War on the Streets
Violence against the homeless is not ‘senseless’
Yet these men were casualties of war. They were killed by fellow humans armed with concrete and steel. In peacetime these materials can be used to construct worlds, schools and community centers. In times of war, they can become materials of destruction. In Albuquerque they were the weapons of choice in a war allegedly waged against the homeless by three teenage boys.
These men were casualties of war. They were killed by fellow humans armed with concrete and steel. In peacetime, these materials can be used to construct worlds, schools and community centers.
The neighborhood where the murders took place continues to struggle under the burden of neglect and poverty that have become its legacy. Businesses come and go along that stretch of Central; the ones that make it tend to be refuges of sorts: Smoke shops and evangelical churches dominate the landscape.
The New York Times referred to the area around the crime scene as a “slice of Albuquerque’s west side known for its limited choices: Some struggle to get by, keeping their heads low and their mouths shut to avoid trouble, and some are lost to dysfunction and addiction.” None of the children allegedly involved in the violence were enrolled in school, and one of the men who survived the attacks, Jerome Eskeets, told reporters from the Times that these sorts of attacks happened before, but he didn’t tell anyone “because no one cares.”
Instead of viewing the crisis' latest iteration as a harbinger of some coming, savage world without morals, we should take action to ensure this sort of tragedy never happens again.
In this conflict the aggressors had no overtly political, material or religious agenda, but clearly they too suffered from the deleterious effects of their environment. As a result, they were angry and liked to fuck things up. Albuquerque Journal columnist Joline Gutierrez Krueger compared them to the characters in Anthony Burgess’ dystopian post-Cold War fantasy A Clockwork Orange in her UpFront column.
But in A Clockwork Orange, violence is a direct result of changes wrought by imposition of a totalitarian state. It’s not a mirror of our world, because we still live, albeit sometimes tenuously, in a world where democracy and its effects—justice, equality before the law, order, peace, food and education—are still possible.
So, while A Clockwork Orange may be about the violence wrought by post-millennial youth, it’s hardly an apt analogy for the tragic deaths of 44-year old Allison Gorman and 46-year-old Kee Thompson. It is not only metaphorically inaccurate, but its application to the problem of homelessness in Albuquerque is at best reductionist and at worst, defeatist.
In “Looking for answers about ultraviolence,” Krueger wrote, “We fight over whether to stand with Israelis or Palestinians, Russia or the Ukraine, Hobby Lobby or Michaels, right or left, black or white. Politics turns us into monsters. Police scare us. Civil discourse, if the comments on any news story about the boys is any indication, is lost.” Politics does not turn us into monsters; rather, it is ignorance of politics and history that allows citizens to don the accoutrements of atrocity. When that cultural illiteracy combines with the dehumanizing effects of economic marginalization, beware. Internet commenters become aggressive, and everyone starts flipping everyone else off in traffic. Violence becomes a visible manifestation of our way of life.
And the police scare us for reasons made abundantly clear by the United States Department of Justice.
Problems like violence, homelessness, substance abuse, imprisonment, recidivism and resulting untimely death are not new in Albuquerque. These are problems our city has borne for many generations. Combined with the continuing recession, these demons are now visible to all. Perhaps they were hidden to the middle class in the acquisitive intervals between years of desperation or lack of opportunity, but they’re now familiar.
Concluding that the resulting violence is “senseless” makes no sense either. Krueger wrote, “The fact is, we don’t yet know the 'why' behind what happened out there in that dirt lot. Perhaps we never will.” I disagree. We started this war, and all of us are responsible for the culture we have created. Ignorance of its consequences is not an excuse. To blame this problem on an uncivil or disrespectful tone in our culture is to overlook the economic mechanisms that gave such behavior power.
Instead of viewing the crisis' latest iteration as a harbinger of some coming, savage world without morals, we should take action to ensure this sort of tragedy never happens again. Breaking the cycle of poverty by ensuring fellow citizens are well-fed, sheltered and have access to employment and education should be an overarching priority.
Statistics are easy enough to come by and even easier to distort. The comparatively simple task of driving around Albuquerque reveals a town on the precipice. Sadly, the boarded-up shops, overgrown lots and growing ranks of displaced, desperate humans are a concrete indication of our current civic standing. We want to be a progressive, growing urban center, but a perpetual lack of job growth, poorly performing public schools and a highly militarized police department stand in direct opposition to that vision.
As a government, community, family or individual, our focus must be restoration and education, economically and otherwise—even and especially when there's war all around us.
As Burgess wrote, “Goodness is something chosen. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” Unlike the fictional humans who inhabit Burgess’ sci-fi novel, we have a choice.