by Leslie Layton
The billboard stating in white lettering on a black background, “Black Friday Matters,” was for Down Range Indoor Training Center co-owner Steve Dyke a clever piece of Black Friday marketing that placed his gun shop in the news and public eye.
That it played off the name of Black Lives Matter, an organization tackling the problem of deadly police shootings in black communities, was not problematic for Dyke, who is also an officer in the Chico Police Department. Dyke argues that Black Lives Matter is based on a “false narrative.”
But for many of the Chico-area residents who called the shop to protest the word play on Black Lives Matter as racist or otherwise offensive, the sign trivialized a movement fighting the use of lethal police force against residents of black communities.
“I believe that Down Range is encouraging blatant racism,” said activist Lupe Arim-Law, who urged Chicoans to protest the sign and led a spirited debate about whether it was offensive on social media. “We all know that he’s laughing in the face of the pain of black Americans.”
Justin Lin, a Bay Area resident who lived formerly in Chico, was so alarmed by the billboard near Highway 99 that he submitted a complaint about it to the Documenting Hate database run by the nonprofit news organization ProPublica. (ChicoSol is one of many media partners in the database project and provides a Documenting Hate reporting form on its website.)
Lin believes that the sign not only mocks a movement, but could incite violence against black Americans, in part because of its use by a shop that offers target practice and shooting instruction. “This isn’t a book club, this is a firing range,” Lin said. “If officers cannot understand when humor causes incitement, maybe they shouldn’t be police officers.”
Down Range is co-owned by Dyke and Chico police officer Will Clark, a former president of the Chico Police Officers’ Association.
The Documenting Hate database accepts submissions from people who want to report hate crimes or what ProPublica calls “bias incidents” – usually cases of offensive communication targeting race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation. Five reports of incidents in Butte County have thus far been submitted to the database since it was established around the time of the 2016 presidential election (see sidebar).
The purpose of the database is to help journalists and other researchers look for patterns and trends. In this case, Lin’s submission reflects the argument that racism isn’t always expressed in a direct, conventional way, such as a classic racist slur.
The billboard came down shortly after Black Friday, and was replaced by another controversial Down Range billboard that shows Santa Claus holding a semi-automatic assault rifle. “The sign may be down, but if we just drop the issue we kick the can down the road until something horrible happens,” Lin said.
The Chico chapter of the national organization Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) released a statement on the billboard, saying that Clark and Dyke “have a choice to make.”
“They can donate the profits they’ve made from their… marketing campaign to Black Lives Matter, or they can be just another example of white people exploiting the work of black people for personal gain,” SURJ wrote in a statement emailed to ChicoSol.
In a Nov. 24 interview at the gun shop, Dyke said the billboard reflects the importance of Black Friday to small businesses like his and had boosted post-Thanksgiving business “absolutely.”
Dyke, noting that he was speaking as a business owner and not on behalf of any police department (he confirmed that he’s a police officer but declined to name the department), took aim at some of the arguments that undergird the Black Lives Matter movement, throwing out what Lin calls “red herrings.”
Dyke argued that Black Lives Matter is based on an argument that “police are indiscriminately shooting unarmed black men.” But, he continued, unarmed white men are shot more often than unarmed black men. He also claimed that Black Lives Matter protesters chant “Kill white people.”
Lin noted that white men are shot by police more often in places like Butte County, and elsewhere “if you’re just looking at numbers and not percentages.”
“He’s taking information out of context,” Lin said.
Lin said he can’t speak for Black Lives Matter, but supports the movement “100 percent,” and noted that he had never heard anyone associated with it chant “Kill white people.” In fact, he said, the movement’s “Hands up, don’t shoot” refrain reflects a non-violent strategy that Dyke should support.
“I think he has let something that challenges policing institutions threaten him personally,” Lin said.
Lin said it’s worrisome that Down Range is owned by police officers, including one “who’s been in trouble publicly.”
Dyke has been accused of over-reacting and traumatizing citizens on two occasions that have been reported in the press. In August 2016, in a video that went viral, Dyke can be seen taking Nicole Braham, a 19-year-old Chico State freshman at the time, to the roadway after stopping the vehicle she was driving for having a burned-out license plate bulb. Braham was charged by Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey with resisting arrest in the incident, but she was recently acquitted by a Superior Court jury.
Shortly after the incident, Braham’s roommate at the time, Madeline Hemphill, filed a complaint of retaliation and excessive force against Dyke and other Chico officers. Hemphill, who graduates this month from Chico State, said recently that she’s never received an official response about the complaint from Chico PD.
In addition, in 2011, a 30-year Chico family therapist claimed Dyke traumatized him by pointing a gun at his head during a traffic stop.
Lin noted that the font used on the Black Friday Matters billboard was reminiscent of that used in the Black Lives Matter logo. “The question,” Lin said of the Down Range billboard, “is who does this draw in, who thinks this is funny, what group is forming around this.”
Dyke said he had received about a dozen calls protesting the billboard. But a Chico resident who called to complain about the sign said she was told by the shop that Down Range was getting about 10 complaints a day around Thanksgiving.
ChicoSol asked Dyke about baseball-style caps the shop sells that bear the wording, “We don’t dial 911,” around a picture of a revolver. That’s at odds with the Chico Police Department website that says at the top of its home page, “If you have an emergency: call 9-1-1.”
“It’s a hat,” Dyke responded. “It’s a joke.”
Is Dyke worried about arming citizens who may use their weapons when threatened instead of calling police? Dyke responded with the controversial words made famous by Wayne LaPierre, National Rifle Association CEO, after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn.
“The only thing that stops a bad person with a gun,” Dyke said, “is a good person with a gun.”
Leslie Layton is editor of ChicoSol.