Saturday, October 1, 2011

Reflections on Kelly Thomas

The following is an excerpt form a work-in-progress called The Town I Live In.

While working on this local history project, I have sometimes asked myself, “Why am I doing this? Who cares about Fullerton? Aren’t there larger problems, more deserving of my attention, that I should write about?”

The more deeply I have looked into the history of my community, the more I have become convinced that the problems of American society and culture are simply the problems of most local communities writ large. I thought that, rather than trying to talk abstractly about concepts like racism, housing, public art, water issues, the environment, I would talk very specifically about how these issues have played out in one American city, my hometown of Fullerton, California.

Many people feel that there are a lot of problems in the world, but that these problems are too big, too systematic, for someone to make any kind of real change. The more I have become involved in my community, the more I have realized the truth of the oft-used phrase “think globally, act locally.”

Let me give one example. This past summer, Fullerton police officers beat an unarmed, mentally ill homeless man named Kelly Thomas into a coma, and a few days later he died. For a few weeks, these officers were still on duty, and no real consequences seemed forthcoming. Over the coming weeks, thanks to bloggers, facebook, and many conversations, there was a growing community outrage, which took the form of protests outside the police station (organized by my friend Andy), and packed-house city council meetings, where hundreds of ordinary people cried for justice for Kelly Thomas.

This issue got picked up by local, then national, then international news sources. Kelly Thomas became a larger symbol of police injustice and brutality. The authorities were under intense public scrutiny to do the right thing. Finally, the DA presented his charges. One of the officers was charged with felony counts of murder and manslaughter, and another was charged with manslaughter and excessive use of force.

This was unprecedented. According to Todd Spitzer, a former assistant district attorney, “History is clear. No police officer in Orange County history has been charged with the murder of a civilian while on duty and in an official capacity” (Orange County Register, 9/23/11) .

This case will most likely be discussed for years to come, and it will probably change the way law enforcement, even outside of Fullerton, are viewed and judged.

This is a local issue that happened in my community. The actions of people, locally, changed something larger in the world.

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