Sunday, January 19, 2014

My Experience at the Kelly Thomas Protest

In the wake of the "Not Guilty" verdict of the officers charged with the beating death of Kelly Thomas, lots of people (myself included) have been wondering what we can do.  Before the officers were charged, back in 2011, protesters had a definite goal--get those officers off the streets and charged with crimes.  Now, two years later, officers Ramos and Cicinelli have been charged, tried, and found "not guilty" of even excessive force, despite the existence of THIS VIDEO.

What can we do?  Actually, quite a bit, it turns out.  The night of the verdict, many people (myself included) gathered at Kelly's Memorial for a vigil/protest.  A couple petitions have been circulating online, urging federal authorities to investigate.  Journalists from around the world, bloggers like me, and other concerned citizens have continued to write, post photos, even write songs about this issue.

Today, I participated in the large protest outside the Fullerton Police station.  This was my experience.

Before heading to the police station, I stopped by Kinkos to pick up some foam board and markers, for people to make their own signs.  At the vigil/protest on Monday, I noticed that only a few people had signs, so I thought I'd pick up some extra sign-making materials.  

Carrying four foam boards, a video camera, and a pocketful of markers, I walked over to the police station, a bit nervously.  I honestly didn't know what to expect.  I was afraid there might be violence.  Despite my fears, however, I chose to participate in the protest, because I wanted to set an example of peaceful protest, a practice that has a long and profound history in the United States of America.  For "average Joes" like me, peaceful protest, free assembly, and free speech are still some of the only (and best) ways to publicly address public grievances and injustices, which I honestly and sincerely feel the Kelly Thomas death and verdict warrant.  I feel the justice system failed, I am not alone in this belief, and I want to express how I feel.  Hence, today's protest.

When I arrived around 10am, there were maybe 40-50 people standing on various corners of Highland and Commonwealth, outside the police station.  Some were holding signs, some were urging cars to honk in solidarity, some were taking photographs, others were just there to participate and show support.  Though many were angry (myself included), the protest was peaceful.

After saying "hi" to some familiar faces, I took a moment to think about what to write on my sign. As a writer and English teacher, I struggle to say things as simply and concisely as I can, even when things feel big and complex and overwhelming.  There were lots of things I wanted to say, but they wouldn't all fit on an 18 x 24 foam board.  How could I condense all my anger, bewilderment, and frustration into a few words?  I settled upon a question, a question I honestly believe has not been satisfactorily answered.

I made my sign and then gave the extra foam board and markers to others who didn't have signs.  Then I joined the protestors and held my sign high.  I ran into lots of friends, some of whom had participated in the Kelly Thomas Memorial Art Exhibit, others who'd been active in the earlier protests, and many who were just concerned/outraged local residents.

My brother Seth, who is visiting from Washington, showed up in support.  I soon gave Seth my sign, so I could do some filming.  The more I get involved in local issues, the more I realize how important it is to document things like this as honestly and truthfully as I can.  I walked around filming the protest.  By 11am, there were literally hundreds of people there.  I wanted to document the scope, the sheer size of this protest, so people could see that this was not just a small group of "radicals" or "anarchists" --it was a huge cross-section of the local community--people of all ages, ethnicities, and walks of life were there together.

In anticipation of the protest, the police had (quite courteously) put up barricades blocking Highland to through traffic.  For the entire two hours that I was there, I saw no visible police presence--just the street blockers, which (to me) sent the message: "We are okay with this protest.  We aren't going to prevent it."  The barricades allowed more people to gather on Highland.  So far, so good.

Ron Thomas (Kelly's father) arrived with his family and spoke.  He thanked the people who had come.  There were more people than he imagined there would be.  He urged people not to give up hope.  He said the Attorney General of the United States was paying close attention to this case, suggesting that a federal case may be forthcoming.  He urged people to attend the Fullerton City Council meeting this Tuesday to make their voices heard.  He called out the city council members for not attending the trial (none of them did).  Ron Thomas, through this whole ordeal, has become a pretty damn good public speaker.  His words brought cheers, applause, and some tears.

Something interesting happened as Ron finished speaking.  I was kneeling on the grass, filming him, when a big guy with a TV camera and his assistant came barging in, telling me to move out of the way.

"We are The Media," the assistant said, as they forced other photographers out of the way.  I was polite and moved aside for them, but one guy who they physically pushed got in the cameraman's face.  The two argued for a minute and then the cameraman (who I think was from KTLA) actually knocked the dude's iPhone out of his hand, and it fell on the ground.  WTF, I thought.  It looked as though the cameraman was provoking a fight.  The two argued for a while, and then they sort of calmed down, and "The Media" began filming.

This little altercation felt significant.  The (KTLA) cameraman, to me, represented the traditional television media, who used to have a monopoly on information.  The dude with the iPhone represented new digital and social media.  Their argument felt like a microcosm of a much larger media struggle today.

To the assistant who arrogantly declared, "We are The Media," I wanted to reply, "So are we."

I really wanted to interview individual people for my video, so I could get some commentary and insight to juxtapose with all the honking and signs and shouting.  I'm a bit shy about walking up to random people and asking for an interview.  I suppose this is something journalists must overcome.  My friend Josue, an up-and-coming photojournalist who was there taking pictures for OC Weekly, is absolutely fearless when it comes to photographing and interviewing the "man on the street."  Consequently, Josue's photos are some of the most beautiful, profound, and thought-provoking images of Orange County I've ever seen.

Inspired by Josue's fearlessness and determination to document the truth of things, i began interviewing people--some strangers, some friends.  I asked one simple question: 

"How do you feel about the Kelly Thomas verdict?"

I discovered that people, generally speaking, want to talk about why they are at a protest.  Most people, like me, have much more to say on the subject than any sign or slogan can say.  The answers I got were, for the most part, concise and though-provoking.  I will post this video soon.  Stay tuned!

After a couple hours of protesting and filming, I was tired.  My friend Ted gave me a ride home, and we discussed our experiences at the protest.  It was Ted's first protest.  Ted is an educator like me, and he'd spent some time talking to a lawyer at the protest, who was there as a legal observer.  The lawyer, Ted explained, was pessimistic about the likelihood of any real justice for Kelly at this point.  The only recourse, according to the lawyer, is a civil suit against the officers, or (more likely) the Fullerton Police Department.  According to the lawyer, "hitting them in their pocketbooks" is, in the case of cops, the only way to make change.  In cases of police brutality like this, human values like compassion and justice and mercy do not drive change.  The threat of financial loss drives change.  This is a cynical view, but I fear there is truth to it.  What is even more screwed up is that we, the citizens/taxpayers, end up paying for things like this.

I mentioned to Ted that Jay Cicinelli, who already receives a pension from the LAPD, will probably now get his FPD pension, plus he will probably sue the city for firing him and get a nice settlement that we, the taxpayers, will end up paying.  So, basically, Jay Cicinelli brutally beats a homeless man to death, and his "punishment" is a vacation for life, on the taxpayer's dime.  This is, needless to say, profoundly disturbing, and another reason to protest.

Thus ended my experience at the protest, which was totally peaceful and inspiring for the two hours I was there.  When I got home from the protest, I followed the pictures, updates, and articles as they appeared on Facebook.  Apparently, as the protest went on, some people in masks began disrupting the peaceful protest.  In an insanely ballsy (and stupid) move, one guy spray-painted an anarchy symbol on the police station.  Others, according to reports I read, began deliberately surrounding cars and blocking traffic.  Again, I was not there for these events, so I'm just going off the bits and pieces from online.  

Riot police arrived and told everyone to disperse.  This sent a very different message than the aforementioned barricades on Highland.  After a series of altercations with the kids in masks, the riot police successfully dispersed everyone, which (Im sure) felt pretty shitty for the people who were there peacefully.  According to KTLA ("The Media"), 13 people were arrested.

I'm not sure where these "anarchy" kids came from.  I hesitate to call them anarchists, because they didn't seem to accurately reflect anarchism as I understand it--which is small, self-sustaining communities with no central governing body which can take many forms: the anarcho-syndicalism of 19th century trade unions, the anarcho-communism of Joseph Dejacque, or (in a highly watered down way) modern libertarianism.  I doubt these kids were well-acquainted with the nuances of anarchist political theory, which is totally interesting and worthy of discussion.  Incidentally, one of my favorite politicians in the world, Jon Gnarr (mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland) is a self-described anarchist.

And so I will end this post with an inspiring quote from Jon Gnarr, which he posted on his Facebook page on January 1, 2014: "My New Year's resolution is to declare Reykjavik a Military free City before my term ends. I have started the work and spreading the word. I come prepared. I am willing to fight for this. War is over if you want it."

See you at the City Council meeting on Tuesday.


  1. Thank you for this thoughtful and inspiring summation of your experience Jesse. Mine was much the same. See you Tuesday!

  2. Amazing, thank you for sharing your eyes and your heart with us jesse. Justice for kelly thomas.

  3. I really like the story, I would love to talk to you more about the incident where the media guy hit my hands knocking the stream away. Truth be told I haven't had a chance to review it my self