express anger, and that’s the freedom of speech we enjoy as Americans. Unfortunately there are times that freedom creates fear in people, regardless of whether or not that individual desires to carry out that thought or not.”

When asked about Medina’s rap song that calls out Fresno’s police chief, Dyer said he doesn’t believe it serves a purpose.

“I question whether or not Justice truly desires to bring forth solutions rather than make a name for himself in music,” he said. Dyer said he tried to listen to Medina’s song but found it difficult to understand at times.

Medina didn’t seemed deterred by social media comments or Dyer when he went to City Hall for the first time, where he was escorted out of a City Hall meeting after refusing to sit when his allotted speaking time was up. He references this in his song: “And please don’t speak up, your motion denied.”

At the next council meeting, Medina and his team came prepared with evidence and research they used to argue against police brutality in Fresno. Medina sings about this activism in the song “Power to the People.”

“The youth are taking over, the children will make a difference.”

At the second meeting, Medina again read off a list of demands.

“A plan for community integration of police officers, demilitarization of police department, policy for ethical training with foundations based on community integration to break barriers of fear of police in the community, rather than militarizing police and having them target these impoverished areas,” he read to the council.

Medina was joined by a team of activists, youth he said are passionate about change. He uses the skills he learned with his high school debate team to help his fellow activists find arguments supporting their cause.

Morgan Chiles, an 18-year-old activist, started her three-minute presentation by comparing Fresno police with Oakland’s.

“In a seven-year time frame, 27 Fresno PD officers were involved in repeat shootings. Twenty-five of them did not lose their positions in the department. If we compare this to the city of Oakland, which is similar in size to Fresno, and has a higher rate of crime, only five police officers were involved in repeat shootings over the same time period,” Chiles read from her laptop.

“Who is holding these officers accountable?” she asked.

Medina wants Dyer out but makes it clear: He’s not a Black Lives Matter organizer.

“I’m out here for the human race,” he said. Medina referenced Noble, the unarmed white Clovis teen killed by Fresno police in June, in his rap as well.

“Every step is for change, sick of seeing mothers cry,” he sings. “Thought the  were tripping, we’ll go watch Dylan Noble die.”

If not advocating for social justice, he said, what “am I going to do? Sit at my house, play video games, smoke a blunt every day, make a rap song about  and money and try to make it in the rap industry? That’s a waste of my time.”

Mysti Medina said she wished the city supported her son. “He’s not a monster. He’s not an angry young kid. He’s bright, he’s intelligent, and he comes from a good family.”

McCoy said she’s on his side. “I’m very proud of Justice for standing for what he believes in. He’s not just existing, he’s living, and for that I commend him.”

Kyle Patteson, Medina’s producer and friend, said Medina’s activism comes from his big heart.

“He has a deep, genuine care for humanity,” Patteson said.

Patteson is an audio engineer for 559mm Productions, a local multimedia production company. The two met after Patteson posted a song online that Medina found. The two became fast friends.

Medina said he’s received a lot of support. He doesn’t take that lightly.

“That scares me the most, failing these people.”

He’s not going to stop fighting. In the final lyric of his rap, Medina recognizes the battle ahead.

“So stand strong ’cause this fight gets harder. We don’t need more guns, we gotta do (expletive) smarter.”

This was originally published on The Fresno Bee.