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Kelly's Army Strong

The eclectic mix of protesters demanding justice for Kelly Thomas still has battles to fight, even after two officers were charged in his death

Rain mists down on the dozens of signs sprawled on the lawn in front of the Fullerton Police Department on the morning of Sept. 25. For just a second, there's silence, then a passerby honks his horn, and the chant starts again: "Kelly's Army; we won't go. Two down, four to go."

Three days earlier, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas lodged charges against two of the six Fullerton policemen involved in the July 5 beating death of Kelly Thomas.

Ron Thomas, Kelly's father, smiles as he looks at the 25 or so protesters holding signs and bullhorns and wearing shirts and hats with his son's name on them. Then, a short man with shiny cheeks and a wide smile walks up to Thomas with an outstretched hand. "How are you doing?" Thomas asks, as the men shake hands.

Members of Kelly's Army march between memorial site and Fullerton Police Department
Marisa Gerber
Members of Kelly's Army march between memorial site and Fullerton Police Department

"What a wonderful somewhat of a victory," the man says about the DA's decision.

"Yeah, we won a major battle; now, let's go on and win this war," Thomas says, before thanking the protester. "It's not me, man; it's all of us in this. I'd be one man standing here in the grass. It's all of us that did it. It's the pressure that all of us put on them."

Thomas remembers when that us began. It was several days after Kelly's death, he says. He heard that a Fullerton resident named Andy Anderson was so upset about what happened to Thomas' schizophrenic, homeless son that he planned to protest on a Tuesday night. Thomas and a few others showed up, but Thomas suggested they protest on Saturdays instead, so more people could come.

Christine Walker says she remembers that first Saturday protest. A handful of people gathered on the corner of Commonwealth and Highland avenues. They didn't have signs yet, so a few were spray-painted that day. The momentum built quickly, she says. "The next weekend, it was probably double the crowd, and then even more stories kept coming out, and it kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger."

Thanks to social media—the "Justice for Kelly Thomas" Facebook page has thousands of followers—and consistent coverage by the Friends for Fullerton's Future blog, the number of protesters swelled to upward of 250 by late July.

As the crowd size ballooned, the group earned its name, Thomas says. "I made the statement that I was at war with the police department and the City Council, and that all of these people were all part of Kelly's Army," he recalls. "It was just a quick thought on my part, but then it took off, and everyone liked it and wanted to be a member."

The motif really stuck, too. A lot of protesters wear camouflage. The "army" even has an official chaplain: Pastor Wiley Drake of Buena Park. A longtime far-right commentator who has grabbed headlines for his Obama-hating and homophobic jeremiads, Drake broadcasts live from the protests for his show on Crusade Radio. He says Thomas gave him his blessing to be chaplain last week.

Some protesters call Kelly's Army a movement; others call it a family. If nothing else, it's a slice of society made up of babies and grandmas, atheists and religious zealots, the politically savvy and people who have never registered to vote, a man who worked for a police union and another who was beaten by a cop, the far-left anti-war agitators of ANSWER LA and the "constitutionalist" Oath Keepers, a few people who knew Kelly well and even more who didn't, people who have no idea what it's like to have a mentally ill relative and those who know all too well.

For Joey Cadavid, the group's diversity is part of its strength. "If there's one positive thing about it, it's that people realize that sometimes their political, sexual orientation and class differences are not nearly as important to them as they thought, when faced with a real issue."

By mid-September, the number of protesters had dropped to 50 or so, and the remaining few formed what Kelly's mother, Cathy Thomas, described as "one big family." Many agree with that sentiment. "Fighting for justice and seeing our community come together has been amazing," Walker says. "Some of my dearest friends I met 11 weeks ago, when this started."

Tony Bushala of Friends for Fullerton's Future calls it a movement. "It's pretty rewarding to be involved with a movement, if you will," he says. "People started coming together from all walks of life to protest. We were a symbol."

And Kelly's Army reached a milestone on Sept. 21. For weeks, it had demanded action from the DA's office, and on the morning of Rackauckas' press conference, dozens of members carpooled to the DA's office in Santa Ana. When news leaked that one officer would be charged with second-degree murder and another with manslaughter, Ron Thomas walked over to the group he had protested with for weeks and shared the news. They hugged and cried and chanted for Kelly.

The DA's job is to make decisions based on evidence, not the mood of protesters, but many members of Kelly's Army feel they influenced the outcome. "Yeah, I think the DA wouldn't have even had a decision to make if it weren't for us out here. I think they would have totally brushed it under the carpet," Cadavid said at the Sept. 25 protest.

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