Beyond Denunciation

“There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success.”

John Steinbeck

Vacaville, California, has a history of popular uprisings to confront the powerful as they violate the humanity of the dispossessed.

In 1932, organizers came to Vacaville to organize the Cannery and Agricultural Workers’ Industrial Union, which fought the starvation-wage exploitation of farm and orchard laborers by the state’s powerful growers. The CAWIU went on strike that December–one of 140 strikes, some of them violent, that occurred between 1930 and 1939. These actions caught the attention of John Steinbeck, and triggered his impulse to write The Grapes of Wrath, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and contributed to his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

Now Vacaville finds itself at the tipping-point of another defining moral struggle pitting society’s outcasts against entrenched power. The outcasts in the current showdown, the homeless mentally ill, are represented by James Mark Rippee, the blind, gravely brain-damaged street dweller of whom I’ve written extensively on this blog. The power centers that control his fate are the extravagantly named Kaiser Permanente Vacaville Medical Center, and the Solano County Board of Supervisors.

James Mark Rippee – Photo Courtesy Linda Privette

On Tuesday, October 8 (tomorrow, as I write this) one or both these institutions will render decisions that will either end Mark’s twelve years of unimaginable suffering on the small city’s streets, or cast him back into the chaos and brutality of those streets as if he were a leper from the slums of New Dehli.  

Mark Rippee. Photo Courtesy CJ Hanson.

Mark Rippee is 56 now; emaciated, sickly, and delusional, as he has been since the motorcycle accident in 1987 that cost him his vision, crippled him, and left bits of his brain scattered in an alfalfa field.

Winter is coming on. Mark has routinely been beaten and robbed over the years by random thugs who have taken a succession of walking sticks his sisters have provided him, as well as blankets that have been his only insulation against the cold. 

Mark Rippee

His age and failing health augur against his surviving the cold months out-of-doors one more time. The ongoing, unfathomable indifference of the County board to his physical exposure, and the equally bewildering failure of Kaiser Permanente’s psychiatrists to find anything wrong with his psyche, augur against his rescue by those whose charge is the public health and safety. 

The “policy” decisions on October 8 at the Kaiser Permanente Vacaville Medical Center and the Solano County Board of Supervisors, then, probably amount to a life-or-death sentence for James Mark Rippee. “Policy” explains why Mark Rippee remains homeless. The pertinent “policies” ensnarled in the maimed reasoning of brain-damage victims and in the equally maimed consciences of bureaucrats. “Policies” have constricted his sisters, Linda Privatte and C.J. Hanson, as they have struggled to gain simple shelter and medical care for their brother, whose fog of reasoning blocks him from giving necessary consent. 

Mark is in the hospital because on September 14 he stumbled into traffic and was hit by a car as he wandered blindly along Monte Vista Avenue in Vacaville. The impact knocked his head against the concrete and re-opened an abcess. The pain overcame his delusional resistance to being hospitalized or treated (a common resistance, known as “anosognosia,” or lack of insight, in schizophrenia victims).

Mark Rippee’s hospital stay seems likely to end on October 8, when the Kaiser Permanente Vacaville Medical Center will release him to–well, it will release him. It is not the “policy” of the Kaiser Permanente Vacaville Medical Center to give much of a rap where patients such as Mark Rippee end up. “Policy,” you see, allows no moral dimension. It normally is accompanied, however, by a burning desire not to spend money.

And on this same day the bureaucracy known as the Solano County board of supervisors will hold yet another hearing to hear opinion on whether Mark Rippee’s sisters should, at last, be granted a conservatorship that would allow them to make decisions on his behalf. Conservancy, like hospital and psychiatric care, requires the expenditure of money. Such money is sometimes available through state and federal government. But then there is that annoying matter of consent by the patient.

One thing will be different, in Mark Rippee’s favor, on this Tuesday. Public opinion is at last beginning to coalesce in his favor. The sisters’ exhaustive efforts at rallying community support have started to pay off, in the form of rallies and an expected turnout at the supervisors’ hearing. Advocates around the country are on standby, alerted by Facebook postings. A T-shirt is available for purchase online. It bears Mark’s ravaged likeness and the declaration that he blurted out, surprising everyone, during his recuperation. It should serve as a manifesto for all his brothers and sisters on this country’s streets:

“I am NOT homeless! I have a home! My home is the United States of America!”

Mark James Rippee

On Tuesday, October 8, we will see whether the United States of America fulfills Mark Rippee’s cry of trust.

https://www.facebook.com/cj.hanson.908/videos/757849507989657/

https://www.facebook.com/kerri.whitney.52/videos/2291283497649873/

I am NOT homeless!

I have a home!

My home is the United States of America!

James Mark Rippee
James Mark Rippee after his motorcycle accident June 1987

Listen to the words above. Say them aloud. And try not to feel stirred. Angry. Transformed. Try not to feel inspired to stop what you’re doing and throw your energies into a cause that is becoming a national movement.

Maybe you can do this. Maybe you can hear those words and remain unmoved. Maybe you can hear them and shrug and turn back to the duties of your day.

I cannot. I can’t stop hearing them. I hear those words as fierce poetry. More to the point, I hear them as a manifesto, one that should take its place among the great declarations that have defined our nation and our obligations toward it, and its most maimed and outcast citizens.

I hear it delivered with the same patriotic pitch as “Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death.” “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” “Ask Not What Your Country Can Do for You; Ask What You Can Do for Your Country.” “We Can Do Better.”

The words are the more compelling in that they were uttered–on Wednesday, October 2–by a man so grievously crushed by brain injury, schizophrenia, blindness, broken bones, and more than twelve years struggling for life on the streets that one hardly imagines him capable of speaking a coherent sentence, much less this burst of eloquence.

And this is exactly the fundamental barrier that inhibits people and political bodies from doing more to rescue the mentally ill who cling to existence in desperate circumstances–to rescue the mentally ill, period. Consciously or unconsciously, they are seen as not fully human. Monsters. Half-sentient beings who “don’t even know they’re living that way; but perhaps they like living that way,” in the considered analysis of the current president of the United States.

These are essential reasons why, as it has been said, no one cares about crazy people.

The man who spoke this manifesto is James Mark Rippee of Vacaville, California. You know Mark’s story if you have followed several entries in my blog. Nearly killed in a collision while riding his motorcycle in June 1987 that blinded him and left parts of his brain in an alfalfa field; prohibited by his distraught father (who died of a stroke a few years later) from commitment to an institution; endurer of nearly fifty operations to remove abscesses from his brain; cared for by his sisters Linda and CJ until his violent psychotic episodes made him a danger in the household; a street refugee for a dozen years and counting as the two sisters have petitioned his case to the blind eyes and deaf ears of numerous agencies and levels of government.

Mark Rippee

The sisters’ goal is simple, and reasonable to anyone with a bit more compassion than God gave a goose, or a Solano County pol: to secure conservatorship for Mark a measure that allows county public health officials to steer mentally ill and homeless people toward housing and medical treatment without their consent.

(The requirement of consent has, for more than half a century, stood as a vexed impediment to providing medical and psychiatric care for people in psychosis who refuse to admit that they need it. Designed to protect such victims from fraud and predators, “consent” in practice has blocked emergency help victims of psychosis who will not or cannot admit they are ill.)

Linda and CJ have fought across two decades for their brother’s reclamation–for some mechanism of policy that would remove him from the streets where he has been routinely ridiculed, robbed, and beaten up–and into some safe place; some room; some bed; some sanctuary where doctors could nourish him, salve his wounds, give him medications to tame the psychotic demons inside him.

No agency in the state of California is interested. California harbors half the homeless people in the United States, and so the violate humanity of Mark Rippee has not sunk in. He is just another statistic. The Solano County Board of Supervisors has long since grown tired of the sisters’ petitions and their pleading. They have stopped pretending to care. They say that Mark Rippee is not their responsibility. Linda and CJ believe otherwise. But they have lacked the money and the access to public attention to make their case.

Wavelets of sympathy, gestures toward “doing something,” arise and fade. And Mark Rippee edges ever-closer to a sordid death on the streets of Vacaville.

Ironically–and ironies glut the world of mental illness–it has taken another vehicle accident to galvanize a fresh groundswell of support for Mark Rippee’s cause.

On the evening of September 14, as Mark wandered blindly along Monte Vista Avenue in Vacaville, he stumbled into traffic and was hit by a car. (Until then, he miraculously had eluded such a mishap during his years on the streets.) His head struck the concrete pavement, re-opening the abscess behind one of his eye sockets. The pain evidently was so intense that this time Mark agreed to be hospitalized.

At this writing, October 4, Mark remains in a Vacaville hospital. His sister Linda has been with him. (CJ’s mobility has been limited by illness.)

It was a nurse’s question about Mark’s residency, and Linda’s response to it, that prompted Mark’s burst of eloquence.

“The nurse came in [to Mark’s room] and questioned me about what equipment or help he has at home,” Linda told me by email. “I said without thinking, ‘He is homeless.’ And Mark loudly said, ‘I am NOT homeless. My home is the United States of America!'”

Linda added, “If only he knew how he was abandoned by his own country.”

Mark Rippee’s abandonment; at least, his invisibility, may be near an end. While it is true that every level of American governance has ignored him or brushed him aside so far, a grass-roots movement–tiny in numbers yet explosive in its sudden presence and growth–has sprung up in his behalf.

On September 30, a Solano Community College student named Kacie Hill created a Facebook page, “Mark of Vacaville.” . By Friday afternoon, it had attracted 1,300 members. A young Vacaville man, Jaden Ghent, began printing T-shirts in various colors, with images of Mark and the text of his manifesto. A rally on his behalf is being planned for Sacramento, the state capital.

If the Mark Rippee story is in fact arriving, it will not be a moment too soon. He is 56 now, and obviously in terrible health. If he is not rescued from the streets soon, especially with winter approaching, his life may end soon.

I have been convinced for two years–since discovering his plight upon commencing this blog–that Mark’s saga is of national significance; that this tragic, deformed man might well serve as a living symbol of so much that is deformed in our systems of mental health care. In these two years I have contacted political figures (including the Solano County Board of Supervisors), media watchdogs, and mental health advocates on his behalf. The advocates have shown interest but none has had an idea for how to break through. The rest have remained stonily silent.

But last Wednesday, with one impassioned, eloquent outburst, Mark Rippee may have done the trick himself. However improbably, he has risen up from his tortured silence to declare himself a man. Whose home is the United States of America.

And people–ordinary grass-roots people, if not (yet) those who represent the United States of America–listened.

And the silent, suffering, frequently incoherent James Mark Rippee of Vacaville, California, may yet transcend his victimhood and become the standard-bearer of reclamation that we have all been looking for.

I will revisit Mark Rippee’s story next week.

Trump to Homeless: Get Lost

The good news is that President Trump wants to do something about homeless Americans on the streets.

The bad news is that President Trump wants to do something about homeless Americans on the streets.

On Monday, newspapers and television networks broke the news that the President of the United States, whose name is Donald Trump, had at last swiveled the full attention of his very, very large brain to one of the most appalling crises confronting American cities: the crisis of homeless people on the streets.

Social scientists and others of sadly lesser intellect have noticed the crisis as well, of course, and analyzed it to the best of their limited ability: as a vast ongoing human calamity with dire implications for public health (the containment of hepatitis and opioid epidemics, for example); community and family stability, criminal justice and law enforcement, the control of dangerous drugs, productivity and the employment base.

These are vitally important but largely utilitarian considerations. They do not contemplate the profound moral/religious dimension of this malady: the obligation to reclaim disintegrating human lives.

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

Few agents of disintegration are more darkly effective than mental illness–serious mental illness (incurable brain diseases such as schizophrenia) in particular. A 2015 survey by the The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the latest available, reported that of the nearly 565,000 people who were homeless on a given night, fully one-quarter, or 140,000, suffered from a S.M.I. (Serious Mental Illness). Nearly half, or 250,000, were in the grip of some sort of mental disorder.

S.M.I. victims, their reasoning powers diminished or gone, are essentially helpless on the streets. Cut off from providers of stabilizing medication, they are prey to robbers, thugs, thieves, and sometimes rogue police officers. On rare occasions, they become predators as well: upon others, and upon themselves, via suicide.

That is the context of the societal predicament which, nearly three-fourths of the way through his term of office, has activated the engines of President Donald Trump’s very large intellect.

And here is the distillation of Donald Trump’s mighty cogitating, as explained in this July 1 interview conducted by his pal Tucker Carson on Fox News. The relevant part of the interview begins 3 minutes and 22 seconds in. https://www.foxnews.com/politics/trump-tucker-exclusive-interview-homelessness

It is clear from this interview that Donald Trump does not see homelessness as a social-justice problem or a humanitarian problem. He sees it as a cosmetic problem. One that “started two years ago [sic]”

It is further clear that the homeless are inconveniences. Disgraceful pests who make beat-walking police officers sick. “I mean actually they’re getting very sick.” They are affronts to civic pride: human (or semi-human) obstacles to decent upstanding work-loving citizens. The homeless make it very difficult for office-workers to get to work, you see, and thus are ruining our cities. “You have people that work in those cities,” Donald Trump revealed to his pal Tucker Carlson not long ago. “They work in office buildings. And to get into the building, they have to walk through a scene that nobody would have believed possible three [sic] years ago.”

–And let Donald Trump tell you something: the threats posed by the homeless reach far beyond those that menace nauseated beat-cops and nimble-toed office workers. The homeless strike at the very foundations of America’s might. Take Washington, D.C. (before Donald Trump got in): “When we have leaders of the world coming in to see the President of the United States and they’re riding down the highway . . . they can’t be looking at that [sic]. I really believe that it hurts our country.”

–Don’t get Donald Trump wrong. Nobody is more ruefully forgiving of the barbaric horde than Donald Trump. “San Francisco–I own property in San Francisco; I don’t care, except it was so beautiful.”

–Because, you see, Donald Trump is very, very educated about mental illness: In fact nobody knows more about mental illness than Donald Trump: ” . . . the people living [on the streets] are living in hell, too . . . although some of them have mental problems where they don’t even know they’re living that way; but perhaps they like living that way.” (Emphasis added)

No doubt! Just like those African slaves in the antebellum South were “happy with their situation,” as my innocently bigoted mother used to assure me.

–But not to worry. Donald Trump’s very large, very beautiful mind has not only identified the issue at the heart, as it were, of the homeless problem: bad cosmetics. He has fingered, as it were, the Masters of Evil responsible for the atrocity. “And this is the liberal establishment . . . When you look at some of these, they’re usually sanctuary cities, they’re run by very liberal people, and the states are run by very liberal people.”

–Donald Trump has clashed with these evil forces before–and sent them packing with a strategy that was stellar in its simplicity. “When I first became president, we had certain areas of Washington, D.C., where that was starting to happen. And I ended it very quickly; I said, ‘You can’t do that.'”

–And now Donald Trump is poised to expand that breathtaking solution into a national plan of action. As he told Tucker in the July 1 Fox News interview I have been drawing on here: “So, we’re looking at it very seriously. We may intercede. We may do something to get that whole thing cleaned up. It’s inappropriate [!]. Now, we have to take the people, and do something. We have to do something.”

Take what people where? And do what? one wonders with a shudder. The loyal Tucker Carlson didn’t ask, and Donald Trump didn’t say. But the national press, those damned “enemies of the people,” did not wait for the president’s second-favorite cliche, “You’ll see.” They checked some sources. Here are some of the headlines that resulted on Monday:

Trump pushing for major crackdown on homeless camps in California, with aides discussing moving residents to government-backed facilities (The Washington Post)

Trump Reportedly Wants to Destroy Homeless Camps in California. Officials Say He Doesn’t Have a Clue. (Vice)

Trump officials look to fix California homeless problem, state officials say back off (USA TODAY)

Below the headline of this particular article, a team of three reporters quoted the executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, as saying:

“My first reaction is that it felt like internment camps for people experiencing homelessness. The president doesn’t seem to have any grasp of the homeless crisis not only in California but around the country.”

It doesn’t take a very, very big brain to suss out Donald Trump’s entire, unabridged spectrum of thought about mental illness. (1) He does not know diddly-squat about the disease. (2) He doesn’t care diddly-squat about its victims. And (3) coming as they do from the lips of a self-styled “man of the people,” Donald Trump’s remarks are about as consummately elitist and plutocratic as you are ever likely to hear outside the Clarence Day Room of the Yale Club.

If you are homeless and mentally ill–hell, if you are homeless, period–you are to Donald Trump as a speck of acne on the Ivanka-like face of America.

You are an impediment; an inconvenience; an ugly flaw to be hidden under a cosmetic treatment. (The “cosmetic treatment” in this case seems to require “facilities.” Camps. And this much is true: Donald Trump does know a little about camps.)

But in a darkly intuitive way, Donald Trump may know what he is doing. Rounding up homeless m.i. victims and sweeping them away out of sight behind walls and locked doors would place his aims squarely on a plane with history’s first institution designed to, let us say, cosmeticize urban streets of “lunaticks,” “morons,” and “idiots”: the notorious Bedlam Asylum in London, which opened for business in the 13th century and brutalized generations of “patients” until it was closed in 1815.

Bethlem [Bedlam] Hospital, London: incurables being inspected, 1789. Credit: Wellcome Library, London CC by 4.0

Of course, that sort of barbarism is unthinkable in enlightened, humane, modern-day America. As unthinkable as separating small refugee children from their parents at our southern border and placing them in cages.

In case you thought I was making up or paraphrasing the Donald Trump quotes above, please carefully review the clip I posted above, from his July 1 interview with Tucker Carlson.

My next blog will focus on the impending public-policy threats–and promises–vis-a-vis the homeless population.