There’s a Difference Between Dangerous and Desperate
Unless ‘We The People’ unify in acknowledging this difference, our political crisis will never change
“He strangled his wife,” the director of the domestic violence program said to me as soon as I closed her office door for privacy. She sat behind her desk wearing a pantsuit with heels while I wore street clothes and stayed up on my feet.
She gave an overview before handing me his case file. He stopped eating eight days prior. Pending transfer to Florence, Arizona State Prison from the county jail, corrections couldn’t move him because he wouldn’t eat.
His sentence was 17 years.
I didn’t work DV cases. Although I protected the 200+ DV families who lived in hiding on our agency campus, that’s the only reason for housing my team there. We spent most of our days on the streets while the director’s job was to oversee the program that empowered victims and provided resources to support in their recovery.
Interviewing perpetrators wasn’t her area of expertise, and that’s what led her to asking for my help. “According to the request for our services filed by state corrections, he’s on a hunger strike,” she informed me.
I scanned through the case file, looking for the meat and potatoes of what I needed to know.
He was a 69-year-old Vietnam veteran and previously arrested and convicted of misdemeanors, a few resulted in short stints in county jail.
Police picked him up six times for shoplifting at the corner grocery store near his home address. They also arrested him twice for public intoxication and once for disorderly conduct. Records stated his wife made three 911 calls for domestic violence in the month leading up to her murder.
Attached to his subsidised housing voucher was the social worker’s report from Veteran’s Affairs stating that on “many occasions” police took him into custody and released him for sleeping on street corners and park benches.
In 1978, he spent a few weeks hospitalized after a failed suicide attempt. It was four years after he returned home from the war zone.
His history screamed suffering. The signs were there for decades. Along with cries for help, case mangers filled the contents of his file with missed opportunities for the system to engage him when he needed it most.
On the drive, the director and I agreed she’d take the lead, but once we were there, that’s not how it worked out at all.
During entry, she requested that two guards remain in the room with us.
“No,” I instantly interjected. “He won’t talk under intimidation.”
She pulled me aside before whispering, “Uh, Erika, he strangled his wife.”
“He’s not dangerous,” I assured her, adding, “if I’m wrong, I vow to throw myself in front of him if he tries to attack you, which he won’t.”
I scored even fewer points with her when I asked the guards to remove his shackles before leaving the room.
We approached the table where the director sat across from him. I pulled my chair out to the side, in the open and facing him.
After introductions, she cut to the chase and asked him, “why are you on a hunger strike?”
He broke down sobbing. She repeated the question.
“I can’t believe after 40 years she would leave. She threatened to leave me. I love her so much,” he wailed through his tears.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the director’s body language clam up. She then blurted out, “you’re not the victim here, sir.”
I looked towards her, making eye contact. I nodded my head, letting her know I’d take over. She nodded back in agreement.
I leaned in closer to him. “You’re not on a hunger strike, are you?”
“Is it heartbreak that you’re feeling?” I asked.
He began telling us about the things he misses most about his wife. The director excused herself but didn’t return. I stayed and spoke with him for almost two hours.
He grew up during the 1960s in a country filled with outrage until eventually, the fight for civil rights coincided with protests against the Vietnam War, and the police were beating on everybody in the streets.
From there, the government drafted him. He served over two years in a war he didn’t believe in. I asked him what it felt like to leave a violent home for an even more violent combat zone.
We talked about stealing food and his time spent in jail for it. We talked about how much it would have meant in his life if they put him through the state’s diversion program, instead of serving 90 days in jail after his second conviction of public intoxication.
He told me he often slept outside because nowhere feels like home. He believed that sleeping outdoors would bring him closer to his lost brothers in arms. “Outside was the last place I was with them before they were gone,” he said.
We talked about all the ways the system failed and the grief he felt for his wife. He ate dinner that night.
When I returned to the car, the director immediately lashed out at me. “How could you sit there and listen to that?” Her eyes were bloodshot and puffy. She’d left the room to cry.
“How could I not?” I shot back. “I’m confident in my assessment that he wouldn’t have choked his wife if society, or the system, or anyone would have heard him. It was a desperate act, not a dangerous one, and I refuse to be part of the problem.”
I never spoke with the man again after that day, but I never forgot about him, either.
In fact, it was him and many others I worked with throughout my career that I thought of the day 43 GOP senators voted to acquit a man who’s legal defense for cultivating an insurrection on the United States Capitol was to point fingers at the Black Lives Matter movement.
The difference between a wall of moms protecting a cause and our commander-in-chief unleashing a mob of white supremacists to kill our elected officials is prodigious. They do not compare.
To be clear, there isn’t a gray area. One movement is the will of the people demanding that we’re done enduring hundreds of years of racial injustice, and we won’t tolerate it in any form. It’s a boundary.
The other is a direct attempt to overthrow the will of the people, even if it meant hanging Vice President Mike Pence.
Oppression and power are so far from synonymous, and unless We The People, American citizens, unify in acknowledging the difference between desperate and dangerous, our political crisis will never change.