This weekend I was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and it was a very thoughtful trip. We were there for my son’s birthday: every year he picks a location he’d like to travel to and we do our best to get him there and show him a good time. We hit the classics – the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and the Museum of the American Revolution - as well as a bus tour giving a history of the town.
We were also given insight about a modern tent city we passed, one that obviously hosted hundreds of tents before some of the homeless staying in them were given more modern accommodations. Our eyes only viewed a few dozen still erected. Everywhere we went in Philadelphia, there were people sleeping so rough, one had a bicycle propped over his head as he slept in the middle of the sidewalk, no blanket or padding softening the ground of the cold, which dipped into the low 40s the night before.
I’ll admit that in the past, I might have seen a homeless person as a threat – he’s begging, he’s needy: will he pickpocket me or worse, attempt to rob me? There was also an existential threat in my mind: I’m on my way to a fancy meal and this person might not get any food. I questioned why this person hadn’t been able to support themselves. The thought crossed my mind that they might not be hard-working, like myself. Whatever my thought process, that person dampened my entitlement. Flipped on its head, I now see my reaction as empathy for others who were suffering – how could I enjoy myself when they were so down on their luck? I don’t think I’m alone in these complicated thought processes and contradictions.
I’ve grown over time to recognize the homeless need help, plain and simple. They don’t need to justify to me or anyone why they are homeless. And especially during a time where millions of people are becoming impoverished at once, we need to have more empathy and less judgment.
Thinking more clearly, after I took time to educate myself over years - it doesn’t take that much when someone has medical debt, a drug addiction, a mental health issue or other circumstance - to remove their safety net and force them into free fall. I find that personally terrifying, but the more terrifying, the more compassion I have for the people who are currently falling off an economic cliff right now. And all this during a year when more than $7 billion dollars is going towards political advertising. Irony lives…
Which brings me to the history I learned in Philadelphia. Their last public hanging was in 1829. This used to be sport on a Sunday afternoon for family viewing, where people would bring picnics. Souvenirs with photos were sold while hot dogs and popcorn were available from vendors. Parties were thrown for the occasion. It made me curious to see when the last U.S. public hanging was – in August of 1936 in Owensboro, Kentucky. Less than 100 years ago.
The man’s name was Rainey Bethea and purportedly he confessed to the crime of rape and murder. With our knowledge of false confessions today, I wonder what the true story was. He was born in 1909 in Roanoke. His mother died when he was 10 and his father died when he was 17. He attended a Baptist church and worked as a laborer. For all intents and purposes, he was contributing to society the best he could. In 1935, he suddenly seemed to come in contact with the law for stealing. The charges against him continued to mount until his admission of breaking and entering, raping and then murdering a wealthy woman in June of 1936.
On the day of Bethea’s hanging, the man meant to pull the trigger on the trap door was almost too drunk to do it. A year and a half later, Kentucky was the last state in our union to ban public hangings because of such missteps: ones that often left those being hanged flying through the air as their legs kicked for minutes because the noose was not tied correctly.
Up until the late 19th century, asylum tourism in Philadelphia and beyond was a huge hit. This was something akin to visiting a human zoo. Never mind someone could end up there as the result of being committed by a jealous husband or an incompetent parent, the bedlam of it all brought throngs who wanted to live vicariously for a few hours. Many saw mental illness as a result of vice or immorality and, much like public hangings, patients were jeered and mocked. Much like our homeless population, many wonder what vice or immorality let them to a fall from grace?
At the Liberty Bell – a worldwide symbol of freedom – it is finally being acknowledged the terrible treatment of Black slaves as society patted itself on the back for establishing a democratic government. Although women were given the vote in 1776, that privilege was snatched back in 1807. It took more than 100 years for women to get the vote back after more or less being seen as chattel for property-owning men during that period (see previous reference to jealous husbands).
One last example of humanity’s worser instincts I knew from living in Chicago. The biggest tourist attraction, up until the 1950s, was having a daily throng of people walk through the Union Stockyards slaughterhouses to see animals being made into food. All of the mechanization was fascinating – millions of animals were killed every year. Some tourists looked on with amusement, while others aptly looked on in horror. As well as having little empathy for ourselves as a species, we have run rough-shot over our environment.
This is all a long way of saying we need education to understand the dynamics of systemic racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other forms of arbitrary misanthropy that contribute to our current lack of empathy and compassion. Why wouldn’t we see the City of Philadelphia, and other places like it, as failing its constituents when they need help? Are we willingly ignorant when it comes to understanding the crimes of white-collar graft and corruption and how that contributes to the lack of funds we have for healthcare, education and other forms of public welfare? It’s much easier to judge the individual or group of other citizens than look at the dizzying trail of money and deals that contribute to empty coffers.
I’m thrilled to see people re-engaging with democracy and playing a role in their own welfare. Willful ignorance doesn’t work in the long term, but we can see its effects very clearly after 50 years of income inequity. What would happen if we stopped admiring material wealth and started tending the garden of our souls? I’d love to see any movement that encourages a reconnection with our human intuition and a tamping down of our worser instincts that we know make us miserable and fraught.