For 30 years, conservatives have been advocating Class Warfare, pitting one group against another for political advantage – whites against minorities, the poor against the middle-class, and the rich against everybody who isn’t. They have fueled their divisiveness with violent, eliminationist rhetoric and a relentless “blame the victim” ideology aimed at promoting guilt-free greed and self-supporting selfishness. They have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
The AP is reporting that five teenagers in Orlando, Florida, killed a homeless man for kicks.
It was a balmy night, the sort that brings the homeless out from the shelters, when the police were summoned to America Street. On the driveway of a condo, just a few paces from the gutter, lay a man. A dying man.
He looked to be 50-ish, and a resident of Orlando’s streets, judging by the moldy jacket. And he’d been bludgeoned — so badly bludgeoned that he could hardly move.
Before being rushed to the hospital, where he died of his head injuries, the man, August Felix, described his attackers. Young fellows did it, he whispered to the officers who got to him first. Kids.
Within three months, two 16-year-olds and three 15-year-olds had been charged with second-degree homicide in the March 26, 2006, attack. The motive? “I don’t think there was a motive,” Sgt. Barbara Jones, a police spokeswoman, said, “other than, ‘Let’s beat someone up.'”
An isolated incident we can safely ignore? Not really.
That high-schoolers had turned — allegedly on a whim — into executioners brought pause to city officials and advocates for the homeless, not just because the killing was unprovoked, but because it fit into a trend larger than Orlando: a nationwide surge in violence largely by teenagers and young adults against some of America’s most vulnerable citizens.
A 2006 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless found 142 attacks last year against homeless people, 20 of which resulted in death — a 65 percent increase from 2005, when 86 were violently assaulted, including 13 homicides.
By comparison, 60 such attacks were reported in 1999, the year the coalition — the only entity to gather such data — began to study the problem.
And these numbers are likely low because they only reflect the most egregious attacks reported in newspapers or by agencies that serve the homeless and some victims themselves, according to Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the Washington-based coalition.
Adolescents are a culture’s coal mine canaries – whatever we do to our society, good, bad, or indifferent, shows up in them first. Most people – especially parents – think teenagers respond to limited and very individual stimuli because they seem on the surface to live in a world restricted by their neighborhoods and their schools. The rap on teens is that they’re naturally selfish, congenitally myopic, and firmly stuck inside a very small box that revolves around them and not much else.
In fact, after working with teens for 20 years, I can state categorically that the opposite is true.
Adolescents are finding their way out of childhood and at the same time trying to find a way into the adult world. They are peculiarly vulnerable to the dominant strains prevalent in the culture at the time of this passage, though without the skills to communicate what they see or what they know, and up against a society that would refuse to listen even if they did have such skills. Like children, they react instinctively, thoughtlessly. Like adults, they learn to restrain what needs to be restrained. They do both by gauging what the culture wants, not by transcending it. They are slaves to it, which is why they understand its flaws far more accurately than adults, who have found some measure of freedom by clinging to the illusion that they can control the world around them.
Teenagers know better. The over-riding truth in adolescence is that it’s all about picking which dominant cultural strain you’re going to go with. They know in their bones if not their heads that they can’t beat the system. The best they can do is join that part of it which seems to offer them the most power. That’s why gang members join when they’re teenagers rather than young adults, and why they explain when asked that they did it because they needed somewhere to “belong”. A group identity seems to provide protection against the forces trying to destroy them. They travel in packs, like wagons in a wagon train, ready to circle at the first sign of danger to the group or any individual in it.
While there are always variations and oddballs dancing to a different drummer for their own reasons, when trends appear in adolescents what it means is that they’ve picked up on a dominant cultural strain and joined it. Consumerism, computer geek-ism, street gangs, drugs, violence – all these are types of strings the society uses to define itself and its actual motivations and beliefs as opposed to what it says it believes. Even if they can’t verbalize it – and some can, quite dramatically and with panache – teenagers know very well what the difference is. No sector of society has as delicate a nose for “the smell of mendacity” and hypocrisy. They ignore what we say and are hypersensitive to what we do.
So when a trend like murdering the homeless sticks its ugly nose outside the tent of repression and teenagers are the ones pushing it, it’s because some of them have figured out that what an important segment of the dominant society really wants is to get rid of the bums who make it uncomfortable. They can smell the fear, feel the hate on their skins like acne, and some of them are going to run with it. You can’t fool a teen with mere words. S/he won’t react unless there’s reality in the words – real emotion.
So what’s happening – in Orlando and elsewhere – is that our coal mine canaries are screaming. Conservative fear and hatred of the poor has successfully communicated itself to the point where it’s being acted on by the people most aware of it. Listening to the “Take Care of #1”-ers and the Social Darwinists who have been controlling the communal message for three decades, these kids are simply acting out what they’ve heard over and over all their lives.
Our canaries are doing their job: it’s a warning, and we ignore it at our peril, not just theirs.