The Spread of Sacrifice Zones

Chris Hedge’s and Joe Sacco’s new book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, is a treasure.  Hedges wrote the plain text.  Sacco produced the text-heavy cartoon sections and other illustrations, which even I — not a big fan of cartoon books — found to enrich this book enormously.

Hedges and Sacco visit Pine Ridge, South Dakota, to examine the misery of the Indigenous peoples who remain there.  It’s nice to think that we’ve corrected our crimes through political correctness, and yet they continue uninterrupted — unconscionably, intolerably, tragically.  Here the human stories are told, and told by those affected and by those resisting and struggling to set things right.  Ironically, the victims of the United States’ first imperial slaughters are now disproportionately suffering the pain common to veterans of recent U.S. wars.  That same pattern of widespread military experience is found in each of three other sections of the book as well, while other communities in this country have virtually no participation in the military.

Hedges and Sacco go to Camden, New Jersey, to examine the world of impoverished and ghettoized African Americans, whose lives have worsened by many measures over the past generation, despite the successes of the civil rights movement.  Poor whites and others figure into the story as well, with special attention to those struggling to improve the world, whether on a small or large scale.  Michael Doyle’s voice is one of those from Camden residents that tell the story of decline and devastation that city has experienced:

“You hear people my age get up and say, ‘We were poor.  We put cardboard in our shoes.’  We talk like that.  But we didn’t know we were poor.  Today you do.  And how do you know you’re poor?  Your television shows you that you’re poor.  So it’s very easy to build up anger in a, say, a high-voltage kid of seventeen, and, he knows he’s poor, he looks at the TV.”

Doyle went on to say that the cause was unclear, the “enemy” was unclear to people, and “so you take it out on your neighbor.”  Young men with no education have no employment anymore, he said, no opportunities to be worth anything — except through the military.

The authors went to Welch, West Virginia, to speak with those suffering from and resisting mountain-top removal by the coal companies.  Larry Gibson, who lives with death threats and other health hazards, has saved a fraction of his family’s land from the surrounding devastation.  “You heard about the World Trade Center terrorists?” he asks.

You heard about them?  Bombing, three thousand people dying, but have you heard that with the emissions of coal we lose twenty-four thousand people a year in this country?  You know, eight times bigger than the World Trade Center.  Nobody say anything about that.  Then you have the something like six hundred and forty thousand premature births and birth defects, newborns, every year, EVERY year, and nobody’s doin’ anything about that.  Coal kills, everybody knows coal kills.  But, you know, profit.

Gibson points out that cities have passed laws restricting cigarette smoking in public, but families living near coal fields breathe the dust.

Julian Martin, a retired high-school teacher and son of a coal miner, says, “It’s 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 and banks lit up all night long and shit like that.”

Finally, the authors headed down to Immokalee, Florida, to meet with immigrant farm workers, tomato pickers, new slaves, resisters, and organizers.  The wages for picking tomatoes have dropped by half over the past 30 years.  An unlimited supply of cheap and vulnerable labor has meant less concern for workers than there may have been in some cases for slaves of old.  “Before the war, we owned the negroes,” a planter said in 1883. “If a man had a good nigger, he could afford to take care of him; if he was sick, get a doctor.  He might even put gold plugs in his teeth.  But these convicts: we don’t own ‘em.  One dies, get another.”  From 1883 to today, what’s changed is that many of the workers are effectively owned and in some cases literally enslaved, chained up, confined, and threatened should they attempt escape.  What has not changed is the expendability, a product of corporate global trade and unregulated greed.  With less work for women in the fields, many are essentially enslaved as prostitutes.  But these most powerless of immigrants — the farm workers of Immokalee — have organized, resisted, and won major improvements from massive corporations, inspiring others across the country and around the world.

The fifth and last section of the book is focused on resistance, and in particular on Occupy Wall Street.  It includes an excellent discussion of the occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., with Kevin Zeese, a persuasive case that a nonviolent revolution is coming — that conditions are all aligned — and a great summary of Hedges’ recent thinking on activism and rebellion.  But if you were part of Freedom Plaza, and if you’ve kept up on your weekly Hedges reading, it is the first four sections of the book that you will find most valuable.  In many ways, there is greater organizing and activism found in those sacrifice zones than what we have seen thus far from the Occupy movement.

Occupy is national, even international, and — at least at first — had much greater attention from the corporate media (which is what made it national).  It is also more middle-class and less-rooted in a community.  If it can build one massive movement out of all the pockets of resistance, and move on from resistance to creation and substitution, it may indeed turn this avalanche of horror and misery around and push it back up the mountainside.  “I have no interest in participating in the traditional political process,” says John Friesen, occupier of Wall Street.  “It’s bureaucratic.  It’s vertical.  It’s exclusive.  It’s ruled by money.  It’s cumbersome.  This is cumbersome, too, what we’re doing here, but the principles that I’m pushing and that many people are pushing to uphold here are in direct opposition to the existing structure.”

Hedges notes, importantly, I think, that the governmental response we have seen to the Occupy movement, the militarized police brutality, and the passage of federal legislation allowing the military to engage in domestic policing, is not a sign of weakness in our movement, but rather one of strength — a sign of fear by Congress and its corporate bosses.  Now we have to turn that fear into realization that the spreading of sacrifice zones will absorb us all unless radical change comes soon.

David Swanson is an anti-war activist and blogger at War Is a Crime. Read other articles by David.