Christmas Day Tragedy Reveals Necessity of Adequate Social Service Programs
Tricia McCauley, a well known D.C. area stage performer, was attacked and murdered by a homeless, mentally ill man on Christmas day in our nation’s capital. The circumstances of her death were very tragic but not, as has been claimed, senseless or unforeseeable as we will explore later on.
As we work to make sure this never happens again, we must reject the simplistic and reductionist notion that the solution to crime is more police, more jails, and an expansion of an already deeply flawed and inequitable justice system.
While we in the theatre community initially knew her as a brilliant performer, often with her creative family at Washington Stage Guild, Tricia was also a teacher, a health coach, and an urban farmer. In her valedictorian speech at her herbal medicine graduate ceremony, she referred to herself as a “plant translator. My deepest joy is introducing plants to people.” Whether it was a recommendation of a detox juice recipe or a list of edible flowers, Tricia made it her personal mission to develop relationships among her friends — human ones and floral ones…
[Content warning: physical violence resulting in death, sexual assault.]
Tricia McCauley spent most of Christmas Day preparing food for an annual holiday party, and in the early evening she departed for the party with her signature dishes in tow. At some point along the way she was accosted by Adrian Duane Johnson, a 29 year old homeless man with a history of mental illness and arrests for petty thefts and misdemeanors. McCauley’s battered body was discovered several days later stuffed into the rear section of her Toyota Scion, her legs bound, her body exhibiting signs of blunt force and sexual trauma. She had been strangled. Johnson’s statements to law enforcement after being arrested were bizarre and unhinged. He claimed the 115 lbs, 5'4 McCauley, a woman traveling alone at night, offered him a ride. He also insisted they engaged in consensual sex after which she became “emotional” and hung herself in the car, but not before telling him that he could have all of her belongings.
Violence against women is epidemic in our society and across the world, and it was the main factor in this situation. Yet we must also acknowledge the equally important role policy makers have played in setting the stage for this particular chain of events and similar tragedies. Tricia McCauley was murdered in the capital city of the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the world, a country that prides itself on being the “land of opportunity,” — and yet many people living in the capital languish in poverty. In nearby towns and cities like Baltimore the situation is even more desperate. The affluent and the dispossessed exist side by side in almost Dickensian fashion with D.C. enduring a homelessness rate that is twice the national average.
No one likes poverty, no one likes seeing homeless people sleeping on the streets, and yet it seems that many are resigned to the status quo because they believe they will never be directly affected. Tricia McCauley was a victim of this status quo, and one way of honoring her memory is to work much harder towards ending the disparities that inevitably lead to social pathology.
Her facebook page reveals her to be someone who leaned strongly to the left end of the political spectrum. Several of her public posts show she was a strong believer in racial and economic justice, a fact that makes the circumstances of her death especially tragic. She was also conscious of her position as a white person living in the gentrifying majority Black Bloomingdale neighborhood of north-central Washington D.C.
Considering the type of person she was, we can be fairly sure she would not have wanted her tragic death to be used as an excuse for more intensive dismemberment and policing of Black communities, more jails, and more oppression.
In light of the fact that her attacker was homeless let us examine some statistics. A recent study concluded that providing shelter for those enduring homelessness is cheaper than leaving them to languish on the streets. According to the study, providing housing did more than save the city money:
The tenants also spent 84 percent fewer days in jail, with a 78 percent drop in arrests. The reduction is largely due to a decrease in crimes related to homelessness, such as trespassing, loitering, public urination, begging and public consumption of alcohol, according to Caroline Chambre, director of the Urban Ministry Center’s HousingWorks, the main force behind Moore Place.
The connection between stability and low crime can no longer be overlooked. According to Prison Legal News, affordable housing reduces crime and improves public safety:
Despite the strong correlation between increased spending on supportive housing and reduced correctional spending, “jurisdictions continue to spend more on corrections than on housing” by a wide margin. “An increase in spending on housing is associated with a decrease in violent crime at the national level and a decrease in incarceration rates at the state level,” according to JPI. “An increase in spending on housing and community development paired with a decrease in spending on corrections is associated with both lower crime rates and lower prison incarceration rates.”
As countries like Finland and India explore and prepare to implement basic income programs to ensure their citizens can meet essential needs, here in the U.S. we face the prospect of more draconian cuts to social services with one of the most right-wing Congressional and Presidential administrations in decades. For the most part the millionaires on Capitol Hill are insulated from the effects of their slash and burn policies; they live in gated communities with security men; they are chauffeured, provided with carefully crafted itineraries, insulated from the consequences of their cruelty. Unlike Tricia McCauley, the upper echelon decision makers are usually sheltered from all but the most carefully managed of interactions with the dispossessed and the downtrodden who, like the Morlocks in H. G. Well’s The Time Machine, occasionally emerge from the murky depths of their oppression.
One of the rare exceptions to the above mentioned dynamic occurred in 1981 when a young man suffering from schizophrenia shot newly elected president Ronald Reagan in an attempt to impress actress Jodi Foster. It was an extremely ironic turn of events considering Reagan’s track record of shutting down state services, institutions and programs for the mentally ill while governor of California. Dr. E. Fuller Torrey connects the dots between Reagan’s policies and on the ground events in his 2013 article ‘Ronald Reagan’s shameful legacy: Violence, the homeless, mental illness’:
California was the first state to witness not only an increase in homelessness associated with deinstitutionalization but also an increase in incarceration and episodes of violence. Of all the omens of deinstitutionalization’s failure on exhibit in 1970s California, the most frightening were homicides and other episodes of violence committed by mentally ill individuals who were not being treated.
- 1970: John Frazier, responding to the voice of God, killed a prominent surgeon and his wife, two young sons, and secretary. Frazier’s mother and wife had sought unsuccessfully to have him hospitalized.
- 1972: Herbert Mullin, responding to auditory hallucinations, killed 13 people over 3 months. He had been hospitalized three times but released without further treatment.
- 1973: Charles Soper killed his wife, three children, and himself 2 weeks after having been discharged from a state hospital.
- 1973: Edmund Kemper killed his mother and her friend and was charged with killing six others. Eight years earlier, he had killed his grandparents because “he tired of their company,” but at age 21 years had been released from the state hospital without further treatment.
- 1977: Edward Allaway, believing that people were trying to hurt him, killed seven people at Cal State Fullerton. Five years earlier, he had been hospitalized for paranoid schizophrenia but released without further treatment.
According to Dr. Torrey’s article (which includes excerpts from his book ‘American Psychosis: How the Federal Government Destroyed the Mental Illness Treatment System’), there is a direct chain of causation between Reagan’s decisions and the violence and mayhem that was later unleashed on society. He also notes that sentiments linking psychiatry to Communism likely influenced Reagan’s decisions both as governor and later as president.
Whether we’re considering homelessness, mental health treatment, or mitigating poverty, we must understand that the resources to solve these problems exist. The problem is with a system that will absolutely not allow a sustainable and equitable distribution of resources for the betterment of the entire community. Instead, many people are left to fend for themselves; many wallow in misery, madness and resentment.
The phrase “socialism or barbarism” made popular by Polish-German revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg is more relevant today than ever before. She herself was also a victim of violence, shot in the head and dumped in a river by her political enemies. She wrote:
Friedrich Engels once said: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.” . . . Until now, we have all probably read and repeated these words thoughtlessly, without suspecting their fearsome seriousness. . . . Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration — a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method of war.
The war she speaks of is not only the war that imperialist countries wage against their victims overseas. The social war is in full effect and has been for quite some time, and many of us are losing. Some of the first victims of this war were the indigenous people of this continent and the enslaved Africans brought here in chains. Tricia McCauley is one of the latest casualties of this ongoing war, though an unintended one to be sure.
How many wonderful and talented people have we lost to the insanity of our current system? If the status quo continues there will be many more Tricia McCauley’s, many more Tamir Rice’s, many more Sandra Bland’s. As we see literal white supremacists taking up residence in the White House it bears asking what will it take for people to overthrow this system and demand something better.
If we learn to live side by side with oppression and inequality then what we’re saying is that we are OK with occasionally losing good people. The best way to honor Tricia McCauley’s memory is to work towards abolishing a cruel system that creates an endless cycle of perpetrators and victims. Revolution and socialism now!