Days of Destruction
Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, 2012
In the introduction to his latest book, Hedges says that he and artist Joe Sacco set out two years ago to take a look at our country’s “sacrifice zones,” areas totally devoted to “exploitation in the name of profit, progress, and technological advancement. We wanted to show in words and drawings what life looks like when the marketplace rules without constraints, where human beings and the natural world are used and then discarded to maximize profit. We wanted to look at what the ideology of unfettered capitalism means for families, communities, workers, and the ecosystem.
The rise of corporatism,” Hedges says, “began with the industrial revolution, westward expansion, and the genocide carried out in the name of progress and Western civilization against Native Americans.” Corporatism for Hedges is more than an economic system – it’s “an ideology, a way of looking at and dealing with each other and the world around us. This ideology glorifies profit and wealth, and embraces the belief that societies and cultures can be regenerated through violence.
The belief in a divine right to resources, land, and power, and a right to displace and kill others to obtain personal and national wealth, has left in its wake a trail of ravaged landscapes and incalculable human suffering across the country and the planet. What was done to Native Americans, the template, would be done to people in the Philippines, Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and it’s now finally being done to us.
The ruthless hunt for profit creates a world in which everything and everyone is expendable, and nothing is sacred. It’s blighted inner cities, and turned the Appalachian Mountains into a moonscape of poisoned water, soil, and air. It’s forced workers into a downward spiral of falling wages and mounting debt, until laborers in agricultural fields and sweatshops work in slavery-like conditions.” In recent years, it’s impoverished the American working class and “ravaged the middle class – all to enrich a tiny global elite.”
Among industrialized nations, Hedges reports, the United States has the
- highest poverty rate,
- greatest inequality of incomes and lowest social mobility,
- lowest government spending on social programs,
- lowest score on the UN indexes of material well-being of children and gender equality,
- highest infant mortality rate and highest proportion of population going without health care due to cost, despite the highest public and private expenditure on health care [thanks to the profits insisted upon by the largely unregulated drug and insurance industries, even though insurance doesn’t need to be involved in health care, and isn’t in most countries],
- highest obesity rate and prevalence of mental-health problems,
- highest carbon dioxide emissions and water consumption [largely because of corporate industry],
- highest rate of failure to ratify international agreements and lowest spending on international development and humanitarian assistance,
- highest military spending and largest international arms sales,
- among the lowest scores for student performance in math, science, and reading, and the second-highest high school dropout rate,
- the highest homicide rate, and
- the largest prison population and “the only one to use the death penalty extensively.” Japan executed two people in 2010, and Singapore one, to the US’s 46; China, still considered a developing country, executed over 2,000.
The first sacrifice area Hedges and Sacco visited, was the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in southwestern South Dakota, home of the Oglala Lakota (or Sioux), the tribe of Crazy Horse and Red Cloud, two of the victorious leaders at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Hedges, who titles this chapter “Days of Theft,” begins by describing Whiteclay, Nebraska, just over the state line from South Dakota and the reservation. It “has one main street – Nebraska Highway 87,” he says, “and exists to sell 4.5 million cans of beer and malt liquor a year to reservation residents, some of the poorest people in the country.” These sales of alcoholic beverages bring in $3 million a year in revenue. “Most of those who live on the reservation earn between $2,600 and $3,500 a year. Drinkers buy on credit, beg, or trade food stamps or sex for alcohol. Alcoholism on Pine Ridge, although the sale of alcoholic beverages is banned there, is estimated to be as high as 80%.
Whiteclay is an extension of the long night of ethnic cleansing, degradation, and murder stretching back more than a century and a half, to the U.S. Cavalry charges on Indian encampments in which women and children were shot down as they fled, and the systematic eradication of food sources by the white colonizers. Fights, brawls, and shootings shut down the bars and saloons of Whiteclay – all sales are now carryout. But it still provides the liquid fuel for car wrecks, diabetes, heart attacks, domestic abuse, divorces, joblessness, violence, early deaths, and suicides: one in five Indian girls and one in eight boys attempts suicide by the end of high school.”
According to Wikipedia, “in 1998, suicides among European Americans accounted for 84% of all youth suicides, 61% male and 23% female. However, the suicide rate for Native Americans was 19.3 per 100,000, much higher than the overall rate (8.5 per 100,000). The suicide rate for African Americans has increased more than twofold since 1981. A national survey of high school students conducted in 1999 reported that Hispanic students are twice as likely to report an attempted suicide than Caucasian students.”
Hedges further notes that “the average male life expectancy on Pine Ridge is 48, the lowest in the Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti.
The genocide that came close to obliterating Native Americans; the Indian boarding schools that ripped children away from their families, forbade them to speak their language, or practice their religion or customs; the 80% unemployment on the reservation; the racism of neighboring white ranchers and law enforcement; the frequent lack of running water and electricity in overcrowded trailer homes and sod huts; and the horrific violence are numbed or forgotten in drunkenness. The violence imposed on Indian culture has become internalized.
The dichotomy of belief between whites and Native Americans was so vast that the latter, holding on to animism and mysticism, to ambiguity and mystery, to the centrality of the human imagination, to communal living and a concept of the sacred, had to be extinguished. The belief system encountered on the plains, and in the earlier indigenous communities in New England destroyed by the Puritans, was antithetical and hostile to capitalism, as well as to the concepts of technological progress and empire, and the ethos of industrial society. The premodern view of the world as a living and sacred entity was violently vanquished, to be replaced by a culture that knelt before the power of the machine and a wage economy. An estimated 2 million indigenous people in the United States were reduced, through slaughter, starvation, and disease, to less than a quarter of a million people by 1900,” an attrition rate of 87.5%.
“The assault on Native American culture didn’t end with the forced settlement of Indians into what were, in essence, prisoner of war camps. The Dawes Act of 1887 reduced Indian land from 136.6 million to 34.2 million acres, and banned the practice of Native American culture, language, and religion. Children were forcibly taken from their families and sent to Christian boarding schools [where significant numbers of them were sexually molested and otherwise abused]. Many were not allowed to return home for the summer, but were sent to live with white families. ‘The Indians must conform to the white man’s ways,’ Thomas Morgan, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, said in 1889. ‘Tribal relations should be broken up, socialism destroyed, and the family and autonomy of the individual substituted.’
Pine Ridge, one of six reservations left within the old boundaries of the Great Sioux Reservation, is the eighth largest reservation in the United States, larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. [By population, Pine Ridge ranks 11th.] Population estimates run from 28,000 to 40,000. In addition to high unemployment, 49% of those on the reservation live below the poverty level, a figure that rises to 61% for those under the age of 18. The infant mortality rate is five times the national average. And at any given moment, more than 60% of the dwellings lack electricity or running water.
Pine Ridge has vast tracts of open land, though only 84,000 acres are suitable for agriculture, so much of the reservation’s prairie is leased to white or mixed-blood cattle ranchers. The reservation includes Shannon County, where the per capita income is $7,880, making it the second poorest county in the United States; the southern half of Jackson County; and the northwest portion of Bennet County. Of the 3,143 counties in the United States, these three are consistently ranked among the most impoverished.
In his book The Developing Nations, Robert E. Gamer writes, ‘The fact that alienated people can be counted on to vent their spleen in ineffectual directions – by fighting among themselves [there’s a lot of gang violence on Pine Ridge] – relieves the government of the need to deal with the conditions that cause their frustrations.’ All the government has to do is ‘prevent those few who are prone to political action from organizing into politically effective groups.’
The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 replaced traditional tribal elders with elected tribal governments [essentially collaborators] that were easily controlled and manipulated by federal authorities. The Indians who led the 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee were also products of the colonialists’ attempts at assimilation, however. Charlie Abourezk, a white lawyer who lives on the reservation and married into the Oglala Lakota tribe, told us that ‘young people who were turned on by the civil rights movement came back to the reservations in the early 1970s. They were a perfect marriage with the traditional people who’d been disempowered and largely ignored. The traditionals, who had held off the dominant culture, needed allies against the mixed-bloods, called iyeskas in the Lakota language. It was the iyeskas who dominated tribal governments and soaked up most of the resources and power within the tribe.’
On February 27, 1973, 200 armed activists, protesting the killing of Raymond Yellow Thunder in Gordon, Nebraska, and the beatings, drive-by shootings, and assassinations of Indian activists on Pine Ridge [by tribal government goons], occupied Wounded Knee [site of the 1890 massacre of as many as 300 Lakota by the 7th Cavalry] and demanded tribal chief Dick Wilson’s removal. They also called on the federal government to fulfill the promises of broken treaties.
The activists were swiftly encircled by U.S. marshals, FBI agents, BIA police, and a collection of local and state law enforcement manning 15 armed personnel carriers mounted with .50 caliber machine guns and armed with automatic and sniper rifles, grenade launchers, and night flares.
On April 6th, after two Indian deaths, tribal elders called for an end to the occupation. The activists agreed to disarm on May 5th.
Tribal chairman Dick Wilson, who sported a crew cut and denounced his opponents as communists, pilfered tribal funds to enrich himself, his family, and his supporters, and engaged in voter fraud to stay in office. He was cavalier with tribal lands, leasing huge swaths to white ranchers at bargain prices, and handing over nearly one-eighth of the reservation’s mineral-rich lands to private companies for exploitation. At least 60 of Wilson’s opponents met violent deaths while he was in power.
At a memorial ceremony for Webster Poor Bear, a Vietnam vet wounded in the 1973 occupation, his daughter read from a letter he wrote her shortly before his death: ‘The white male hurries because of money. Do not allow that influence of the male inside your heart, because they have already influenced your mind. The male-influenced world is based on money. Our world is not. We come from the other side. There are two senses. One is in this dimension. That one is your flesh. The one in our dimension is our heart. It gives life in a different way. That is the real strength. The absolute gift is the warming of the heart, not the flesh. I give you that gift. That is the way, my girl, we are going to live as a people – not as individuals, but as a people, the people of earth. We all come from our great mother, and she is the earth, a child of Tunkasila [Our Grandfather].’”
Hedges and Sacco went next to Camden, New Jersey, once an important port and manufacturing center, now a drug-ridden pocket of extreme poverty. Titling this segment “Days of Siege,” Hedges says, “Violence begets violence. The violence of the state – brute force, internal colonies from which the poor can rarely escape, and massive incarceration – is countered with the street violence of the enraged. Brutalized on the street and in prison, sometimes brutalized at home, they strike out with a self-destructive fury.
Slavery, segregation, sharecropping, convict leasing [a widespread Southern practice in the late 19th and much of the 20th century that amounted to kidnapping and slavery], Jim Crow, lynching, urban squalor, poverty, racism, prison – it’s a continuum,” Hedges says.
“The United States is home to 25% of the world’s prison inmates. One out of three African American males goes to prison. More African Americans are subject to the coercive forces of correctional control through prisons, probation, and parole today than were enslaved a decade before the Civil War.
The days of segregated buses and lunch counters may be over, but integration never really became a reality except for a few middle-class blacks.” Real integration in Hedges’ view would include programs to lift African Americans out of their internal colonies, better schools and job training for the poor, and providing jobs with living wages. “The civil rights movement,” he says, “was a legal victory, not an economic one. And the economic barriers remain rigid and impenetrable for the bottom two-thirds of African Americans whose lives today are worse than when King marched in Selma. When cities were deserted by whites, who took with them the jobs and tax base to keep the cities alive, city halls were turned over to compliant black elites whose loyalty rarely extended beyond their own corrupt inner circle.
Camden sits on the edge of the Delaware River facing the Philadelphia skyline. A multilane highway slices through its heart, allowing commuters to pass overhead, in and out of Philadelphia, without seeing the human misery below.
Because US corporations have exported manufacturing overseas, whole sections of American cities have become industrial ghost towns. Camden, now a dead city that makes and produces nothing, is the poorest city in the United States, usually ranked as one of the most, and often the most, dangerous. In early 2011 nearly half of the city’s police force, 168 officers, were laid off because of a $26 million budget shortfall. By the end of 2011, although more than 100 officers had been rehired, homicides had climbed by 30% and burglaries by more than 40% from the previous year. Mayor Dana Redd, an African American, responded to the upsurge in crime in December 2011 by calling for a county takeover of the city’s police force, a call the police union said was designed primarily to break the union and hire cheaper, non-unionized officers.”
Hedges says that Camden “is beset with the same kind of corruption and brutal police repression” he saw in “the despotic regimes [he] covered in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. The per capita income in the city is $11,967, and nearly 40% of city residents live below the poverty line. Large swaths of the city are abandoned – there are more than 1,500 derelict, gutted row houses. The empty shells of factories, warehouses, and abandoned gas stations surround the city, and there are overgrown vacant lots filled with garbage, old tires, and rusted appliances. There are neglected, weed-filled cemeteries, boarded-up storefronts, and a hundred gang-run open-air drug markets in brazen defiance of the law. The drug trade is the city’s only thriving business.
Three of the city’s mayors have gone to prison for corruption in the last 20 years, and the school system and police department have been taken over by the state. The deeper the descent, the more the criminal class and the city authorities become indistinguishable, in a microcosm of corporate infiltration of the national power structure.
Camden was once a manufacturing giant, but during the ’60s, manufacturers left to find cheaper labor in the South, then overseas. Neighborhoods began to decay, community cohesion broke down, and white flight became a stampede after the riots that erupted in August 1971 following the beating death by police of a Puerto Rican motorist. Less than 5% of the city is now Caucasian, and its population has declined by 36% since 1950. The movie theaters are boarded up or gone, and there are no more factories, hotels, or motels. The only supermarket is on the outskirts of the city, isolated from street crime.
Economic segregation has turned New Jersey into one of the most segregated states in the nation. When Mount Laurel [a nearby rural area] was seized by developers, it became a haven for whites fleeing urban decay, and its original black inhabitants could no longer afford to live there. Driven from their land, they were forced into squalid internal colonies like Camden.
Less than 12% of Camden High’s students pass the state’s proficiency exams in math and barely 37% in language arts; only 54% graduate. The city spends 75% of its budget on its police and fire departments, a harbinger of the corporate state, where only the security apparatus is maintained. The main branch of the city’s library has been shut down due to lack of funds.
Camden’s carcass has become a dumping ground. The county took over 40 acres of land on the city’s waterfront and built a sewage treatment plant that receives 58 million gallons of wastewater a day. The stench of sewage wafts through the city streets. There’s also a huge trash-burning plant on the waterfront that releases noxious clouds, and a prison, a massive cement plant, mountains of scrap metal, and a giant metal shredder. Camden is the poster child for postindustrial America: a window into the dead end that will come to more and more Americans as corporations harvest what’s left of the nation for short-term profit and leave behind wreckage and environmental disaster.
Bankrupt and plagued by mismanagement and corruption, the city was turned over to the state in 2002 in the biggest municipal takeover in American history. Under the Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act that gave it $175 million in bonds and loans, the state appointed a chief operating officer to run the government and gave the governor control of the school board. The takeover was promoted as a way to create jobs, improve the quality of life, and reduce crime. The state promised to tear down thousands of abandoned buildings, bring in new businesses, and repair the city’s infrastructure, including sewers that leak raw sewage into home basements.
The infusion of money did nothing to alleviate poverty in Camden, however. Its residents remained just as unemployed, just as likely to be victims of assault and homicide, and just as poorly served by city institutions, from schools to the police, as they’d been before. The money was simply a vehicle for other predators, this time white predators who didn’t live in Camden, to swell their bank accounts [in the classic pattern of “disaster capitalism” described in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine].
Poverty is a business. And those who profit most from Camden’s poverty are the state’s Democratic Party leaders and New Jersey’s most powerful political boss, George E. Norcross III, who holds no political office and doesn’t live in Camden. The majority of the state bailout funds – nearly $100 million of the $170 million spent – were funneled to firms and construction companies that are large contributors to the Democratic Party. Norcross, who runs Connor Strong & Buckelew, one of the country’s largest insurance brokerages, has collected tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of dollars in governmental work across the state for his insurance firms. His insurance division serves more than half the state’s municipalities.
Norcross, nicknamed “King George,” lives in the upscale suburban community of Cherry Hill. A college dropout, he decides who runs for office and who doesn’t, who gets contracts, and what projects receive state funds. Norcross influences the language of every state budget and can block or pass legislation – little is done in South Jersey without his approval. So, when the money came into Camden, nearly all of it went to his pet construction projects.
Even though he’s a Democrat, Norcross has become a political ally of Republican governor and presidential hopeful Chris Christie. He’s the prototype of the new political boss, the one who wears tailored suits, serves on bank boards, and runs insurance companies. These men use their vast wealth to buy the candidates and the judges who serve their corporations’ interests, and to intimidate and destroy those who stand in their way.
Norcross is part of a small group of investors that in April 2012 bought the Philadelphia Media Network, which owns the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News, and the Philly.com website. Parks, bridges, roads, and municipal construction projects in South Jersey usually go through Norcross’s hands, and hundreds of state and municipal employees owe their jobs to him. He backed his brother, Donald, once president of the Southern New Jersey AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, representing 85,000 workers, to replace New Jersey State Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts, Jr., a former business partner. Don Norcross is also the business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 351, which, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote checks totaling more than $125,000 to the Camden County Democratic Party and its candidates between 2001 and 2008. The party, the Inquirer reported, doesn’t send out explicit demands for donations to business owners, construction companies, or law firms. The number of invitations to fund-raising events that arrive in the mail indicates how much the machine expects businesses to contribute; attendance at the events is optional.
Tens of millions in state funds have been devoted to infrastructure projects to make Norcross and his associates wealthy, and millions have been donated by these firms and contractors to the machine’s bank accounts. Less than 5% of the $175 million Camden recovery package was spent addressing the most pressing concerns in the city – crime, schools, job training, and municipal services. It went instead to Rowan University, Rutgers University, Cooper Hospital, and a new Aquarium.
None of this is new,” Hedges reminds us. “White supremacy, wielded by the privileged, is one of the uninterrupted constants in American life. The poor and the working class, along with women, slaves, indentured servants, and Native Americans, have been excluded by the white male elites since the Constitutional Convention. American history, as illustrated by Howard Zinn in The People’s History of the United States, has been one long fight by the marginalized and disenfranchised for dignity and freedom. There have been moments when radical movements, especially on the eve of World War I and during the Great Depression, have expanded opportunities, but corporate capitalism has reversed most of these gains over the last few decades.
The only business besides drug dealing that flourishes in Camden is the sale of scrap metal. Colossal scrap piles rise along the banks of the Delaware River, filled with discarded appliances, rusted filing cabinets, twisted pipes, old turbines, and corrugated sheet metal. A crane uses a magnet to swing the scrap to a shredding machine. The twenty or so scrap merchants in the city have created a market for the metal guts of apartments and houses. As soon as a house is empty, even if it’s just for a few days between renters, a battalion of hustlers breaks in and strips it of every pipe, radiator, screen door, and window screen. Without pipes, the basements swiftly flood with water. Thousands of owners, faced with this instant destruction over the past three or four decades, have simply walked away” from their properties.
The third sacrifice area in the book is southern West Virginia, whose people are still impoverished after hundreds of years of coal mining, and whose environment has been turned into a toxic moonscape by mountaintop removal. Hedges titles this chapter “Days of Devastation.”
One of Hedges’ and Sacco’s primary informants in West Virginia was Larry Gibson, whose “wood cabin is on the ridge where he and his family have lived for more than 230 years. Coal companies are blasting hundreds of thousands of acres of the Appalachians into mounds of debris and rubble to unearth seams of coal, but Gibson has preserved 50 acres – a forested ribbon of land, surrounded by a sea of gray rock, pale patches of thin grass, and barren plateaus where mountain peaks and towering pines once stood. Valleys and creeks, including the old swimming hole Gibson used as a boy, are buried under mining waste. The wells, including his own, are dry, and the aquifers below the mountain poisoned. The fine grit of coal dust in the air settles on our lips and leaves a metallic taste in our mouths.
There were once 60 families clustered around Kayford Mountain, along with a small general store and a church. Gibson’s father was a coal miner whose leg was shattered in 1956 in a mine collapse. The coal company didn’t pay any benefits, and the bills piled up. Evicted from their home, the family camped out for a few months, then went to Cleveland, where Larry’s father found work in a barrel factory and later worked for Ford. By the time Gibson moved back to the mountain after retiring from General Motors on disability, the land of his boyhood was barely recognizable. His family’s 500 acres had shrunk to 50, old claims to underground mineral rights, many of them deeded by illiterate ancestors, having given coal companies the ability to seize the land. The constant daily explosions at the edge of Larry’s property – one typical week in West Virginia equals the cumulative power of the blast on Hiroshima – rain down showers of rocks. In 2007, Larry says, ‘Massey Coal pushed 139 family graves over a high wall. The cemetery was 300 years old, but there was coal underneath. They do what they want in the coalfields.’” If anyone challenges their activities, “’they got the money and the attorneys and the time to win in court.’
Coal companies are the only employers left in southern West Virginia, one of the poorest pockets of poverty in the nation, and the desperate scramble for the few remaining jobs has allowed the coal companies to portray people like Larry as enemies. His cabin has been burned down, and he’s endured drive-by shootings. Two of his dogs have been shot. He lost his water in 2001 when the blasting dropped the water table. He keeps stacks of dead birds in his freezer that choked to death on the foul air, hoping that someone might investigate why birds in this part of the state routinely fall out of the sky.
Larry says, ‘Coal-related disease kills people who never worked in the mines. We lose 4,500 people every year who just live in the coalfields, and there are lots of premature births and birth defects. Coal kills, everybody knows that. But the profit margin is higher than the price of a life. The people here have become submissive, just like a woman who’s abused and beaten.
Do you know what it’s like to hear a mountain get blown up? A mountain is a live vessel, man; it’s life itself. You walk through the woods here, and you’re gonna hear the critters scampering around – that’s what a mountain is. I’m not a highly brained guy, don’t have a lot of education. I just point at the common denominator of things: You screw up one thing, another is gonna fall, and if that falls, something else is gonna fall, and how much more do we have to fall before we start saying, “Whoa, there’s something wrong here”?’
A dozen men with heavy machines can carry out this kind of mining. When coal companies dig underground, they employ hundreds of miners to extract the same amount of coal.
Larry points to a huge impoundment of toxic coal waste that lies behind a dam in the distance. ‘They’re dynamiting within 200 feet of the face of that thousand-foot dam. When it breaks, the sludge will be 40 feet high comin’ at you, and mine waste weighs four times more per gallon than water. It’s above an abandoned mine shaft, too. One way of another, it’s gonna come out and kill people here. Ya see how narrow these hollers are? We’re gonna lose a lot of people.’” A fictionalized, but very real account of such an event appears in the novel The Evening Hour by Carter Sickels (2012). Sickels acknowledges some of the same sources Hedges and Sacco used to portray “Dove Creek,” West Virginia, including Larry Gibson.
Gibson says, “’I been callin’ fer a revolution across this country fer a long time. I think it was Thomas Jefferson who said we should have a revolution every 20 years to keep the country in check. We bin way overdue.’
‘What would it look like?’” Hedges asks.
“’It would be holdin’ the government in contempt. It would be holdin’ the government to credibility and accountability. It would be holdin’ people accountable for their actions. That’s all I’m askin’ fer. They’re gonna destroy my state, and the government’s gonna give them the incentives to do it. My grandchildren and great-grandchildren won’t have any heritage here. They won’t have any mountain culture here, ’cause they’re wipin’ it out. I had the best time of my life not knowin’ I wasn’t rich or comfortable or wealthy. Who measures wealth? How do you do it? All the energy we have, all the people they destroyed, all the fatalities on these mine sites, and they keep makin’ reference to this as cheap energy.’
‘What keeps you going?’
‘I’m right. That’s all.’”
Gibson, Hedges, and Joe Sacco flew over the coalfields with Vivian Stockman, the project coordinator for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and Susan Lapis, a pilot and chemistry professor. “Lapis explained what happens when heavy metals are blasted into the air and rainwater trickles through pulverized rock, entering the water supply. ‘From the air you can see weirdly-colored pools of water on the mine sites,’ she says. ‘They’re colored by heavy metals in unnatural concentrations.’
The coal ash in the slurry ponds, which are often the size of small lakes, contains high levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium, selenium, and mercury. Many of these ponds are perched above towns and schools, and when the dirt walls of the ponds burst, the damage is catastrophic.
We fly over hundreds of trees, which along with the topsoil and sandstone are being bulldozed over the side of a mountain by 75-ton Caterpillar D10 bulldozers. Many of the trees lying like matchsticks on the sides of the peak are on fire. Yellow construction vehicles crawl across the blasted landscape.
‘Your eye tricks you from up here,’ Lapis says. ‘Those are some of the largest machines on earth. They have 12-foot tires.’
The bulldozers, trucks, and backhoes she’s talking about look like children’s toys next to the dragline excavators, which cost upward of a $100 million and can be 20 stories tall. Once a few hundred feet are blasted off the top of a mountain, a dragline can fill the back of a truck with 60 tons of coal rock in a few minutes.
Disease in the coalfields is rampant.” In addition to the heavy metals described above, “coal ash deposits have heavy concentrations of hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen. Cancer, like black lung disease, is epidemic.
More than a half a million acres, or 800 square miles, of the Appalachians have been destroyed. More than 500 mountain peaks are gone, along with an estimated 1,000 miles of streams. Gigantic slag heaps, the residue of decades of mining operations, lie idle, periodically catching fire and belching acrid, oily plumes of smoke.
Dependence on coal, which supplies the energy for half the nation’s electricity, means that it’s extracted, as supplies diminish, by ever more extreme methods [the same as oil]. The Appalachian region provides most of the country’s coal, its production dwarfed only by that of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. A hundred tons of coal is taken from the earth every 2 seconds in the United States, about 70% of it from strip mines and mountaintop removal, which began in 1970.
U.S. Steel operated one of the largest coal preparation plants in the world in Gary, West Virginia. When it closed the plant in 1986, 1,200 workers lost their jobs. There were almost 99,000 people in McDowell County in 1950; today there are fewer than 23,000. Gary’s rutted streets are lined by empty clapboard houses with sagging roofs and fallen porches. Rusted appliances, the frames of old cars, and heaps of garbage lie scattered in front of these deserted dwellings and clog the brackish water in the creeks. There’s no supermarket, just a convenience store and gas station across the road from where drugs are sold.
There are rarely mayors in these towns, and basic services such as water, electricity, and fuel are often no longer available. Gary’s untreated sewer water has poured directly into Tug Fork for more than two years.
Those who want fresh produce or meat, or who need to see a doctor, have to find a ride into the county seat of Welch, which has seen its ’50s boom population of 100,000 reduced to 2,180. Welch, like Gary, is little more than a ghost town. But at least it still has a hospital and a supermarket.
Nearly 30% of Welch residents live on less than $10,000 a year, and 40% of families with children live below the poverty line, a proportion that skyrockets to 75% if there are children under the age of five. The high school dropout rate is 28%, compared with 8% nationwide. The city has had no new construction in twenty years, and whole streets are deserted.
Billions of dollars worth of timber and coal have been taken out of southern West Virginia over the past century by outside interests, whose residents are among the poorest in the nation. Even with mountaintop removal, coal production in 2009 fell by 13%, one of the biggest declines in 50 years.
The December 2008 coal ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tennessee released 1.1 billion gallons of waste across 300 acres and into nearby rivers. The ash-filled sludge had accumulated for decades from the coal-fired plant, and the spill was 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster, caused by the bursting of a slurry impoundment dam at the Pittston Coal Company in Logan County, West Virginia sent more than 132 million gallons of swirling poison into the valley towns below. The flooding left 125 people dead and more than 1,200 injured. Some 4,000 people were left homeless. The depletion of soil and trees has also resulted in frequent flash floods. In 2001 and 2002, rains dumped some ten inches in 12 hours. Torrents of water poured down the denuded slopes and ripped through communities, leaving 40 dead. Those whose homes are destroyed [when preventable disasters like this occur,] usually take what money they can get from the government’s disaster relief program and move. Those who remain live amid the ruins.
Julian Martin, a 74-year-old retired high school teacher and the son of a coal miner, recognizes the area as a sacrifice zone. ‘It’s so the rest of the country can have electric toothbrushes and leave the lights on all night in parking lots for used cars. These corporations are goin’ to strip the whole country. If you face this reality, then you become a guerilla. You blow up the damn thing,’ he says.
Half of those living in McDowell County depend on some kind of relief check, retirement benefits, or unemployment to survive. They live on the margins, check to check, expecting no improvement in their lives and seeing none. Appalachia was the pilot project for outside government assistance, which issued the first food stamps in 1961 to a household in Paynesville, West Virginia.
West Virginia recorded 91 drug overdose deaths in 2001, and 390 in 2008. Drug overdoses are the leading cause of accidental death in the state, which leads the country in fatal drug overdoses. OxyContin – nicknamed “hillbilly heroin” – is king. It costs a dollar a milligram, and a couple of 60- or 80-milligram pills sold is a significant boost to a family’s income. Dealers, many of whom are based in Detroit, travel from clinic to clinic in Florida to stock up on opiates, then sell them out of the backs of gleaming SUVs in West Virginia, usually around the first of the month, when the government checks arrive. Those who have legal prescriptions also sell the drugs for a profit – pushers are often retirees who can make a few hundred extra dollars a month selling their medications.
Prisons are supposed to be the new growth industry in the area. West Virginia has six large federal prisons and 13 state prisons. Prisons are touted by state officials as bonanzas for the unemployed and the underemployed. But prison operators complain that local applicants often can’t pass the proficiency exams or drug tests. For these reasons, most of the jobs go to outsiders.
The Massey Energy Coal Company uses non-unionized labor and has presided over a series of deadly mine disasters due to its poor safety record. The third largest coal company in the country, it’s leveled an area the size of Delaware – 1.4 million acres – over the past ten years, and left behind a dead and poisoned landscape. Coal companies like Massey rack up safety and environmental violations, finding it cheaper to pay the occasional fine than comply with the law.
Don Blankenship, chairman and CEO of Massey Energy, from 2000 to 2010, is the personification of the coal companies’ indifference to human life. His retirement was triggered in part by the deaths of 29 miners on April 5, 2010 in an explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine, which had accumulated 458 safety violations that year. It was the worst mine disaster in 40 years.”
Immolakee, Florida is the fourth and final area Hedges and Sacco use as an example of a place and people sacrificed to capitalism. Hedges titles this chapter “Days of Slavery,” saying that “harvesting tomatoes and other agricultural produce from the nation’s fields is arguably the worst job in the country. Workers must bend over plants for hours in blazing temperatures, and are exposed to toxic chemicals and verbal and physical abuse from crew leaders. The US Department of Labor estimates that the agriculture industry has a death rate seven times higher than the average industrial rate.” And for what? “The meager pay, along with wage theft and minimum wage violations, keep the majority of workers below the poverty line.
The average annual income for farmworkers is between $10,000 and $12,500, a third of the national average. A laborer must pick almost two-and-a-quarter tons of tomatoes a day to earn minimum wage – twice what had to be picked 30 years ago for the same amount of money. Half the people in Immokalee live below the poverty line, and two-thirds of the children who enter kindergarten never graduate from high school.” Adding insult to injury, “on any given morning, as many as half of the laborers who wait in the collection spots walk away without work.
Many workers send money home to Mexico every month to support their impoverished families. They hover between impoverishment and homelessness, never sure when they’re going to be pushed over the line.
The major retail food brands that have grown at meteoric rates over the past 30 years use volume purchasing to drive their profits and growth at the expense of the workers who make that growth possible, and suppliers and growers, beset by the rising costs of pesticides, fertilizer, and fuel, have few other ways to save money. In 1992, according to the US Department of Agriculture, the farm share of every US consumer dollar spent on tomatoes was 40.8%. By the end of the ’90s, that number had fallen to 20.5%. Growers have lost half of their share of the retail price to the retailers. Wages in the fields have remained stagnant for three decades.
20,000 farmworkers suffer from acute pesticide poisoning every year, and there are high rates of cancer. ‘We know we’re not supposed to be workin’ when they spray,’ says farmworker David Sanchez. ‘We all have to watch a video that shows workers wearing protective gloves. We sign a paper saying we know the regulations, we don’t say nothin’ when the growers spray around us and break the regulations. We need the job.’
For many workers, contact with the outside world, especially the white world, can mean deportation, an personal and economic catastrophe. Relatives in small villages in Mexico, Honduras, or Guatemala depend on the $100 a month sent back by wire. Homes are often put up as collateral to raise the transportation fees demanded by the coyotes, the traffickers who smuggle undocumented immigrants into the US. Families face ruin if the workers they depend on are deported. Undocumented workers who defy the bosses can not only be blacklisted, but threatened with exposure to the INS, the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Rents in the trailer parks, dominated by three local families who collectively fix the price, are astronomical. A trailer that should be condemned, shared by 10 workers, brings in a monthly rent of $2,000. Most workers have no car and need to be close to collection points. Those who can’t pay the $50 a week sleep outside. A local Catholic church gave campers tents, but the police confiscated them.
These workers have no job protection or security, no benefits, no medical coverage, no overtime, no Social Security, no food stamps, and no legal protection. When older workers lose their endurance and agility, most crew leaders refuse to hire them, and many head back to Mexico, Haiti, or Guatemala as poor as when they arrived.
‘We used to own our slaves,’ a grower admitted in Edward R. Murrow’s 1960 television exposé “Harvest of Shame.” ‘Now we just rent them.’ Lack of legal status, inability to speak English, and fear of deportation make migrant workers easy to abuse and exploit. Debt peonage often begins with a transportation fee, $1,000 for a ride to Florida, workers being told they can’t leave till the debt is repaid. Crew leaders add to the debt in the farm camps, charging workers for rent, food, wine, beer, and cigarettes.
These debt peonage operations are often large. Miguel Flores of La Belle, Florida and Sebastian Gomez of Immolakee were sentenced to 15 years each in federal prison in 1997 on charges of slavery, extortion, and illegal possession of firearms. They oversaw a workforce of 400 men and women who harvested fields in Florida and South Carolina. The workers, mostly indigenous Mexicans and Guatemalans, were forced to work 10-12 hours a day, six days a week, for as little as $20 a week, under the supervision of armed guards. Those who attempted to escape were beaten, pistol-whipped, and at times shot. The crew leaders charged the workers exorbitant prices for food, and female workers were routinely raped. Flores told the workers if they ever told about their experiences, he’d cut out their tongues. This case was only one of the few that have been uncovered, due in part to the Coalition of Immolakee Workers, which convinced a dozen witnesses to come forward.
More than 1,000 men and women in the state of Florida have been freed from slave camps over the past 15 years by law enforcement, and since 1997 there have been nine federal prosecutions for slavery. Other operations go undetected. Workers are routinely sold to crew leaders, cheated out of pay, and beaten or pistol-whipped if they complain or are sick. They’re kept in gated enclosures at night, sometimes chained to prevent escape, and warned that their families in Mexico or Central America will pay the consequences if they flee and report the abuse to the authorities. Child labor laws are often ignored, and the body of an undocumented farm worker periodically appears on the side of the road or floating in one of the irrigation canals, a reminder to other workers of what happens when you challenge the bosses.
Laura Germino and her husband, Greg Asbed, helped form the Coalition of Immolakee Workers in the mid-’90s while they were working for Florida Rural Legal Services. Referring to the 2007 case of Ron Evans, who kept indebted workers enslaved behind a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, Germino says, ‘They’d recruit from homeless shelters or from centers where people were trying to recover from substance abuse. They’d promise them a job and a roof over their heads – a reasonable thing to want. Then people would end up in North Florida or the Carolinas in the kind of situation you see in this photo.’ She showed us a photo of Evans’s encampment, with its coils of barbed wire and ‘No Trespassing’ sign. Evans worked for grower Frank Johns, the former chairman of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, the powerful lobbying arm of the state agricultural industry. ‘This shows one of the more classic styles of holding people against their will, in use since the ’60s – a high fence and barbed wire. An man told us that at the end of the workday Evans would also take everyone’s shoes, so it’d be harder for them to leave. Evans was sentenced to 30 years in 2007, but he’d been practicing since the ’80s.’
Germino stresses that slavery won’t disappear until the growers and the corporations that buy produce are forced to comply with basic labor standards. The agricultural industry, she said, has long enslaved both citizens and non-citizens – the problem didn’t begin with the arrival of undocumented workers. ‘Forced labor is part of a continuum,’ Germino told us, ‘the end of a whole range of labor violations, and Florida has a continuous history over the past 300 years of slavery or forced labor. When any industry devolves from being an industry with a full-time work force with benefits and overtime, pensions, etc. to a sub-poverty minimum wage workforce – not salaried, day labor – you start seeing more cases of forced labor. We’re starting to see labor trafficking in the garment industry, in hotels, and in construction. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened in meatpacking, where salaries have also gotten lower and benefits worse. I’d hoped that agriculture would become more like other industries, but instead the race to the bottom has caused other industries to resemble agriculture.’
The Coalition is trying to get tomato buyers to sign a deal, known as the Fair Food Agreement, which has already been accepted by the giants of the fast-food industry. If the supermarket chains, including Publix, Trader Joe’s, Walmart, Kroger, and Ahold brands Giant and Stop & Shop, sign the agreement, the wages of the farm workers could nearly double. [Trader Joe’s signed the agreement in February 2012, but so far the other chains have not.] The agreement could also significantly alleviate the draconian conditions that permit forced labor, crippling poverty, and egregious human-rights violations, including slavery, in the tomato fields. If the campaign fails, the gains made by farmworkers could be threatened.
Lucas Benitez, an organizer with the Coalition, says, ‘We’re poor and isolated. But, like the Occupy movements, we’re responding to corporate power, and we’re nonhierarchical. Everyone has a voice.’
When growers tried to reduce wages in 1995, workers went on strike for a week, getting an agreement to keep wages the same or higher. The victory by some 3,000 migrant workers awakened a workforce that had previously been submissive.
A Coalition of Immolakee Worker staff salary is commensurate with farmworker income, meaning minimum wage with no health insurance or other benefits. Coalition representatives usually live in trailers and rundown houses in Immolakee, along with the workers. ‘We realized that the only way there would be real change was when we fought for ourselves,’ Benitez told us. ‘We got tired of waiting for someone from outside to come and save us.’
In 1996 a crew leader was successfully boycotted for viciously beating a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy for taking a drink of water in the fields without permission. There is now a participatory Complaint Investigation and Resolution Process, or grievance system, through which workers can identify abusive bosses and workplace conditions and eliminate them, without fear of retaliation. It’s brought concrete changes in the fields, from the provision of shade to prevent heat-related illnesses to the institution of time clocks.”
Hedges and Sacco conclude Days of Destruction on a hopeful note, using the Occupy movement as an example of the kind of thinking and action that could shift the paradigm. They begin this chapter, “Days of Revolt,” by reminding us that “on September 17, 2011, a few hundred activists, easily rebuffed by police in their quixotic attempt to physically occupy Wall Street in New York City, regrouped four blocks away in Zuccotti Park. They were disorganized at first, unsure of what to do, and not convinced they’d accomplished anything worthwhile, but they’d triggered a global movement of resistance that would reverberate across the country and in the capitals of Europe.
The devastation on Pine Ridge, in Camden, in southern West Virginia, and in the Florida produce fields has worked its way upward. The corporate leviathan has moved from the outer sacrifice zones to try to devour what remains. The vaunted American dream that life will get better, that progress and prosperity are assured if we work hard and obey the rules, has been shown to be a lie.” If we don’t do something to stop the capitalist juggernaut, we’ll “all be sacrificed,” Hedges writes. “The virus of corporate abuse – the perverted belief that only corporate profit matters – has spread to outsource our jobs, cut the budgets of our schools, close our libraries, and plague our communities with foreclosures and unemployment. And it’s brought with it a security and surveillance state that seeks to keep us all on a reservation.
The collapse of Communist regimes in eastern European countries like East Germany and Czechoslovakia in 1989 seemed sudden and magical, but the long road of sacrifice, tears, and suffering that led to these events stretched back decades. Those who made change possible were those who discarded all notions of the practical. They didn’t try to reform the Communist Party, or work within the system. They didn’t know what, if anything, their protests would accomplish, but they held fast to moral imperatives – values that to them were right and just. They expected no reward for their virtue, and they got none. They were marginalized and persecuted. And yet these poets, playwrights, actors, clerics, singers, and writers finally triumphed over state and military power, because, however cowed and broken the masses around them appeared, their message of defiance didn’t go unseen or unheard. The steady drumbeat of rebellion embodied in their lives exposed the rot, lies, and corruption of the state.
In his book Anatomy of a Revolution, the historian Crane Brinton lists the preconditions for successful revolution:
- discontent that affects nearly all social classes, including a widespread feeling of entrapment and despair, unfulfilled expectations, and solidarity in opposition to a tiny power elite;
- a refusal by scholars and thinkers to continue to defend the actions of the ruling class;
- an inability of government to respond to the basic needs of citizens;
- a steady loss of will within the power elite together with defections from the inner circle; and
- a financial crisis.
Brinton believes our corporate system has fulfilled these preconditions, but it’s his next observation that’s most worth remembering. Revolutions always begin, he wrote, by making impossible demands that, if met, would mean the end of the old power configurations.” The Occupy movement has done that, Hedges believes, and “the unsuccessful attempt by the power elite to quell unrest and discontent through physical acts of repression” has put us into the revolution’s second stage.
“Welcome to the revolution. The elites have exposed their hand, and shown that they have nothing to offer. They can destroy, but they can’t build; repress, but not lead; steal, but not share. They think that after they send baton-wielding cops to clean up ‘the mess,’ we’ll go home and accept their criminal corporate government that allows corporations to pillage the last shreds of collective wealth, human capital, and natural resources, in a nation where the poor don’t eat and workers don’t work, a nation where the sick die and children go hungry, a nation where the consent of the governed and the voice of the people is a cruel joke.
Get back into your cages, they tell us. Return to watching the lies, absurdities, trivia, celebrity gossip, and political theater we feed you in 24-hour cycles on television. Run up your credit card debt. Be thankful for the scraps we toss. Repeat our platitudes about democracy, greatness, and freedom, and vote in our rigged corporate elections. Send your young men and women to fight and die in useless, unwinnable wars that provide huge profits for corporations. Stand by mutely while our legislators plunge us into a society without basic social services while Wall Street speculators loot and pillage.
The Occupy movement understood that all energy directed toward reforming political and state structures was wasted. They weren’t pleading with Congress for electoral reform, or looking for a viable candidate. They had no faith in the political system or the two major parties. Anyone who trusts in the reformation of our corporate state fails to recognize that those who govern, including Barack Obama, are as deaf to public demands and suffering as the old Communist regimes. The Occupy movement knew the media wouldn’t amplify their voices, so they created media of their own. They knew the economy serves the oligarchs, so they formed their own communal system.
Kevin Zeese, one of the activists who first called for the Occupy movements, believes ‘nonviolent movements shift power by pulling people from the columns that hold the power structure in place – the military, police, media, business, workers, youth, faith groups, NGOs, and the civil service…We want to start worker-owned co-ops to get resources for the community, and provide an example of people banding together and solving problems, using models of collective living. We looked at polling on seven key issues and found supermajorities of Americans – sixty-plus percent – were with us on issues including health care, retirement, energy, and money in politics. We’re more mainstream than Congress. We aren’t crazy radicals. We’re trying to do what the people want. This is participatory democracy versus oligarchy.’
Many Occupy encampments had to deal with those society has discarded – the homeless, mentally ill, and those whose lives have been devastated by substance abuse. ‘We don’t want to become a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter,’ Zeese says. ‘We’re a political movement. These are problems beyond our ability. How do we deal with this? Let’s feed the Occupiers first, and those squatting here to get free food last. You can’t be here because you want a tent or free food. You have to be here to build the community and the movement. You have to participate in the general assemblies…The first principles, of course, were non-violence and non-property destruction. We don’t accept violent language. When you’re violent, you undermine everything…The overarching demand was to end corporate rule, shift power to the people. Once you make that as your demand, you can pick any issue – energy, health care, elections – and the solution becomes evident. For health care, it’s getting the insurance companies out from between doctors and patients; for finance, it’s break up the big banks so six banks don’t control 60% of the economy – break them up into community banks, so the money stays local rather than going to Wall Street; energy is diversifying energy sources, so people can build their own. We developed a slogan: “Human need before corporate greed,” and everything fell into place for us.’
The rebellion won’t stop till the corporate state is extinguished, till there’s an end to corporate abuse of the poor, the working class, the elderly, the sick, children, or those being slaughtered in our imperial wars and tortured in our black sites. It won’t stop till foreclosures and bank repossessions stop, till students no longer have to go into debt to be educated, and families no longer have to plunge into bankruptcy to pay medical bills. It won’t stop till the corporate destruction of the ecosystem stops, and our relationships with one another and the planet are radically reconfigured.
If it understood the depth of suffering and rage of tens of millions of Americans, the corporate state would institute profound reforms – like those of the New Deal during the 1930s – to mitigate poverty and despair. The $1 trillion in student debt, which now surpasses credit card debt, would be forgiven. There would be a moratorium on foreclosures and bank repossessions, which took the homes of 7 million people between 2008 and 2011 and was expected to dispossess another 2 million in the next year. There’d be a $1 trillion jobs program targeted at those under the age of 25.
Corporations, who hire attractive and eloquent spokespeople like Barack Obama, control the uses of science, technology, education, and mass communication. And they use these tools of communication to bolster tyranny. Our systems of mass communication, as political philosopher Sheldon Wolin writes, ‘block out or eliminate whatever might introduce qualification, ambiguity, or dialogue.’ Celebrity courtiers, masquerading as journalists and officially anointed experts identify our problems and offer ‘solutions.’ All who argue outside the imposed parameters of acceptable discourse are dismissed as irrelevant cranks, extremists, or members of a radical left.”
When it isn’t encouraging fear and hatred of our “enemies,” the dominant message is one of “a brighter, happier tomorrow. But the façade is crumbling, and as more and more people realize that they’ve been used and robbed, we move from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to George Orwell’s 1984. In Orwell’s novel, the Inner Party represented 2% of the population, the Outer Party another 13%. The remaining 100 million people were outcasts or ‘proles.’ A similar configuration of wealth and power, one replicated by most centralized totalitarian systems of authority, is now our own. The state, dominated by two corporate parties, has devolved from a capitalist democracy [these two words are antithetical – we’ve never had a democracy] to a stark neofeudalism. The elites have squandered the country’s wealth on two of the costliest and most useless wars in American history while blithely pretending the environmental crisis doesn’t exist.
George Orwell wrote that all tyrannies rule through fraud and force, but once the fraud is exposed they must rely exclusively on force. We’ve now entered the era of naked force. The internal security and surveillance state, justified in the name of the ‘War on Terror,’ will be the instrument used against us. The corrosion of the legal system, begun by George Bush and codified by Obama’s administration, means we can all be denied habeas corpus. The warrantless wiretapping, eavesdropping, and monitoring of tens of millions of citizens is now legal. The state has given itself the power to unilaterally declare US citizens enemy combatants and torture or assassinate them, as Barack Obama did in September 2011 when he ordered the killing of American-born Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. The state can deny US citizens suspected of what it vaguely defines as ‘terrorist’ activities the right to a trial, and turn these citizens over to the military, which can hold them indefinitely. Police forces in major cities, transformed into paramilitary units with assault rifles, helicopters, and armored vehicles, will be increasingly used against protesters. Will foot soldiers obey orders to carry out acts of repression and violence to protect the elite? [Maybe not, if, as in Starhawk’s novel The Fifth Sacred Thing, we offer them community and other ways of making a living.]
Any act of rebellion, no matter how few people show up, or how heavily it’s censored, chips away at corporate power and keeps embers alive for larger movements of the future. Perhaps the full-blown revolution won’t happen in our lifetimes, but if we persist, we keep the possibility alive. Protestors can encourage and invite defections by rigidly adhering to non-violence.”
Some would disagree with this, especially in situations where people are enduring such horror and violence at the hands of the “authorities” that only eliminating them can end it. The novel Antebellum by R. Kayeen Thomas describes such a situation in the pre-Civil War South. Conditions are so horrific on one plantation that its slaves revolt, using stolen weapons. In historic reality, all such slave revolts were crushed, but, still, they may have served a purpose. One of the last was led by a white man, John Brown, described as a fanatic by some later historians. My point: violence and non-violence are tactics whose use needs to be debated in specific situations.
I agree with Hedges when he paraphrases the words of Czechoslovakian dissident Vaclev Havel in his 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” saying – and here I’m paraphrasing Hedges: step out of living the lie, and start to live the truth as you see it.
Hedges tells us that “John Friesen, 27, who was one of the first to arrive in Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011, left mainstream society in 2005. ‘The wider society creates situations where people are excluded and made to feel like they’re not worth anything,’ he told us. ‘We’re inclusive.’ Friesen admits, however, that by the end he was burned out, as the arrival in cold weather and individual tents, along with numerous street people with mental impairments and addictions” adversely affected the community.
“Marx, for all his insight into the self-destructive machine of unfettered capitalism, viewed the poor as a conservative force, those least capable of revolutionary action. But the successful revolutions that swept through the Slavic republics, Russia, Spain, and China, and those movements that battled colonialism in Africa and the Middle East and military regimes in Latin America, were largely spontaneous uprisings fueled by the rage of a disenfranchised rural and urban working class and dispossessed intellectuals. Revolutionary activity, as Bakunin observed, is best entrusted to those with no property, no regular employment, and no stake in the status quo.
In the Occupy movement, the working groups made logistical decisions and the general assemblies made large policy decisions. The heart of the movement became the two daily meetings, held in the morning and the evening. The assemblies, which usually lasted about two hours, started with a review of the process, which was open to change and improvement. Those who wanted to speak raised their hands to get ‘on stack.’ A lot of white men wanted to talk, so anyone not apparently a white man got to ‘jump stack.’ When someone spoke, their words were amplified by the people’s mic [those who heard repeated the words, so those behind them could hear them]. The crowd indicated approval, indifference, or disapproval by holding their hands up and wiggling their fingers, holding their hands level and wiggling fingers, or turning fingers down. Making a triangle with one’s fingers meant ‘point of process.’
There were usually two co-facilitators, a man and a woman, a stack keeper, a timekeeper, a note-taker, and a vibes person making sure people were feeling okay and not getting their voices stomped on. The facilitators were rotated as much as possible.
We can’t rely on the institutions that once made piecemeal and incremental reforms possible,” Hedges says. “The only route left is to disconnect as thoroughly as possible from consumer society and engage in acts of civil disobedience and obstruction. The more we sever ourselves from the addictions of fossil fuel and consumer society, the more we begin to create a new paradigm for community.
We must stop being afraid. We have to turn our backs for good on the Democrats, no matter what ghoulish candidate the Republicans offer up for president. The public disputes between candidates in the election cycle are a carnival act. On the issues that matter, there is no disagreement between Republicans and Democrats. We have to defy all formal systems of power, and create enclaves where we can retain and nurture the values being destroyed by the corporate culture and build the mechanisms of self-sufficiency that will allow us to survive.
The elite, taught to believe in their own goodness, are unable to see or comprehend – and perhaps are indifferent to – the cruelty imposed on others by the exclusive systems they serve. The acceptance of principles such as unregulated capitalism and globalization as a kind of natural law seems to relieve them from moral choice. But the impossible is possible: the mighty can fall.”
My final quibble: Hedges is close to verbal violence in these last remarks. I think we should view the perpetrators of the capitalist system – which includes ourselves at some level – with sad compassion, and an openness of mind and heart that allows for them to join us. They’re deluded and they’re addicts, just like us, but, like us, they can begin to see and to recover. If this seems to contradict what I just said about violence, it’s because the issue of violence and nonviolence is big, complicated, and full of subtleties. Maybe you would sadly and compassionately kill a rabid dog that was attacking your baby granddaughter, for example, but if you had more time and another way, you might be able to avoid wounding or killing a perceived aggressor, actually or figuratively.
To watch a moving interview of Hedges by Bill Moyers that also includes a brief talk with “comics journalist” Joe Sacco and some of his contributions to this book, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pUxjZhquwPk. If the link doesn’t work, just go to the YouTube site and type “Chris Hedges on Moyers” into the search engine. In the interview, Hedges tells Moyers that all institutions are inherently “demonic” in that they’ll try to force you to sit on your truth. He also tries to explain how he walks the knife edge between hope and despair, calling on “faith” that what he’s doing is making a difference even when there’s no empirical evidence for that conclusion. Maybe that’s what true hope really is.