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Ken Williams: ‘No, My Friend, No’

One man's last words a reminder of the senselessness of hate crimes against the poor and homeless

It was dark by the time Michael Stephenson settled in for the night. The park was empty, he was alone. Those who had used it during the day had gone home for a meal and then to snuggle into warm beds for the night. Whether Michael ate that night is unknown. As it is with most homeless people, meals are a hit and miss proposition on most days. Michael liked it this way — camping alone, away from others, away from trouble — but this night, trouble came hunting for him.

Ken Williams and his dog, Sampson.
Ken Williams and his dog, Sampson. (Williams family photo)

Michael was a young and gentle man. His only crime was being poor — poor and homeless in a society that was becoming increasingly intolerant of the casualties of the New World economic order. He was also in the wrong place at the wrong time — a fatal error, it turned out.

His killers were two kids from a local military academy who, according to them, had had a run-in earlier with gang types. Luckily for them, but too bad for Michael, the killers were unable to find them the night they had gone out to hunt them down.

But the killers did find Michael alone. So very alone and unprotected, and in some perverted way his life was offered up on the alter of fear and hatred. He must have been not only terrified but also confused when the hunting knife dragged across his throat. “No, my friend, no,” were the last words he spoke.

Unlike Michael, who was young — he was 28 — Luis Altmark was old by street standards. He was in his early 60s, if I remember right. But, like Michael, he was also in the wrong place at the wrong time. And, like Michael, his ultimate crime was being poor — poor and homeless.

We’ll never know what his thoughts were when his killers, two local youths, had stumbled across him in a park and kicked him to death. A twisted commonality of fate: They were killed yards apart, one in Alice Keck Park, the other in Alameda Park.

They were the leading-edge casualties of our modern society’s hate crimes against those who show a public face to poverty. What part of the hateful rhetoric of the time played in their deaths is hard to know for sure. What is known is the hateful prejudices of the time against those who were without homes — and, in many instances, without hope.

Those two men were killed in our hometown 20 years ago. Much has changed since then, and much remains the same.

In 2008, Gregory Ghan was confronted by a group of young men. An altercation — again a homeless man stands alone against others — he dies. A few months later, Ross was sitting at his campsite, another altercation, this time over his sleeping bag. Again, the isolated, single homeless man falls victim to odds — in this case, two against one. Again, the tragedy is played out. This gentle man, with crippling disabilities, dies at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

In one important way, times have changed since the murders of Michael and Luis. Now, justice is found wanting. Unlike the murderers of Michael and Luis, the modern-day cowards who assaulted Gregory and Ross are still free. One hopes that their conscience bothers them every day, that the inhumane sounds of flesh being pounded by a bottle or fists reverberate in their minds. Since morality, or their belief in God, has yet to drive them to the police, perhaps their guilt will.

As for the rest of us, we should pause and contemplate why these hateful crimes against innocent and very defenseless victims happened. Some might say it is because they chose to live without housing, but it’s difficult to find that housing without income. And, cruelly, some of these same voices also call for restrictions and/or closures of the shelters and soup kitchens and for police tactics to scourge the land of the homeless poor.

Many will not know and will be horrified of the brutal and senseless murders of Michael and Luis two decades ago. They will also be numbed to find out that Linda Archer and Rose “Doe” were murdered in the 1990s. And that Stephan Aikens died from the wounds that his attacker delivered so many years ago.

April 2010 comes to an end. Winter refuses to let go with her cold and wet hands. A new storm meanders in. I imagine the white caps skipping across the ocean pushed forward by the winds. Here in the park, dark gray clouds play hide and seek with the sun. I stand before the gazebo where Michael was brutally murdered; 28 was too young to die. It was a terrible and senseless death.

The wind blows eerily through the gazebo, softly whistling, carrying a faint whisper of his last words: “No, my friend, no.”

— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets.

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