Kelly Thomas: Injustice Served by Joseph Blair
Editor Carrie Seitzinger, Editor's Choice, February 5th, 2014
A city council that steamrolls over the will of its people...
In the summer of 2011, a homeless, schizophrenic man was seen in the parking lot of a shitty Fullerton club called the Slidebar, owned by the guitarist of criminally appalling rock outfit, Lit. A manager of said venue called the Fullerton Police Department (FPD) on the thirty-seven-year-old man for allegedly vandalizing a car. The police arrived to find Kelly Thomas—a staple in the homeless community within downtown Fullerton—tousled and obstinate, so they called for backup. As these stories go, someone is destined to unfairly recap a series of horrific events by saying “one thing led to another,” and in this case the “another” is probably the moment where one of the officers, Manual Ramos, put on latex gloves and asked Thomas, “Now you see my fists?” to which Thomas replied, “Yeah, what about them?” and Ramos answered, “They are going to fuck you up.”
As a recent transplant from Southern California, local events surrounding my boyhood town tend to ping on my radar, and recently, a tragedy occurred that pushed many friends and former colleagues into one of three assemblies. The first are those who were spurred to action; the second are those who were crippled by the occurrence, awestruck and unsure how to proceed; and the third are those who chose to ignore it. Each assembly is going through the process of finding ways to deal with tragedy that both hits close to home and exists a world away. In the light of such terrible events, there is no correct way to respond, especially as the details of what happened in that Northern Orange County parking lot two and a half years ago, and the court rulings that followed several weeks ago, continue to unfold.
The events were documented in a now viral, unnerving video (another intriguing development that makes one ponder the relevance of this sort of footage being seen by the public, but in this case, watching up until the bludgeoning is adequate enough to hear the disgrace FPD brought to the street because the after picture of Thomas leaves little to the imagination). The six officers proceeded to ignore Kelly’s pleas despite his repeated apologies and his fearful screams of “Dad! Dad!” Unfazed, they beat the shit out of him.
After being taken first to the St. Jude Medical Center, and then the UCI Medical Center, Kelly Thomas never awoke from his coma and passed on July 10, 2011, five days after his brutal battering.
Again, as a recent transplant to Portland, a town known for its homeless community—hell, I can’t find a freeway entrance or exit without a panderer—I’ve found this to hold a certain relevance, which should most certainly provoke curiosity, fear, intrigue, concern in the current culture and how the local government has dealt with and plans to deal with the homeless population, and even more specifically the untreated mentally ill. So when approaching this topic (even writing about it curdles my stomach), I decided to contact several of my friends, writers who are active in the recent outcry against the most ghastly part of the crime that I haven’t mentioned yet:
On January 13th 2014, the vilest aggressors in the video were ruled innocent regarding the 2011 death of Kelly Thomas. Fullerton police officer Manual Ramos was found not-guilty of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and Jay Cicinelli, a former police officer, was found not-guilty of involuntary manslaughter and assault under the color of authority.
The following are unique and relatable opinions voiced by Orange County writers and activists heavily involved in the community, and who have revealed discontent in this case of a homeless community member whose beating and death has been sadly served “justice” in the eyes of the law.
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Nicole Bailey – “Kelly’s Corner”:
On the afternoon the Kelly Thomas verdict was read, I was slow roasting a rack of ribs. I knew the verdict would be read at 3:30 p.m. so I grabbed my iPad and walked down the hallway to our home office where my husband was typing away. I sat down at my desk across from his and held the screen in my hands while we waited. Never did it cross my mind that anything other than “Guilty” would be read.
My husband and I met eyes, speechless. One after another: not guilty, not guilty, not guilty, that final one, not guilty. I thought, “No. This can’t be right.” Fullerton had waited years for this moment. By five o’clock, people were saying there would be a peaceful protest at Kelly’s Corner, the site of Kelly’s death. Even though my dinner was nearing its crucial moments, we got ready to go downtown.
Just before six, as a crowd was beginning to gather, I realized just how convenient this location was for a beating such as Kelly’s. Facing Commonwealth are the Fullerton bars, restaurants, and retail shops, while behind it, like a dirty secret, is a major bus stop where many homeless gather. While standing near the memorial, a young heavy-set black woman approached me. She was carrying a beige pack, wearing maroon pants, and her glasses were so dirty I couldn’t make out her eyes. She asked me what was going on. When I told her, she aptly responded, “I knew Kelly. Well, those cops are gonna burn in hell. They’re fat too. Gonna take a long time for them to burn.” I could tell the people around me were uncomfortable that I acknowledged this woman. I was uncomfortable. I felt my heart splitting, aware of how unsettled I was when she approached me, aware of the many judgments passing through my brain even as I stood there supporting the cause of a homeless man.
Kelly Thomas’s death has become about so many things. It has become about a city council that steamrolls over the will of its people. It is about inability to trust police. This distrust has grown worse since the verdict. On January 18, a second peaceful protest was held. The police responded in full riot gear arresting fourteen people. People taken into custody stated at a city council meeting that once they were put into a cell, a police officer said, “I have two words for you: Not Guilty.” Kelly’s death has become the umbrella under which all of our city’s problems now rest. Still the crucial realization for me has been that our society is so sick – not just Fullerton, but our culture – that we are afraid of the most helpless people. Even as I stood at Kelly’s Corner, grieving over this miscarriage of justice, I found myself afraid of a person just like Kelly. So I have to ask myself, what is wrong with us?
If those policemen had considered the state of Kelly’s mental health even for a millisecond, if they had looked at him as someone’s hurting son, if they had put a soul to him instead of the homogenous label of “homeless,” would they have been able to beat him mercilessly as he cried out for his father? What I am worried about is how we as a community are going to move forward with our homeless. I am worried about how we are going to keep our police from murdering this woman in the maroon pants and foggy glasses. I am so worried that the lump in my throat continues to grow as we stand at the memorial. I was afraid as we walked back to our car the terrible thing that happened is now only beginning. As we ate our meal, we tasted nothing. Like sand on the tongue, a hollow meal that even now makes me sick to think about.
Where are we going after Kelly? Who is going to take us there?
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Kelly Thomas’ homicide at the hands of police officers feels indicative of a larger injustice that permeates the system. To me, it’s not only the death of Thomas that is the focus, but everything that came before it: a mental health system that appears to be almost non-existent and unavailable to many, the indifference many have toward homelessness to begin with, and cases of injustice across the country that reveal a justice system ruled by an egoic and reckless ideology.
At some core level, it’s astonishing that homelessness exists at all. We (yes, we) as a society can deliberately allow for others to roam the streets in the cold, in the shit without aid or care and simply can’t acknowledge their existence beyond a, “Sorry, man. I don’t have change.” The dysfunction and detachment has to originate at a deeper ideological and psychological level. In many ways, Kelly Thomas was left for dead before he was ever beaten to death by Fullerton police officers. Indifference is the ideology of mainstream consciousness and brutality is that of a police force emboldened by a lack of oversight and an absence of repercussions.
The police officers have avoided paying for their crime, yet the focus and outrage is indicative of a larger problem. When no one polices the police, crimes occur. And still, the jury seems as culpable for perpetrating the continuing injustice… Are these the same jurors who as citizens ignore the homeless and turn away? In that case, they may serve as more common mirrors of ourselves in some small way. And maybe that’s why it’s so easy to be angry at them. Then again, who knows who or what they are.
So what is there left? There’s protest, outrage, sharing posts on social media. Essentially, there’s only symbolic actions. Every time I walk past the Kelly Thomas makeshift memorial, it is difficult not to imagine the violence. In a larger ideological sense, it was indifference that fostered brutality and ultimately death. Now, however, there is a sense of awakened spirit. More people are aware and awake. But, what this means to a larger sense of ideal justice is yet to be seen. Maybe there will be more protests and more outrage, and, of course, the police will see this as an affront to their own ego and sense of being. So what, then?
In my own small way, the only real thing I can do is write. The greater changes needed will take greater time and greater effort. The cultural ideology needed to make the streets safe, to make sure no one goes homeless, to make sure police never abuse their power, is somewhere far off in the horizon and away from home.
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After the trial, Cathy Thomas, Kelly’s mother, was recorded saying, “They’re free to go while my son is dead.” This begs the question: who is free? What political social structure do we find ourselves encamped within? Perhaps it’s one where we have the freedom to voice opinions, to either act out against, or accept injustice poorly disguised in an oversized trench coat calling itself Justice. In the wake of Kelly Thomas, a distraught community has arisen; a community trying to comprehend whether to feel frightened, angry, dejected, confused, empowered, or any feeling within the infinite gamut of emotions, while really, we can’t understand any of this. On some level, writing becomes therapy just as activism becomes therapy; and meanwhile, plenty of untreated mentally ill and/or homeless folk sit on the cold or hot—never neutral—concrete at risk of authority, in fear, and for good reason.
[Photos courtesy of Justin Banderas]
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Enrique Avalos is a writer and editor with Santanero Zine.
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Nicole Bailey is a writer and editor with Blank Fiction Magazine.
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Joseph Blair, a failing writer by night, a reluctant capitalist by day, and a full-time family man until expiry, can often be found wandering Southeast Portland with a mesmerized face of overwhelm. He is all too accessible via twitter as @josephesque.