Kelly Thomas was a 37 year old homeless man who suffered from schizophrenia. On July 5, 2011, Thomas was brutally beaten to death by three police officers in Fullerton, California. Despite his repeated cries begging for mercy, calling out to God to save him and for his father, and apologizing to the officers over and over, they continued to beat him until he was completely unrecognizable and unconscious. This can clearly be seen in video and audio surveillance as well as through numerous testimonies of eye witnesses. Thomas never regained consciousness and succumbed to his injuries five days later in the hospital. Despite all of this, Thomas’s killers were acquitted.(1)
Were this an isolated case, outrage at such behavior would most likely be projected primarily at the officers and their blatant violation of the role they play in society. But this is not an isolated case. Incidents of gross overreach of police power, malfeasance and excessive force, and extreme violence emerge daily. This, coupled with the burgeoning prison and surveillance industrial complex, which is increasingly becoming privatized, and an immoral and untenable “War on Drugs” which really amounts to a war on the poor and people of color, creates a situation that in most nations would raise the specter of a police state.(2) In reality, the officers in this case did not violate the conduct expected of them or the rule of law in their role as police officers. On the contrary, they fulfilled them.
In a spate of State and Federal Supreme Court cases the courts have come down almost unequivocally on the side of the police. In most states the police do not have any obligation to protect a citizen from harm.(3) At the federal level, the SCOTUS has enshrined the right of police departments to conduct strip searches for any arrest.(4) Statistically, there has been a sharp increase in the use of SWAT teams to address what most would consider to be non-violent drug offenses. When we consider the concurrent trend of police departments acquiring military equipment, including armored tanks, this increased use of SWAT as the preferred method of dealing with the public, as vile as it is, makes logical sense.(5)
Perhaps what is most troubling about the rise of police and state brutality is the seeming complacency of the public. The invasive practices of the TSA at airports, the codification of the NDAA indefinite detention of American citizens without the requirement of due process, or the Constitutional infringements by the NSA aside, it was the effective lockdown of a major US city following the Boston Marathon bombing that was most indicative of this. Tanks rolled freely down leafy, suburban streets while residents were marched at gunpoint down sidewalks with hands placed firmly on their heads. Yet despite the fact that the police had little to do with the capture of an injured, bleeding 19 year old, the media, politicians and many ordinary citizens normalized and even applauded the draconian measures taken.(6)
Cajoled by a lapdog, corporate media into accepting our situation as necessary, or even desirable, and marrying it to the government’s spurious, grossly inflated and unending, global “War on Terror,” the general public is chided as at best unpatriotic and, at worst, reckless anarchists or terrorist sympathizers should they object to the increasing incursions into civil rights and liberties. The attacks on 9/11 created an atmosphere which favors totalitarianism wherever the opaque concept of “security” is threatened. (7ab)
Cases like Kelly Thomas, or Keith Vidal, a teenager who also suffered from schizophrenia whom police fatally shot to death in front of his parents for carrying a screw driver(8), or the state troopers that fired several rounds into a minivan filled with children (9) beg us to look at this grave situation with unwavering urgency. The numerous men and women who have endured invasive body searches, including vaginal and anal probing, at routine traffic stops(10), or the countless dehumanizing “stop and frisk” incidents in cities across the country (11), or the scores of young people spirited away to prison from high school (12), or the violent, organized crackdowns on the Occupy movement (13) illustrate the rising tide of state animus against the public, and particularly any kind of behavior they view as anti-social, a threat to property or dissent. Unchecked power, unprecedented since the Civil Rights Era and the Anti-war protests in the 1970s, has created a state that is growing more belligerent by the day.
The tragic case of Kelly Thomas illustrates how poverty, homelessness, under-employment and mental illness have become criminal offenses. Indeed, the gutting of social programs, including those services for the mentally ill, has seen a concurrent rise in state brutality toward the poor and the most vulnerable. And as the economy is perpetually poised for the next bubble to burst, the gap between the super rich and devastatingly poor grows, and climate change ravages an environment already fragile from excessive exploitation, the prison industry will undoubtedly gain more ground and the militarization of the police will most certainly expand.
If there is no public outcry and substantive change, the United States will end up looking more like one of the foreign dictatorships that it has for so long upheld and supported through overt and nefarious means, indistinguishable from it in its ruthlessness. Callous disregard and utter contempt for the very elements that make a society civil will be codified and enshrined. Because to a state with no restraint or respect for human life and no due process to speak of, we are all Kelly Thomas, and in the end we are bound to share his tragic fate.
Kenn Orphan 2014
(photo on top is of Kelly Thomas. Source: CBSNEWS)