An Unknown Life

Here is one of those incidents that happen without getting much attention, Iowa City woman found in Iowa River identified (Lee Hermiston, The Gazette). The woman died, probably as she lived, largely unknown. A passing stranger in the world. Her death is a mystery and probably will remain a mystery, although there may be people who know something and are afraid to speak to authorities.

The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office is running into an unexpected problem in investigating the death of a woman whose body was found in the Iowa River last week.

“We know that people are not answering the door when we’re standing at them,” Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said Friday.

Pulkrabek believes people are not talking with his investigators in the death investigation of 30-year-old Darling Yosseli Acosta Rivera because they are concerned the questions will turn to their own immigration status.

My brother thinks he saw this lady before she drowned. Working for the City Parks department, he and a coworker were locking up bathrooms in Terry Trueblood Recreation Area, along the Iowa River. Someone was inside one of the bathrooms and, after knocking, a woman came out a few minutes later. She had a backpack and he assumed she had been sleeping there, indicating she was homeless.

They later saw a backpack that looked like hers stashed under a bridge near the river. It had been there for a couple of weeks and had been rummaged through with the contents strewn about. My brother’s coworker checked it out. In it, there were things that identified her, including a passport and a badge for a local temp agency. The coworker brought these to the temp agency where he was told her body was found in the river.

It seems highly probable that it was a suicide. If she were an undocumented immigrant and if she were alone and homeless in a foreign country, she obviously was hitting a low point in her life. But it could have been homicide, as being a homeless woman is not a safe situation to find oneself in. There are many ways to come to a tragic end as either an undocumented immigrant or a homeless person.

Like so many other things going on in the world, it makes me sad. We live in a heartless society. There should be somewhere to turn to for help, for people like this woman. Instead, she seems to have been forced to seek temporary refuge in a public bathroom during an Iowa winter. One could imagine she lived in fear of the authorities and other systems of help, as do many people in that kind of situation.

It’s likely she was a refugee from the US-promoted violent conflicts in Latin America, as she had a Guatemalan passport which is one of the major places of civil unrest and mass violence. Being deported might have seemed worse than even being alone during an Iowa winter. Whatever the cause of her death, it was surely preventable. She likely had come to a point where she had few options left and found herself in a bad situation.

Such suffering exists all around us. Yet few ever see it. These are the invisible people, unheard and unacknowledged. They go on with their lives largely unnoticed and they disappear unnoticed, at best local media reporting that their body was found. But that body once was a person who had friends, family, and a home. Someone somewhere cared about her and will miss her. At least, she has been identified and so will be buried with a name on her gravestone.

“I’m a Republican because of social issues.”

The bars had just closed. She was a young attractive woman wearing a dress that accentuated her assets. She was probably a student at the local university with a bright future ahead of her. She was accompanied by a young man, also good looking and sharply dressed. They were having a discussion. As they sat down on a bench in the pedestrian mall, she said, “I’m a Republican because of social issues.”

Behind this young couple, another row of benches had other people on them. The couple didn’t seem to notice they weren’t alone as they were focused on one another. The other benches were all filled with mostly middle aged men. They were scruffy and for certainly they weren’t scantily clad as the young lady. Each of these men was alone on his respective bench, each laying down trying to get some sleep. Some of them probably heard the young lady’s comment, but none replied.

Homelessness and Civilization

I have a large set of connections I want to set down, but I’ll try to keep it simple as possible.  The seed around which my thinking formed consists of the recent discussions that I’ve been involved with on the Press Citizen.  These discussions have been about the deaths of two “homeless” people (although it’s unclear whether one of them was actually homeless): John Bior Deng was shot by a deputy, and Amil Lowell Baines fell from a construction site.  In the comments section, it became clear how much misinformation and prejudice many people have about the homeless. 

For example, many equate being homeless with being transient which is sometimes true, but often not.  One of the deceased was a life-long resident of Iowa City and I know of other homeless around here who grew up in this town.  I’d guess that homeless people are less likely to move and travel around than the typical American.  To be more accurate, the largest transient population in Iowa City includes the students and employees of the University.  In particular during semesters, this town consists of mostly transients and those who’ve lived here their whole lives are probably a fairly small minority.

When you get down to it, our whole society is based on transience.  Afterall, our country was founded by transients, more often called immigrants.  Many of the immigrants across the centuries were refugees of political persecution… which significantly so was the homeless guy who was shot (he was a refugee from the violence in Sudan and he comes here only to get shot).  The first people who came to America often were very desperate people.  They were members of what today we’d call religious cults who were escaping religious persecution or they were criminals evading the law or they were various other types of rootless people.  These people left their homelands, their land and and houses, their families, friends and neighbors, and sometimes they left their entire culture behind.  Some of them even did this by free choice which is a bit strange.  The fabric of society was already disintegrated when these earliest immigrants got here.  Of course, when they got here they in turn destroyed every culture they came in contact with.   So, this ungroundedness is at the root of our culture.  In a sense, cultural destruction and amnesia is our culture.  The Industrial Age only magnified this already present cultural force.

Many have tried to re-create our lost sense of community, but it’s hard with so many different cultural backgrounds.  We didn’t even share a common religious background and so essentially patriotism became our collective religion and a vision of democracy became our utopia.  On the level of personal relationships, the traditional model of social order has never been regained in America’s entire history.  We are a very unstable society which creates the space for social innovation, but nonetheless people have the same needs that Paleolithic man had.  

Extrapolating from the theory of Paul Shepard, America represents an exacerbation of a problem that has existed since the beginning of civilization.  Our human psychology is built on evolutionary needs.  We aren’t essentially any different than our Paleolithic ancestors, but our human nature has led to our present situation which isn’t conducive to the healthy functioning of that very same human nature.  It’s quite a conundrum.  We simply weren’t designed for civilization.  What we were designed for is small hunter-gatherer tribes.  Interestingly, these early people were transients, but they were transients within a defined area that they knew intimately.  Modern people who live in the same place their whole lives have a less strong sense of place than primitive humans who travelled on a regular basis.

Another insightful author is Derrick Jensen.  He wrote about our culture of violence.  Western Expansionism has always destroyed cultures and left refugees in its wake.  And those refugees who try to escape the destruction end up spreading it by further expansionism.  I won’t try to detail Jensen’s extensive argument, but basically he points out how this is so fundamental to Western culture that it involves all aspects of our lives.  The psychology of the victimizer/victimization relationship is the most fascinating part.  Not only do victims tend to keep silent which encourages the victimizers, but more importantly the vast majority of victimizers were once themselves victimized.

This also relates to religion as well.  Christianity in particular was always a rootless religion.  It formed in the urban areas of Rome that included many displaced people.  The imperialistic expansionism of Rome has always been at the heart of Western religion and culture.  The Axial Age religions in general promoted a transient class of monks and preachers.  Many of these religions taught we weren’t at home on earth, but that our true home was elsewhere.  This was a major shift for humanity and it set the stage for all of modern civilization.

In America, transience became the model not only of religion but also of close relationships.  People moved where ever the opportunities took them, and often the whole family went along.  People no longer could depend on community as their social identity and so the immediate family carried a significance it had never had before.  Your parents and your children were required to satisfy the psychological needs that a whole community once served.  People became in a sense isolated within their own families. 

This tendency manifested in an extreme form with the return of WWII soldiers.  The Civil War had ripped our young society apart, but the two World Wars utterly traumatized the entire human race.  Mankind has yet to recover.  Furthermore, in America, soldiers didn’t even have a traditional culture to return to.  Like many war traumatized people, they were rootless and yet looking for a way to set down roots.  Suburbia was born and the ideal of the atomic family became a national aspiration.  We were going to rebuild our nation, and there was a boom in both babies and technology.  The problem was that suburbia only gave a superficial sense of community.  Despite conservatives’ idealizing the supposedly “traditional” family values, Americans had lost the sense of traditional anything for so long that our dreams of it were ungrounded from reality.

One of the issues that came up in the discussion about the homeless is that most people end up living on the streets for a reason.  Few people willingly choose a life of homelessness.  There are so many people who need help, but our society is either unable or unwilling to help them to any great extent.  Even more problematically, there is very little social safety net for those who encounter problems and it’s hard to pull oneself back up again.  We just cynically and apathetically accept that some people suffer and it’s just not our problem, but many homeless people probably thought the same way before they became homeless.  The basic factor is that theoretically we could solve the homeless problem along with many other problems if there was a collective will to do so, but for whatever reason there isn’t. 

It’s not a lack of money or talent.  It’s simply a matter of how we choose to spend our resources.  Apparently, the suffering of others isn’t a priority of our society.  The odd thing is that we spend more money on causing suffering than we do in looking for solutions.  The US has been involved in various wars it helped to start every year of its existence.  Just stop a moment and deeply consider the implications of that.  I mean, talk about a culture of violence.  And now with the wars on drugs and terror we have the conditions for an endless war and the whole military-industrial complex that goes with it.

Most countries spend massive amounts of money on the police, military and investigation agencies.  But the US spends on military so far beyond all other countries combined that it’s bewildering to contemplate.  Plus, tons of money disappears into the black budget which nobody knows what it is funding.  On the other hand, charities, schools and research into improved healthchare are constantly challenged with a lack of funding.

In conclusion, I think humanity has come to a situation of major crises.  We’re at the point of no return.  We certainly can’t return to a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle without the utter annihilation of civilization, and we can’t even return to the idealized agrarian lifestyle that paleo-conservatives like to fantasize about.  Our only trajectory is the future where ever it may lead, but it doesn’t look promising.  In order for the human species to survive the next century, we’ll have to have a complete revolution of society on a global scale.  Whatever may come of it, it’s literally impossible for us to imagine in the present.  Humans have proven themselves incapable of change except when crises forces them into action and this is particular true in a less stable and more reactionary society like the US. 

At some point in the relatively near future (whether or not in our lifetimes), there will be a looming societal breakdown.  Either the human species will meet the challenge at the last moment or we’ll go down in apocalypse.  It should be a good show.  Meanwhile, those living in relative wealth and comfort will continue as they always do and the less fortunate will continue to suffer.

Officer Shoots Homeless Man: Comments

My local “newspaper” has an active community of commenters, and I must admit I rarely read the paper version.  To tell you the truth, I find the comments online more interesting than most of the articles.  There was a homeless man shot by a police officer and it attracted many comments including my own.  Since the paper allows users to also blog, I wrote my first post about some of these comments.  Even though this is more local news, I’ll also post it here since it applies to humans in general.  If you follow the link, it will bring you to the post where there is discussion in the comments section.

Posted 7/29/2009 10:30 PM CDT on

Recent events in Iowa City have got me thinking and so I’ll write my first blog post here. I normally blog on Word Press, but this topic directly relates to the articles and comments on the Press Citizen that are about the police shooting of a homeless person. Even though I don’t comment here that often, sometimes a topic captures my attention and some of the self-righteous comments annoy me so much that I feel compelled to respond. I just can’t let mean-spirited and ignorant statements to go unchallenged… although I realize I’m mostly just wasting my time. 

I’m not a liberal softy who believes judgments are never justified. I’m fine with a righteous attitude as long as it serves an empathetic sense of compassion, but righteousness serving it’s own purposes is serving no good purpose at all. Righteousness seems rather infantile when it’s used to exclude certain groups of people and make oneself feel superior. So, self-righteousness is one of the few things that makes me feel righteous in turn.

Certain topics really draw out some ugly comments. In the articles about the shooting, some people weren’t even trying to hide their gleeful joy that a less-than-worthless homeless person had been removed from the population. It’s just mean. I find it very strange how some people are incapable of comprehending that the homeless are people too and not rabid dogs to be shot down. Why is it wrong to care about people who’ve had difficult lives? Do these people want to dismiss the homeless because they don’t want to accept their common humanity, don’t want to accept that they could easily end up in the same situation? It’s easy to be righteous when you’re life is relatively easy and when you’ve been fortunate enough not to have hit rock-bottom, not experienced the extremes of suffering.

Also, there is all kinds of ignorance. Many want to portray all homeless people as mentally ill drunks invading from the Big City who come here simply to cause harm to people and property… . The homeless get lumped together with all of those black gangsters taking over Iowa City and incidents like this get lumped together with every criminal activity that happens downtown. It’s hard to take these kinds of opinions seriously, but sadly the people who voice them take them all too seriously. People were stating reactionary opinions with no basis in facts, and they’re ready to condemn the homeless guy even though he is conveniently dead and unable to give his own view. The homeless guy is automatically guilty and the police officer is automatically innocent. Oh yeah, and the bar patron is a good Samaritan by hassling the homeless to the point of starting a fight that ends in death. People were coming to conclusions about it before the police had even collected all of the witness testimony.

And then there are the people who always try to dismiss the views of others or make every discussion into black and white conflicts. Why can’t there be multiple perspectives? Why do we have to jump to ideological conclusions before the facts come in? Why if you question anything, you must hate America, the troops, and the cops? Why can’t I care about everyone and not pick sides? Why is the life or rights of one person worth more than another?

It’s not about being right or wrong. It’s about genuinely caring about other people. I’m truly appreciative of the cop trying to do the right thing as is true of most people in the world. Still, that isn’t any reason that the public shouldn’t question the facts and the interpretation of the facts. Also, what is wrong with seeking to improve police procedure so that more lives can be saved in the future? The problem is that many of the commenters don’t want certain lives saved. Isn’t it a good thing to suggest that violence should be the very last option. Guns, of course, should still be an option for the police… but when dealing with a man with a knife who wasn’t near anyone at the moment a taser would probably be more appropriate. At least, let us have an open discussion about it.

This kind of issue is just another thing that depresses me about the world. I wish more people would stand up to such mean people. I know it’s tiring to respond to such comments, but it tires me more to think of people spreading their hatred and bigotry without being challenged.