Isolated and Systematic Cruelty

On September 30, Shakeen Robbins, an employee at the Dunkin Donuts on N Salina Street, poured cold water on Jeremy Dufresne, a homeless man who was in the donut shop to charge his phone. A video of that cruel act got international attention, the Post-Standard published a new story about it every day for seven days in a row, a GoFundMe page raised over $20,000 for Dufresne, and Syracuse Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens, Common Council President Helen Hudson, and Police Chief Frank Fowler have all gotten in touch with the company that operates that particular Dunkin Donuts to talk about how to treat poor people better.

Poor people deal with isolated acts of cruelty everyday. Those acts are pointless and dehumanizing, and they’re all worth our attention. When that video went viral, all kinds of people saw the cruelty of dumping water on another human being just because that person couldn’t do anything about it, and they recognized that cruelty for what it was. Now, hopefully, people like Jeremy Dufresne won’t have to put up with so much casual abuse every single day.

But poor people also face cruelty that isn’t so isolated. They face cruelty that’s part of a coordinated effort to push them out of sight, to pretend that ‘progress’ isn’t leaving anybody behind, to pretend that people who are doing well have no responsibility to the people who aren’t. That kind of systematic cruelty is worth just as much attention and it deserves just as much condemnation as the kinds of isolated acts that Jeremy Dufresne has brought to top of mind.

Ryan McMahon’s plan to incarcerate poor people is an act of systematic cruelty. It tries to use the power of the state to exclude poor people from public space because their presence might be “perceived as threatening.” It targets poor people specifically for being poor and specifically when they make their poverty known. It’s an abuse of power, a failure of government, and a cruel act.

So let’s pay attention as the new County Executive tries to turn his plan into a law. Let’s pay attention to whether Mayor Ben Walsh stands up for Syracuse–the 9th poorest city in the nation–or whether he chooses to go along with the County’s plan to hide its poverty behind bars. Let’s pay attention when SPD arrests any person in the service of that plan, and let’s condemn every single act that fails to respect people’s basic human dignity.