by Thandisizwe Chimurenga
Homeless and schizophrenic. Two words that, for me, conjure up one word: vulnerable. The kind of person who, when Jesus Christ says “the least of these,” means a person who should be protected. Kelly Thomas, 37 years old, mentally ill and “living” on the streets of Fullerton, Calif., was one such person.
But Kelly Thomas experienced the exact opposite of protection. Sickeningly and horrifyingly, Kelly Thomas was set upon and beaten to death in July 2011 by men who, in a perfect society, should have been his protectors. Kelly Thomas was murdered by law enforcement, and this society’s legal system has now set his murderers free. The reason for this is very simple: Kelly Thomas was a castaway. In short, Kelly Thomas was “niggerized.”
Welcome to my world.
Philosopher and critic Cornel West stated more than 10 years ago that people of African descent in this country have long known what it is like to feel “unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hatred for who they are” and that following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. government’s relentless erosion of civil liberties in the name of national security led to an “unaccustomed sense of collective intimidation for far too many Americans.” Thus, said West, whether or not they were of African descent, all Americans had now been “niggerized” by those attacks.
Kelly Thomas’ life was expendable. It no longer held any value to the state. Even the privilege of proximity to law enforcement, which in this society normally would have extended to him via his father, a former Orange County (Calif.) sheriff’s deputy, did not save him. (Witnesses stated that Kelly Thomas cried out for his father 31 times during the 30-minute attack that led to his death: “Dad help me … They’re killing me.”)
Kelly’s parents, Ron and Cathy, were understandably shocked and angered by the jury’s verdict. No parent should endure what they have had to go through. Only the hardest of hearts can view the picture of Kelly Thomas lying unconscious in a hospital bed and not be taken aback by what Fullerton police did to him.
But as a Black woman born and raised in the U.S., to hear Ron Thomas declare, “What this means is that all of us need to be very afraid now … Police officers everywhere can beat us, kill us, do whatever they want because it was proven here today they can get away with it,” I automatically want to ask him where has he been? But I also automatically know the answer to that question: He’s been here all along with everybody else whose white skin privilege has shielded them from the terrorism of the police.
When I hear Cathy Thomas exclaim, “They got away with murdering my son,” I can only think of how Wanda Johnson said the same thing about her child, Oscar Grant, three and a half years ago.
During the trial of his murderers, the defense argued that Kelly Thomas died not as a result of a brutal assault but due to an enlarged heart from drug abuse, even bringing up Thomas’ drug use as a 15-year-old to underscore their point. And as a bonus, the defense said that Thomas was violent, once even attacking his own family members.
Kelly Thomas was put on trial right alongside of those who murdered him. Black folks know all about that. Just ask the parents of Trayvon Martin.
In a perfect world, the government and those who enforce its laws, i.e. “law enforcement,” would have protected Kelly Thomas, made sure that he had the basic necessities of life, and that his right to life would have been respected. But Kelly Thomas didn’t live in that kind of society. Kelly Thomas lived in a society where value is placed on the whiteness of a person’s skin and what they can produce via their labor. In a white supremacist society such as the U.S., Kelly Thomas’ white skin privilege had been “sullied” by his social location and his mental illness. It could not save him.
For the most part in the U.S., homelessness does not conjure up images of hard-working people who have sold their labor to another in order to have the basic necessities of life and then, one or two or a series of missteps means that they have lost their homes, their security and thus they find themselves living on the street: In this country, homelessness conjures up images of filthy, unkempt, smelly and “dangerous people” who, as a result of their own actions – or inactions – are pretty much SOOL (shit out of luck).
Schizophrenia, a form of mental illness that affects about 1 percent of the United States population, is said by the National Institute of Mental Health to be “a chronic, severe, and disabling brain disorder …” whereby some persons “may hear voices other people don’t hear. They may believe other people are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts, or plotting to harm them. This can terrify people with the illness and make them withdrawn or extremely agitated.”
Persons with such an affliction as schizophrenia will, more than likely, not be able to hold a job or maintain personal relationships for long. Thus, unable to “be productive” (sell their labor) or maintain family ties that can assist with their care and treatment, many schizophrenics find themselves living on the streets in cities across the United States. The existence of a safety net that could care for them or, in the alternative, provide substantive support and relief for their families and loved ones who want to care for them has been greatly weakened.
And now, because of this “sullying,” this “niggerization” of their child, the Thomases now feel the similar pain of far too many Black and Brown parents who have lost their children to police terrorism.
They have now entered into our world.
The jettisoning of civil liberties that has occurred since 9/11 alluded to by West, coupled with the continuing attacks on a social safety net that can catch “the least of these” and an increasingly reactionary political agenda administered from the highest levels of government strongly suggest that there will be many more Kelly Thomases. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Police terrorism is a national crisis in the United States. A national movement against the police murder of all people – Black, Brown, Yellow, Red, White, Purple – is desperately needed in this country. Respect for the dignity and human rights of those who walk or drive the streets – or sleep in them – must be made manifest from coast to coast. The lack of accountability and privilege afforded to law enforcement nationwide simply has to come to an end.
The lack of accountability and privilege afforded to law enforcement nationwide simply has to come to an end.
A movement such as this must be built. And it can. Among other things, it will need for those who have had the protection of the state extended to them because of white skin privilege to renounce that privilege and see it for what it is: a ruse that continuously turns white folks against their own self-interest.
What a wonderful world this would be.
Thandisizwe Chimurenga is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. She is a long-time community activist and the author of “No Doubt: The Murder(s) of Oscar Grant.” She can be reached via her website, www.triplemurder.com, where this story first appeared.