By Lydia Heather Blumberg
In a nearly unprecedented win for justice in California, two of the Fullerton police officers involved in the brutal beating death of Kelly Thomas have been charged in connection with his murder. This marks only the second case in California history that a police officer has been held criminally liable for a murder committed in the “line of duty.” The first case was last year’s trial against Johannes Mehserle for shooting a restrained and compliant Oscar Grant in the back as he laid on the ground—begging for mercy—on the Fruitvale BART platform. The backlash from that case has been a thorn in the side of BART administrators ever since then, forming the original basis for an ongoing protest against a militarized and unaccountable BART police force, called No Justice No BART (for more information about the Oscar Grant case, surf to indybay.com/oscargrant.)
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas announced last week that charges were filed against the two Fullerton police officers after the DA’s office reviewed numerous videos of the incident, coroner’s reports, and over 150 witness statements. Officer Manuel Ramos was charged with second-degree murder and Officer Jay Cicinelli was charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force.
Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old homeless man suffering from schizophrenia, was a familiar character to many in downtown Fullerton. Officers say they approached him at a bus depot on July 5th while following up on a report of attempted vandalism on a car in the area. Eyewitnesses report that Thomas ran when officers unlawfully demanded to search his bag. Scores of eyewitnesses to the following aftermath say that they saw multiple officers viciously beating and Tasering Thomas while he was on the ground sobbing and crying out for his father. Many eyewitnesses were video interviewed in the days following his death; their accounts can easily be found on YouTube.
Although defense attorneys for the killer cops have sought to portray Kelly Thomas as a violent criminal—responsible for his own death at the hands of six officers—hospital toxicology reports showed that Thomas was not under the influence of illegal drugs or alcohol at the time of his fateful execution. Other hospital records showed that Thomas sustained severe internal bleeding, several broken ribs, a smashed cheekbone, and shattered nose in addition to the multiple brain injuries that eventually caused his death. Thomas died of brain death due to “head trauma” in the hospital five days after the confrontation when he was finally removed from life support. He was also shown to have been shocked “multiple” times with Tasers, including in the left chest area near the heart. Taser International, who manufactures Taser stun guns, specifically warns police departments not to Taser suspects near the heart, as such use has been widely shown to cause cardiac arrhythmia resulting in death.
John Barnett, defense attorney for Officer Manuel Ramos, stated at a news conference after his client’s arraignment, “I believe none of the officers were responsible. Lethal force was the result of Kelly’s actions.” Barnett made reference in court to Kelly Thomas having been convicted for assault with a deadly weapon 17 years ago, although it is doubtful that the officers were aware of Thomas’ conviction prior to his murder. Barnett even went so far as to tell the court that Thomas’ own parents were afraid of him, a claim that Ron Thomas, Kelly’s father, has flatly denied. Officer Ramos pled not guilty at his arraignment hearing, but the presiding judge, unimpressed, declined to reduce bail, leaving it instead at $1 million.
The Kelly Thomas murder case comes at the same time that another victory against police terror in Eureka has come to light. Last week the family of Martin Cotton was awarded over $4.5 million in a civil suit brought against Eureka police officers. Martin Cotton was a homeless man brutally beaten and left to die in a jail holding cell. Cotton was unarmed and compliant at the time of his execution. The two cases bear striking resemblance, although the officers involved in the murder of Martin Cotton never spent a single day in jail for his death, as criminal charges were never filed.
Why are we seeing a backlash against police terror in some of the most cop-loving, conservative counties in California, yet in San Francisco—arguably one of the most liberal cities in the state—when we can’t even get an independent investigation into whether the killing of Charles Hill by BART police was an excessive use of force? Charles Hill, a mentally ill homeless man, was shot to death on a crowded BART platform on July 3rd. Hill had been reported as “wobbly drunk,” and officers claim he tossed a small pocketknife toward them.
It becomes more and more obvious to the community at large that the real threat of violence on the street comes from the gun-wielding thugs behind the badges. It’s no wonder that No Justice No BART has enjoyed such popular success with hundreds of activists turning out to many of their protests and the national hacktivist group Anonymous lending their technical support. After so many incidents of unconscionable violence, many of them seemingly unprovoked, it only makes sense to demilitarize and disarm BART police. After all, MUNI seems to run just fine without its own armed police force. Then there are the more more novel ideas that make us all smile, like a big, fat protest banner that reads: “Disarm Cops, Arm Feminists.” At a press conference preceding a BART protest against the police killing of Charles Hill earlier this month, the group Feminists Against Cops released the following statement:
“As Feminists against Cops, we want everyone across the bay area to know that women are not safer because of police presence, in BART or elsewhere. Quite the opposite. Many women are in danger because of the police. Every police institution is sexist and violent. The police are more of a threat to women than a protection, and we do not want our public transport system militarized.
“Let’s be clear: the police are here to protect the capitalists and the state institutions, not us. The police have been given the authority to determine our freedom of movement, to harass us and enter our homes. The police even have the authority to determine if we live or die.
“There are many accounts of police murdering youth of color in the bay area, or of police murdering homeless people, or whomever they see fit. There are as many accounts of police using their power as police and as men to dominate, harass, intimidate, imprison, and rape women. Many police feel that they have a right to women’s bodies, and when they abuse our bodies it is considered “normal” police procedure.
“We are not asking for a less brutal police force because we know that brutality is an inevitable product of this policing system. Police only exist in order to brutally repress us. We must free ourselves. We are asking you to join us as we continue to struggle against the police. The quick and inhumane murder of Charles Hill is a warning: if you call the police you are putting people in danger of their lives.
“To the media and to the police we say: do not use women’s bodies and the claim that you are protecting our bodies as an excuse for murder. You called Kenneth Harding a pimp to excuse shooting him in the back. But Kenneth Harding was not harming any women when he was murdered-he was evading paying his fare as many of us do. The ridiculous BART fares are a burden for people who struggle for survival. We evade fares because we claim the right to be able to move freely even if we don’t have the money to pay the fares. Since evading fare is part of how we survive and move freely, then this also means that in order to survive and move freely, we must resist police.
“Our message to the police is this: we are under no illusion that you make us safer, or that you protect us. We women join these anti-police movements, including the Oscar Grant riots and the response to the murders of Charles Hill and Kenneth Harding, because safety to us as women means resisting the police.”