The black-framed glasses come off the face of Stephan "Bax" Baxter and clunk onto the table between us. His shock of graying, flyaway, un-styled Jim Jarmusch-esque hair spills into his face, then is moved quickly with a flick of his hand. We're talking about Kelly Thomas, and the conversation, long and lively, becomes even more animated. Baxter knew the schizophrenic homeless man, gave him handouts, even let him sleep on his couch and use his shower when the weather was inclement, and he's furious about the "not guilty" verdict handed to two of the police officers who beat him to death.
"A troubled human being, one of the weakest in our community," he seethes, "destroyed by the Fullerton PD and enabled by their leadership. It goes against the fucking core of me."
Currently owner/curator of the Egan Gallery in Fullerton, Baxter is the founder/organizer of the socially conscious fund-raising entity Art With an Agenda, which stages exhibitions built around a charitable cause, including marriage equality, homelessness, and one centered on the Kelly Thomas killing in 2012 that drew national attention. Such a public presence is the culmination of an unlikely transformation: The son of conservative Catholic parents, Baxter was a shy outsider growing up in Glasgow with bad skin and a wicked stutter. Slow disillusion with the church and the liberation of punk-rock music moved him in a different direction than the priesthood: the arts.
"I tried everything: punk-rock band, standup comic, writing fanzines," he says. But Baxter lacked the required focus, switching from art history to political science in college before dropping out altogether after a bad breakup with a girlfriend. He never went back, despite being a few credits shy of a degree, instead taking paralegal classes and working in the offices of flamboyant lawyer Alan M. May. A former Nixon White House aide, decorated Green Beret, pro bono champion for the Vietnamese community and gay man who died of AIDS in 1991, May became an important mentor to Baxter, encouraging the young man to go from being "someone who didn't speak out . . . to someone who did."
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He bows gracefully to Hibbleton Gallery curator Jesse La Tour as the first person in the community to make it a point to ask Fullerton's city government about Thomas' beating, following the proceedings himself initially only as a "member of the pack." But Baxter's eventual notoriety as an activist able to speak directly to the heart of Thomas' death with eloquence and passion (as well as profane fury if he feels he's being misunderstood) has made him a lightning rod for the ire of police families. Even individuals who don't know his personal connection to the case and random strangers have spouted abuse at him, even, one time, while waiting in a Ralphs check-out line to buy milk and cereal.
Baxter is haunted by the standard bane of activists: not seeing what you fight for happen during your lifetime. "While my goals haven't been accomplished, I know I've had an effect," he says. "It mitigates the collateral damage." Unfortunately, that collateral damage is the collapse of his marriage, the fact that he's no longer a golden boy at work, and the loss of several close friendships, as well as the shitty health, insomnia and forgetfulness that signals depression.
"Outrage itself has value. . . . It means something," he says. "Society failed Kelly not because he was homeless, but because he wasn't a cop. We didn't know that before, and we do now."
He tries to keep things in perspective: "Society is built for me. I'm white, privileged. I can bounce back. I'm not going anywhere," he proclaims. "I'm still focused on creating an asshole-free Fullerton."