Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Have a Book and a Beatdown: Abuse of the Homeless in Detroit

Want a kick with that Karamazov? How about a shove with that Shakespeare? You can get that and more at the Detroit Public Library, just fall asleep inside. Oh, and be homeless.

By Patricia Calloway

It’s happening everywhere:

• In Toms River, N.J., five high-school students were charged with beating a 50-year-old homeless man nearly to death with pipes and baseball bats — throwing hockey pucks at him for good measure — as he slept in the woods.

• In Butte, MT, a 53-year-old homeless man was killed at a Greyhound bus depot because he refused to give another man a cigarette, according to court records. The man's skull was fractured by his attacker.

• In Spokane, WA, a one-legged, 50-year-old homeless man was set on fire in his wheelchair on a downtown street; he died as a result of his injuries. Police charged a 22-year-old man with first-degree murder in his death.

• In Nashville, TN, a homeless woman sleeping on a boat ramp was shoved into the Cumberland River, according to witnesses. Two men were charged with homicide in her drowning; authorities say the attack was unprovoked.

The homeless of America are under attack at record rates. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, of 142 homeless people who were attacked in 2006, 20 attacks resulted in death. This was a 65% increase from the previous year, when 86 attacks resulted in the deaths of 13 people.

In its November 2008 study, "Hate, Violence, and Death on Main Street USA," the NCH documents that from 1999-2007, 774 acts of violence were perpetrated against the homeless. Of these violent acts, 217 resulted in death; the remaining 557 were non-lethal attacks, which basically means the victims didn’t die. These reports were collected from 235 cities in 45 states and Puerto Rico.

In Fort Lauderdale, FL, three men mercilessly beat a homeless man sleeping on a bench on a college campus with baseball bats, an attack caught on videotape.

In Los Angeles, CA, a homeless man was beaten with an aluminum bat as he slept on the sidewalk, an attack which cost him the sight in one eye and put him in a coma for three weeks.

And in Detroit, MI, a homeless man was kicked off a chair and onto the floor as he slept at Detroit Public Library by a DPL security officer. I witnessed that one personally.


On March 7, 2009, I was doing research for a writing project at the Main Library when I looked up and saw a security guard approach a gentleman who appeared to be asleep in a chair. The gentleman was unresponsive to her attempts to rouse him from his sleep. I suggested to the guard that he may be on meds; many Detroiters are on prescription medications and this would explain his unresponsiveness.

After a few more attempts to rouse him from his sleep, and when she thought I wasn’t looking, the security guard delivered a low, quick side kick to the sleeping man’s legs, causing him to slide off his chair and topple over onto the floor. He landed on his head with a loud “smack!”. I cried out and ran to where he had fallen. The man never awakened.

And so it began.


Just as she delivered the kick to the man’s legs, the security guard looked up and saw me looking at her. This prompted her, like a guilty child, to walk toward me as I ran toward the man and explain to me that he was drunk (as if that could possible justify her kicking him). The man lay there on the floor, still unresponsive. After a few minutes he began to awaken, and then he sat up. I asked him if he was alright, did he need any help, etcetera. I was concerned because of the sound his head made when it hit the cement floor. He sat up and was talking and once I was satisfied that he was not seriously hurt, I went back to my seat where I could watch out of the way.

The security guard did radio for help, but, strangely enough, disappeared off the floor immediately after the incident. After another ten minutes or so, a male officer came to the area and stood watch while waiting for a second officer, who joined him near the man, who was still on the floor.

After twenty minutes or so of enduring his insults, the guards were able to get the man to his feet and escort him from the library. Yes, he did smell of liquor when he passed me. However, the sight of the guard kicking him onto the floor was so disturbing to me that I went home and e-mailed Uzoma Oenymaechi, Director of the Main Library, and complained bitterly about what I had witnessed. And what did I do THAT for?


Oenyamaechi assured me that it was not the library’s policy to pummel its patrons and that he would look into the incident and report his findings to me.

Approximately thirty days went by before I emailed him inquiring about the outcome of his findings. He assured me that he was still investigating and that he would get back to me with his conclusions.

Another thirty days went by without word from Mr. Oenyamaechi; I decided not to contact him, but to give him another 30 days.

Finally, one week short of 90 days after the incident, Mr. Oenyamaechi contacted me via email to report his findings.


Mr. Oenyamaechi informed me that he found no wrongdoing on the part of the guard in the incident of March 7, 2009. He stated that he found no impropriety in the way the incident was handled and that he had concluded that the guard did not kick him, that she only tapped his shoulder and that he fell getting up out of the chair on his own (presumably under his own power).

After playing “Blame the Victim” (supposedly the man made subsequent visits to the library where he was drunk and disorderly and had to be escorted out again), the library director claimed he had videotape of the incident which did not show the officer kicking the man. His investigation complete, he thanked me and encouraged my continuing being “an advocate for the less fortunate” (his exact words), and sent me on my way.


I explained to Mr. Oenyamaechi that his investigation was flawed because he had not interviewed me, the eyewitness. I pointed out that no one confesses to something like assault, and that since the other guards arrived after the fact, they are flawed witnesses.

The other witness, the victim, was unconscious at the time he was assaulted; to this day he has no idea the guard kicked him out of that chair. He never got out of the chair, as the DPL director claimed in his email to me, because he was unconscious at the time. He fell out of the chair and went straight to the floor from the momentum of the security guard’s kick.

He explained to me that the videotape confirmed no wrongdoing.

I argued that I did not believe he viewed a videotape, because he would have seen what happened and contacted me to confirm what he saw. I offered to view the tape with him and show him how and where this happened. He claimed to have seen me on the videotape attending to the man, but claimed that he did not see the officer kick the man from the chair. I find that odd, very odd indeed.

As of this writing, I have not been interviewed by anyone at Detroit Public Library regarding this incident, and I am the eyewitness to the assault on this man. I have been available to make a formal statement regarding this matter since the day it happened, and continue to be available for interview. However, I doubt if I will be called; the Detroit Public Library feels it has concluded its investigation, glaringly obvious flaws and all.


Michael Stoops, Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless explains: "Homeless people are the newest minority group in America that is 'OK' to hate and hurt," he said. "It's as though, somehow, they're viewed as less deserving, less human than the rest of us."

Some homeless advocates say that city ordinances that restrict where the homeless can sleep, beg, congregate or bathe unintentionally reinforce the negative stereotype of homelessness and contributes to violence. It is this criminalization of homelessness that encourages the abuse. They are perceived as having no rights (because they are outdoors), which, in the mind of a social deviant, means they are unprotected under the law (since laws target the homeless specifically) and are therefore easy prey.


The CBS News magazine “60 Minutes”, in a story about the upsurge in violence against the homeless, reported on the phenomenon called “bum hunting”, in which teens stalk the homeless and hunt then down to be savagely beaten, sometimes to death. The NCH estimates that as many as 500 homeless people have died as a result of this “sport” since 1999. The popular video series “Bum Fights”, in which the homeless, some of whom are mentally ill, are bribed with liquor and small amounts of money to fight each other, light their hair on fire and hurt themselves on camera, has been named as the inspiration for many of these attacks by the actual perpetrators in court proceedings. The exploitation of the weak, powerless and homeless has become genuine home entertainment.

You haven’t seen anything until you have seen The Bum Hunter. The Bum Hunter is a sick parody of Steve Irwin’s Crocodile Hunter, only the Bum Hunter hunts bums.

He sneaks up on them while they are asleep, referring to them as “creatures” and “fine specimens”, then falls upon them and restrains them by duct taping (yes!) their feet, hands and mouths. Sometimes he rolls them over and makes remarks about their skin, hair, nails and once he opened a homeless man’s mouth (yes, he did!) to inspect his teeth on camera.

He then ransacks their buggies, carts and bags, holding them up and describing their contents to the camera.

What did the producer of “Bum Fights” have to say for his sorry, perverted self? And I quote:

“We’re merely exposing something that people didn’t know exists. I think it’s interesting. I can’t imagine what would make somebody do the things that Rufus [a homeless man paid by the producer in alcohol and a ten-spot to humiliate himself on-camera] has done to himself……..”

Not only could he not see why Rufus would do these things, he couldn’t see the connection between his videos and the upswing in violence against the homeless by teenagers, even though his videos were cited as inspiration by millions of teens who engage in bum hunting.

In 2004, nine national retailers, including Target, Borders, Blockbuster, Barnes and Noble, Tower Records, Best Buy and Amazon saw nothing wrong with selling these “Bum Hunter” videos in their stores or on their websites. After the NCH called these national retailers out for their exploitation of the lost and unsheltered in a Cleveland press conference, they immediately stopped selling them.

These videos have found a second life on YouTube, but then you knew they would, didn’t you? Check it out and be sickened.


Should assaulting a homeless person be considered a hate crime? The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups and their activities in the United States, certainly thinks so. According to The Intelligence Report, formerly known as Klanwatch, crimes against the homeless resemble hate crimes.

Brian Levin, a criminologist and hate-crimes expert at Cal State San Bernardino, says attacks on homeless people "fit the category like a glove" and should be punished as severely. He explains that hate crimes and attacks on the homeless bear an uncanny resemblance to one another: stereotyped victims, offenders who act on latent prejudices, offenders who seek thrills or feel superior to their victims (like, say, a uniformed security guard in a public library), and a mob mentality.

"And on all these points the attacks against the homeless are really indistinguishable from other hate crimes except for one difference — there are a heck of a lot more of them", Levin says.

According to the FBI, which has been collecting hate crimes data since 1990, between 1999 and 2005, 82 people were killed in the United States of America because of their race, ethnicity, or religious or sexual orientation.

There were 169 homeless people murdered-more than twice as many people-during that same period, the National Coalition for the Homeless says. In the next 2 years 56 more homeless people would be murdered on the basis of their lack of housing.

By 2007, 26 members of Congress had asked the GAO to determine whether attacks on the homeless can be classified as federal hate crimes, and six states, Maryland, California, Massachusetts, Nevada, Texas and Florida, put homeless hate crimes bills into their legislatures.


I don’t look at the incident of March 7, 2009 as a tragedy, because it’s not. I see it as an opportunity to inform the public about the seriousness of this problem that few people even think about. A society is judged on how it treats its lessers; its poor, its uneducated, its children, its elderly. Detroiters should know that their fellow citizens are being abused and mistreated.

The fact that the abuser, in this situation, is a municipal employee or perhaps a contractor, just makes it all that more difficult to understand.

Strangely enough, this is not the first time I’ve witnessed the callousness of a City of Detroit employee toward a homeless person.


A little over a year ago, I was riding the Fort Street bus when a homeless man tripped off the curb into its path. He hit his head on the pavement and was knocked unconscious.

As a tiny but slow river of blood flowed from and puddled under his head, the bus driver remained behind the wheel of the bus while staunchly refusing to see about the man. “I don’t want to get sued”, she said. Instead of calling EMS, she called her dispatcher and told him she couldn’t move her bus because a man was laying in front of it.

She didn’t want to get in trouble for being late on her bus route, so she cleared herself with a DOT supervisor first. Myself and another passenger called EMS for him. She radioed for an ambulance, but only after we had already used our cell phones to call.

So when I saw the DPL guard kick the sleeping man, I knew I had a job to do.


The recent collapse of the American dream has revealed the ugly truth, that a society that worships money, material possessions, youth and beauty is not so rich, accomplished, young and pretty after all, but a seriously deluded collective who must keep the hoax going by any means necessary.

The homeless are a staunch reminder of what a joke the American dream really is, how unattainable it really is and how quickly it can become a nightmare. We see how far and how fast one can fall after losing a paycheck, and our wage slavery becomes apparent. We feel cheap and gutless, like frightened whores standing in the rain.

The homeless reflect the truth about the society we live in, a society that would spend trillions of dollars killing people on the other side of the world instead of spending millions saving lives at home; the brutality of our socioeconomic system is oh so very obvious and becomes glaringly apparent, but we can’t stop worshipping it.

We can’t look at the homeless, lest we see who we really are. Besides, it might be catching, so wemust run away from it as fast as we can.

And maybe that’s it; maybe the sight of ourselves if not for the grace of God disturbs us on some primal level. We have to ignore them (us) and if that doesn’t work, destroy what they represent (our true selves outside of God’s mercy and grace) even if it means destroying them, period.

That is why the man at the Main Library ended up on the floor. He was appropriately feisty and belligerent toward the guards when he came to himself. I was relieved to hear from the library director that he had returned to the library, all piss and vinegar and insult and trouble, because it meant he had survived his fall and was alright. I’ve wondered in the 80 or so days since he crashed to the floor if he was okay.

Nothing is coincidence; I witnessed the injustice done to the sleeping man for a reason. Perhaps it’s because I’m like him, all piss and vinegar and insult and trouble, appropriately feisty and belligerent and unafraid to stand up and speak truth to power; maybe I’m the only one who could write this editorial not for the glorification of self, but in the hopes that it will spur someone to action and bring about a change.

And if that is so, then God’s mercy and grace has not been far from him at all; His mercy is my witnessing what happened and standing up for the homeless man, His grace, the man’s ignorance of what was done to him in the library that day.

God is good. All the time.

You can contact Uzoma Onyemaechi via email at uonyema@detroitpubliclibrary.org, or you can call him at (313) 833-1000. Drop him a line; let him know you read this and tell him what you think. I told him I would write this, so you won’t be surprising him. Go ahead, email the guy; after all, he, like the security guard, is a public employee.

Mr. Onyemaechi has this weird habit of referring to Detroiters who use the DPL as “customers”; I had to correct him on that. People who support libraries and other institutions through tax dollars are not customers. They are patrons; he and his employees are on the public’s dime. It’s that corporate crap they’re teaching to public institutions these days.

Go ahead, email him and let him know that in light of the foreclosure crisis that has touched every city in this country and the many families that have been displaced from their homes that you don’t appreciate his lack of compassion for our most vulnerable citizens.

There but for the grace of God go us all, and he can go, too. Tell him that.

Call Onyemaechi and tell him to respect the dignity of the homeless.

Patricia Calloway writes Citizen Pat’s Blog at
www.thepatshow.wordpress.com. She lives in Detroit, Michigan