Pushed Past the Breaking Point

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.

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 [1]:

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.

Nicole Colson writes for Socialist Worker. Read other articles by Nicole, or visit Nicole's website.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Casca said on April 25th, 2009 at 4:55pm #

    Health care has been a constant worry to my family, since I got laid off from my job. I now realize that Insurance companies are run by a bunch of Automatons, who have no conscious or thought for human beings. Even now the battle to survive the Health care morass is not for the people who pay the exorbitant fees for service, but for the stockholders and elitists who run the for-profit business machine. Have you ever been denied drugs, because it was too expensive. Where insurance companies have ignored doctors prescriptions. Who have lied to you in some context or other, so they can benefit their own bottom line. Money!

    Before I didn’t understand what Universal health care–or a single payer system was? But now I am in total in agreement with its principles? Wellbeing should be for every legal American, no matter the circumstances?

    The Single payer method is a huge reservoir of money, hopefully minus the middleman, who extracts his pound of flesh from the insured? As I see it, we don’t need insurance companies anymore, nor billing businesses and an enormous amount of companies who are intermediates. We need the US federal government to run the whole matrix like in Europe. It will be a direct line to the health care providers, eye and dental, care, hospitals and specialists. We also need politicians who are honest and don’t have a too-close a relationship with corporate America, Insurance companies, drug companies, and the special interest lobby?

    THE PEOPLE can do this? They can fight for the Single payer system? Universal health care cannot be any worse than medical services already have, with sick people being denied assistance and medicine. Americans pay more for their pharmaceuticals, than the majority if not all nations around the world. Hundreds of sick people having to wait for unrealistic hours, in overcrowded hospitals including senior citizens to be seen. This is very wrong, although the wealthy individuals will disagree, because they always have the money to see a physician? Now that Democrats have made it a mandatory issue, we should contact them and demand the Single payer system and not listen to the critics, who always have something to gain. In the next few months we are going to get bombarded, with millions of dollars in Health insurance ads, determined to disintegrate any earthly chance at all? Americans must receive decent health care–without the worry of big premiums and co-pays. With Universal health care–it is not FREE–it’s just you pay the government through extra taxes as in civilized foreign countries? Under Republican administration tied mostly to the Insurance industry, you will never see the chance. In UHC everybody pays into the system to receive decent medical care benefits.

    Years ago I was vacationing in London, and by some remote chance taken sick. At the Hospital I was amazed not be asked for my Drivers license or passport. When addressing the doctor his words are clearly in my mind as if it was yesterday. with a sigh, the Indian doctor said.” We are here to provide a service if you are not well. There are no costs for this..? Yet in America we are hounded for our identification, so the wolves at the debt collection offices, can hunt you down like a common criminal. Not satisfied with that, they can take us to court, where they can place a lien on your home or any assets we might have?

    If you watch the Wall Street exchange marquee the only companies that have rising stocks in this economic downturn are generally Health Insurance companies. Just as they write off the sick, with pre-existing conditions–LET US WRITE THE INSURANCE COMPANIES OFF? Give them a taste of their own medicine–so to speak? .They have monopolized the American people for far too long. They have manipulated our legislators as they are now. Let’s send them packing. This is probably the only chance we have in altering the future of health care. President Obama can make this country whole and give American employers a chance to fight competition from other lands. The American car makers will not have to combat their namesake from Europe, because they will be on equal footing. Health in America is a trillion dollar industry that has gone stagnant? With most of the money being absorbed by obsolete insurance companies. Other major issues should be placed at the back, except for illegal immigration. Only the mass importation of cheap foreign labor causes escalating taxes in the United States. This is another well designed method to be an impediment to health care for legal citizens, as illegal immigrants get their medical services for free in the emergency room.

    Only Americans voters have this unique power to place in front of the politicians, a single payer system. For without it, medical care will become a burden to big and small businesses, until they can no longer afford the rising costs. Just following the usual health insurance companies path, for it will just be another extra cost from the average Americans wages to insure his family. With a national insurance little will be wasted, and fraud will be easier to recognize for every man, women and child who wants freedom from sickness and years of financial worry.

  2. Jeff said on April 25th, 2009 at 5:46pm #

    And does any one think this help is going to come from your “Federal” government. For crying out loud, you let them create this problem. Your “dream” world they pinked into your head has come home to roost.

    Only “community” action, which involves at the base level will help solve this problem.

    People need to begin again to take responsibilty for their own actions.

    Action is needed by “Good and Honest” individuals.

  3. phuque yew said on April 25th, 2009 at 8:20pm #

    I just wish the next time some desperado intends to wreak havoc he’d consider heading to the local B of A, Wells Fargo, Citibank, or Goldman Sachs office, or the nearest armed forces recruiting office. Hey, let’s all go!

  4. cuyler said on April 26th, 2009 at 5:56am #

    please don’t put Virginia Tech police in the “ineffectual” category. they are quite effective at running a military camp since the very sick massacre by a very sick individual took the lives of 32 innocent people. examples, accusing a professor of hit and run when he wasn’t on campus (he was acquitted in court). firing a woman and banning her from campus for telling them of a potential threat to a dining hall manager by a dining hall employee (and the woman did not even work in the dining hall), and protecting the corrupt dining hall management who has more complaints in the university human resources than any department on the university campus for abuse of employees. so please, don’t accuse them of being ineffectual. they just choose to use their bullying tactics the way they see fit, and the weak spined president and board of visitors supports them 110 percent. but all the bullying tactics in the world will still not bring back the lives of 32 individuals they could have saved if only they had done their job right to being with. 32 individuals who were loved and who are missed every single day by their loved ones and friends.
    and the economy is NOT hurting everyone on campus there, only the lowly paid food and housekeeping staff. the police chief, who already makes $100,000 a year, is up for a 50,000 raise if gov kaine lifts the freeze on state funds this year. and the dining hall managers received 10-15 percent raises during 2007-2008 while wage workers received a lowly 2-3 percent, if any. it’s all in the public databases listed on the college newspaper’s website. the school’s dining services are number one in the country, but their workers are used and abused every single day, and fired or forced to quit due to trumped up charges when they complain about treatment. the school’s administration knows about the policy and supports it. how’s that for a five-star dining services honored for it’s “excellence in dining” nationwide, and a school that hides its dirt under the guise of its national reputation as “honorable?”

  5. bozh said on April 26th, 2009 at 6:39am #

    US citizens have been disinherited of not just healthcare but also of governance.

    a us soldier is used as a mercenary to fight people who pose no threat to any american; thus is deprived of his/her rightful inheritance to live and to be near to or with his/her family.

    an USan is deprived of the right to interpret constitution and not to mention the right to be informed or taught.

    only education/enlightenment can save america for all amers.
    and the ruling class will not ever give you info nor education; amers have to demand it to get also this basic human right as well as the right to live and healthcare. tnx

  6. Jeff said on April 26th, 2009 at 4:21pm #

    bozh.

    I have been chastised for not putting forth some semblance of a balance.

    Interpretation these days will lead to condemnation.

    That is just the way it is.

    Risk putting the truth on trial and risk everything.

    “To the victor go the spoils”.

    War may not be your forte!

    I “suspect” you have no concept of such.

  7. bozh said on April 26th, 2009 at 4:43pm #

    jeff,
    sorry, i do not understand you. You say, “War may not be your forte” and “I suspect you have no concept of such”.
    wld you like to qualify what you meant? You may not, in that case i wld just dismiss what you said and assume you were intentionally ridiculing me. tnx

  8. Jeff said on April 26th, 2009 at 6:24pm #

    bozh, may I ask your concept of War? Really, what is War and how does this affect you?

    Thanx.

    No ridicule.

    What is your concept of War?

    I know “I” do not own the playing surface by this “day and age” standard.

  9. Brian Koontz said on April 26th, 2009 at 10:21pm #

    “I just wish the next time some desperado intends to wreak havoc he’d consider heading to the local B of A, Wells Fargo, Citibank, or Goldman Sachs office, or the nearest armed forces recruiting office. Hey, let’s all go!”

    There’s an unfortunate irrationality – since murder is treated so harshly by the “justice” system and ignorant society the only people who commit murder are the desperate and sometimes delusional. Therefore, instead of rational murder, killing the elite, they kill those close at hand. So Dick Cheney is allowed to continue to steal oxygen from humans by breathing while decent Americans are mowed down. I would have a lot more hope in the revolutionary aspect of Americans if Cheney and Bush were corpses right now. That they aren’t is an abomination.

    Self-defense-based armed groups are fine, but most elite domination is not based on physical force – it’s based on institutions and laws. So carrying around a gun and “defending oneself” isn’t revolutionary – it’s just common sense. It’s the institutions and laws that have to be destroyed, and some of the elite and their pawns who defend those will likely have to die in the process. There’s no need to shed any tears over their bodies, merely over those who die or whose lives are ruined for our cause.

    On a separate topic, the US cannot have a socialist takeover of the country such as occurred in Venezuela where workers appropriated factories, since the US economy is not manufacturing-based. The US economy is financial and structural theft-based. It’s models of trickery and extortion cannot be appropriated, no more so than a Mob can be transformed into a park. This was one of the subtle brilliances behind the neoliberal move to financial domination.

    This means that the US truly needs a transformation of localism, a community-based economy.

  10. Andres Kargar said on April 26th, 2009 at 11:39pm #

    The American working people are under a tremendous amount of pressure these days. Their jobs are being outsourced overseas. Their livelihood is being wiped out by substantial, inhumane layoffs. Their homes are being foreclosed. Their children are being wasted as cannon fodder in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Anywhere else in the world, such degree of frustration would have resulted in massive protests against the government, perhaps even uprisings and revolution. However, we live in a country where the government and corporations spend billions of dollars in their propaganda war to brain wash the citizenry: it’s the blacks and Mexicans who have taken our jobs, and the Muslims are waiting around the corner to blow us up, and of course, the homosexuals will bring about the ruination of our culture, …

    From Fox News to Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage, the people are being bombarded by fascistic propaganda and their frustrations channeled into chauvinistic and xenophobic interpretations of the reality.

    The slogans of much of the progressive community, unfortunately do not help either, as they invite the people to calm and even to turn the other cheek. Vote candidates out of office? The people’s frustrations are way beyond that. It will take much more radical demands that will captivate the attention of people. The extensive armies of the unemployed and suffering people will need to be approached and organized for massive protests with radical but tangible demands.

  11. vlscpa said on May 6th, 2009 at 7:31pm #

    Lupoe was a fraud and a psycho who blamed his shameful murderous exit on his wife, for Christ’s sake, and this nonsense piece of work aims at sympathy. GMAFB.