“The only way I can put it in context,” Gerald Thornton told CNN, “is that my brother went to war tonight with the people that were of the government that was putting torment and strife into his life.”
Gerald's brother Charles “Cookie” Thornton shot seven people at a City Council meeting in Kirkwood, Missouri, murdering five of them before being shot and killed by police. The murder victims included two police officers, two city council members, and the Public Works Director. The wounded include town Mayor Mike Swoboda.
About seven years ago, Charles Thornton, a contractor who ran a small asphalt and demolition business, became engaged in a legal and political struggle with the city government, which he believed was acting out of a “plantation mentality.” During that period, “Cookie”'s business received around 150 tickets for parking commercial vehicles in a residential neighborhood; in the aggregate, the fines amounted to about $30,000.
Thornton apparently believed that his business was being strangled by degrees, and that race might have been a factor (Thornton was black). He became a frequent and unpleasant presence at City Council meetings, heckling the Mayor and councilmen persistently and displaying occasional flashes of creativity.
For instance: After being evicted from one meeting for telling Mayor Swoboda that he displayed “jackass-like qualities” and using various epithets (including “idiot” and stronger pejoratives) referring to Council members, Thornton showed up at a subsequent meeting with a sign-off sheet containing the objectionable terms and asking the Mayor and Council to “Cross a line through the word or words from the Holy Bible and Webster's Dictionary which you believe is not guaranteed by the Constitution.... If you choose not to respond, this will be understood as my right to use freely these words in my presentations.”
Twice arrested for disorderly behavior, Thornton filed a federal lawsuit against the city government, claiming that the City Council was denying him the freedom of speech. That claim – whatever its merits, which appear to be dubious at best – was rejected by federal District Judge Catherine D. Perry in a ruling handed down ten days before Thornton's eruption.
“[Charles] has [dealt with the dispute] as best he could in the courts, and they denied all rights to the access of protection and he took it upon himself to go to war and end the issue,” Gerald told a local television reporter. Franklin McCallie, the principal of the local high school, was a friend of long standing who attended Charles's wedding. After the shooting McCallie insisted that “outside of this, he was just a wonderful and wonderfully loved man in the community. [The dispute] descended into a fight that just couldn't stop.”
Planning Commissioner Edward D. Golterman offered a markedly different view: “It is beyond belief that someone would go shooting people over a zoning dispute.”
Actually, given the misery that frequently – if not constantly – occurs because of the retail-level socialism and social engineering called “planning and zoning,” I'm amazed that this kind of retaliatory violence doesn't happen much more frequently. The key to this story is not the late Mr. Thornton's sense of racial grievance, but the exasperation he apparently experienced as a business owner who saw his livelihood imperiled by city planning officials and their uniformed collection agency.
Significantly, this is the second time in recent months that an aggrieved business owner has erupted in lethal violence at a City Council meeting.
Last October, Ronald “Bo” Ward, owner and operator of a barber shop in Clarksville, Tennessee, shot himself to death during a City Council meeting.
Bo – who took a paternal interest in the soldiers at nearby Fort Campbell, often giving them haircuts for free -- had incurred debts by expanding his shop. He could get a debt consolidation loan on his home if it was re-zoned as a commercial property.
When he put in a request to the City Council in September, Bo explained that if the loan didn't go through, “I lose my home, I lose my shop, I lose everything I got.”
Bo's real problem, of course, is that he was a small businessman, rather than a representative of a large corporation with financial and political clout. Had the latter been the case, the planning and zoning board would have been positively giddy in its enthusiasm to accommodate his every whim, and the city government would have been eager to use its powers of eminent domain on behalf of his corporation.
But Bo, once again, was a small businessman – a well-beloved pillar of the community. In other words, he was the kind of person to whom things were done by the municipal government, rather than the kind for whom things were done. So at the Clarksville City Council meeting last October 4, Bo's request was finally and definitively turned down, no doubt by very polite, well-dressed people who contorted their faces into the appropriate expressions of condescending pity as they sentenced that unassuming man to financial ruin.
Bo had asked to make more profitable use of his own property, only to learn that he didn't really own “his” property. After all, one doesn't need permission of another to use something that belongs to him as he sees fit. Like Charles Thornton, Bo most likely felt that he was little better than a slave on a plantation.
“Y'all have put me under,” Bo said in resignation, pulling out a handgun. “I'm out of here.” He then killed himself. His suicide left the community shocked, and prompted a personal note of condolences from Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schlosser, who commands the 101st Airborne Division at nearby Ft. Campbell. But there's no sign that Ward's tragic death prompted anyone to think deeply about the entrenched, commonplace injustices committed by planning and zoning bureaucracies in Clarksville and across the country; it was simply filed away under the heading, “I guess it just sucked to be him.”
Similarly, the murder spree by Charles Thornton is already being framed as a sudden and unforeseeable fit of irrational violence by an eccentric and most likely unbalanced individual. It very well may have been that. Or it could be a “firebell in the night” -- a portent of even bigger, uglier things to come.
In its reply to Thornton's lawsuit, Kirkwood's city government – seeking to underscore its benevolent generosity -- wrote that the aggrieved business owner “believes that he can make ... unsubstantiated accusations [against the Mayor, City Council, and other officials] without any repercussion because no one has threatened [him] with any physical harm....”
Whatever may be the truth about Thornton's claims, or however one assesses his relationship to reality, it is manifestly and indisputably untrue that the city government never threatened him with “physical harm.” Every decree, sanction, punishment, summons, policy prescription, and order issued by any government is always coupled with the threat of lethal force – generally tacit, but sometimes overt.
Thornton had been issued $30,000 in fines; he had been arrested, handcuffed, and dragged bodily away from Council meetings. Once again: Those actions, or some part thereof, may have been justified, but they were unambiguously accompanied with threats of lethal force. The police officers who seized Thornton, after all, carried guns.
A very good friend of mine who works closely with county governments has described to me a conversation with the head of a local planning and zoning commission. She pointed out to my friend that the decisions she hands down always result in painful impositions on somebody's rights and property. However, she insisted that “if they [her decisions] don't make people mad, I'm not doing my job.”
It wasn't surprising to me when I learned that officials who do that job almost always receive police escorts to their cars after their public meetings adjourn. After all, if your job description specifically requires that you make innocent, honest, hard-working people angry over the loss of their property, then there is an element of risk in your chosen occupation – and, to be blunt, there should be. Which is why people of that sort should leave government “service” and find a way to make an honest living.
The unfolding economic collapse is already starting to leave city and county governments scrambling for new sources of credit and revenue. I've described before how this will lead to more aggressive and intrusive enforcement of regulations and ordinances. The demands of cash-strapped municipal governments will increasingly put them in direct and potentially deadly conflict with overburdened, financially desperate citizens.
It is at this level that the elemental conflict between those who make a living, and those who take a living, may erupt into actual warfare.
A friendly reminder -- my new book is available!
Dum spiro, pugno!