A Life of Courage: Keshia Thomas

This iconic photograph of Keshia Thomas protecting a Nazi sympathizer, and all the subsequent photos below, have been kindly provided to the Wall Street Sponge by the world-renowned photographer, Mark Brunner. Check out his latest work here.
This iconic photograph of Keshia Thomas protecting a Nazi sympathizer, and all the subsequent photos below, have been kindly provided to the Wall Street Sponge by the world-renowned photographer, Mark Brunner. Check out his latest work here.

Written By Jessica Golich, Photography By Mark Brunner, Managing Editor – Jon Lin

There are endless examples of courage buried in the ruins of history, but Keshia Thomas’ story emits a trickle of intensity that scours your open wounds and encourages you to scrub the evil away. It’s roughly 6:00pm on a Friday night, and I am graced with the presence of a woman who has garnered nationwide attention by standing in total courage in the face of adversity and bigotry by throwing herself onto a Ku Klux Klan member to protect him from outraged protesters in a 1996 event, in which Keshia stood bold at the ripe age of 18 years old. As Keshia and I discussed where we were interested in conducting our pow-wow, Keshia pronounced with enthusiasm that she was aware of Detroit’s oldest continuously operating bar in the area, and in lightning speed, Keshia and I were walking up the stairs of the ol’ watering hole on the North End of the city: The Stonehouse Bar. The deeply ingrained Detroit attitude coruscated from the walls, and in a city built on motors and music, I had a feeling that the energy lingering from relationships forged around rounds of brews would smother my core. Keshia and I set up shop on the porch of the two-story white brick structure, and my well-prepared interview morphed into Keshia’s infectious disposition and character creating a communal conversation that welcomed all walks of life and left me visibly mesmerized throughout. Keshia waved hello to every single human being that passed by the block or the stoop where we set up shop with ease.

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Jessica – First and foremost, who is Keshia Thomas?

Keshia – Keshia Thomas is a person who uses her life as an example to other people of what we can be. I want to bring out the best in our humanity; that’s who Keshia Thomas is. It has nothing to do with a demographic; it has to do with what goes beyond whatever race you are and it hits the heart of who we are as humanity. If you take race, you take gender, you take religion, you take everything out and we just strip it all away; the same things that run through my veins are the same things that run through your veins. You have the same desires that I do. We have the same shared experience as humans. And that is to live a life that is full of purpose. A loving life. Sometimes what happens is that people get chopped down by life by circumstances that I call ‘The Thousand Little Cuts’. You get cut a thousand little times and these cuts harden your heart, but if you strip away to before you got those cuts, before you got that hurt, before you got that pain, we all want to live in a good world and we all want to be loved.

Jessica – So, digging back into the child within you?

Keshia – Pretty much. Once we get to a certain age, all of these other influences that come into our lives: media, what our parents taught us, our experiences, etc. they shape, mold and change us.

Jessica – What is your current perception of the notorious 1996 event in which you protected and saved a gentleman wearing a confederate flag t-shirt from an angry crowd at a KKK rally?

Keshia – My perception has not changed. What people forget is that we have the first amendment right to say whatever we want to say. So, if a klansman wants to go to a rally and say, “Okay, I am a klansman”, because we live in the United States, he has every right to do that. What we don’t have the right to do is put our hands on anybody that we disagree with. That’s the difference, that’s the core of who we are. And once we cross that line, then we are no different than any other third world country. We are a first world nation. And that takes a lot of restraint, because I am not going to agree with everything that you have to say and you are not going to agree with everything that I have to say, but at the end of the day, if I punch you in the face because you have alternative beliefs, then what have I changed? Have I changed you? I haven’t. So, the interesting thing is that the son of the klansman that I saved came up to me and said thank you to me, all of those years ago. We just recently sat down together at his house where I stayed the night, at his house, with his fiance, where we discussed trying to create this project where we take supplies to Louisiana together. Now, his father died about three or four months ago. And when his father died, he called me, and you know who he put on the phone? His sister, who was twelve years old and would have never been born had his father died. Now, things are going to die out. Ideas are going to die out. Everybody has some form of racism in their psyche. It’s part of the thousand little cuts. Not something that we have designed, but something that once we are born and integrated into society, the pressures of society begin to put these ideas in our minds.

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Jessica – You collect those ideas?

Keshia – Yes, you collect them. Absolutely. You want to get rid of it. But, the fact of the matter is, if anybody were to tell me that they don’t have any racism within themselves, I would say that is BS. Black people have it, white people, Jews; everyone does. The thing to do with it is to say, “Okay, my first mind, the first part of my brain where it goes into initial racism, is to become human. To become a logical thinker and say, you know what, let’s bury that. Because that’s not the truth. The more that you do that, the easier it becomes. You have to train your mind to not do that.

Jessica – Do you perceive that society provides developing minds with the proper tools to train their minds?

Keshia -Absolutely not. Because, in the United States, we are a consumer society. So, when you look at things such as advertising, we are advertised to based on who we are. So, I believe that this fulfills and solidifies our differences rather than bringing us together. For example, why are there always two different McDonald’s commercials? Two different Coca Cola commercials?

Jessica – That speaks for itself.

Keshia – Right. But, no, in the United States there should be one for all and all for one. But, right now we live in a society that wants to separate us. It hasn’t always been this way. Consumers make more money if human beings don’t want to fix the problem. If I wanted to sell Tide laundry detergent to you, and I deliver a certain Tide commercial to you and advertise only on certain TV channels that you are geared to watch, it is because we are trained from a certain age what we should watch. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t watch T.V.

Jessica – I don’t either. Is there any specific reason that you brought up Tide in general? And I will tell you reasoning as to why I am asking.

Keshia – It’s because it is Procter & Gamble, and it’s one of the biggest corporations. So, you’ve got Procter & Gamble, McDonald’s, Coca Cola. And there’s a lot of things that we don’t talk about with the corporations, like Coca Cola. And don’t even get me started on Nestle.

Jessica – Well, with that being said, reasoning as to why I asked about Tide, have you come across an article pertaining to a recent Thai commercial overseas about a brand of laundry detergent?

Keshia – No, I haven’t…

Jessica – The commercial begins by showcasing interaction between an African American male and an Asian woman. The African American male is later physically placed into a washing machine, detergent is poured into the machine, and the African American male comes out as an Asian man and the Asian woman is grinning from ear to ear. It was pulled from media immediately.

Keshia – Wow. It surprises me that the brand didn’t have a fact checker or a second set of eyes for something like this. And it’s becoming worse. I believe that we were closer to ending racism in the 90’s rather than where we are now. And what I mean by that is, I would go to places in Ann Arbor and Detroit, and racism didn’t matter. All that mattered was, “Who’s buying?”…the whole idea of black’s over here and white’s over here; it wasn’t like that.

Jessica – Now it’s more of who’s earning rather than who’s buying…

Keshia – Right. And right now, it’s more of a division. And I am looking at the millenials thinking that you guys are being suckered left and right into this division.

Jessica – Do you feel that millennials “know better”?

Keshia – I feel like millennials were bought and sold into something.

*Human Being sitting near our conversation* – I was just listening to your conversation.

Keshia – Come on in. Join in, you’re more than welcome.

Human Being – To me, people are people. Like you said, it’s the media that turns it into what it has turned into. We all can get along with each other. You know what made it this way? The cops.

Keshia – Absolutely. We’re going to get on that topic. The cop issue isn’t a “black” issue or a “white” issue, it’s a human rights issue. I don’t even say “black people” when I post on social media about police brutality; I have to break that mindset that people have that it’s just black people. No. Once we all stand together, then they can’t divide us. That’s what they are afraid of. I am a humanitarian; I saved a klansman. Even the most racist of racist people will bow down and give me respect.

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Human Being – That’s because you have action that stands behind your words. It’s a credibility in every arena. You will have other people, but do they ever walk the walk?

Keshia – When I did an interview on Al Jazeera about Sandra Bland who was killed, I said that this is not a black issue or a white issue. This is a human rights issue. You have 1,200 people who were killed by the police last year. The majority of those people who were killed by the police, demographically, were white. But, at the end of the day, it still does not matter. I have shown pictures of police officers that have taken white women down to the ground by the hair, and then I put up the ones of the black people encountering the same.

Human Being – What about the story of the man who beat up a woman and they were going to make him the Chief of Police?

Keshia – Oh yeah. But, what people don’t understand is that if someone, for example, works for the Detroit police department and gets fired for physically abusing another person, they can go to Novi, MI and get a job. And that’s part of the problem right there. As long as the media keeps it a black and white issue, we will never unite.

Jessica – Keshia, but they are profiting off of keeping it a black and white issue…

Keshia – Absolutely. Let me tell you about Black Lives Matter. I am an All Lives Matter believer, and the reason is, because I was an All Lives Matter believer before their was a hashtag. It’s like breast cancer. Breast cancer matters. Colon cancer matters. But, right now, we’re talking about breast cancer. Now, with that being said, had it not been for Black Lives Matter, a lot of white people would not have been able to understand and connect the dots that it’s police brutality, not a black and white issue. Michigan makes more money off of imprisonments than any other state. Black and white is too simple. It’s too easy. The core issue is sadly always going to be money. If you can make money off of it, that’s what they are going to do. When you get pulled over by the police, they are trying to get money to supplement their city budget.

Human Being – Talk about how much it costs to get your car impounded on top of that. And if it happens a second time, you forfeit the vehicle.

Keshia – There’s a whole system that society is not even looking at.

Human Being – Watch a sentencing sometime. A guy that showcases that it’s very obvious that he doesn’t have anything to fiscally provide, he’ll be released on his own recognizance. Because they can’t get any money out of him. Let’s say someone stands there, they’ve done virtually nothing wrong, and the system sees that you have the money to provide, suddenly, you get it all thrown at you.

Keshia – Right. There should be no traffic offense that gets you a misdemeanor except drunk driving, which should get you a stronger sentencing.

Human Being – I want everyone’s opinion on this. Now, there’s a lot of killings and murders going on out there. If they brought the electric chair to Michigan, to Detroit, and showcased to teenagers 12 and up somebody getting electrocuted with the underlying message stating that this is what is going to happen to them if they kill somebody…

Keshia – Can I counter that? I don’t believe that the death penalty will solve anything. I say, take all of that money that you put into the prison system and put it back into the education system. Why aren’t there clubs that teach people how to use their hands, teach them a skill, teach them a trade? Forget that whole “death penalty” and prison system, don’t focus on the punishment.

Jessica – That’s an easy way out. The death penalty is an easy way out.

Keshia – You have to lock some people up. Some people are going to be locked up.

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Human Being – The problem is, that when those people get locked up, they feel that the system has wronged them. They know that they are guilty. It’s not the severity of the punishment; it’s the certainty of it. You get caught. You get prosecuted. You do the time.

Jessica – But, the system is still paying for those people who are incarcerated. Those human beings become an expense to the system. The system has to spend money on everyone that is locked up.

Human Being – I can’t be sure of the statistics, but I have heard the comment made that there are more people in jail for drunk driving and non-payment on child care rather than violent crimes.

Keshia – I know for a fact that 73% of the people that get locked up in the prison systems for the first time get locked up for nonviolent offenses.

Human Being – Because the system can get money from it. To support the system that further grows. Just like our government. They look for more ways to bring in more revenue and the way that they do it, is by violating your rights, as an individual.

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Jessica – Back to freedom of speech, do you perceive that millennials truly acknowledge their rights and openly express themselves today?

Human Being – I was born at the end of what I refer to as the social conscious generation, and I related more to them. Those are the people in the sixties who made all of the changes.

Keshia – So, we’ve got a Bernie Sanders over here? (laughs). Think about it, Bernie Sanders would not have been elected in 1996. We were still stuck on the whole pageantry of the election. Millennials want more. They want more answers and are not just taking what is being fed. I believe that your generation is going to stop global warming. But, although we give millennials their respect, they must include some of us as they go.

Jessica – How do you perceive millennials can include the older generations?

Keshia – For example, look at what we’re doing right now; this is as good as gets.

Jessica – I know, this is a beautiful experience. I am the youngin’ and millennial amongst many different perceptions from many walks of life. I am learning so much through engaging and simply observing the conversation amongst us all right now.

Keshia – And you’re part of that. Millennials have the best education, the street smarts, and the opportunities. Now, we need you guys to come up with the signatures and the plan. How is Michigan going to be at the forefront? How is Michigan going to demand police reform? And when we say police reform, this is what we are asking for; it only takes six months to become a police officer. And no other government agency has so much power to alter someone’s life.

Jessica – Well, in Detroit, it takes far less than six months to become a police officer.

Keshia – Right. Training needs to be extended nationally. The federal government needs to have a standardized program. It takes two years to become a beautician and get your cosmetology license. That’s not to reinforce “force”, but to teach diversity. To teach de-escalation.

Human Being – Here’s the thing; a lot of people go through the training and meet the qualifications, but, they are lacking in applying what they have learned.

Keshia – Right. But, that’s where us activists and millennials come in. We are setting community partnerships with the police.

Human Being – Well, if they had the training, they should know better, but, I’ve seen them make the same mistakes over and over again.

Jessica – But, that’s those who are being trained lean on the supervision. Pointing the finger toward the training program isn’t the route to take; learning from mistakes comes from experience.

Human Being – There’s a reason that they are trained to respond in a certain fashion, and they are not doing it.

Jessica – But, there are so many programs teaching so many different means to respond.

Keshia – That’s where the national standardization would come into play.

Human Being – The “rules” change all of the time. They are fluid. They are in motion, constantly, how can you play the game if you don’t know what the rules are? That suits the system’s agenda.

Keshia – Because you cannot use police departments as collection agencies. Research Ferguson. One out of every seven people had a warrant for a traffic ticket. The second thing is that we have to have accountability. We have to have an independent agency that comes in to review the dashcam video of what actually happens. Right now, they want to suppress the dashcam videos in a few states and have people get a court order to see the footage. Millennials need to go in there and get a job in the public sector. Start doing what the tea party did; start on the city council. Millennials are the brains for revolution.

Jessica – Keshia, I am curious about your current thoughts pertaining to the development and ever-changing landscape of the city of Detroit.

Keshia – Well, if you go downtown, that’s where you have all the technology and the incubators. That’s why it is so important to keep my vision where the people are. And where it’s accessible. Not everybody has the funds and the money to go downtown. I want to put something in the neighborhood, in an abandoned house. A place where people learn a trade, a skill, a place where they can learn their potential and catch their dream. It’s going to be within the neighborhoods, and I am looking more so at the North side.

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As songs from Lauryn Hill’s 1998 release, ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’, added a soulful touch in the background along with motorcycles parked up front revving up, Keshia and I journeyed off from the classic joint into a walk around the surrounding neighborhood in which we discussed each other’s personal experiences and more. As curiosity would simply not go to rest after leaving the graceful presence of Keshia, I did my research and am sharing how each and every one of you have the opportunity to reach and feel the impact of Keshia.

Website – http://keshiathomas.org

Note:
Keshia is also a dynamic and powerful keynote speaker. She has given Lectures and Trainings at Corporate Events, Universities, grade schools, Synagogues, and other institutions. She has been a guest on Oprah, Aljazeera Nightly News & other T.V shows. She has been featured in the BBC, Huffington Post & Upworthy, People, Life, Glamour, Jet & other Magazine. She has inspired Novel such as”Acts of Grace” by Karen Simpson and is in other numerous books and is the subject of lectures across grade schools and Universities.
Keshia Thomas is an International Social Justice Activist. She has used her life as an example of how you can make the world a better place. Whether she is flying off to volunteer in New York to help with the terrorist attacks of 911, organizing a shelter to help victims of the fires in California, distributing food for victims of Hurricane Katrina, walking 1000 miles with the NAACP for voting rights, at the Baltimore Uprising being a peacekeeper, volunteering at a makeshift hospital in Haiti or bringing awareness to Social Justice issues. Keshia uses her life as an example of the “power of one” person to change the world.

Final Thoughts From the Author:
Stunned. Shellshocked. Amazed. The three words that I have gathered to express the emotion and energy I have derived from my experience with one of the most fascinating and influential individuals I have ever encountered throughout my entire life; Keshia Thomas.