Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Reflections on the Kelly Thomas Verdict

Yesterday was really surreal.  I was having a good day with some friends in LA.  We visited the Museum of Contemporary Art, saw some wonderfully inspiring work.  Then, as we headed to my friend Steve's house, I started getting text messages.  The verdict had come in on the Kelly Thomas trial.  The officers who beat him to death were found not guilty on all counts against them.  Not guilty of second degree murder.  Not guilty of involuntary manslaughter.  Not guilty of even excessive use of force.  I was stunned, speechless.  For the first time in my life, a great injustice had occurred in my lifetime, in my community.  

My friend Steve lives in Echo Park and, from his balcony, I could see most of Los Angeles.  I kept imagining a similar series of events over 20 years ago: the beating of Rodney King, and how an all white jury found the officers involved not guilty, despite the fact that it had all been caught on camera.  What followed that injustice was the L.A. Riots.

As we drove home, I began to worry about what might happen in Fullerton.  How does a community respond to injustice?  Historically, the responses have been varied.  When the man who assassinated Harvey Milk was charged with manslaughter instead of murder in 1978, the gay community in San Francisco stormed city hall, began breaking windows and setting cop cars on fire.

As we approached Fullerton, we could see and hear three police helicopters hovering over the city.  My God, I thought, what is going to happen?  We heard that people were gathering at Kelly's Corner, a memorial at the bus depot downtown where Kelly was murdered.  Nervously, we headed over and joined the vigil.  What we found there was not a riot, but a large crowd of people just being together, in solidarity.

Some people were holding candles.  Others held protest signs.  Others stood around, having little conversations.  There was a podium and a notebook, where people could write messages of comfort to Kelly's family.  Some people left food for local homeless.  There were several reporters and bloggers milling about, talking to people and taking pictures.  

I got the profound sense that people didn't know what to do.  Given such injustice, what could they do?  All they could think to do was be together.  And, for me, that was a profound and moving testament to what this community is about.  Not violence, not chaos.  The thousands of people who have protested, wrote, made art, and raised their voices on behalf of Kelly Thomas have never been violent.  Angry, yes.  But that anger has been channelled into socially constructive ways.

What the vigil showed me is that this is the path Fullerton will continue to take.  

This morning , I ran into my friend Dale, who is homeless, and we got talking about the verdict.  

"Will they be able to kill me, like Kelly, now?" Dale asked, with genuine fear in his eyes.  

I have no answer for Dale.  What I cannot say is, "You are safe."  None of us feel safe anymore.  Not me, not Dale.

"You can't make sense of the senseless," Dale says.

At Starbucks, two police officers, one of whom is responsible for ticketing homeless people for being homeless, sat and talked together, smiling, laughing, text messaging, sipping coffee.  I felt a tinge of fear.  Could they arrest me and beat me for no reason?  Could they start brutalizing homeless people again, like my friends Dale and Julia and Ernest and Curtis?  The precedent set by the Kelly Thomas verdict forces me to consider these questions and wonder what recourse we now have.

I got my coffee and bumped into my friend Jerry, who told me that he was with his ten year old son when the verdict was announced.  He looked at me with deep sincerity and said, "I didn't know what to tell my son.  What can you say?"

I don't know what you can say to a ten-year-old about all this.  I don't know what the future will hold.  I don't know what to do besides what I've done all along: use my resources to make my voice heard.  And so I will continue to write, to take photographs, make videos, have conversations, speak up at city council meetings, as I'm sure all those who seek social justice in Fullerton will continue to do.

A major blow against civil rights and justice was dealt yesterday.  But we, as a community, will not give up.  We will not stop making our voices heard.


  1. Beautiful piece. Hopefully we can find a way to overturn this verdict without resorting to the same ignorance the bureaucrats have shown us. RIP Kelly.

  2. Tell your children to be very careful in public, that grizzly bears still roam in packs, that they should place as much distance as possible between themselves and these predators in blue uniforms. For my part, I will exercise great caution and discretion in my choice of routes and destinations. Fullerton is a no-go zone for me and my family unless and until they restore order from this chaos.