Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Reflections on Tonight's City Council Meeting

In the wake of the protests/conflict/riot police of this past Saturday, I have been filled with a lot of bewilderment and anxiety about what will happen next, moving forward, after the Kelly Thomas verdict.  Clearly, there is a lot of anger, frustration, and sadness in the community.  Tonight, walking to the city council meeting, I felt weary.  I didn't know what to say.  I felt the need to speak to city council, but what could I say except that I am anxious, tired, sad, and uncertain?

As with the protests on Saturday, I didn't know what to expect.  I sincerely hoped that there would not be a bunch of people angrily yelling things like "Fuck the police," because that is neither thought-provoking nor constructive.  I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw and heard tonight.  The council chambers were filled to capacity, and there was a whole "overflow" section next door at the library, which is where I sat for the first hour and a half of the meeting, and listened, and took notes.

The meeting began with a special presentation by police officer J.D. DiCaprio about the efforts of Coast to Coast Foundation, a local nonprofit that works with the police department to help the local homeless, with motel vouchers, food, clothing, etc.  It felt like a bit of a PR thing, but I'm sure Coast to Coast does in fact do good things in the community.

Then Fullerton police chief Dan Hughes gave an update on what has been happening in the department, both in the aftermath of the death of Kelly Thomas, and the "not guilty" verdict.  Hughes assured the public that he would stand by his decision to fire officers Cicinelli and Ramos, that he would not accept their requests for their jobs back.  He mentioned reforms that have been made in the department regarding hiring practices and training, though he didn't really specify what those changes were in much detail (more on that later).  He said that there was likely a federal investigation forthcoming.

Then the city attorney gave an incredibly passionless and dry explanation of the city council's obligations moving forward, that they would be the ones to ultimately decide whether these two officers would get their jobs back.  He also said that, because of this role, they were not allowed to talk about their feelings on the verdict or the officers involved.

The first public commenter was Kelly Thomas' father, Ron Thomas, who also emphasized that a federal investigation was perhaps forthcoming.  

Jane Rands, a regular fixture at city council meetings, and a long time advocate for change in Fullerton, spoke of the need for a civilian police oversight committee, to give the public some measure of accountability, to avoid future incidents like what happened to Kelly Thomas.

Tony Cadena, lead singer of The Adolescents, spoke about his child who has autism, and the need for officers to have special training to know how to deal with people with mental illness.

Matthew Leslie, another longtime advocate and voice for change in Fullerton, spoke of the disturbing fact that some Fullerton police officers who testified in the Kelly Thomas trial, said that officers Ramos and Cicinelli were acting according to "what they were trained to do."  In light of this, he asked for more specifics on what changes in training policy had been made, to avoid this kind of behavior.

Stephan Baxter, longtime and tireless advocate for change, made the compelling statement that, when the jury acquitted Ramos and Cicinelli for "doing what they were trained to do," the culpability shifted from them to the Fullerton Police Department's training policies.  If beating a man to death is part of training, then serious changes need to be made to the training.

A couple people who were arrested on Saturday spoke, two of whom were filming the events, "live streaming" to an internet audience around the world.  One guy who was arrested gave disturbing accounts of police officers in the "paddy wagon" taunting him by saying that there were 12 sheriffs deputies were waiting at the jail to beat him up.  Even more disturbing, he said that one officer said to him the words "Not Guilty" and then laughed.

Another journalist and live streamer, Patti Beers, who was also arrested, stated that the police on Saturday night were specifically targeting people who were filming, except of course for the mainstream media.

Former city council candidate Barry Levinson questioned the mayor and police chief regarding the specifics of "reforms" and "changes" that they have made.  He also urged for the formation of a civilian police oversight committee.

When my turn came to speak, I didn't know what to say, so I sort of "freestyled" it.  I said that I didn't know what to tell my ten-year-old nephew about this.  What is the story we can tell our children about the Kelly Thomas case?  How can we tell them that police officers killed a man and were found not guilty?  How can I look a child in the eye and say, "This is what happened."  I said that, in my English classes,  my students write about local issues, and many have written essays about the Kelly Thomas case.  What can I tell my students now?  After all the community activism, protests, art shows, speaking at council meetings week after week, justice still didn't' happen.

I urged the council to "lead" so that something like this never happens again.

I don't have any answers.  I don't know what comes next.  But I was reminded of the power and commitment of my community to continue to speak up, to not be silent, and to not give up even when things feel as hopeless and dark as they do now.  On a more positive note, the overall "vibe" of the meeting was a clear view toward the future, toward making significant changes in policies at the local level that would prevent such an outrage from happening again.  I also know that I, and the countless others who have spoke up about this, will not stop speaking up.  

Maybe one positive thing that has come from all this tragedy is that large numbers of the Fullerton community are actively engaged in civic affairs in a way that they never were before.  This, at least, gives me some hope for the future.

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