Thursday, June 07, 2012

the least of these

Everybody has seen them, usually on downtown streets in the big cities, although even small towns have their share of them. These are the homeless mentally ill, often schizophrenic men and women who literally have no place to go.

They look pretty much the same today as they have throughout most of western history, as evidenced by the picture on a tarot card from five and a half centuries ago, called "Il Matto" in Italian and "Le Fou" in French (in both cases meaning "The Lunatic"), or "The Fool" in English.

Then as now, he's a frightening and ominous figure, physically ill, possibly dangerous and violent at worst, disoriented and unpleasant to deal with at best. He's one of the ones Jesus called "the least of these," and if you want to see him begging on the streets or rummaging through dumpsters, you won't have far to look if you live in a town of any size.

It was just such a person police in Fullerton (near LA) encountered last July as they were searching for someone reported to have been vandalizing cars. Kelly Thomas, 37, was shirtless, disheveled, and uncooperative when officers attempted to search him, so they called for backup. When help arrived, the reinforced patrol proceeded to beat Thomas to death with tasers (up to five times), the butts of tasers, and by slamming him repeatedly against the ground, despite his pitifully pleading for his father the whole time. He never recovered consciousness and died five days later.

Two of the police involved in this incident, which was captured on videotape and the audio devices cops carry these days, are facing criminal charges, one for second-degree murder and the other for involuntary manslaughter. And the same night as Wisconsin voters decided to retain Scott Walker. three Fullerton city council members were turned out of office by a recall motivated by the killing of Kelly Thomas.

I have little faith that anyone will ever be convicted or serve a day in jail for this hideous and cowardly crime, and doubt very much that the replacement of three Fullerton councilmen will have any substantive effect on city government, other than the newly-elected Republicans will use the Thomas outrage as an excuse to gut police pensions. But I know for certain that I don't want to live in a country where this kind of thing happens, and that the best way we can serve Kelly Thomas at this point is to embark on a crusade for genuine reform, not just of government, but of the way our society works, and who it exists to serve.

Illustration: 'Il Matto' from the Visconti-Sforza tarot deck, Milan, about 1450.

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