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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Lynched by the Lawless and the Bigoted

The recent brutal assault and murder of a homeless woman in downtown Berkeley, California brings into sharp focus the terrible dangers faced by women living on the streets. Homelessness is dangerous and even a life-threatening predicament for everyone who undergoes it. But because of their vulnerability to the ever-present threat of assault, rape and murder, homeless women face a heightened risk of violence and death on the streets.

Mary Katherine King, a 45-year-old woman 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 came up to her after midnight, and two of them kicked her in the head and beat her into unconsciousness.

Possibly one good came from her death. Mary Katherine King died to make us understand the human costs of allowing thousands of women, men and children to remain homeless. We complacently allow our fellow human beings -- even disabled people, and women with children -- to face the hazards of street life, isolated and unprotected. We have grown increasingly unconcerned about the terrible dangers of allowing vulnerable people to languish on the streets. In a very real way, our society neglects people to death.

Everyone is at risk. Last July 18, Dalrus Joseph Brown, 52, was viciously murdered in the middle of the night by a group of young men, ages 15-16, who attacked him while he was sleeping along the railroad tracks in Oakland, California. The teenagers repeatedly kicked Brown, shot him with a BB gun, and beat him to death with metal pipes and boards, then tore apart his little shelter.

The murders of Mary Katherine King in Berkeley and Dalrus Joseph Brown in Oakland are local examples of a growing wave of violent crimes against homeless people. In California and across the nation, homeless people have been stalked, denounced as bums and drug addicts, then attacked, beaten, set on fire, slashed with knives and shot to death. Many of the attacks are committed by impressionable people who are influenced by the public defamation of homeless people by the media and politicians.

Over the last four years, the National Coalition for the Homeless has carefully documented 280 hate crimes against homeless people, including 131 murders. The crimes have ranged from beheading to drowning to firebombing.

A widespread prejudice makes up a "Continuum of Contempt" that stretches from the bigoted anti-homeless rants of talk radio, to the anti-homeless laws passed by city officials, all the way to the new wave of hate crimes and murders of people living on the streets. Apparently, it is socially acceptable today in mainstream society and in the media to make bigoted remarks against homeless people that could not be made in public against any other minority.

Where have we seen this very same pattern in American history? African-American citizens were vilified by racists at all levels of society, criminalized by segregation laws, and had their civil rights constantly violated. This prejudice found its most savage expression in the lynchings and murder of innocent people by racist criminals. Lynching has long been considered one of the most horrifying evils of our national history. But now homeless people are denigrated and denounced, criminalized by a new kind of segregation decree, and even murdered -- lynched -- by the lawless and bigoted.

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