This past year the American public solidified its collective denial while the American juggernaut lurched ever closer to war with a frequently re-defined Axis of Evil, meaning very few local stories that didn’t involve crimes, scandals, or violence managed to penetrate the national news sources’ seasonal “white out” of feel-good holiday articles contrived to spotlight some high-profile charitable institution.
For mainstream media, charity is very sexy during the holidays. And while charity’s ideal probably represents the sole spiritual employment of wealth, charitable institutions certainly can’t do much to end poverty and homelessness. Charity at best can only provide temporary relief from the suffering poverty and homelessness create.
The news seemingly seeks to have all of us little people believe that such seasonal expressions of individual generosity are the remedy to poverty and homelessness, so as the numbers of homeless Americans continue to spiral upward, most of us are left frustrated and angry to see homeless people continue to die at our doorsteps.
That’s because ending the suffering requires employing a somewhat less probable spiritual ideal — justice.
A just society requires little charity.
Charity could be described as employing wealth justly. In a just society the charitable ideal is a year-long practice, but because the overreaching goal of a society that would call itself Just is ending unnecessary suffering, charitable institutions whose philosophies advocate a more just society might represent the best bang for the buck. Charitable organizations can promote humane and just communities.
But such a society requires more than generosity with money, it requires a generosity of spirit — and not only with those who can easily benefit from our attentions, but especially with the least members of our human family. The same people with whom many of us seem to find offense at the very fact of their existence. Let’s term the human capacity to treat each other justly as kindness.
Real kindness is being unconditionally charitable.
The American psyche is undeniably invested in seeing itself as a just society — and most lately to further rationalize military aggression — so simple themes like justice and kindness seem to be qualities that are harder and harder for folks to find in the news, or out on the streets. Someone once quipped it’s much easier to demand justice than it is to ask for money. And anyone who’s ever panhandled, or sold a STREET SHEET, or held a political fundraiser, or organized a direct mail campaign, etc., can tell you they prefer donations from folks who feel it’s the right thing to do, not because the donor feels guilty or pressured.
We could also argue whether panhandling is more symptomatic of humans with an economic disorder or of an economy with a humanity disorder, but the fact remains that successful panhandlers and STREET SHEET vendors alike must develop human contact with patrons because most people are good, and are often moved to kindness — to do right by one another as well as the community at large.
Good recognizes good, so when we do find ourselves in need — when we must rely on the kindness of strangers — a kind stranger is the best kind of stranger we can find. And sometimes we can see that when everyday people act from the goodness in their hearts even a single act of kindness can multiply.
Kindness can create radical change.
If you disagree, we understand — but that doesn’t mean that we’ll close our eyes, or our hearts. Besides, if no-one bothered to envision a better world and then find the courage in their heart to make it happen, not much could ever change. But what we just described are some reasons why we found the following holiday news story so remarkable. At first glance, we might have overlooked this story because it fit the typical profile of local stories picked up by the national newsfeeds. It involved a cop (crime), and a bit of a scandal.
Well, maybe not as big a scandal as the doings of some of our local cops… doubtlessly inducing handsprings of joy from local researchers attempting to prove genetic causes for alcoholism. Regardless, the officer we’re talking about was held accountable for his deed, and he was disciplined for his scandal.
On November 22, 2002, Officer Eduardo Delacruz, an eight-year rank and file veteran of the NYPD — an outfit already undeniably distinguished for sacrifice and duty in the public interest — was working NYPD’s “Homeless Outreach Unit,” rousting homeless people out of a New York shopping district. Retailers and businesses in New York, as here, are always seeking scapegoats to account for shortfalls in expected revenues, never mind the economy. We’re not here to evaluate the efficacy of such extraordinary efforts to salvage some retailers’ disappointing holiday season bottom line.
When he came across 44 year-old Stephen Neil sleeping in a Manhattan parking garage, Officer Delacruz refused to arrest him for trespassing because he knew there was nowhere else for this homeless guy to go. The New York Times quoted the devout Catholic, husband, and father telling his superiors, “I told you before, I’m not going to do it. I won’t arrest an undomiciled person.”
NYC has always ranked right beside San Francisco and Atlanta as the most egregious examples of local police departments selectively enforcing the now-ubiquitous, so-called “quality of life” laws that criminalize homeless people for survival activities like sleeping, so the fact that Officer Delacruz broke ranks to act from his heart was remarkable in itself. And no matter how we might characterize his action, most would find agreement that disobeying a direct order — right or wrong — required no small amount of courage.
Experience tells us cops aren’t likely to be very compassionate toward homeless people. But Delacruz was pretty remarkable. According to Newsday, this policeman carried old blankets and clothing in his car to distribute to street people, and enjoyed reminding the other officers that Jesus Christ was homeless, too.
But because the 37 year-old Officer Delacruz held the simple moral conviction that arresting Mr. Neil was the wrong thing to do, and because this simple moral conviction was in direct conflict with his superior’s orders, Delacruz was immediately placed on 30 days suspension without pay… during the holidays.
“He’s a good guy — he’s got a heart,” asserted one of his homeless supporters. “He knows it’s not a crime to be homeless, and the NYPD should be ashamed of itself.”
Here we could ponder that perhaps it was that fateful September morning when New York’s towering monuments to capitalism were rendered to a smoking hole for the newscamera’s terrorized benefit, or maybe it was those bagpipes balefully moaning “Amazing Grace” in the funeral season that followed, or maybe it was just the moonlight that particular New York winter evening — whatever the impetus, it would certainly seem that something rather remarkable happened in Officer Eduardo Delacruz’s life as well, something that spoke to the better angels of his nature… something that made him decide that jailing homeless people for being homeless wasn’t the right thing to do, orders and consequences be damned.
Call it an act of conscience.
We call it radical change.
And that was a pretty remarkable story, but the story didn’t end there.
On December 24, the Associated Press reported that a group of 30 homeless and formerly homeless people presented Officer Delacruz, his wife, and their five children with a check in the amount of $3000.00. AP also reported the three grand came mostly from recycling cans and bottles, panhandling and, yes, lots of it came from homeless people]]