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Thanks to Kelly Thomas, Fullerton's Future Is Now

Don't tell the good people of Fullerton, California that "you can't fight City Hall." Not only did they fight City Hall, they changed it.
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Kelly Thomas changed everything.

As someone who believes that local government is the best form of democracy -- after all, it's the closest to the people -- I recognize that it can be among the most frustrating forms of government when it fails us. We almost have come to expect government for and by special interests from our state and federal legislative bodies, but when the system doesn't work locally, when it doesn't listen, when it doesn't put the residents first, it's almost as if it's a betrayal at the hands of our own neighbors. Those are the times when local government represents the antithesis of what Community (with a capital "C") should be all about.

When the system doesn't work locally, the response is often for people to throw up their figurative arms and figuratively sigh that old adage: "You can't fight City Hall."

Don't tell the good people of Fullerton, California that "you can't fight City Hall." Not only did they fight City Hall, they changed it. And in making the changes which they effected through their collective efforts, they've reinvigorated the sense of Community. It started with outrage. It continued with a recall of the intransigent city council majority, and where it goes from here is anybody's guess. But my sense is that this goes way beyond the recall; this is a seismic, systemic change for Fullerton. In Fullerton, people have changed the way they look at local government and what they have come to expect from it.

Kelly Thomas changed everything.

It was a little over a year ago when homeless, mentally ill Kelly Thomas was brutally beaten to death by Fullerton police officers. His only "crime" was being homeless and mentally ill and having the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rather than treat Kelly with respect or at the very least as a fellow-human being, a cadre of Fullerton police officers brutalized the unarmed Thomas, pummeling him, tazering him, pistol-whipping him and crushing him with their collective weight, despite his horrified cries for mercy, and his anguished pleas for his father, Ron. The video tape which has been released and which shows the incident in detail is both literally stomach-turning and heart-wrenching, as Kelly cries in vain for his father to come save him.

Not only did the system fail Kelly Thomas and his family in the most tragic, sickening and irreversible way in the act of his brutalization itself, but it failed miserably in its aftermath, as well, in the way City Hall dealt -- or didn't deal -- with his killing. Aside from one councilman, Bruce Whitaker, nobody at City Hall was even prepared to say publicly, loudly and clearly, that what happened was wrong. One of the councilmen, evidently trying to trivialize the incident, said that he had seen "worse injuries in Vietnam." Nobody at City Hall was willing to take action to find out what really happened or to take steps to punish the perpetrators and to make certain this senseless police brutality could never happen again. A simple acknowledgement that what happened was so wrong would have been a start, but not even that was forthcoming.

Thank goodness, many regular people in Fullerton outside of city hall -- and beyond -- instinctively felt and knew that what happened to Kelly Thomas was wrong. No excuses or explanations could justify his brutal killing; no attempts at cover-ups could ever be acceptable.

When the local police department and City Council did nothing, or worse than nothing, by somehow attempting to justify or explain away what happened, spontaneous protests of diverse people -- everyone from military law-and-order types to neo-anarchists who instinctively harbor a mistrust of all authority -- started to become organized. "Kelly's Army" coalesced around Kelly's dad, Ron Thomas, a former sheriff's deputy and a tower of strength. His determined pursuit of justice was his response to his son's anguished cries. The goal of Ron and Kelly's Army was simple: to hold those officers who killed Kelly responsible for their actions, to achieve justice for Kelly and to try to make sure that such police brutality never happened again.

The response of the City Council majority was to hunker down and dig in their heels. As somebody who sometimes is frustrated with the "corporate culture" which is prevalent at my own City Hall, I have come to see how the instinctive reaction of much of the bureaucracy of local government seems by its very nature to want to serve and protect the organization and the status quo above all else. And yet as chastened as I may sometimes be by red tape and the lack of responsiveness of government, what happened in Fullerton was simply astounding.

Kelly's Army worked tirelessly to publicize the beating, which Establishment types would have liked to sweep under the carpet, subtly or not-so-subtly trying to blame Kelly for his own death. Kelly's Army got the ear of the Orange County DA, which in itself was a stunner considering how the System protects its own. For the first time ever in Orange County an on-duty police officer was charged with murder -- as if it were the first time in the history of Orange County that an innocent person was killed by rogue cops.

Kelly's Army then dealt with the other part of the System. They got the unresponsive city council majority recalled. Travis Kiger, a smart and mild-mannered computer professional, who was one of the first to express his outrage and blog about Kelly's killing, went from anti-Establishment blogger to City Councilman. The winds of change are indeed blowing through Fullerton.

Kelly's Army, led by Ron Thomas and a cast of dedicated and passionate characters, continue to pursue their goals of justice, change and a city hall which actually listens to the residents. But after a year of intense activity, despite the political successes, the disgust, anger and sadness, it seems, is slowly turning to something else.

A memorial service, a concert and an art exhibition marked the one year anniversary of Kelly's death. One year after Kelly's death, the street protests had become an art exhibition in Fullerton's PÄS gallery, a few blocks from the location where Kelly was brutalized. The exhibition was organized by Stephan "Bax" Baxter, a Scottish Fullertonian and former rock god, lead singer of the legendary punk band "Psychotic Fungus." Appropriately enough, the exhibition was entitled "Art with an Agenda." In organizing the exhibition, Baxter didn't give the artists specific direction: how they interpreted the Kelly Thomas killing, or what aspects of it they chose to focus on, was entirely up to them.

Art with an Agenda. Arguably, all art has an agenda, even if the agenda is purely commercial. But in this case it wasn't. The art at the exhibition expressed a wide range of approaches to the subject and emotions by individual artists who were at different places, emotional and spatial, all united by Kelly.

Some of the art in exhibition seemed to come from the residue of raw anger which couldn't help but remain, unadulterated for some, a mere year after Kelly's death. Some of the pieces depict the assailants as swine or faceless. Some show the Fullertonian powers-that-be, (or, more accurately now, the powers-that-were), the former council majority, in contorted, Francis Baconesque images of a twisted, different kind of humanity. A wide variety of other emotions was on display, as well as more cerebral, thought-provoking pieces, such as an installation which attempted to give a sense of how a schizophrenic person might see the world, or a booth which simply ticked off the seconds and the minutes of the actual length of the beating, so drawn out in its horror that seconds must have felt like hours for Kelly.

Some of the critics criticized the beatific images of Kelly as a form of hagiography. Some of the critics were particularly critical of the art which, they said, demonizes the police by depicting them as animals. Unlike those critics, I don't feel that these artists are even remotely guilty of dehumanizing the police in the way that the police dehumanized Kelly. It was the police assailants' own actions which served to dehumanized themselves and the artists were merely depicting this emotionally, metaphorically and graphically.

But the breadth of reactions, many visceral because of the proximity of the event, both physical and temporal, gave the exhibition scope, as well as emotional and intellectual heft. The artists plumbed the depths and meanings of not only Kelly's death and their own feelings, but also of all that had happened since. In a way, it was the collective reaction of a community of artists, which reflected the larger reaction of a new Community which had come together because of Kelly's death and subsequent events.

At least for me personally, as a father and a human being, the most touching pieces were the ones which focused on Kelly, the person. An artistically carved bench with Kelley's favored instrument, a guitar. A portrait of a happy, healthy Kelly. Images of Kelly as a child, in the arms of his mother. A piece which featured a graphic depiction of the words "Dad! Dad! Dad!" Kelly's final plea to his father, wafting towards the heavens where, just as they are tattooed on many of our hearts, they will remain forever.

Another powerful and moving part of the exhibition was a floor-to-ceiling collage of many of the actual hand-made signs used in the weekly protests outside of the police station. Art made not by trained artists, but by Kelly's Army. Somehow the signs remind us of the meaning of Andy Warhol's famous pronouncement that "Art is life. Life is art."

In a way the signs reflected everything that Community and local government should be about: active involvement and concern in the affairs of our Community. Looking out for each other. What began as visceral anger, a gut-reaction to a gut-wrenching act somehow now connected people who before Kelly's killing were strangers.

A year after Kelly's brutal killing, the exhibition had collectively managed to do something quite the opposite from what the Fullerton police officers, and subsequently the Fullerton Establishment had done. The police had dehumanized Kelly by literally taking away from him the thing that made him human: his life. The Establishment compounded that dehumanization by saying that his killing didn't matter and by trying to protect a status quo which could condone or tolerate such a monstrous act.

Yet in some ways this exhibition succeeded in restoring Kelly's humanity -- and in so doing went a measure towards underlining our own, reminding us how we're connected with Kelly, and, ultimately, each other.

Someone at the exhibition told me he felt that the exhibition should travel around country, ending up at the Smithsonian. I couldn't agree more. Ultimately, every village, every city, every hamlet is Peyton Place, with a healthy dose of Ibsen thrown in for good measure. Every town is Fullerton.

And we've seen that change is possible; positive transformation can happen if we make it so. Art with an Agenda shows us that; it shows us how Kelly's Army has become so much more; how, if you think about it, it's now really Kelly's Family.

Because we are all connected. We are all in this together.

Kelly Thomas changed everything.

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