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While others held protest signs outside the Fullerton Police Department last summer, Julian Porte came with a guitar, a harmonica and a song. Small crowds assembled around the Santa Fe Springs-based musician as he sang "The Ballad of Kelly Thomas," about the homeless, schizophrenic man fatally beaten at the hands of officers one year ago this month. Bullhorns were lent to amplify Porte's voice, and after performing, the singer opened his backpack and passed out CDs to anyone along Commonwealth Avenue willing to take one.
Porte first learned about the Thomas tragedy from a Fullerton friend of his who posted about it on Facebook. "Later that day, I was at another friend's studio," he recounts. "We were sitting around, talking about it, how messed up it was and the injustice of it all. I started messing around with some chords and a harmonica riff." Thinking he was onto something, Porte went home to transform the sudden inspiration into a song. It was recorded the next day, then passed along to his friend in Fullerton, who handed out copies at protests.
Fittingly, Porte, a full-time street musician, takes his cue from past troubadours of discontent. He cites John Lennon as his main influence, as well as Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. With uptempo strumming and harmonica spacing the verses, "The Ballad of Kelly Thomas" burns with indignation, leaving the question of responsibility for his death open for listeners to ponder. "Most of my songs are politically driven," he says. "I like to write the occasional love song or personal song about whatever struggles are going on in life, but I also like to talk about things I see around me, questions unanswered."
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Eventually, the song made its way to Thomas' family. "His sister heard it and wrote me a beautiful message," Porte says. "Kelly's father, Ron, hadn't heard it when I first met him. I wanted to give him a CD, but he didn't want it because he was too fragile at the moment. Later on, he listened to it, and he really loved it."
In the year since the ballad made him an honorary Fullertonian, Porte has opened a music studio in East LA and begun performing with a side band, the Levitation Room. In the coming months, he hopes to release demos as a solo artist and band member, with tour dates hopefully on the horizon. But before all of that, the singer is set to open the Kelly Thomas Memorial Concert this weekend.
"I'm excited because the Adolescents are playing," he says. "I used to be a punk rocker back in the day, and they were one of my favorite bands."
At the center of it all is the one-year anniversary of the brutal killing of a man on a night that continues to hang over Fullerton like a toxic fog. Two police officers, Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, face criminal charges, thanks in part to a disturbing surveillance video of their bludgeoning of Thomas. Seeing the footage "brought me to tears, honestly," Porte says. "It was really overwhelming. I hope those guys get what they deserve, man. To beat someone like that was just completely inhumane."
This column appeared in print as "The Bard Behind the Ballad."