Attacking the Homeless

You’ve probably heard about, and maybe seen video of, the beatings of three homeless men in Fort Lauderdale in a single night, Jan. 12. One of the men — Norris Gaynor, aged 45 — died from his injuries: “Police say the attacks were carried out by a group of teenagers who piled into a car with baseball bats, a golf club, and a paintball gun and went looking for homeless people to beat.” The behaviour of these teens — two 18-year-olds, one 17-year-old, and one minor who age isn’t given — is not an aberration from the norm, and in fact represents a growing trend: “The National Coalition for the Homeless has documented 386 attacks on the homeless over the past six years, including 156 deaths. Of the total number of attacks, 211 have been recorded since 2002.” (Actual numbers are higher, as many homeless don’t report attacks, and the statistics are not comprehensive for every area of the country.)

I’ve been wondering why teens (and others) a. think it’s OK to beat people who are homeless and b. seem to enjoy it, take pleasure in it, are amused by it. As Scott Russell, a Fort Lauderdale police officer who heads the department’s crisis intervention team, says: “‘It’s senseless. If you look at these kids, it was almost like it was fun and games for them. … ‘It looked like they were laughing and finding great joy in what they were doing, which made it more horrific.'”

So I’ve read dozens of articles, seeking some perspective and insight. Here are comments from people who study crime, homelessness, and psychology:

  • Michael Stoops, acting director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, has some explanations:
    • He “points to the popularity of a series of videos and Internet clips known as ‘Bum Fights’ that show homeless people being beaten up as a form of entertainment. ‘When young people see that, they say, “I do can do that!” Stoops said. ‘It’s a copy-cat kind of thing.'” (Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, “Fort Lauderdale police hunt young men in murder, beatings of homeless,” 1/13/06)

    • “The assailants frequently are young white males looking for thrills, according to the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless. Perpetrators may be motivated by racism, by a sense of power or by any number of factors that set one group against another, research suggests.” (“Violence Against Homeless Rises, but the Crime Is Poorly Understood,” 1/17/06)
    • ‘In many of the cases, it’s a crime of opportunity. … A group of teenagers is roaming the street on a hot summer night and they come across a homeless person who might be mentally ill or alcoholic. When they hurt a homeless person, they think they can get away with it — and they think they won’t be hurt in return.’ Stoops places part of the blame for these attacks on videos, some available on the Internet, that show homeless people being beaten — or in one case, set on fire.” (NPR, “Florida Homeless Beating Caught on Videotape,” 1/13/06)
    • Stoops puts some blame on national anti-homeless prejudice: ‘Would this happen with any other group? Gays or African Americans? There would be a national outcry.’ But he won’t blame everyone: ‘I don’t think Americans in general hate homeless people. They volunteer and help in soup kitchens and other things.'”
  • Ron Slaby, a developmental psychologist at the Center for Media and Child Heath at Children’s Hospital Boston, said “violence in the media, home and community are likely contributing factors. He said the attackers are likely to have developed a superiority-inferiority complex that led them to believe the homeless are less than human. He said they are likely to have been exposed to media that reinforced this, as well as video games that ‘trained’ them to kill without emotion. And, while in a group, Slaby said they likely experienced heightened excitement and diminished responsibility and inhibitions. ‘There could be a certain level of gang mentality,’ he said, ‘a certain type of superiority . . . where others who are ‘inferior’ deserve to be done away with.'” (Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, “Fort Lauderdale police hunt young men in murder, beatings of homeless,” 1/13/06)

  • Dr. Steven Schlozman, a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital: “‘We can’t connect those dots because he probably can’t.’ He’s “speaking generally, not about the Fort Lauderdale case. ‘It’s possible the youth is baffled by it, too.'” He also says video games can’t take all the blame: ‘Tons of kids play first-person shooter games, and hardly any turn to violent behavior. In study after study, the best predictor of kids doing these awful things is not the media they watch, but difficulties in school, parenting, tensions in the home, underlying psychological problems.'” (Miami Herald, “Attacks on Homeless: Baffling,” 1/22/06)

  • Milton Hirsch, a veteran Miami defense lawyer: He “recalls spending many hours with a kid in his early 20s accused of murder in Miami Beach.’I was able to learn almost nothing about him from him. He seemed incapable of engaging in a useful cause-and-effect discussion.”’ (Miami Herald, “Attacks on Homeless: Baffling,” 1/22/06)
  • Coral Gables-based lawyer Jack Thompson: “‘I don’t think video games turn angels into demons, but we often see where video games are a component [of an attack]. … There is this underbelly of lost young boys who are connected to nothing — they don’t have a home life, they are connected to no activities, they hate school — but they are drawn to their form of entertainment like a moth to a flame, to entertainment that makes this violence appear fun and also consequence-free.'” (Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, “Viciousness Confounds All Reasoning: How can we make sense of senseless acts?“, 1/15/06)
  • Dr. Nabil Elsanadi, of Broward General Medical Center: “‘This is tragic. It’s humanity at its worst, and it’s hard to believe. … They’re easier targets because they don’t have a shelter. They don’t have someplace to live. If you have, and this is my big fear, in the community there may be a ritual gang, something where there are people out there to prove themselves, as far as passage rites or to belong to the gang they would have to do something like that. So, I’m worried. I’m concerned for our community.'” (NBC6.net, “Doctor: Attacks On Homeless Men ‘Humanity At Its Worst'”, 1/13/06 and 1/16/06)
  • Fred Grimm at the Miami Herald comments: “It’s difficult to imagine that 156 deaths in five years of a particular nationality or ethnic group would not stir national outrage. But these particular Americans are pummeled and killed with not much more than a local reaction. Even this tragedy comes couched as, ”How could this happen to a nice middle class family?”, with Norris Gaynor reduced to a bit player in a family drama. The message leaching through society is that the homeless are so utterly worthless that they can be abused with impunity.” (Miami Herald, “‘Bum bashings’ a night of fun for young punks“, 1/17/06)
  • Georgine Getty, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless: “Youth are exposed to adults’ prejudice against the homeless. In recent years, she added, some have watched ‘bum films’ — videos showing homeless people being beaten or fighting each other, available for purchase on the Internet. ‘You’d be amazed at how many kids have seen these videos.’ … During classroom discussions about the homeless, they’ll raise their hands when asked, and ‘they’re always kind of chuckling about it.'” (“Violence Against Homeless Rises, but the Crime Is Poorly Understood,” 1/17/06)
  • R. Dean Wright, sociology professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa: “People may find humor in such brutality when the victim is considered ‘less than human.’ … It’s really difficult for us to say what motivates this.’ It could be racial or ethnic bias. It could be some other prejudice or hatred. ‘It happens any place where you have unequal power,’ as in prison or homes for the aged, Wright said.” (“Violence Against Homeless Rises, but the Crime Is Poorly Understood,” 1/17/06)
  • Dr. Scott Poland, a psychologist at Nova Southeastern University’s Center for Psychological Studies: “although the victim is likely chosen at random, the actions of the attackers are not necessarily impulsive. ‘This is something they thought about — they planned. … Can you think of any reason why adolescents should be out on the street between 2 and 4 a.m.? … They should be home. They should be asleep, getting ready for school the next day.'” (Miami Herald, “Attacks on the Homeless Have Risen, Expert Says,” 1/13/06) Deborah Day, a forensic psychologist in nearby Winter Park, asks, ‘What kind of family allows adolescent boys to be wandering in the woods in the middle of the night?” (Miami Herald, “Attacks on Homeless: Baffling,” 1/22/06)
  • Journalist Fred Tasker, in his lengthy article in the Miami Herald titled “Attacks on Homeless: Baffling,” 1/22/06, says: “But hardest to understand is the randomness, the lack of even irrational motive. In cases across the country it’s usually not robbery, hardly ever revenge, seldom even anger, experts say. Even when youths try to explain why they did it, the best they can come up with is it was for kicks, because they were bored.”

The media exposure some of these folks reference includes first-person shooter and other violent video games, but primarily a series called Bumfights, “the infamous $20 DVD that has sold almost 300,000 copies over the Internet …. Low-rent filmmakers in Southern California had paid street people to attack one another. A judge in San Diego sentenced two of the filmmakers to 180 days in jail last year after they blew off their community service sentence. The judge said he was perplexed by their attitude — ‘They believe they haven’t done anything wrong.’ They did their 180 days while a third edition of Bumfights sold on the Internet. Along with at least four other imitators, Stoops said.” (Miami Herald, “‘Bum bashings’ a night of fun for young punks“, 1/17/06)

So the motivations I’ve read so far include: it’s thrilling and exciting to hurt people, breaks up the boredom of the day; it’s easy to hurt people who aren’t able to defend themselves; there’s ample opportunity because some teens are out in groups in the wee hours; kids are copying videos that make hurting people look somehow entertaining; adults, cities, and society in general are prejudiced against the homeless, that we see them as essentailly worthless, and kids sense this, understand that the homeless are ‘less than human;’ because of parenting or for other reasons, these kids feel no connection to others, except maybe a few friends, so empathy for others is lacking; they don’t understand cause and effect, that actions have consequences.

For me, a cloudy picture is emerging, which in the end raises more questions than it answers: Those who attack homeless people perhaps see themselves as belonging to one group (teens, middle-class, white, privileged, living in homes) and people who are homeless as belonging to another group, and they believe that it’s OK to harm those whom they see as ‘other,’ especially if it’s easy, and if it’s modelled or inherently sanctioned, and if they don’t have a lot of healthy parental or mentor connection, and if the ‘other’ is seen by them to be inferior, worthless, defenseless, unloved, excluded from the normal life of the community.

And lurking beneath that explanation is perhaps another (and probably another, and another …) : it’s satisfying and maybe even thrilling to hurt, demean, and destroy someone whom we see as just slightly ‘less than’ we are, because it gives us status and a sense of power we felt we lacked. Sure, it doesn’t take brains, courage, or much brawn to beat a sleeping, underfed, perhaps mentally or physically ill man — but at least it’s possible, at least it’s doable. (Same with people who abuse pets.) Scapegoating can give scapegoaters a powerful sense of peace, of having vanquished what doesn’t belong, what makes a community or the world feel less safe by its very disorderly appearance.

Dean Wright says, above, that brutality happens “any place where you have unequal power” — I agree, especially when the power is only marginally unequal and when those with slightly more power feel they have to prove something (as Dr. Nabil Elsanadi said) to maintain it, or to believe it.

Maybe some of these kids feel that they themselves are barely human, that they don’t have much connection with humanity, that they don’t know how they fit into societal structure. And if so, is this more so of this generation and of society now, or are the targets of their powerlessness, numbness, gnawing need, and engulfing confusion just different? Did we ever have better rites of initiation, safe and intentional ways for young men (especially) to prove themselves men? Is there any alternative to young men needing either a. initiation rites or b. to prove themselves masterful by beating and abusing those deemed weaker? Can men become strong, healthy, whole, loving men without either? Is this a general worthiness issue or is it something specific to men’s biology and/or men’s societal roles?

Fred Tasker’s article, “Attacks on Homeless: Baffling,” in the Miami Herald on 1/22/06, contextualises the growing number of teen attacks on the homeless within an overall decrease in the juvenile violent crime arrest rate, which “in 2003 was lower than in any year since 1980. … Yet there have been 386 attacks on the homeless since 1999, up from 60 that first year to 105 in 2004, according to Stoops. ‘The major perpetrators are young white male suburban kids,’ he says. ‘They’re looking for excitement. Poor kids don’t do this; they already have enough trouble.”’

The day before the Fort Lauderdale attacks, the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty released a report titled “A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities” which listed the 20 “meanest cities” for the homeless, based on laws designed to criminalize homeless behaviour: “All are locations that a report accompanying the list finds reflect a growing willingness over the past 25 years ‘to turn to the criminal justice system to respond to people living in public spaces.’ … ‘These practices that criminalize homelessness do nothing to address the underlying causes of homelessness. Instead, they exacerbate the problem,’ the report says. ‘Whether it’s the mayor of Little Rock or the mayor of Las Vegas, they’re committed to throwing out broad-stroke myths about the homeless: that they’re lazy, they’re criminals, that they choose their lives,’ Stoops said. Some cities have adopted the argument that the predatory aspect of life on the streets makes laws isolating the homeless from the general population necessary. Tulin Ozdeger, civil rights staff attorney at National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, disagrees. ‘We think there are ways to protect homeless people and those who aren’t homeless in ways other than making it criminal to sleep outside or sleep on the sidewalk,’ she said. ‘If the goal is to protect homeless people, increased resources for shelter space and day centers would be a good idea,’ Ozdeger said. ‘If a city can’t find that space immediately, certainly having a police presence to make sure people aren’t preyed on would be valuable.'”

(The National Coalition for the Homeless’s report titled “Hate, Violence and Death on Main Street America,” which lists some beatings and killings of homeless people in 2004, is also worth reading.)

All of the top cities listed as “mean” felt they were unfairly singled out, but it was the response to the report by the mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman, that was most striking; he called Stoops a joker, then a jerk, then says: “‘We were one of the few places in the country, because of efforts to cooperate with the federal government on a 10-year program to end homelessness here, awarded $5.3 million for a continuum of care program,’ said Goodman, who has not read the report. ‘That money is all going toward these issues, which are so important to resolve. So when I catch some clown back in D.C. who doesn’t know a damn thing about our city — well, as I’ve said to other people, he can drop dead.’ (More at Las Vegas City Life.com)

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