That old law about ‘an eye for an eye’ leaves everybody blind. The time is always right to do the right thing. –Martin Luther King, Jr.
I was a few minutes late arriving for the picket line at The Black, a 1960’s throwback head shop on Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach that’s been at the center of the controversy over its promotion of teeshirts and stickers that say “Welcome to Ocean Beach, Don’t Feed The Bums”.
There were television trucks lined up along the street and I spotted OB Rag editor Frank Gormlie, dressed in a suit (!) surrounded by an angry, jeering mob. For a few moments I feared for his safety, as the level of anger in the air reached a fevered pitch. Things were clearly getting out hand. The crowd was getting aggressive, pushing him around and trying to silence him. There wasn’t any real dialogue going on–just yelling, with lots of words, gestures and pure loathing. It was evil, unmitigated hatred, garnished with a healthy dollop of vile.
The arrival of the San Diego Police and an (late like I was—hey, it’s OB, nothing starts on time) influx of other people protesting the Black’s sale of these stickers, lowered the level of anger to a barely tolerable level. To be sure, there were individuals in the crowd who continued to try to force physical confrontations, especially one young man who seemed hell-bent on picking a fight. He made it his personal crusade—non-stop for two hours—to personally insult, curse and harass every person who showed up to walk that picket line. At one point a woman came to me in tears, after he called her a “worthless piece of shit” and other things much less printable.
Another older gentleman demonstrated his solution to the panhandler issue, when he whipped out his knife in front of some women walking the picket line (see photo) and proceeded to describe in great detail how he was going to “gut” the next panhandler he encountered, warning them that they could be next if they didn’t leave.
The experience was a test, for each of us that chose to protest, of our commitment to non-violence. In retrospect I can remember a half-dozen different threats against me personally, not counting the jeers, shoves and curses. I have to say that many people held up much better than I did. After about the third confrontation, I just kept my mouth shut and marched back and forth holding my picket sign saying “Boycott Hate”. Frank, Patty, Cindi, Sunshine and Ernie (I’m sure I forgot a couple of people here) deserve kudos for attempted to continue to engage in dialogue with supporters of the “Don’t Feed The Homeless” sticker.
To be sure, you have to give the crew at the Black credit for coming up with the sticker. The homeless issue is no longer a back burner concern. Now Ocean Beach faces some critical choices. I fear the probability that the anger expressed on Newport Avenue will translate into violence: as has happened elsewhere, somebody’s gonna be the victim of vigilante violence.
Over the past decade (1999-2008), advocates and shelter workers around the country have received news reports of men, women and even children being harassed, kicked, set on fire, beaten to death, and decapitated. From 1999 through 2008, in 263 cities and in 46 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, DC, there have been 880 acts of violence committed by housed individuals, resulting in 244 deaths of homeless people and 636 victims of non-lethal violence.
Most hate crimes/violent acts are committed not by organized hate groups, but by individual citizens who harbor a strong resentment against a certain group of people. Some are “mission offenders,” who believe they are on a mission to cleanse the world of a particular evil. Others are “scapegoat offenders,” who violently act out their resentment toward the perceived growing economic power of a particular racial or ethnic group. Still others are “thrill seekers,” those who take advantage of a vulnerable and disadvantaged group in order to satisfy their own pleasures. Thrill seekers, primarily in their teens, are the most common perpetrators of violence against people who are homeless. 43% of attacks against the homeless were committed by teens aged 13-19 and 73% of the accused/convicted attackers were ages 25 years or younger.
There is another way. The community can work together to insist on both better enforcement against aggressive panhandlers and a network of social services that targets the needs of this community. This isn’t sexy, it isn’t thrilling and it won’t completely solve the problem. The Black could (I say should) lead the way here. The OB Mainstreet Association should also step in.
OB’s Churches have stepped up to the plate to explore more positive ways to grapple with this issue. A few hours of your time here and there, and perhaps, a goodwill donation to this effort by those who have personally profited from this situation seems to be a lot healthier and more American way. I, for one, doubt that many (or any) of the people I saw on Newport cursing the OB Rag for raising this issue will be bothered to make the effort. (I’d be thrilled to be proven wrong!)
He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.
Martin Luther King, Jr.