Kelly Thomas and The Fourth of July

How the events of the 5th of July 2011 shed light on the events of The Fourth of July, 1776

This article is a collection of ideas that I have formed over the last year. Some of them are observations about the Kelly Thomas beating. Some are observations of people’s responses to it. Some are just observations about people, and living among them.
What I will try to do is tie them together for you. I want to show you how these ideas, that may seem distant and unrelated, are actually linked together by a single thing which is very important to you, and that that thing is at the heart of what we celebrate on The Fourth of July.


I remember last Fourth of July in Fullerton very well. We rode bikes from block party to block party. There were live bands playing on front lawns, volleyball nets stretched across blocked streets, and even a dunk tank in one of the driveways with revelers taking turns getting dunked. Bicycles were the main mode of transport on the quiet streets on this warm and balmy Monday.

The Fourth is always fun in Fullerton. It might be the favorite holiday in this town. On that day people came out of their homes, cooked on their front lawns and talked to their neighbors. As the different groups I rode with went from lawn to lawn we ate, drank, and listened to live music while soaking our toes in kiddy-pools. Then, as the street-volleyball players shadows grew longer in the sun-setting glow, we headed for the stadium at the high school where the fireworks show would be. We crossed the park near the school where hundreds of families would watch the fireworks, and then we headed farther on to another lawn with more neighbors.

Fullerton is still a town where all different groups come out on The Fourth and gather together. They bring their families. They come out to celebrate something that on that day seemed so real that you could almost touch it: Independence.

What Are We Celebrating?

This is not a trivial question. Consider that the event that we are celebrating occurred 236 years ago. In the intervening 236 years, many other nations have tried to improve upon the foundations of freedom as described in our Declaration and laid out in our Constitution. France’s revolution followed almost immediately after ours but it led to the Reign of Terror and a tyrant. Russia’s attempt led to a succession of purges and a prison nation.

American states had preceded our constitution by as much as 100 years, but it is “the oldest written national constitution still in force anywhere in the world” (NYT). It was a new idea in the world. French, Polish, German, Austrian, Belgian, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese scholars are recorded as having consulted with leaders of the new world. The Marquis de Lafayette authored the French “Declaration of Man and of the Citizen” after he was a general in the American Revolution, and who considered George Washington his “father.” From Spain and Portugal the influence flowed back into Latin America. Now most countries in the world have constitutionally formed governments. (Time)

Some have said, to borrow a phrase from modern computer vocabulary, the U.S. provided the “operating system” for the modern world. That is how the NY Times recently referred to it in an interesting article. And as an indication of how controversial the ideas set in our founding documents are, I can point to that same article in the NY Times , which tells us how “parsimonious” and antiquated our constitution is, and how it is falling out of favor in the global society.

That article lists foreign scholars who say our constitution is “out of step” with other constitutions and complains that it doesn’t provide enough rights, such as the right to food. Maybe if we were more “in step,” we could just pick up our rights at Big Lots every month.

Our very founding principles are disputed. Some say the American Revolution was unimportant. They say the real revolutions happened in France and the Soviet Union, and that we should be more like those nations.

Maybe we should understand the issue at the core of our constitution better before we make any changes of the type that the NYT article suggests. Following that trail will also lead us to a better understanding of the events of July the Fifth, 2011.

Tossing around the words “freedom” and “liberty” does not lead directly to an understanding of the great changes that have swept the world in the past 236 years (or even to a belief that there have been any changes).

What Happened on July 4th?

What, then, was the big change? What happened 236 years ago this week? What are we celebrating?

The issue at the core of politics is the same issue that came into conflict in the heart of our Transportation Center just 24 hours after the fireworks display was wrapping up. It is a very small distinction at the base of our laws, but it is one that has grand and spectacular implications worthy of every fireworks display you have ever seen.

The matter that is in question is a single, solitary right, but it is a right that all the other rights are based on: Your right to your own life. This is the right that Kelly Thomas was denied on July 5th of last year.

“…all men are created equal... with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” – Thomas Jefferson

Or, as District Attorney Tony Rackauckas famously declared “Citizens have the right to self-defense, even against a police officer.”

The founding fathers said that your right to your life is inalienable, and went on to say that you had the right to defend this right, even against a tyrant (called the right of revolution).

Rackauckas told us that our life is our own and that we have the right to defend it, even against an errant police officer.

It is a simple idea. You own your life. You own it by right, not by permission. And how could it be otherwise? What right or privilege could you exchange your life for and still take delivery on the exchange?

The constitution meant that you owned your life, and the government was formed “by the consent of the governed.” It was a complete inversion of the proper role of government. Before this fundamental political change, kings had ruled by their right. It was called the divine right of kings.

This inversion did not occur in Europe to the extent that it did in the U.S. They still have royal families in some European countries, which had a cultural effect that goes beyond their waning political power. This difference was highlighted when the German executive of British Petroleum came to the U.S. and tried to allay our fears by saying, “We care about the small people.” The phrase sounded like an anachronism to most Americans, and even one newscaster chuckled and said, “Tell him we’re all the same size over here.” They were not talking about our physical stature.

The American concept of the right to life means that you are the rightful claimant to your life, and that no man stands above you or before you in that claim. It employs the KISS (keep it simple stupid) method of assigning rights.

Independence Day celebrates much more than the United States’ independence from the U.K. It celebrates the birth of the free individual, recognized by the same legal document that justified the formation of the government. It recognizes you as a sovereign individual, with a right to your own life, and establishes the government to protect that right.

But if the idea that an individual owns his own life is so simple, why did it take 12,000 years of civilization to implement it in law? Why has mankind spent most of recorded history without the legally recognized right to his own life, and why is the concept still so controversial today?

It is controversial because this one right is the basis upon which all the other rights are built. What right can you have if you don’t have the right to live? What right can you claim if your life is demanded in return? 

This is the right we are supposed to be celebrating. And yet today this right remains controversial and largely unresolved. In effect it has only been justified on the basis of religion, in which case a divine interpreter may be required to determine its applicability to a person, or on the basis that it is granted by the law, in which case it is permission, not a right. Rights are supposed to be what laws are founded on, not the other way around. That is why Tony Rackaukas had to make that statement, “You have the right to defend your life” as a central part of his statement to the press. That is why people who still don’t understand think it is reasonable for officers to kill a suspect in the process of questioning him for a misdemeanor.

There can be little doubt to anyone who has viewed Tony Rackauckas’s press conference announcing charges against two Fullerton police officers that he understood the grave nature of his declaration. But it is possible that he did not understand the full extent of the radical nature of the roots of his statement.

Let us look, then, at the earlier author, Thomas Jefferson. I submit for your perusal what I think is the single greatest edit in political governance, and therefore in the course of civilization. It is a recent discovery and was announced just two years ago, in July, 2010.

Description: hyperspectral image of The Declaration.

The image was produced by researchers at the Library of Congress (founded by Thomas Jefferson). They used a new technique called hyperspectral photography which uses a much wider range of light wavelengths to detect different ink pigments. 

What those researchers discovered was a change of mind. We can see before us the very change of the very word that separated the Old World from the New World as it happened inside the mind of the man who identified the distinction. We can also see that he was still ruminating over this word as he wrote one of our nation’s most significant documents. He was still working through it in his mind in July of 1776. And it is a significant change of a significant word.

It is not surprising, then, that many people did not understand the distinction between the two words. If Thomas Jefferson was still working through this in his mind in 1776, then we should not be surprised that later revolutions got it wrong, or failed to implement a consistent change. Even Jefferson was not fully consistent (many point out that he still kept slaves). Yet his change, his edit, has been copied by every nation on the face of the Earth. What nation today still refers to its populace as “subjects”?

Why is that? How can that be? How can one of the youngest nations on Earth be the source of the most significant effect on other governments on Earth? When did that ever happen before?

All the countries in Europe, at that time, were populated by subjects of their sovereign. So was the rest of the world. In fact the word “citizen” had not been used since Rome.

To fully justify your right to your life I will need another article. To illustrate how this right is not yet understood, and is under sustained attack, I will need yet another article. Herein I attempted to show that this is what we celebrate on July 4th, and now I will explain how it pertains to July 5th, 2011.

What Happened on July 5th?

Everyone knew who Kelly was. He had a thick mane of copper-red hair and a mountain-man beard. All other homeless people who transit through or abide in Fullerton have short hair and little facial hair. He stood out.

Fullertonians have a personal understanding of homeless people because they walk our streets among us. Some local charities have services for the homeless and our position as a transportation hub makes it a way-point for them. Sometimes they even become regulars. Kelly was one of our few regulars at that time.

All of our downtown businesses are locally owned and operated. So the businesses even tend to be more in touch with the street population than what you might expect in a town of mini-malls or corporate shops. They get to know our roaming residents by name. One bar, The Back Alley, even mounted a brass plaque memorial in honor of our previous regular homeless resident Johnny Morris where they also held a service for him after his death in December of 2005. The Fullerton Observer published a letter sent in by Back Alley owner Sandy Kates as an obituary.

In fact, Johnny Morris and Kelly Thomas knew each other. Even homeless people can be territorial. When Johnny felt that Kelly was invading his territory on the concrete planter just outside the patio of the Back Alley Bar, Johnny would let out a series of war whoops, and sometimes even machine-gun chatter while shouldering his imaginary weapon, to deter the intruder. It was like a secret language that we didn’t quite understand, and an ancient code of ethics: first come, first served.

So when people, at some distant time or in some distant land, wonder if the police knew who Kelly was, it is in this context that they should ask that question. If they did not know who he was, and that he suffered from mental instabilities, then it was a fault of their responsibilities.

More than 70 people witnessed the fatal beating in the heart of Fullerton’s Transportation Center that night. News travels fast in what is still in many ways a small town. Within the same hour I had heard a report of the incident. My son, who works at a local bar, called me and said, “Hey, everybody is saying that the cops just beat the shit out of a homeless guy at the bus depot. You should check it out.” But the very young Fullertonian was a coupon and calendar paper at the time. We didn’t do much crime reporting on our single-sheet paper. I had just taken the bus north from that very same depot and didn’t want to round-trip. But two other factors kept me from returning to the bus depot.

First, I had little reason to think that the Fullerton police had done anything wrong. I have seen the Fullerton police in action, up close and personal, many times, breaking up fights outside the bars and in other scenarios. I had, to that point, never seen them act without the utmost professionalism. This point may get lost in all the other news about the Fullerton PD. Some of the people who suffer the most ongoing damage from this tragedy are all the professional police officers whose reputations are besmirched by this uncharacteristic crime. The Blue Code of Silence, which is supposed to protect them, keeps them locked within a vault, speechless.

So on that Tuesday night after a long three-day weekend, I decided not to go back downtown. “What would I find anyway?” I thought.

Second, there was little reason to suspect that the homeless person who was beaten was one of our regular homeless people. Fullerton has a transient homeless population, and then it has a few regulars. The regulars don’t stay regulars by causing problems. People in towns get reputations. This is true for the businessman, the merchant, the worker, and the homeless person. The system of reputation detects people who walk out on their tab, merchants who are rude to their customers or serve questionable food, men who accost women, and homeless people who cause problems. There have been a few transients who cause problems. People stop giving them money. Other homeless people don’t talk to them and then someone tells them what they are doing is bad and no one wants to deal with them anymore. It’s what happens when you live in a town of people who can see what you are doing.

Regular homeless people have achieved some level of normalcy, although they can get a little unruly sometime, but nothing where you would expect the police to need to “beat the shit out of” them. For that to happen, it would have to be one of the transient homeless people, I thought.

But I was wrong. It turns out that officers in the Fullerton Police Department can be unprofessional. And it turns out that the subject of their beating was one of our regulars, Kelly Thomas.

What We Lost

When Kelly was apprehended, he was systematically denied every right. Without due process he was denied the right to move, to breathe, and finally to live, even though he begged for those rights. The machine of law enforcement rolled over him like an unthinking juggernaut, with each new officer arriving thoughtlessly assuming that appropriate force was being applied for whatever crime had been committed. When I spoke to Ron Thomas at the bus depot on July 7th, he explained it as, “Kelly was found guilty of contempt of cop,” and he showed me the photo of his son lying in a coma in the hospital.

The officers used lethal force on a suspect who was alleged to be trying the handles on cars. They made this decision not in a split -second in some dark and dangerous alley, but in the center of a well-lit and popular downtown plaza. They carried it out with their hands, knees and elbows.

This was more than just a casual error. These officers were trained in this area, which was the focus of their profession. I asked Ron Thomas about this at the bus depot. The details of the story had not hit the news yet, so I asked Ron at what point are officers justified in killing their suspects in order to subdue them. He said they are NOT. This is significant because in his capacity with the sheriff’s department, Ron Thomas trained officers on arrest and take-down procedures.

But really it sheds light on something that is more than just a cop problem. We have a problem in our culture that accepts this kind of nonsense. There was a guy stalking around the memorial lamppost at the Transportation Plaza who kept saying “So this is what happens when you resist arrest, huh?” Meaning that he thought cops have the right to kill you if you resist arrest. There was another guy at a popular bar in the area who kept telling people that he heard Kelly “punched one of the cops in the face,” as if that would justify the police doing “whatever they had to.”

The video was hidden for 10 months. The cops stayed on patrol for months. Blank-faced City Council members stonewalled. National news coverage didn’t exist until the story went viral in the U.K. The problem lies with our logical justification of the use of force. This is where the fifth of July meets up with The Fourth of July.

The justification of the use of force conflicted with the right to life on July 5th, 2011. Any clear-thinking individual who understood these concepts should have been able to make the right decision. But those officers present decided in favor of the use of force. The right to life lost.

Maybe they would have decided differently if they understood that the right to life was the basis for all our other rights. They should have understood that it is the right that justifies our governments, and that grants them authority to use force against others. They should have understood that it was the right to life that they were sworn to protect, that was the cause and the purpose of their job, and of the job of their boss, and his boss, and so on. They should have understood that it is to protect this right that a more perfect union was formed, a government formed “by the consent of the governed,” but they didn’t. Unfortunately, our right to life is still a controversial issue. 


Initially many people did not see Kelly Thomas’s death as controversial, which in turn meant that the incident got very little news coverage. Even in Fullerton the mood among the politically active seemed to be to continue as if nothing had happened. But something had happened, and ignoring it was not going to make it go away.

But there were many people in Fullerton who immediately saw its significance. Maybe it was because of the extremely public location of the beating. Maybe it was because of local coverage by two small publishers, The Fullertonian and Maybe it was because of the tight-knit local community and the fact that so many people knew Kelly Thomas. Or maybe it was all of those things put together that made the Kelly Thomas tragedy a compelling local event.

Within a week, groups were protesting outside the police headquarters. Within a month they had tracked down additional source video that the police had not confiscated, and posted those videos on the internet.

Local artists have written songs, there have been charitable concerts in the public plaza, and this week there will be a political art show featuring works of art by over a dozen artists, all on the topic of the Kelly Thomas tragedy.

So although the founding principle of the right to life is in dispute and still controversial, I know that there are a significant number of very intelligent people who still recognize its importance to all of us. It’s something they recognize whenever they see that heart-rending, grainy video of Kelly Thomas lying on the ground being beaten to death, begging his attackers to stop, calling for his father for help, and pleading for his life – the life that was eventually and cruelly crushed out of him.

The national and regional news could not be counted on to publicize and speak out against this event. It took local citizens to recognize the universal significance of this tragedy. The local community saw in the photo and heard in the video the tortured cries of “one of us.” Then they saw that the people violating the rights of the subject were the very people sworn to protect those rights. It was the day after Independence Day.

To be continued...

There are some similarities between the American Revolution and the Kelly Thomas miscarriage of justice. Both movements were started by small groups of people who knew what they were doing was right. This fact, and its meaning, will be explored in our next article on the subject.

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An inside look at the Kelly Thomas verdict protests. While the mainstream media reports that the protests "turned violent", the truth is more interesting. (photos by Ed Carrasco)

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