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No Country for Old Women

Photo by John St John | CC BY 2.0

Two homeless people died in Berkeley during the month of June, 2018. Marcia Poole wrote an essay in the Berkeley Planet (6/15/18) on Ani, an 80 year old Buddhist nun who’s been homeless for the last five years. She’s sick, and in a wheel chair, and living in a tent. That is, until she got thrown to the ground so hard that it cracked her skull. Now she’s in the hospital. In a video interview at the encampment she’s living in a couple of weeks ago, she had begged Berkeley’s Mayor to please find her a place to live. She can’t beat her illnesses living in a tent. She needs to be able to wash.

She said sha’s been applying to everything she can find that might be a way off the street, and none of it has gotten anywhere. One might suppose that the Mayor knows that the city is more intent on just closing homeless encampments, and moving people around from place to place, from one raid after another, and so on, like they did in 2016. So he smiles as he leaves her.

Osha Neumann sent an open letter to the city (June 3, 2018) about the raids on RVs in the Marina that homeless people were living in. Its essesntial message was, “oh no, not again; why is civility so impossible to embrace?” Many of the homeless who get kicked out of their encampments are disabled, but that doesn’t seem to matter. When seizing their property, the police are seizing their survivability.

How does it feel, knowing that, in this society, it is okay that someone in a wheelchair has to live in a tent – or otherwise the sidewalk? When we get so justly upset about children being torn from their parents that we write letters and make phone calls, is it because that is happening 1500 miles away?

You know why so many Mexicans come to the US to work. Its because of corn. The US mass produces corn, and can sell it cheaper than Mexican farmers can produce the corn that they depend on for an income. NAFTA allows the US to export corn to Mexico free of tariffs. The Mexican farmers can’t compete. They lose their income, lose their land to the bank, and by growing the unemployment situation, drive the economy into recession. So they follow their money as it flees to the US hoping to get some back by working for it, so they can send it home to feed their kids. NAFTA takes parents away from their kids and ICE takes kids away from their parents.

When the police raid the homeless, and take their possessions, they are taking what the homeless need to protect themselves from the environment. Without that protection, they die. Everyday, somewhere in the US, some homeless people die on the street. On June 21, 2018, a man named KK died in Berkeley in the middle of the night on the steps of the Veteran’s Building at Civic Center. The “center” of the “civic” as we know it.

To take their possessions is to separate the homeless from their survivability. It is, in effect, to kill them, slowly. It should be manslaughter, but it’s done knowingly. The police commit attempted murder whenever they raid a homeless encampment, and take the people’s possessions. Its unconstitutional, of course, but we’re speaking about civility here – you know, ethics.

How does it feel?

How many of the children having been put in cages in Texas without their parents will have to die, perhaps by throwing themselves off a bridge some day in hopelessness, before we find a way to say “stop” to the government without having to wait two years for the next election. Death doesn’t wait that long.

Homelessness happens. Maybe you have no pension, or maybe your pension is too little to keep up with what the real estate speculators are doing to rent levels and real estate prices. Nowadays, in the Bay Area, old Victorians go for a million plus. To rent an apartment, you have to be able to pay $2000 a month for a studio or one bedroom.

Ani is old, and sick. and can’t leave her tent. Except to wind up in the hospital. She cracked her skull open trying to get down to a BART platform. Her wheelchair got caught in the escalator and she fell.

The city government claims it has no money for people. They spent over a hundred thousand for police overtime incurred during 2016 for all the raids on the homeless encampments. The US reaps huge profits from dominating Mexican markets with cheap goods, and have none to take care of the elderly and disabled homeless here.

But there is plenty of money. This is the richest country in the world. Mexico isn’t the only economy exploited by it. Yet government claims it is starved for funds so that housing programs, and educational systems, and health care, etc. all have to be cut back. However, there is plenty of money. It is in the five-sided building, that institution that simply has to wave its hand to get appropriations it didn’t even ask for. The US right now is bombing seven different countries in the world. Perhaps it can’t stop killing people in order to make its attitude toward the homeless here at “home” look benign. The military has but to cancel one contract for a new plane to provide health and education for everyone.

Ani would have been dead by now if it weren’t for the other homeless people who belong to that prophetic group called “First the Came for the Homeless.” They call themselves an “intentional community,” which means they take care of each other, know each other well, make their own rules democratically, keep their place spic and span, and make sure nobody dies of hunger or a terrible disease. Alcohol and drugs are not an option. They are banned from the encampment. If you come into the camp wearing that millstone around your neck, they will take care of you, but only on the basis of agreements. Agreements occur between equals. It is what produces belonging. First, there is agreement on some method of getting rid of the millstone. Then, “belonging” means living up to the agreements.

So Ani is still alive. But she’s doing some serious hospital time.

You know what it makes me think of? There was a movie I saw a long time ago about a tribe in ancient Japan that would take their old people, who could no longer contribute to the well-being of the society, up into the mountains, and leave them there to starve to death, or throw them off a cliff. It was a 1958 film called “The Ballad of Narayama,” directed by Shichiro Fukuzawa. You watch the movie, and you go through the anguish of this family, torn between what the whole is doing and what the part must endure because of an age-old helplessness. (It is similar to the anguish that one sees in the woman who is the main character in the short story, “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson.)

There was a lot of controversy at the time the movie came out about whether the story was true or not. Fukuzawa took the story from a novel about the practice, and made it visible for everyone. Some said only savages would treat people like that. You can imagine what some other people were saying.

But now, we know the story in the movie was true. Except that the society that engages in this practice is the US, where homeless people who have been jettisoned sit on sidewalks waiting for the inevitable. They are stripped of belonging to society before the cops arrive, and they are deprived of survivability after they come. It is indeed savagery to simply leave the elderly to rot away on some mountain ledge or throw them off a cliff because they are no longer useful, or leave them sitting there on a sidewalk.

It is indeed savagery to let people rot away in the rain or confiscate their tent so that they become defenseless against the elements. That savagery may only be the soft subtle economic workings of markets and trade; but they form a cliff from which people are thrown to their death.

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Steve Martinot is Instructor Emeritus at the Center for Interdisciplinary Programs at San Francisco State University. He is the author of The Rule of Racialization: Class, Identity, Governance, Forms in the Abyss: a Philosophical Bridge between Sartre and Derrida (both Temple) and The Machinery of Whiteness. He is also the editor of two previous books, and translator of Racism by Albert Memmi. He has written extensively on the structures of racism and white supremacy in the United States, as well as on corporate culture and economics, and leads seminars on these subjects in the Bay Area.

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