The September 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee

 
 

National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website

 

 

In this issue:

Alarming Rise in Hate Crimes

Wave of Murders of Homeless Are A Warning Sign

Bumfights: An Incitement to Hate Crimes

Hate, Violence and Death on Main Street USA

Brazil Murders of Homeless Go Unsolved

Social Security Is NOT in Crisis

Time for Health Care for All

Cindy Sheehan's Unanswerable Question

Lawsuit Against California Hotel

Tribute to the Love Lotus Gave

A Mother's Plea for Homeless Son

Poor Leonard's Almanack: Carl G. Jung

Sept. Poetry of the Streets


ARCHIVES

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005

 

 

 

 


 

Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

The Increase in Hate Crimes and Homeless Murders Is a Warning Sign

by Terry Messman

In the "Bumfights" video, a homeless man suffers a brutal punch in the face.

With growing fervor, government officials, merchants and the media have broadcast a message of intolerance that labels homeless people as unwanted outcasts. When the pillars of society vilify homeless people as a subhuman minority synonymous with urban blight, and when city officials pass laws aimed at banishing people living on the street, an extremely dangerous message is sent out that this is one hated minority that it is safe to attack.

The close connection between a society that disparages homeless people as less than human, and acts of violence and hate crimes against street people, was displayed for all to see on the streets of downtown Los Angeles in mid-August.

On August 16, 2005, two young men who told police officers that they had just watched the "Bumfights" video, went on a rampage on the streets of Los Angeles and savagely beat two sleeping homeless people with baseball bats. Ernest Adams, an elderly homeless man who was well liked and widely respected even by business owners and a U.S. appellate court judge who knew him well, was hospitalized in critical condition with severe head wounds.

The Los Angeles Times reported that William Orantes and Justin Brumfield, who were arrested on suspicion of attempted murder, told police they had watched the "Bumfights" DVD and were inspired to do some "bum bashing" of their own.

The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) has been campaigning against the "Bumfights" DVDs for more than three years, and has warned that retailers who sell the shocking video are inciting acts of violence against homeless people. Currently, there are at least six different DVDs being sold which show homeless people being savagely assaulted, demeaned, and injured. [See "Bumfights: An Incitement to Hate Crimes," by Michael Stoops, in this issue of Street Spirit.]

Los Angeles Police Chief Willam Bratton said, "This was a vicious, cowardly crime that even veteran officers such as myself find hard to believe."

The general public is largely unaware of the extent of this growing wave of brutal crimes and murders committed against homeless people across the country. The National Coalition for the Homeless has carefully documented 156 murders and 386 violent acts committed against homeless people in the period from 1999-2004.

One of the most disturbing aspects of these hate crimes is that none of them -- no matter how shocking or cruel -- have ever sparked the kind of high-level public awareness and outrage that hate crimes against other minorities have evoked. Homeless people are often attacked in dark alleys or desolate areas -- and this alarming rise in hate crimes remains hidden in that same darkness.

But, for homeless people, the reality of these savage assaults and murders is not hidden in darkness at all. It is a well-known danger of living on the streets. The Los Angeles Times reported that the mid-August beatings of Ernest Adams and Gerald Henry have spread fear and alarm in the homeless community there.

Our society has done something even worse than allow countless human beings to live in horrible conditions of neglect and poverty on city streets. It also has forced them to live a life of real and constant danger, exposed and vulnerable to the threat of deadly assaults and deliberate hate crimes, 24 hours a day.

This issue of Street Spirit reports on the dismaying, coast-to-coast extent of hate crimes against homeless people in cities across the nation. The NCH has documented that these acts of violence have occurred in 140 U.S. cities in 39 states. News of these assaults may be little known by the general public; but nearly every person living on the streets, in every one of those 140 cities where homeless people have been attacked, knows full well that they, too, could be brutally assaulted as they sleep, alone and unprotected.

Homeless crime victims in S.F.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported on August 15 that the San Francisco Trauma Recovery Center, a program that treats crime victims for emotional trauma, stated that 31 percent of the victims of violent crimes treated at S.F. General Hospital and referred to the center were homeless. Chronicle reporter Kevin Fagan rightly called it a "sobering statistic about the danger of life on the streets."

That shockingly high number of homeless crime victims shows that a grave danger to people living on the street exists in the supposedly liberal, tolerant Bay Area. So do the murders of a homeless woman in Berkeley and a homeless man in Oakland.

On February 8, 2005, Maria King, 45, who had a master's degree in history and had worked as a teacher before becoming homeless, was sleeping near the corner of California Street and University Avenue in Berkeley. While she slept, all alone, four men approached her after midnight, and two of them kicked her in the head and beat her into unconsciousness. After the savage assault, King was taken to Highland Hospital in a coma. She never regained consciousness, and died 12 days later, on February 20, 2005.

On July 18, 2004, Dalrus Joseph Brown, 52, was viciously murdered in the middle of the night by a group of young men who attacked him while he was sleeping near the railroad tracks in West Oakland. The teenagers repeatedly kicked Brown, and beat him to death with pipes and boards, then tore apart his little shelter.

Remembering the lives and names

This issue of Street Spirit is dedicated to remembering the lives and names of homeless people who have been attacked and murdered in cities across America. [See "Hate, Violence and Death on Main Street USA," in this issue.]

Each person you will read about in these pages who was brutalized or murdered was a human being with all the hopes and dreams, all the sorrows and joys of the human condition. Every single person slain on the streets was unique and irreplaceable, and every life lost was precious. As you will see in reading these accounts, many of the homeless people so senselessly slaughtered had a family and friends who loved them dearly.

After Ernest Adams was savagely beaten in Los Angeles in mid-August, the L.A. Times quoted business owners, neighbors and even a federal judge, who all described the elderly Adams as a kind, gentle, friendly person who was always smiling. Brady Westwater, president of the Downtown Neighborhood Council, described Adams as "a sweet, wonderful, old man."

This is a pattern that we see repeated again and again in these accounts of hate crimes. Many seemingly anonymous street people who have been viciously attacked and denounced as bums, derelicts and losers, turn out to have friends who fondly remember their kind acts and who love them and mourn their loss. It's almost as if a real human being had been killed, not merely a stereotyped drifter or derelict.

We see that pattern repeated all across the country -- the unexpected and touching remembrance of a homeless person's goodness of heart in the days after their death. These memories give the lie to one of the most dangerous pieces of demagoguery that our class-conscious society has ever concocted: namely, that if people sink so deeply into poverty or disability to become homeless, they are worthless and less than human.

After the murder of Maria King in Berkeley, a chorus of voices spoke out remembering her many acts of kindness and generosity to others, even as she herself endured a life of hardship, poverty, and danger on the streets.

Jose Cantue, 61, a homeless man, was beaten to death in New York with a garbage can. After his murder, John Caserta, a friend of Cantue's, said, "He helped kids cross the street. He gave them candy and toys. He didn't deserve what he got."

After Jeffrey Thompson, 57, a homeless Vietnam veteran, was beaten to death under a railroad trestle in Maple Valley, Wash., the town held a memorial service for the well-liked man who had helped out neighbors with odd jobs, and lent out books from his own collection. Stanette Marie Rose, who knew him well, said, "people responded on a very deep level to his soul."

Similarly, more than 100 friends, relatives, and strangers attended the funeral of Rex Baum after the homeless man was beaten to death with rocks, a pipe and a baseball bat by three teenagers in Milwaukee. According to news reports, Baum had been a welcome face for many in the neighborhood, and was remembered as hardworking, friendly, and generous. Faisal Bhimani, a local storeowner, said that he had just lost his best friend.

Fanning the flames

Cities all over America are escalating the scope and severity of anti-homeless legislation. When politicians, merchants, the media and the police vilify homeless people and champion draconian laws aimed at banishing them, they are fanning the flames of hatred, fear and prejudice that eventually erupt into hate crimes.

The NCH has documented a close parallel between laws that criminalize the homeless and hate crimes committed against people living on the streets. In this climate, the political officials who trumpet a message of intolerance are crucial contributors to our current national epidemic of hate crimes against the most poor and persecuted Americans.


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