Earlier this week, at George Washington University in Washington, DC the student chapter of Amnesty International hosted a sleep out to help students better understand the issues of poverty and homelessness. NCH speaker Steve Thomas attended and gave the students a first person perspective on what it is like to sleep outside in the nation’s capital.
Santa Ana, California — Every American has the right to self defense, even against police officers, and no one in law enforcement has the right to use unreasonable force in the performance of their duty. That was the final determination made by Tony Rachauckas, Orange County’s (CA) District Attorney, after examining evidence of the July 5th beating murder of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man whose life was brutally cut short by at least two on-duty Fullerton police officers, Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli. A total of six officers were put on paid administrative leave after Thomas’ death and prior to today’s charges.
Ramos was charged with second degree murder for craven acts that “were reckless and created a high risk of death and great bodily injury” said Rachauckas. Cicinelli, the second officer charged, is now facing involuntary manslaughter and felony excessive force. The California prosecutor further described Kelly’s last moments in excruciating detail, recalling his numerous pain-filled pleas of “I’m sorry. I can’t breath. Help, Dad.”
The district attorney described the crimes against Thomas as a “violent and desperate struggle”. A full description of the event by witnesses described the shocking extent of Thomas’ injuries and the brutality of the officers’ acts. Thomas died from brain injuries, as a result of overwhelming head trauma. Thomas suffered a variety of broken bones to the nose and cheeks, head and ribs. During the assault, Thomas was shocked repeatedly by police tasers to the head, face, back and chest cavity. The medical report showed that Thomas suffered internal bleeding, causing him to choke of his own blood.
This inhumane assault on Thomas was conducted by no less than a half dozen officers responding to a call of vehicles being broken into. Following the beating, no evidence could be found in the area of vehicles burglarized, nor was any stolen property found on Thomas.
Thomas died because six officers of the Fullerton Police Department didn’t know how to react or respond to a mentally ill person in distress and crisis. When faced with a situation that caused confusion, law enforcement at the scene chose brutal force to subdue Mr. Thomas. This was not an example of appropriate police procedures gone awry. This was a clear case of criminal ignorance, which caused the death of anther human being. This could have all been avoided by the appropriate training of law enforcement in engaging a variety of types of individuals with various mental illnesses. It should have been avoided by Mr. Thomas receiving the appropriate treatment in a place he could call home.
In March 2009, a city developer informed the Gainesville, Florida city Plan Board about an 18 year old ordinance that was regularly violated. The ordinance, located here in city code, limited soup kitchens to serving up to 130 meals within a 24 hour period. The Plan Board listened to the developer and voted for stricter enforcement of the limit. After two years of protests and activism, the 130 meal limit will now be replaced with a new policy that allows soup kitchens to serve as many people as they can within a three hour period each day.
The Coalition to End the Meal Limit NOW! lead a grass-roots effort to repeal the ordinance.
Due to exemptions in the original ordinance for churches and the Salvation Army, St. Francis House was the city’s only soup kitchen affected by the limit. Commissioner Jeanna Mastrodisca had stated that the limit was in place to keep soup kitchen patrons from being concentrated in the downtown area where many receive meals from the St. Francis House, saying “What we’re trying to do is spread [patrons] out. […] That’s our goal.” City Spokesman Bob Woods said in 2009 that Gainesville is currently developing a “one-stop” homeless center that will provide food, shelter, and services. Woods also said that Churches can hand out up to 20 meals without a permit.
But with the center still yet to break ground in August 2011, the hungry have limited options in Gainesville: according to the Coalition to End the Meal Limit NOW!, “the St. Francis House, in order to keep its license to operate, has had to turn away anyone after number 130 in line to be fed, despite lines approaching 300 people.” The meal limit was featured in the National Coalition for the Homeless’ (NCH) 2010 report on food sharing prohibitions and also helped garner Gainesville the fifth spot on NCH’s 2009 Ten Meanest Cities.
People began protesting the meal limit by picketing city hall and demanding that it be overturned in the summer of 2009. A petition to lift the limit on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and another holiday of St. Francis’ choosing quickly reached the city Plan Board later that year, and the unelected group of Gainesville residents recommended that the City Commission investigate overturning the limit all together. The Plan Board unanimously reaffirmed its position in 2011.
As the amount of time that the meal limit was enforced increased, so did its opposition. On December 1, 2010, the Coalition to End the Meal Limit NOW!formed with the mission of ending the need for their organization to exist as soon as possible.
The Coalition planned to post a billboard with this design to raise awareness and rally support against the limit.
The Coalition brought together a number of people and groups, including Food Not Bombs, Veterans for Peace, and the International Socialist Organization, acting as an umbrella to coordinate protests of the meal limit.
By August 2011, the Coalition had grown immensely. According to Sean Larson, the Coalition Convener, “we currently have 18 member organizations, with many of those sending regular delegates to our bi-weekly meetings. […] We [also] have had over 700 local residents sign the Coalition’s petition, and almost 15,000 supporters sign an online petition at Change.org.”
The petitions have brought attention to the issue, but not nearly as much as the Coalition’s pickets and protests. Larson says that their presence at city hall and downtown has drawn local, national, and even international attention to the meal limit, putting considerable pressure on the City Commission. According to Larson, their campaign gained even more momentum following a revelation that it was only a select group of land developers who pushed for the limit, allowing the Coalition to single out those responsible and hold boycotts and pickets. In October 2010, Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe still defended the meal limit, saying that it was the best way to keep the downtown community safe until an alternative could be found. But less than a year later, on July 27, 2011, Lowe announced his support of ending the limit, endorsing a plan that allows soup kitchens to serve an unlimited amount of people within a three hour window each day.
Larson says that the Coalition’s protesting is what truly made a difference: “[Mayor Lowe’s] indefensible support of the meal limit became unsustainable in the face of the mounting pressure engendered by the Coalition’s public actions, which generated a large public outcry against the mayor in particular. He changed his position because he had to.” On August 18, 2011, a repeal of the 130 meal limit won its first City Commission vote, and in its place will likely be the “three hour window” plan that Lowe eventually backed.
*This marks the last post by our Civil Rights Summer Intern Daniel Honeycutt. Thank you Dan (and all of our summer interns) for your great work this summer!