Thursday, August 4, 2011 | The political power of the Internet and social media — on display internationally from the revolution in Egypt to the Chinese high-speed rail crash — now has an Orange County counterpart: the Kelly Thomas death.
A local blog, Friends for Fullerton’s Future, has been far ahead of traditional news organizations with details about the police officers who beat the 37-year-old mentally ill drifter the evening of July 5 and his death five days later while in a coma.
While print and broadcasters have covered specific events and talk radio in Los Angeles has followed them closely, it’s the blog that has provided day-to-day details to news organizations and the public.
Normally, the blog focuses on city politics. Writers who contribute their opinions, sometimes anonymously, attack and applaud with gusto those they oppose or support.
Even before Friends for Fullerton’s Future became the go-to source for updates on Kelly Thomas’ death, it won Best Blog of 2010 honors from the OC Weekly. “It’s rare to see conservatives take on the Orange County Republican power structure, but that’s exactly what this Fullerton-based blog does,” declared the OC Weekly. The blog combines “juvenile name-calling, actual investigative chops, and a disdain for nearly everything and everyone. …”
The Kelly Thomas Story
The blog’s founder, Tony Bushala, said he began the blog in 2008 because “I was saying things to the City Council members, but they weren’t listening.”
He has no background in publishing. Instead, he owns and restored Fullerton’s historic downtown railroad station just across from the town bus station. His sister, Salma Bushala Hamud, runs the rail station’s restaurant, the Santa Fe Express Cafe.
She also once worked as a psychiatric technician at Fairview State Hospital. She met Kelly Thomas in Yorba Linda and recognized him when she encountered him on the streets of Fullerton near the bus station and her restaurant.
“She told me [Thomas] was such a nice and gentle person,” said her brother. “He never asked for anything. He never begged.” She sometimes gave Thomas food, he said.
“She was pretty emotional after the beating,” he added.
Although the autopsy report hasn’t been released yet, a photo taken of Thomas in the hospital shows his battered and swollen face. Thomas never regained consciousness.
“I don’t believe he started fighting with anybody,” Bushala said. “I don’t believe he deserved to die, to be beaten the way he was.”
As Thomas’ father, Ron Thomas, was working nonstop investigating what happened to his son and has encouraging news organizations to report on his death, Bushala’s blog launched its own media blitz.
“Once I put my mind to something, I put my heart and my soul into it,” Bushala said.
And much as social media kept the Egyptian revolution going in April and the Internet revealed details of the high-speed train wreck in China that government leaders tried to downplay, the Fullerton blog became the must-see site for anyone interested in the story.
Nothing distinguishes Bushala’s blog from the mainstream media more than his decision to publish a photo of Kelly Thomas’ beaten and swollen face taken while he was unconscious in the hospital.
Blog contributors also have raised questions about a friendship between the Fullerton police chief, Michael Sellers, and the investigator appointed by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas to lead the inquiry into Kelly Thomas’ death.
American Civil Liberties Union officials have since expressed their own concerns about Rackauckas’ office investigating the incident, citing concerns about his lack of prosecution in previous Orange County officer-involved deaths and calling his record “abysmal.”
Bloggers have also demanded the release of a video the police made of the officers subduing Thomas. Bushala has posted video he obtained with help from an Orange County Transportation Authority board member of bus passengers talking about the beating shortly after they had witnessed it.
The ACLU has seconded the Fullerton blog’s demand for a release of the police video.
Friends of Fullerton’s Future bloggers also posted names of six officers they said were involved in the beating. They challenged statements by police that officers involved in the incident suffered broken bones, and they reported the police department retraction of that account.
When officers involved in the beating were taken off patrol but allowed to remain on administrative duty, Bushala’s bloggers demanded they be put on leave.
At this week’s Fullerton City Council meeting, Bushala announced a recall movement against three of the city’s five council members, including a former police chief and a former police officer, for what he says is their failure to act quickly and decisively in the wake of the beating.
Bushala’s conservative Republican allies, like former Fullerton City Councilman, now county Supervisor, Shawn Nelson, have called for an FBI investigation. Democratic City Councilwoman Sharon Quirk Silva, joined in the criticism and urged Police Chief Michael Sellers to step down.
“It’s crossed party lines,” said Bushala.
“There’s no party that anybody can belong to who wouldn’t see this as about civil rights and human rights and your right to live.”