In sickness and in health...

Steve Martinot
Wednesday December 14, 2016 - 05:00:00 PM

It is not often that I get stopped in my tracks, staring at a huge specter of "WTF" hanging over the world. I mean, jaded as I am, it is rare that something takes my breath away. But I just saw a report by a health practicianer on the health conditions of the homeless encampment, the one that keeps getting kicked around by the Berkeley police department from MLK to Fairview to Adeline to Kittridge to Center to Fairview to Adeline, etc. It contained long lists of ailments that pertained to a short list (a dozen or so) of people. Pulmonary disease, asthma, cardiac hypertension, blood in the urine, chronic diarrhia (producing dehydration), type 2 diabetes, hepatitus C, mobility issues (living with extreme neuralgia, arthritis, and the after-effects of artificial joint implants), and PTSD.

Is that how half the world lives, that half below the poverty line? Have I heard right that in the US it is only 40%?

My jaded side says “sure, that is to be expected when forced to live on the street.” Once one is thrown there by circumstance, because the economic demands of ordinary life are out of reach and psychologically marginalizing, even though one learns to survive, there are costs. It is well-known that living on the street, like being sentenced to indeterminate periods to solitary confinement in prison, is productive of severe mental health issues. What is unfathomable is that though these health conditions are evident, perhaps in the medications people have with them, or the certifications of their conditions by medical doctors, or the prosthetic devices they need to use, or their hobbling gait, their relative immobility, that these have become reasons for eviction from their encampment and the communality that helps them survive. And I use the term "eviction" precisely because it does not pertain and yet it does.

To ignore these conditions, whether by the police who break up their encampment communities, or by those who applaud such actions, signifies a desire that these condition only get worse. I’m not sure I know how to grasp a consciousness that can say to others, “I desire that your illness gets worse.” 

Here’s an example. A number of homeless people in Berkeley suffer from Type 2 Diabetes. And some of them are insulin dependent, not all. That means they must use a syringe to inject the insulin when needed. It is imperative that they do this with a fresh, clean needle each time. Given the difficulties presented by homeless life, and life in combat with a disease like diabetes, sometimes the needle caps are not disposed of well. The needles are; of that one must take special care. There is no evidence of needles being treated carelessly. But when the needle caps are found by members of the authorities (and even the city recognizes that it is not needles that are found, but needle caps), they are transformed into evidence that there is intravenous drug use going on. And this charge of drug use is then imposed upon the entire community in the encampment, and used as a rationale for breaking up the encampment. In the course of such an operation, people’s property is seized, and confiscated. Thus, these diabetics lose the ability to treat themselves, and face emergency conditions. It is a process designed to make their condition worse. 

When the media is told that the police or sanitation workers find needles (not evidence of needles), it uses that to denigrate the entire community as nothing but druggies, and applauds the police assaults. Nothing is ever said about the fact that hard drug use, as well as alcohol, are barred in the community. Mums the word on the fact that they collect their own trash, and dispose of it themselves. (The alleged "tons" of trash that the police find is property that is needed for survival.) Nothing is ever said about the principles upon which this intentional community of the homeless has formed, brought together because their communalism enhances their ability to survive. If they have formed themselves itself into a self-regulating community, it is because they are, for themselves, their last recourse in a society that seeks to destroy them (by constant harassment, constant eviction, and policies to make their health worse by whatever means). 

In sickness or in health? Are the homeless the poor beaten wife who gets thrown to the floor by her abusive husband so that she can see the dust that she didn’t clean up in the house, and so he can feel like a “big man”? Do those who attack them, and don’t want high school students see that the homeless exist, feel like “big men”? 

We know the history of collective punishment. We know the kinds of society that fostered and even relished it. It doesn’t happen all the time. It only happens in societies that have become something that makes me shudder when I think of it. Do I have to go into that? 

Collective punishment is a violation of international law. It was written into the founding treaty documents of the United Nations because of the horror that filled the air and people's hearts in the wake of what was discovered in 1945. Yet, today, in the wake of the “war on drugs,” collective punishment has become standard operating procedure. In the 2014 demonstrations against police killings, demonstrations that called for justice for Michael Brown and Eric Garner, if one person broke a window, the entire demonstration was declared outlaw, and broken up with many people arrested and injured. That had nothing to do with drugs. But it was the “war on drugs” that gave the police in every city the impunity to do what they wanted, and established popular support for it because it was the police and they were in the “front lines” against drugs. 

If a grandmother, living in public housing, lets her grandson stay with her, and unbeknownst to her, he had been cited during a drug bust at a party months earlier (though released in the absence of evidence), and he was discovered at his gransmother’s apartment, she would be evicted (without recourse). No one committed a crime, and this gandmother gets thrown on the street. It is a form of vicarious responsibility. 

Vicarious responsibility is a minor version of collective punishment. If a police officer shoots at a car because the driver will not stop when commanded to do so by the officer, and the shot happens to kill the car’s passenger, the driver will be charged with murder under vicarious responsibility. 

There is a social sickness in this. Perhaps it is what allows the authorities to look at the illnesses that homelessness creates as cause for punishing them. The flip side of collective punishment is the side that says that the government bears no responsibility for the survival and well-being of its citizens, or its constituents, or people in general. We heard that first from the elder Bush regime (though it had already been in effect for a while). Each person’s survival is wholly up to themselves. 

I cannot let that idea go by without mentioning one extreme irony that lives in its shadow. Each person’s survival is up to themselves, yet they still do not have the legal right to commit suicide. Suicide is illegal. It is so illegal that a cop will shoot a person to death to prevent them from committing suicide. In 2012, I counted three incidents in which this occurred that actually made the media. It is such an oxymoronic situation that the police had to find a euphemism by which to refer to it. They came up with the expression, “suicide by cop.” The person’s death is okay if imposed by the authorities, but not okay if self-administered. In either case, abjuring the psychological trauma that leads to suicide is to ignore the hopelessness that accompanies life in a society that can only think in terms of eviction – to which prison is an adjunct. 

Most people who threaten suicide do it as a statement to others that they are in serious emotional trouble. It is a call for help that only sometimes gets answered. There are others who seriously intend suicide. They generally do so in secret, where they won’t be disturbed. They will then be discovered later, after having gone through with their decision. 

Have I now added "suicide" to the list of diseases given at the beginning of this article? No, I have not. The term "suicide" here is simply the mirror image of the sentiment expressed by the police, and those who support their assaults on the homeless community, that they wish them dead (the logical result of making diseases worse). 

What characterizes the homeless community is that it knows how to take care of itself. It has intellectual resources from within that when brought together, amount to an abode without walls. That is why they form encampments, so that they can look after each other, having only themselves to trust and fall back upon. They are living up to that historical tradition that when people are sick, or in dire straits, the community in which they are members will seek to care for them in one way or another. 

To send the police, with their criminalization projects, is not to seek solutions but to prevent them. Well, that is partially incorrect. It prevents all solutions to the problem except three, the death, imprisonment, or exile of the homeless community. When the "authorities" say that the encampments must be broken up and dispersed, they are saying “our job is to herd these stateless people toward their death.” They are stateless because they have no government to defend them against the assaults of the government, whether the city administration, of the police, of the government in Washington that abjures all responsibility except that of permitting collective punishment.