The recent deaths of two black men at the hands of white police officers in Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, NY have dominated the headlines recently and several of the concerns these events have raised are extremely important. The country should be aware of the tense race relations that still exist in many parts of the country and police brutality is a very real issue. However, conventional wisdom dictates that we should care about all cases of social disparity and unprovoked police aggression equally. Unfortunately, we have not done that.
The previous statement is proven by the case of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man in California who was murdered by the police in 2011, on tape, while begging for mercy. Cops were responding to a call about a possible car break in and they found the 37 year old Thomas, who was well known to the cops from previous non-violent interactions, and claimed he tried to run from them and resisted arrest. The result was a gruesome beating which involved six officers pummeling and tasering the unarmed Thomas in front of a group of onlookers while he screamed for mercy.
One of the officers, Jorge Ramos, methodically put his gloves on and said, “Now see these fists? They’re about to f*** you up.” In the heartbreaking video, Thomas can be heard yelling, “Help me Dad, they’re killing me.” 31 times. “Sir please, OK OK.” 30 times. “Help me God.” 26 times and “I’m sorry.” 15 times. Witnesses testified that the cops beat Thomas by hitting him over the head with tasers, batons, and flashlights while he was lying on the ground. Kelly Thomas was beaten so violently (graphic image) that he died from his injuries 5 days after the incident.
Unlike the Brown and Garner case, three of these officers were brought to trial, through a slightly different process. However, all the cops were acquitted of any responsibility for Thomas’ death in similar fashion to Ferguson and Staten Island. The lawyers defending the police successfully misled the jury into believing that the cops were in fear for their lives and were just following protocol. That was an absurd defense no matter how you look at it but sometimes our justice system doesn’t get it right. The community was outraged and the story did garner some national attention from CNN, Huffington Post, NBC, and others. The media attention was not nearly as intense as the fanatical 24/7 coverage that the Garner and Brown situations brought on.
Arguing that the Kelly Thomas case can’t be compared to Garner and Brown because Kelly Thomas was white completely misses the point. Yes, the Thomas case was not relevant in terms of the overall discussion of race relations in this country but that isn’t the entire story. This case was an example of a disenfranchised population, the homeless, being abused by the police. The relationship that homeless and mentally ill people have with police has always been tenuous. Those living on the streets are constantly subjected to unfair treatment.
Since 1999, over a thousand homeless people have been subjected to hate crimes. While it is difficult to find exact numbers on how many unarmed people of color have been killed by police during that same time frame, the available data seems to suggest the number is far less than 1,000. Police related homicides and hate crimes are obviously two different things but these numbers suggest that the homeless population has legitimate qualms with how they are treated by society and the fact that homeless people make up 15% of the prison population solidifies that notion.
The homeless population is not the same as the black population and no one can question the terrible things that African-Americans have endured throughout this country’s history. If police brutality and the suppression of impoverished and vulnerable citizens is such a hot button issue, then why did Kelly Thomas not become the household name that Eric Garner and Michael Brown? If the reporters and TV personalities that have been so vocal about those two deaths, were genuinely concerned about this injustice, wouldn’t they be consistent in their coverage? Wouldn’t Anderson Cooper be reporting live from the streets of Fullerton, California every night until justice was served? A popular hash tag on Twitter during the last few months has been #Blacklivesmatter but the reality of the situation is that all lives should matter. Any unarmed citizen who is beaten to death or shot by cops should matter to society equally.
The lack of outrage about Kelly Thomas was very troubling. It begs the question why a situation that was equally, if not more, egregious than Michael Brown and Eric Garner was largely ignored by the mainstream media. Is race the main factor? Possibly. Had Kelly Thomas been black, outside agitators like Al Sharpton would have surely been on the scene organizing protests and holding press conferences. Sharpton is a polarizing figure but he knows how to make people listen to him and his presence would have certainly made a difference. It is a waste of time to ask why Al Sharpton didn’t show up to defend Kelly Thomas. It is well documented that Al Sharpton is only interested in pushing the narrative that black lives don’t matter to society. It is a valid question to ask the main stream media though.
If we are to take the media’s concern about injustice seriously then they need to do a better job of fairly covering all instances of injustice. Black people are victims in this country. Poor people are victims in this country. Homeless and mentally ill people are victims in this country. We do ourselves a disservice as a society when we pick and choose when to be outraged based on race. Any life lost without justice matters. Not just the politically convenient ones that fit the narrative the media wants to focus on that day.
– Andrew Mark Miller