Sometimes we really have to stop and ask ourselves who we are, divided by class, by race and by gender; subdivided as we are, into straight, gay, leftist, rightist, or even urban or rural demographics. This muffled ragged claim of rugged individuality ties to that Americanism which we see darkly as a noble trait. Only, it is a trait which can untie us from the dock of common humanity and allow us to drift aimlessly and as long as we personally miss the rocks, it’s good enough.
We can get all excited and all worked up by world events or by local media drama. We seek viral videos, titillations, news candy, dark chocolate news, news which appeals to our sweet tooth. But what of true horror, fine for the movies, you say? What about out and out depravity? It seems like it was only a couple of years ago an NFL quarterback went to prison for killing dogs. Killing dogs is a horrible crime and shouldn’t be under appraised, however, during the same time period, our government was responsible for killing innocent civilians and children and no one went to jail.
How strange it is that our society can erupt with volcanic outrage at one crime while ignoring another more outrageous crime. Fox News and many of the mainstream media outlets are obsessed with dead-white-girl syndrome. Any young white woman who disappears or is murdered, is always great news copy. A young woman of any other ethnicity, lost or murdered is, well… not so much. That is the power of media, the gatekeepers of real news, and the directors of the public’s consciousness, ringing the dinner bell for us as Pavlov’s public.
I came across this news story and was struck by the casualness of its tone. Violet Ellen Phillips was 67 years old and she’s homeless. She lived a quiet life on the streets of Van Nuys California. Remembered by Wade Trimmer of the San Fernando Rescue Mission, “She said little about her personal life, but was always grateful,” he said. “She always said ‘thank you’ and ‘God bless you for doing this.’”
We have a picture of a nice, quiet little old lady, living on the very margins of our society, existing on very little. It kind of makes you wonder why someone would douse this little old lady, who wasn’t bothering anybody, with rubbing alcohol and set her on fire as she slept at a bus stop. It is a horrific crime, shocking to anyone with even a modicum of humanity. How can these outrages happen again and again, and yet, nothing is done. Unless you were in Los Angeles, you probably didn’t even hear about the crime. An Indian woman raped in Singapore is news around the world, but a 67 year old woman dosing at a bus stop and being set on fire is only a local affair.
A week later, Violet Ellen Phillips remains hospitalized with burns over 20% of her body and connected to a ventilator. Local area residents set up the all now too familiar, makeshift shrine, filled with flowers and religious candles. Mother used to say, an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure. A card reads, “We are praying for you Violet, love always.” Prayer can move mountains, I guess, but just not as good as a bulldozer.
There were 105 attacks on homeless people by non-homeless people last year according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Thirty-two of those attacks were lethal, 32 Americans were murdered on the streets of the United States, just for the crime of being poor. That fact ought to grab the heart in your chest and not let go. Add to that the number of homeless rousted by police just for having no other place to go.
Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless said, “Homeless people in the eyes of the community are less than human and therefore an appropriate target for some people.” Jose Valle, a 48- year old homeless man who knew Violet Ellen Phillips remarked, “Give it two weeks; everyone will forget if they haven’t already; we’re invisible.”
He’s totally correct; the public will forget until next time, because the care of the unemployed and homeless is tempered with journalistic paternalism. Dennis Petillo, 24, of Van Nuys was charged with attempted murder and mayhem against Ms. Phillips. Petillo has pled not guilty to the crimes, and the roadside bus stop bench where Violet Ellen Phillips was set on fire has been removed. But listen to this, because this is indicative of crimes against the homeless and the poor, “Authorities believe he is mentally ill. Gable said police are investigating a possible motive.” Authorities don’t have the right to judge mental illness, only doctors do, but by doing so it’s lowering the bar, it’s just a crime between two low-lives then, isn’t it? Crazy people and you know, down-and-outers. So relax, Mr. & Mrs. America, this doesn’t really concern you.
They’re steering the issue away from a 67 year-old woman being set on fire on a public street and away from asking a different set of questions. Like, how come a 67 year old woman was living on the streets in the first place? Police have little information on Violet Ellen Phillips; they’ve had no contact with her. She was just a quiet little old lady with no place to live. In America…of course, our hearts break, but still, she had no place to live. That’s where this crime started. If Violet Ellen Phillips had had a place to live, she never would have been sleeping at that bus stop.
In Maine, Frank L. Miller was arrested by Bangor police three times in a single week. Listen to how Mr. Miller was portrayed by his local paper: “A local transient who earlier this month was arrested by Bangor police three times in one week remains behind bars, a Penobscot County Jail official said Monday.”
A local Transient? How does being a transient apply to a story about a man being arrested three times in a week? He could have been a lady snake charmer, who sold fans on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, in the summertime. He was called a transient to degrade his status in front of us.
On January 7th, Frank L. Miller was arrested according to Bangor police Sgt. Paul Edwards, accused of leaving a K-mart with $159 in cigarettes and other miscellaneous items.
They’ve already slammed him so let’s ask, was that like $153 dollars in cigarettes and $6 in miscellaneous or was it the other way around? Three days later, Frank Miller appears at a Bangor shelter for people struggling with dependency. Bangor police found Miller at the front desk and escorted him out and asked him not to come back.
Miller returned, claiming he’d forgotten his cell phone and then supposedly mocked the officer and was arrested, after numerous warnings. You can always tell when it’s gonna be a lousy Thursday, whenever you’re escorted out of the drug and alcohol shelter by police and told not to come back. Miller was charged with criminal trespass and for violating the terms of his bail. On the 11th Miller was again arrested, this time with $13.64 in food he hadn’t paid for from a convenience store. He was charged with theft (unauthorized taking) and again charged for violating his conditions of bail.
A mystery huh? A homeless man in Maine, in January, keeps committing petty crimes trying to get locked up? But rather than looking at who this Frank L. Miller was or what he needed, they just arrested him and processed him and built a database on him in their computer system and updated it promptly each time he was arrested, but did absolutely nothing to solve the problem.
Frank L. Miller might be deeply troubled emotionally, I don’t know. He might just be a regular 33 year old guy down on his luck, looking for help and not finding it. Arresting the same man three times for petty crimes, in the same week doesn’t speak especially well of Bangor’s finest, but in their defense, it is an all too common approach to homelessness. Either Frank L. Miller was the most inept criminal since Pee Wee Herman or Frank L. Miller has needs which weren’t being met. Mr. Miller refused to quietly cooperate with authorities in the process of ignoring his own plight. Mr. Miller needed a place to sleep at night. Mr. Miller is now being held in Piscataquis County Jail without bail; hooray, justice has been served!
My father used to tell me stories about the Frank Millers from the last Great Depression. In those stories hobos would knock over a flower pot and then mouth off to the cops, in hopes of finding a warm a bed and food to eat; even if it were in a jail cell. This is where we get the expression “couldn’t get arrested.” And it’s also where we get the expression SNAFU, because somewhere between shoplifting and setting little old ladies on fire in the streets, somebody needs to address the issue — the real issue. Millions of Americans who’ve been pushed out of the economy and out of society, who don’t have a job or a decent place to live, continue to be ignored. Millions of us, our fellow Americans, who live a quiet daily struggle like Violet Ellen Phillips, or struggle loudly, like Frank L. Miller, are desperate, and one by one the clock runs out on us and nobody seems to notice.
David Glenn Cox is a senior staff writer for TLR and an award winning author and musician; he is the author of the novel, “The Servants of Pilate”.