My Back Pages
by Terry Messman
Editor: In my final issue as editor of Street Spirit, I have chosen to recall this story about the tragic death of Mary Jesus, a 33-year-old Oakland tenant who plunged to her death from the Oakland Tribune Tower after being evicted. Her last words were a prophetic attempt to warn society about the deadly greed of landlords who carry out evictions-for-profit.
Shortly before Christmas, Mary Jesus lost her home — and then lost her life. Her landlord raised the rent and then evicted her from the apartment she had lived in for 13 years. After a brief stay at John George Psychiatric Pavilion, Mary Jesus found herself alone on the streets of Oakland, with no home in this world.
Although she had fought a valiant and lonely struggle against the eviction, she found herself homeless at Christmas time, just as the Biblical Mary and Jesus were without a home on the first Christmas.
Being evicted felt like the end of her life to Mary Jesus. As a disabled woman living on General Assistance, she saw nothing ahead but a destitute life on the dead-end streets.
She told her friend V. Vale: “If I’m evicted tomorrow, I have no choice but to kill myself. I have no resources, no savings, no money, and nowhere to go.”
She plunged to her death from the Oakland Tribune Tower on Dec. 10, 2004. Mary Jesus died in despair because she owed her landlord only $1,018.77.
The economic gap between rich and poor in America is a deadly, unbridgeable chasm. Her death shows us that there are two entirely separate classes of people: those who could come up with $1,000 in an emergency, and those unable to come up with it if their very life depended on it.
In her suicide note, Mary Jesus quoted a Biblical passage: “The love of money is the root of all evil.” She was exactly right. The love of money turned out to be a death sentence for her.
Her death stands as a searing indictment of the greed of landlords and the inequities of a court system biased in favor of those with money and high-priced lawyers.
The suicide of Mary Jesus is a prophetic warning of what Mohandas Gandhi once declared: Poverty is the worst form of violence. Her shocking death occurred because she lost her struggle against the same economic forces that have sentenced so many Oakland tenants to desperation, eviction and homelessness.
Low-income tenants in Oakland have been besieged with a wave of rent hikes and evictions over the past several years, and tenant groups have long been warning that unjust evictions and resultant homelessness have grown to life-threatening dimensions.
Virtually every housing agency, tenant attorney and homeless service provider in Oakland has warned that rent increases and evictions now amount to a form of “economic cleansing.”
But just as Mary Jesus was a fighter in life, she continued her fight against the forces of greed and injustice even with her death. As Mary told V. Vale, “It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” And as Elizabeth Day wrote to Street Spirit about her death, quoting the poet Dylan Thomas: “She chose a very public way to kill herself — she did not go gentle into that good night!”
She deliberately chose to end her life from atop the most prominent tower in Oakland, a newspaper building, a place where the press could scarcely ignore her suffering, the way they largely ignore the suffering of homeless people every day.
She went to the top of the mountain, as did the prophets of old, and showered hundreds of copies of her suicide note down to the public gathered below.
Then she plunged to her death and gave us all an unforgettable warning about how the avarice of landlords can join with the heartlessness of the court system to extinguish the lives of the poor.
Her death was a self-immolation, similar to the Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire to protest the Vietnam War. Mary Jesus died to warn us that the love of money is the root of all evil, and that the greed of profiteering landlords is not only cruel, but lethal.
Her unbearably sad death is made even more haunting because it occurred only two weeks before Christmas, a season when people try to stir themselves to remember the poor among us with sporadic acts of compassion. But Mary Jesus died of homelessness and heartbreak two weeks before those holiday meals for homeless people were held this year.
She died in the season of love and compassion, at Christmas time, a holiday for a mother who could find no room at the inn and was forced to give birth to her homeless child in a crude stable.
Mary Jesus died because a ruthless economic system, and the avaricious landlords that benefit from it, have made greed the crowning value. Love for money has replaced reverence for human life as the highest value of our society. Countless lives are sacrificed to this golden idol so landlords can reap ever-higher profits — no matter the cost in ruined lives.
When I first learned of the death of Mary Jesus, I flashed back to the beautifully radical words of the Magnificat uttered by Mary to greet her son’s birth: “God has pulled down princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich sent empty away.” (Luke 1:52-53)
Those words from the Magnificat have inspired poor people all over the world with their revolutionary call for justice for the poor. Liberation theologians cite Mary’s words to show that God has made a “preferential option for the poor.”
But in this world governed by ungodly greed and uncaring landlords and courts rigged for the rich, the legal system has made a preferential option for the rich.
When landlords calculate their profits, raise their rents and order their evictions without ever calculating the human costs of their actions, I wonder if they are ever reminded of another businessman in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
This seasonal masterpiece is a profound indictment of the unconscionable greed of landlords, moneylenders and evictors. Ebenezer Scrooge, an avaricious businessman, is warned that his greed and exploitation of the poor are sealing his doom, wrapping him in ponderous chains made of the tools in trade of greedy landlords — “cashboxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.”
Many landlords today, if they only had eyes to see, might turn around and see an equally weighty and terrible chain of bad karma that they are forging. For those who place intolerable burdens on the backs of their tenants, and extort every last cent until their renters are penniless, and then evict them, the chains of karma must be a horrible burden, even if unseen.
Asked to make a charitable donation, Scrooge refuses, saying that the homeless must go to prisons and poorhouses. When told that many cannot go there and others would rather die, he replies, “If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Mary Jesus did precisely that. She could not bear the thought of prolonged homelessness, of shivering through cold December nights in alleys or being hopelessly exiled to shelters and Dickensian poorhouses. So she died and decreased the city’s population of low-income renters.
Her death symbolizes the elimination of multitudes who have been evicted and have ended up homeless, or have been forced to move out of the city. Her violent death shocks our consciences and brings vividly to mind the fate of all of those evicted and now homeless people that are so bitterly complained about by business owners and politicians, and criminalized by the police.
In the same month that Mary Jesus committed suicide, the National Low Income Housing Coalition released a report showing that California topped all states in the income needed to afford an apartment. This nationwide survey of rents also found that a full-time worker making the federal minimum wage could not afford a one-bedroom apartment in 3,062 of the nation’s 3,066 counties.
Mary Jesus, who was permanently disabled and living on G.A., made far less than the minimum wage. Losing her housing in the most expensive state in the nation was a life-threatening blow.
In the song “Dead End Street,” Ray Davies, the songwriter for The Kinks, described the gnawing desperation of poor tenants who feel pushed to the very brink of extinction by landlords:
“What are we living for? Two-room apartment on the second floor.
No money coming in. Rent collector’s knocking, trying to get in.
We are strictly second-class, we don’t understand
Why we should be on dead end street.
People are living on dead end street
I’m gonna die on dead end street.”
“Weep no more, my lady,” as Judy Garland once sang so passionately. Mary Jesus has now escaped the pain and greed and injustices of this life. She is beyond tears now. We who still remain can weep for her, but it will never bring her back.
Only one thing would have saved her life: justice. Justice is hard to find in a nation ruled by the power of money and the unquestioned belief that the pursuit of profit is more sacred than the lives of human beings trampled down in the mad rush for more money.
Since homelessness has created so much suffering and so many deaths in the Bay Area, why are landlords permitted to engage in a frenzy of rental profiteering that leads directly to the loss of housing? Housing is not some luxury item to be cynically exploited for maximum profit. It is a human necessity, essential for the preservation of life and health.
More than that that, housing is a human right, according to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
I dream of a memorial for Mary Jesus, a memorial that honors her life and death, and portrays the hardships faced by poor renters. Would a memorial show Mary in her flowing black clothes, her dark, cascading hair, her punk-rock fire and attitude and intelligence? Perhaps it would be a sculpture of her tiny figure atop the Tribune Tower, with a plaque showing her eviction notice and her last words: “The love of money is the root of all evil!”
But the only memorial worthy of Mary’s sacrifice is justice. Perhaps, in her name, the landlords could give up their assault on the Just Cause for Eviction law. Perhaps, before they raise the rents to unbearable levels, they could consider the human faces of tenants and their children, their lives and hopes and dreams.
Perhaps they could remember that they hold the lives of renters in their hands when they make their cold calculations about real estate and profits and money.
Perhaps they could simply remember Mary Jesus, in life and in death, and how her dreams were shattered, and her spirit was broken, and her life was lost due to the avarice of her landlords.