Back in the Great Depression years of the 1930s, unemployed writers, like unemployed steelworkers, were in need of jobs, and so the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, which put all sorts of Americans back to work, did so for writers as well — 6,500 of them in the Federal Writers’ Project at approximately $20 a week. Among other things, the FWP’s writers produced a series of classic guide books to American cities and states, still enjoyable to read today. (Richard Wright and John Cheever were among the crew who, for example, did The WPA Guide to New York City.) FWP workers also gathered more than 10,000 first-person oral histories of ordinary — yet extraordinary — Americans, relatively few of which were ever published.
Almost 30 years ago, the writer Ann Banks collected 80 of these into a deeply moving memory piece of a book entitled First-Person America. When you read through it, one thing likely to strike you about its narratives from our last spectacular economic meltdown was how many of the speakers didn’t distinguish between the 1920s and the 1930s, between, that is, “the roaring twenties” of the “Jazz Age” and the Great Depression era. For lots of them, it was all tough times. As Banks wrote in her introduction: “For most of the people in this book, the Depression was not the singular event it appears in retrospect. It was one more hardship in lives made difficult by immigration, world war, and work in low-paying industries before the regulation of wages and hours. Though they spoke of living through bad times, those interviewed by the Federal Writers seldom mentioned the Depression itself.”
This came to my mind recently as I read in the Washington Post about a category of crime I hadn’t known existed: desperate people in a money crunch, often behind on loan payments to car dealerships, who torch their cars and then try to collect insurance on them (usually by claiming they were stolen). Washington police estimate hundreds of such cases in their region just in the past two years. Though the numbers of such attempted frauds may now be on the rise, it’s a phenomenon that hardly began with the collapse of Bear Stearns, or the tanking of the stock market, or the global credit crunch that followed. I was left wondering how many people this time around won’t make much of a distinction between the blow-out 1990s, the Bush years in which the President, in response to the 9/11 attacks, asked Americans to head for Disney World and shop till they drop, and the disaster that is now almost certain to follow and haunt us all.
As more people today are behind on car loans than ever before, we undoubtedly can brace ourselves for a rise in car burnings in the years ahead, just as we are already seeing a rise in all kinds of extreme acts, including suicides, as ever more Americans have their homes foreclosed and face the reality of eviction. As Nick Turse, author of The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, points out, if you search carefully through local news reports nationwide, you can already see where we’re heading, and it isn’t pretty. Not one bit. Tom
The Rising Body Count on Main Street
The Human Fallout from the Financial Crisis
By Nick Turse
On October 4, 2008, in the Porter Ranch section of Los Angeles, Karthik Rajaram, beset by financial troubles, shot his wife, mother-in-law, and three sons before turning the gun on himself. In one of his two suicide notes, Rajaram wrote that he was “broke,” having incurred massive financial losses in the economic meltdown. “I understand he was unemployed, his dealings in the stock market had taken a disastrous turn for the worse,” said Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Michel R. Moore.
The fallout from the current subprime mortgage debacle and the economic one that followed has thrown lives into turmoil across the country. In recent days, the Associated Press, ABC News, and others have begun to address the burgeoning body count, especially suicides attributed to the financial crisis. (Note that, months ago, Barbara Ehrenreich raised the issue in the Nation.)
Suicide is, however, just one type of extreme act for which the financial meltdown has seemingly been the catalyst. Since the beginning of the year, stories of resistance to eviction, armed self-defense, canicide, arson, self-inflicted injury, murder, as well as suicide, especially in response to the foreclosure crisis, have bubbled up into the local news, although most reports have gone unnoticed nationally — as has any pattern to these events.
While it’s impossible to know what factors, including deeply personal ones, contribute to such extreme acts, violent or otherwise, many do seem undeniably linked to the present crisis. This is hardly surprising. Rates of stress, depression, and suicide invariably climb in times of economic turmoil. As Kathleen Hall, founder and CEO of the Stress Institute in Atlanta, told USA Today’s Stephanie Armour earlier this year, “Suicides are very much tied to the economy.”
With predictions of a long and deep recession now commonplace, it’s not too soon to begin looking for these patterns among the human tragedies already sprouting amid the financial ruins. Troubling trends are to be expected in the years ahead, especially as hundreds of thousands of veterans of the Iraq and Afghan Wars, their families often already under enormous stress, are coming home to scenarios of joblessness and, in some cases, homelessness. Consider this, then, an attempt to look for early anecdotal signs of the fallout from hard times, the results, in this case, of a review of local press reports from across the nation, some tiny but potentially indicative of larger American tragedies, and all suggesting a pattern that is likely to grow more pronounced.
In February, when a sheriff’s deputy went to serve an eviction notice on a home owner in Greeley, Colorado, he found the man had slashed his wrists and was lying in a pool of blood. Rushed to a nearby hospital, the man survived, while the Sheriff’s office tried to downplay economic reasons for the incident, saying, according to the Denver Post, that “it wasn’t linking the suicide attempt to the eviction because the man had known for a week that he was to be kicked out.”
In March, Ocala, Florida resident Roland Gore killed his dog and his wife, set fire to his home which was in foreclosure, and then killed himself.
In April, Robert McGuinness, a 24-year-old process server, arrived at the Marion County, Florida doorstep of Frank W. Conrad. According to an article in the local Star Banner, the 82-year-old Conrad was reportedly “cordial” at first. When McGuinness produced the foreclosure notice, however, Conrad got angry and left the room. He returned with a .38 caliber pistol and announced, “You have two seconds to get off my property or you will go to the hospital.” Marion County sheriff’s deputies later arrested Conrad.
On June 3rd, agents of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) set out to inform New Orleans resident Eric Minshew that he would be evicted from his “Katrina” trailer. After Minshew threatened them, the FEMA employees called the police. When they arrived, Minshew allegedly threatened them as well and “locked himself in his partially-gutted home, adjacent to his trailer.” A SWAT team was called in and tear-gassed the man. Interviewed by the Times-Picayune, local resident Tiffany Flores said, “Some SWAT members told my husband they had never seen anyone withstand that much tear gas.” The standoff went on for hours before “an assault team of tactical officers” invaded the home. Though Minshew opened fire, they eventually cornered him on the upper floor. When — they claimed — he refused to drop his weapon, they gunned him down.
That same day, in Multnomah County, Oregon, sheriff’s deputies served an eviction notice on a desperate tenant. According to Deputy Travis Gullberg, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Public Information Officer, the evictee promptly pulled a gun from his pocket and pointed it at his head before being disarmed by the deputies.
Recently, according to the Los Angeles Times, Rich Paul, a vice president at ValueOptions Inc., which handles mental health referrals, said that over the last year stress-related calls arising from foreclosures or financial hardship had gone up 200% in California. Similarly, Dr. Mason Turner, chief of psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente’s San Francisco Medical Center, reported “a fourfold increase in psychiatric admissions at his hospital during August, with roughly 60% of patients saying financial stress contributed to their problems.”
Of course, many victims of the linked economic crises never receive treatment. In July, Sacramento County Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Habecker told the Sacramento Bee that twice this year “homeowners about to be evicted have committed suicide as he approached to do a lockout.” In another case, he said, “a fellow Sacramento deputy found a note in the home that told him where to find the foreclosed homeowner’s body.” The Bee reported that such cases “received no publicity when they happened,” which raises the question of just how many similar suicides have gone unreported nationwide.
In July, when police delivered an eviction notice at the Middleburg, Florida home of George and Bonnie Mangum, the couple barricaded themselves inside. Eventually, George Mangum was talked into surrendering and was arrested. “He did the only thing he knew to do, protect his family, all he did was sit on the other side of the door and say I have a gun, I have a gun and that’s why he’s going to jail because he threatened the police,” said Bonnie. The couple’s daughter Robin added, “This is my home, this is all our home and I don’t think it’s right. My dad was a Green Beret, he’s sick, how are you going to kick him out?”
Pinellas Park, Florida resident Dallas Dwayne Carter was a 44-year-old disabled, single dad who lost his job, fell into debt, and was faced with eviction. “He always talked about needing help — financially and help with the kids,” neighbor Kevin Luster told the St. Petersburg Times. On July 19th, Carter apparently called the police to say he was armed and disturbed. When they arrived, Carter fired his pistol and rifle inside the apartment, before emerging and pointing his weapons at the officers on the scene. Police say they ordered him to drop them. When he didn’t, they killed him in a 10-round fusillade.
On July 23d, about 90 minutes before her foreclosed Taunton, Massachusetts home was scheduled to be sold at auction, Carlene Balderrama faxed a letter to her mortgage company, letting them know that “by the time they foreclosed on the house today she’d be dead.” She continued, “I hope you’re more compassionate with my husband and son than you were with me.” After that, she took a high-powered rifle and, according to the Boston Globe, shot herself. In an interview with the Associated Press, Balderrama’s husband John said, “I had no clue.” His wife handled the finances and had been intercepting letters from the mortgage company for months. “She put in her suicide note that it got overwhelming for her,” he said. In the letter, she wrote, “take the [life] insurance money and pay for the house.”
The day after Balderrama took her life, 50 miles away in Worcester, Massachusetts, a 64-year-old man, who had already been evicted, barricaded himself inside his former home. Police were called to the scene to find him reportedly prepared to ignite four propane tanks. “His intention was to burn the house down with him in it,” Sgt. Christopher J. George told the Telegram & Gazette. With the man becoming “even more despondent” as “a moving van arrived on the street,” police stormed the house to find him “holding a foot-long knife to his own chest” as a piece of paper burned near the propane. The man was disarmed and the fire extinguished.
That very same day, in Visalia, California, a Tulare County sheriff’s deputy tried to serve an eviction notice to Melvin Nicks, 50. Nicks responded by stabbing the deputy with a knife and barricading himself in the house for several hours. He later surrendered.
No Way Out
Bay City, Michigan residents David and Sharron Hetzel, both 56, “lost their home to foreclosure and filed for bankruptcy protection. But they did not follow through with the Chapter 13 proceedings.” On August 1st, say police reports, David Hetzel mailed a letter of apology to his family members. Later that night, according to the local police, he attacked his sleeping wife, striking her in the head with a golf club and repeatedly stabbing her with a kitchen knife. After that, he began setting fires throughout the house before crawling into bed beside his wife and killing himself with “a single, fatal wound to his torso.”
On August 12th, sheriff’s deputies arrived at the Saddlebrook, New Jersey home of 88-year-old Beatrice Brennan, another victim of the mortgage crisis, who had refinanced her home and fallen behind on payments. Refusing to stand idly by while his mother was put out on the street, her 60-year-old son John pulled a .22 caliber handgun on the lawmen. That sent the movers, waiting for a court-imposed 10 a.m. deadline, scurrying for their van. Brennan was able to delay the eviction briefly before a SWAT team arrested him and his mother lost her home. “I’m heartbroken over this,” Vincent Carabello, a longtime neighbor, told the local paper, the Record. “How could this happen?”
Roseville, Minnesota resident Sylvia Sieferman was under a great deal of stress and beset by financial difficulties. She worried about how she would care for her two 11-year-old daughters. On August 21st, according to police reports, Sieferman “repeatedly stabbed the girls and herself.” “She reached her limit,” her friend Carrie Micko told the Star Tribune. “She couldn’t cope anymore she felt that her daughters were suffering because she was failing to provide for them.” As Micko further explained, “After a series of financial mishaps, she just couldn’t see her way through. She was under extreme financial, emotional and spiritual distress and didn’t want to fail them.”
By Any Means Necessary
The Boston Globe reported that, on September 5th, “[f]our protesters trying to prevent the eviction of a Roxbury woman from her home were arrested after they chained themselves to the steps of her back porch.” As 40 protesters chanted in the street, officials from Bank of America ordered Paula Taylor out of her house. “This is our eighth blockade and the first time there have been arrests,” said Soledad Lawrence, an organizer with City Life, a non-profit organization seeking to halt the large numbers of foreclosures and evictions in Boston neighborhoods. “They can be more aggressive and we’ll be more aggressive,” she added.
On September 25th, as politicians in Washington tried to hash out a massive bailout package for financial institutions, six Boston police officers confronted about 40 City Life activists in front of the home of Ana Esquivel, a public school employee, and her husband Raul, a construction worker, both in their fifties. The Globe reported that four protesters were arrested as police shoved their way through in order to allow a locksmith into the house to bar the Esquivels from their home. “We’ve been destroyed by the bank,” Ana Esquivel said, sobbing. “The bank is too big for us.” While the Esquivel blockade failed, Steven Meacham, a City Life organizer, told a Globe reporter that “the protests have helped to stop about nine evictions. In the successful blockades, the homeowners were given additional time by their mortgage holders to negotiate alternatives to foreclosure.”
Two days earlier, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies came to the Monrovia home of 53-year-old Joanne Carter and her 67-year-old husband John to serve an eviction notice. Joanne Carter refused to accept it. According to “Monrovia spokesman” Dick Singer, as reported in the Pasadena Star-News, she “told deputies she had guns in the house and showed them a shotgun.” The next day, Monrovia police officers showed up at the home after being informed that the woman “may have made threats to a workers compensation agency.” Police Lieutenant Michael Lee said that Carter told them if they “tried to come in, she would defend her house at any means necessary.” She and her husband then reportedly barricaded themselves inside, after which a shotgun was fired. Police from other local departments were called in. Following an hours-long standoff, the Carters surrendered and were arrested.
That same day, in northern California, Cliff Kendall, Petaluma’s chief building official, shot himself with a rifle. A week earlier, Kendall had learned that he was being laid off. “He was afraid we’d lose our home, and we probably will because I can’t afford to keep it,” his wife Patricia, who is on disability with a back injury, told the Press Democrat. “He was extremely upset about it and hurt.”
On October 3rd, the day before Karthik Rajaram’s mass murder/suicide in Los Angeles, 90-year-old Addie Polk was driven to extremes by the financial crisis. With sheriff’s deputies at the door, Polk evidently took the only measure she felt was left to her to avoid eviction from her foreclosed home. She tried to kill herself. Her neighbor Robert Dillon, hearing loud noises from her home, used a ladder to enter the second floor window. He found Polk lying on her bed. “Then she kind of moved toward me a little and I saw that blood, and I said, ‘Oh, no. Miss Polk musta done shot herself.'” While she was in the hospital recovering from two self-inflicted gunshot wounds, Fannie Mae spokesman Brian Faith announced the mortgage association had decided to forgive her outstanding debt and give her the house “outright.”
On October 6th, in Sevier County, Tennessee, sheriff’s deputies, with police in tow, arrived to evict Jimmy and Pamela Ross from their home. They heard a shot and entered the home to find 57-year-old Pamela dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Neighbor Ruth Blakey told WVLT-TV, “I know she really hated to leave that house. She did not want to leave that house.”
Wanda Dunn told neighbors she would rather die than leave her home. On October 13th, the day she was to be evicted, the 53-year-old Pasadena, California native apparently set fire to the home “where her family had lived for generations” before shooting herself in the head. “We knew it was going to happen,” neighbor Steve Brooks told the Los Angeles Times. “It was nobody’s fault; it was everybody’s fault.”
In September, readers at Slate’s “Explainer” column asked the following question: If the financial crisis was so dire, “how come we aren’t hearing about executives jumping out of windows?” Writer Nina Shen Rastogi dutifully answered:
“Because the current situation hasn’t had nearly as devastating an effect on people’s personal finances. The Great Crash of 1929 — and, to a lesser extent, the crash of 1987 — did lead some people to commit suicide. But in nearly all of those cases, the deceased had suffered a major loss when the market collapsed. Now, due in large part to those earlier experiences, investors tend to keep their portfolios far more diversified, so as to avoid having their entire fortunes wiped out when stocks take a downturn.”
Perhaps this is true. So far, at least, Wall Street’s suicides seem to have been outsourced to places that its executives have probably never heard of. There, on the proverbial main streets of America, the Street’s financial meltdown is beginning to be measured not only in dollars and cents, but in blood.
Right now, there are no real counts of the many extreme acts born of the financial crisis, but assuredly other murders, suicides, self-inflicted injuries, acts of arson and of armed self-defense have simply gone unnoticed outside of economically hard-hit neighborhoods in cities and small towns across America. With no end in sight for either the foreclosures or the economic turmoil, Americans may have to brace themselves for many more casualties on the home front. Unless extreme economic steps, like mortgage- and debt-forgiveness, are implemented, the number of extreme acts and the ultimate body count may be far more extreme than anyone yet wants to contemplate.
Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of Tomdispatch.com. His work has appeared in many publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Le Monde Diplomatique (German edition), Adbusters, the Nation, and regularly at Tomdispatch.com. His first book, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, an exploration of the new military-corporate complex in America, was recently published by Metropolitan Books. His website is Nick Turse.com.
Copyright 2008 Nick Turse