Pushed past the breaking point

April 16, 2009

Nicole Colson examines the recent surge in multiple shootings and finds that the economic crisis is increasingly a factor.

ONE AFTER another over the last month, the reports of terrible incidents of violence kept coming:

A Vietnamese immigrant in Binghamton, N.Y., increasingly paranoid about police and upset after losing his job, kills 13 people at a center for immigrants before committing suicide.

An Alabama man who had struggled to keep a job kills 10 people in a shooting spree before committing suicide.

A Pittsburgh man, recently unemployed and afraid that the government would ban guns, opens fire on police responding to a domestic disturbance call, killing three.

These are just some of the recent eruptions of violence to make the headlines in U.S. newspapers. In the 30-day period between March 10 and April 10, there were at least nine multiple shootings across the U.S., claiming the lives of at least 58 people.

The individual motives and stories differ widely, but there's a common thread among these incidents--the worsening economic crisis is becoming a factor in pushing some people who are already on the edge over it.

Outside the American Civic Association in Binghamton, N.Y., the day after the shooting
Outside the American Civic Association in Binghamton, N.Y., the day after the shooting (Stan Honda | AFP)

As the Washington Post recently noted:

Criminologists theorize that the epidemic of layoffs, the meltdown of storied American corporations and the uncertainty of recovery have stoked fear, anxiety and desperation across society and unnerved its most vulnerable and dangerous.

"I've never seen such a large number [of killings] over such a short period of time involving so many victims," said Jack Levin, a noted criminologist at Northeastern University who has authored or co-authored eight books on mass murder.

The simple fact, criminologist James Alan Fox said, is that more Americans are struggling. "The American dream to them is a nightmare, and the land of opportunity is but a cruel joke," said Fox, also of Northeastern..."The economic pie is shrinking to the point where it looks more like a Pop Tart, and some feel all they're getting is the crumbs. There's a combination of feeling despair and hopelessness at the same time as a certain degree of anger and blame."

A NUMBER of those who have committed recent high-profile acts of violence were either recently laid off or unable to find work after a long period of time. Add mental health issues, family stress and other factors, and violent explosions can be the result. As Jack Levin told the Post, "There are just simply more catastrophic losses than there were when the economy was in good shape."

Jiverly Wong, the Vietnamese immigrant who committed the killings at the American Civic Center in Binghamton, is an example.

Though it appears one prime factor was Wong's paranoia that he was being persecuted by law enforcement, his day-to-day troubles--of trying unsuccessfully to find work and a place in a society that is typically hostile to immigrants--seemingly exacerbated his despair and isolation. As the New York Times reported:

Nearly two decades after arriving in America from Vietnam, Mr. Wong still had trouble with basic English, a fact of life for many immigrants, but a problem he seemed especially sensitive about. He was an introvert who was secretive in the extreme, keeping his love of guns and target shooting--and even his marriage--hidden from his family, his oldest sister said. They had improved their English-speaking skills and advanced their careers, while Mr. Wong, now jobless, had moved back in with his parents on a dead-end street in nearby Union.

"I think he felt low and small," said the sister, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Nga. "But he didn't share his thoughts. He would always just say he was okay."

Though it's not understood--and may never be--why Wong targeted fellow immigrants, it is known that the Shop-Vac factory where Jiverly Wong had worked was shut down last year, and Wong was despondent about not finding work. He started receiving Trade Adjustment Assistance--federal aid for workers whose jobs are moved overseas--and became a regular visitor at the American Civic Center, where he was encouraged to enroll in courses in English as a second language.

Two weeks before he went on his shooting spree, Wong sent a two-page letter to a Syracuse, N.Y., television station. In it, his mental illness is evident--he claims that he was being persecuted by undercover police who spread "rumors" about him and stole money from him at night.

In the end, he apologized--not for the murders he was planning to commit, but because of his limited English. "I am sorry I know a little English," he wrote.

IN MANY cases, individuals who lose control turn their anger and violent impulses first on those closest to them--their families.

Michael McLendon carried out what the media is calling the worst multiple shooting in Alabama history last month, targeting his mother first before killing nine others--including his grandparents, aunt, uncle and two cousins. At the end of his spree, McLendon drove to a metal factory where he had once worked, and fired 30 rounds at police before entering the building and committing suicide.

According to Coffee County District Attorney Gary McAliley, it was clear that McLendon and his mother, who he lived with, were struggling financially. Two weeks before the shootings, McLendon had abruptly quit his job at a sausage factory.

McLendon was also, along with his mother, part of a lawsuit involving workers at Pilgrim's Pride, a chicken processor that workers allege violated labor laws by not fairly compensating them (the lawsuit was put on hold last year when the company filed for bankruptcy). During a search of the family home, investigators found a letter informing the gunman's mother that she had been laid off from her job at the plant.

It's common for family members to be the first casualties in such cases. Under capitalism, the burden on families is enormous. Especially in the U.S., where the social safety net is so thin and tattered, it can be overwhelming for many working-class families to make ends meet.

Although families can provide a source of comfort in a hostile world, they can also be the place where anger and alienation are first expressed. As Jennifer Roesch explained in the International Socialist Review:

The institution of the nuclear family as an economic unit is central to meeting the needs of capitalism. Under the current system, employers pay workers a wage, but take no responsibility for most of the social costs of maintaining the current generation of workers--or for raising the next generation of workers into adulthood. Rather than these responsibilities being shared collectively by society as a whole through government programs--paid for by taxing the profits of the private enterprises that employ workers--they are shouldered by individual families.

That means that even in the best of times, many working-class families struggle with providing the basics--food, clothing, shelter, health care, etc. Add home foreclosures and layoffs to the mix, and the situation easily becomes volatile, leading to tragedy.

In January, Ervin and Ana Lupoe were fired from their jobs at Kaiser Permanente hospital in Los Angeles after it was discovered they had misrepresented their employment to an outside agency in order to obtain cheaper child care.

After sending a message to a local TV station, Ervin shot his wife and five children and then turned the gun on himself. In the letter faxed to KABC-TV, Ervin--whose family was drowning in debt and losing their home--said that after being fired, an administrator told the couple, "You should not even had bothered to come to work today, you should have blown your brains out." As Ervin's letter explained:

So after a horrendous ordeal, my wife felt it better to end our lives, and why leave our children in someone else's hands. In addition, it seems Kaiser Permanente wants us to kill ourselves and take our family with us. They did nothing to the manager who stated such, and did not attempt to assist us in the matter, knowing we have no job and five children under 8 years with no place to go. So here we are.

This was the fifth mass death of a Southern California family by murder or suicide in the span of a year.

NATIONWIDE, REPORTS suggest that domestic violence rates are surging. According to a survey conducted in November and December by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 54 percent answered "yes" to the question, "Has there been a change in your household's financial situation in the last year?"; and 64 percent also answered "yes" to the second question: "Do you believe the abusive behavior has increased in the past year?"

In Florida, the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence reported a 37 percent increase at the state's 42 certified domestic-violence centers from August through December of 2008. "We know when perpetrators are laid off from work, there is increased severity in violence and frequency of violent assaults because he is home more often," according to the report. "Currently, Florida's domestic violence centers are over capacity and are faced with turning victims away."

The situation is similar elsewhere. In Tulsa, Okla., the city's two shelters for battered women are both full for the first time ever. Day Spring Villa Women and Children's Shelter is turning people away for the first time in its 29-year history.

According to Cindy Meredith, the shelter's assistant director, the economy is one reason why. "Anything that puts stress on a relationship causes men who are abusers to escalate their behavior," she told Tulsa World. Meredith said that every day, two or three women seeking shelter are being referred to other services.

Even more troubling is the fact that at the very moment when people need more help, states are cutting back on essential social services and programs in order to save money--including domestic violence resources, child care subsidies, respite care for children and the elderly, and counselors and social workers for families in crisis.

"Ohio and other states face large cutbacks in child welfare investigations, which may mean more injured children and more taken into foster care," the New York Times reported. "Arizona has one of the nation's highest deficits in relation to its budget. As revenues sank late last year, forcing across-the-board cuts this spring, the child protection agency stopped investigating every report of potential abuse or neglect, and sharply reduced counseling of families deemed at risk of violence."

One frightening sign of both the tensions running through U.S. society and the likelihood that more tragedies lie ahead is a reported increase in the sales of guns. The Christian Science Monitor described a "gun-and-ammunition buying spree--a national arming-up effort that began before last year's election of President Obama and continues unabated."

"There's just so many people that would never have knocked on our doors before that are now coming in," one clerk at a Georgia gun store told the Monitor. "There's a level of desperation which I don't ever recall seeing before."

FBI statistics show that violent crime is down overall, as are robberies and car thefts. But the fact that people perceive the opposite to be true--that our homes and families are under siege--is further testament to the increased stress that the economic crisis is placing on already overburdened families .

The latest incidents of violence brought renewed calls for gun control. But this is treating the symptom, not the disease. Prohibitions on gun buying won't stop people who are determined enough to kill from finding weapons.

Worse are the calls for putting more police on the streets. In virtually every case of multiple shootings, going back to the recent campus killings at Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois and elsewhere, law enforcement personnel have been ineffectual at best.

The calls for more cops date back 30 years and more, and all there is to show for it is an incarceration boom that has put more citizens, disproportionately minority ones, behind bars than any country in the world. Meanwhile, the real cause of these tragedies--poverty and individual despair--have gone unaddressed.

The real answer to preventing future violence--whether lethal or not, in the home or outside it--lies in providing people with the kind of resources that could make a concrete difference in their lives long before they reach a crisis point.

This includes things like national health care (including comprehensive mental health services); job assistance; an extension of unemployment insurance and an increase in the amount of benefits; restoring welfare benefits and increasing the amount of food stamp money families are eligible to receive; raising the minimum wage; providing state-funded day care and other services to help take strain off families; and full funding of domestic violence prevention programs, to name a few.

Until real help is available for those who need it, incidents of violence like those in Binghamton and elsewhere are inevitable.

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