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Fullerton police brutality protest turns political

Gathering at what has become a regular protest of the Fullerton police confrontation that left a homeless man dead, activist Frank Alonzo hoisted aloft a flag with a snake curled under the slogan “Don’t Tread on Me.”

He and others were in front of the Fullerton police station to demand action against the officers who they believe fatally beat Kelly Thomas. But for some there was an underlying political message that went well beyond police brutality.

“Here’s the problem: Those cops are symptoms of a disease, and the disease is big government — arrogant, self-serving big government. It all starts at the top,” said Alonzo, Orange County coordinator of Campaign for Liberty, a group founded by Republican congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul.

Thomas’ death has become a rallying cry in the northern Orange County city and beyond, roiling local politics and creating a movement known to some as “Kelly’s Army.”

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While the protesters have come from across the political spectrum, an early driving force was a core group of libertarian-leaning activists, and their allies in elected office, who see the case partially as a way of bringing more sweeping changes to local government.

They see the beating as an example of government overreach — and the city’s perceived unwillingness to take action against the officers as an example of union power.

“I believe in limited government, I don’t believe government has the solution to all our social problems,” said real estate developer Tony Bushala, a libertarian-leaning Republican who has launched a recall campaign against three council members over the Thomas case. “When government tries to come up with the solution, they create a new problem.”

Bushala was a familiar face in Fullerton politics well before the Thomas case and sued the city in an attempt to block expansion of its redevelopment agency, a case that he lost and is now appealing. His blog, Friends for Fullerton’s Future, has slammed big government, pensions and public employee unions for years. The blog has now become a central rallying point for activists in the Thomas case, posting video interviews with witnesses and the names of the officers allegedly involved. (The city has refused to confirm the officers’ names).

Political experts said it’s no surprise that Fullerton would become such a flash point. Decades ago, the city helped elect ultra-conservative Rep. William E. Dannemeyer to office. Anti-tax activists, including sitting Councilman Bruce Whitaker — recalled three council members in 1994.

“There are some communities in Orange County in which people are disengaged. However, Fullerton is not one of them,” said Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University, adding that the interests of libertarian and liberal groups intersect on the issue of police brutality.

Thomas, a homeless man with schizophrenia, died five days after a July 5 struggle with six police officers, in a case that has garnered national attention. Officers approached him after receiving a call of someone trying to break into cars in the parking lot next to a downtown transit center.

Kelly’s father, Ron Thomas, has become the face of the crusade, attending council meeting and rallies and repeatedly calling for criminal charges against the officers. The case is under investigation by the Orange County district attorney’s office and the FBI.

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Thomas said that he has been frustrated by what he sees as attempts by people with political agendas on both the right and left to further their own causes through his son’s death.

“I honestly think some folks are out there to use my son’s death to bring light to their own cause,” he said.

Among the groups that have come out to protest Kelly’s death are the conservative Campaign for Liberty and the Oath Keepers, a “patriot” group of military and law enforcement officers.

Groups on the left have also joined, including the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition, a group that is a regular fixture at anti-police brutality protests. A.N.S.W.E.R. Los Angeles coordinator Ian Thompson said the anti-police brutality protests in Fullerton were the first where he has seen conservative groups taking such an outspoken stance against the police.

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On the Fullerton council, the two members who loudly criticized the Police Department over the Thomas case were Democrat Sharon Quirk-Silva and Bruce Whitaker, a longtime anti-tax activist who has garnered the endorsement of the local “tea party” chapter. And county Supervisor Shawn Nelson, a Whitaker ally, called for an FBI investigation into the case.

Fullerton school board member Chris Thompson has emerged as one of the loudest critics of the police handling of the Thomas case, speaking at council meetings, coordinating the recall effort and interviewing witnesses on Bushala’s blog. He sees the Thomas case as part of a larger problem with local government.

“If I were to get a tattoo, I would potentially get, ‘Public employee unions bad,’” he said.

One of the three council members facing recall, Don Bankhead, was recalled once before, in a 1994 special election. The recall committee included Whitaker. In an unusual twist, Bankhead was out of office for less than a month before being voted back into the seat in the regular November election.

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Bankhead said he was being punished this time around for heeding the city attorney’s advice to keep quiet about the Thomas case. But he also said the case may be an excuse for political enemies like Bushala.

“It’s obvious that certainly redevelopment is part of it, and this very unfortunate situation involving our officers I realize probably has given him another reason,” he said.

In a statement responding to the recall attempt, the targeted council members slammed Bushala for using the Kelly Thomas case to score political points and said he was using them as a “political piñata.” The statement labeled Bushala a “millionaire developer” who is trying to turn the case into a political movement.

abby.sewell@latimes.com


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