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Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt
By Chris Hedges
By Joe Sacco
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The book starts in the western plains, where Native Americans were sacrificed in the giddy race for land and empire. It moves to the old manufacturing centers and coal fields that fueled the industrial revolution, but now lie depleted and in decay. It follows the steady downward spiral of American labor into the nation’s produce fields and ends in Zuccotti Park where a new generation revolts against a corporate state that has handed to the young an economic, political, cultural and environmental catastrophe.
BOOKS BY CHRIS HEDGES
War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
What Every Person Should Know About War
Losing Moses on the Freeway
I Don’t Believe In Atheists
Empire of Illusion
Death of the Liberal Class
BOOKS BY JOE SACCO
Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992–95
The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo
Notes from a Defeatist
War’s End: Profiles from Bosnia 1995–96
But I Like It
Footnotes in Gaza
For they have sown the wind,
and they shall reap the whirlwind
JOE SACCO AND I SET OUT TWO YEARS AGO TO TAKE A LOOK AT THE SACRIFICE zones, those areas in the country that have been offered up for 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 began with the industrial revolution, westward expansion, and the genocide carried out in the name of progress and Western civilization against Native Americans. It does not denote simply an economic system but an ideology, a way of looking and dealing with each other and the world around us. This ideology embraces the belief that societies and cultures can be regenerated through violence. It glorifies profit and wealth. This is why we went to Pine Ridge, South Dakota. It was there that the disease of empire and American exceptionalism took root. The belief that we have 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, not only in Pine Ridge but across the country and the planet. What was done to Native Americans was the template. It would be done to people in the Philippines, Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and it is now finally being done to us. This tyranny and exploitation have become our own.
The ruthless hunt for profit creates a world where everything and everyone is expendable. Nothing is sacred. It has blighted inner cities, turned the majestic Appalachian Mountains into a blasted moonscape of poisoned water, soil, and air. It has forced workers into a downward spiral of falling wages and mounting debt until laborers in agricultural fields and sweatshops work in conditions that replicate slavery. It has impoverished our working class and ravaged the middle class. And it has enriched a tiny global elite that has no loyalty to the nation-state. These corporations, if we use the language of patriotism, are traitors.
The belief that human beings and human societies should be ruled by the demands of the marketplace is utopian folly. There is nothing in human history or human nature that supports the idea that sacrificing everything before the free market leads to a social good. And yet we have permitted this utopian belief system to determine how we structure our economy, labor, education, culture, and our relations with foreign nations, as well as how we treat the ecosystem on which we depend for life.
All the airy promises of unfettered capitalism are starkly contradicted in the pockets of despair we visited. The hollow protestations of the courtiers in the media, the government, and the universities, who still chant the official mantra of free markets, have little substance when they are set against reality. Corporate capitalism will, quite literally, kill us, as it has killed Native Americans, African Americans trapped in our internal colonies in the inner cities, those left behind in the devastated coalfields, and those who live as serfs in our nation’s produce fields.
The game, however, is up. The clock is ticking toward internal and external collapse. Even our corporate overlords no longer believe the words they utter. They rely instead on the security and surveillance state for control. The rumble of dissent that rises from the Occupy movements terrifies them. It creates a new narrative. It exposes their exploitation and cruelty. And it shatters the absurdity of their belief system.
This book, from its inception, was called Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. But when we began, the revolt was conjecture. The corporate state knows only one word: more. We expected a beleaguered population to push back, but we did not know when the revolt would come or what it would look like. We found pockets of resistance, courageous men and women who stood up before the gargantuan forces before them in Pine Ridge; in Camden, New Jersey; in southern West Virginia; and in the nation’s agricultural fields. But the nationwide revolt was absent. It arose on September 17, 2011, in Zuccotti Park in New York City, as we were in the final months of the book. This revolt rooted our conclusion in the real rather than the speculative. It permitted us to finish with a look at a rebellion that was as concrete as the destruction that led to it. And it permitted us to end our work with the capacity for hope.
Princeton, New Jersey
AMONG INDUSTRIALIZED NATIONS, THE UNITED STATES HAS THE
• highest poverty rate, both generally and for children;
• greatest inequality of incomes;
• lowest government spending as a percentage of GDP on social programs for the disadvantaged;
• lowest average number of days for paid holiday, annual leaves, and maternity leaves;
• lowest score on the United Nations index of “material well-being of children”;
• worst score on the United Nations gender inequality index;
• lowest social mobility
• highest public and private expenditure on health care as a percentage of GDP.
THESE TRENDS ARE ACCOMPANIED BY THE
• highest infant mortality rate;
• highest prevalence of mental-health problems;
• highest obesity rate;
• highest proportion of population going without health care due to cost;
• second-lowest birth-weight for children per capita, behind only Japan;
• highest consumption of antidepressants per capita;
• third-shortest life expectancy at birth, behind only Denmark and Portugal;
• highest carbon dioxide emissions and water consumption per capita;
• second-lowest score on the World Economic Forum’s environmental performance index, behind only Belgium;
• third-largest ecological footprint per capita, behind only Belgium and Denmark;
• highest rate of failure to ratify international agreements;
• lowest spending on international development and humanitarian assistance as a percentage of GDP;
• highest military spending as a portion of GDP;
• largest international arms sales;
• fourth-worst balance of payments, behind only New Zealand, Spain, and Portugal;
• third-lowest scores for student performance in math, behind only Portugal and Italy, and far from the top in both science and reading;
• second-highest high-school dropout rate, behind only Spain;
• highest homicide rate
• largest prison population per capita.1
DAYS OF THEFT
Pine Ridge, South Dakota
I did not know how much had ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful dream . . . the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.
—BLACK ELK SPEAKS
But you have there the myth of the essential white America. All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the flourishing into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.
—D. H. LAWRENCE, STUDIES IN CLASSIC AMERICAN LITERATURE
A GROUP OF FIVE MEN AND THREE WOMEN ARE SEATED CROSS-LEGGED in a small circle, in the shade of a flat-roofed brown building in Whiteclay, Nebraska. They are drinking 24-ounce cans of malt liquor. Three other men are passed out on the sidewalk, one alone and two lying next to each other. One of the pair is on his back. The other is on his side. We look at the soles of their shoes. More drinkers sit in pairs or sleep in the weeds and trash-filled lots. Abandoned cars lie junked behind the buildings. Garbage, empty beer cans, and plastic containers litter the ground.
Whiteclay, an unincorporated village that exists for only a block and a half before vanishing into the flatlands of the surrounding prairie, has only five or six permanent residents. It exists to sell beer and malt liquor. It has no town hall, no fire department, no police department, no garbage collection, no municipal water, no town sewer system, no parks, no benches, no public restrooms, no schools, no church, no ambulance service, no civic organizations, and no library. The main street, Nebraska Highway 87, is the only street in Whiteclay. A few of the buildings on the street, many of which once served as saloons, are boarded up and padlocked shut. Several are wooden, with high false fronts and sloping porches that extend over the dirt sidewalks.
The four boxy liquor stores—Jumping Eagle Inn, D&S Pioneer Service, State Line Liquor and Arrowhead Inn—are little more than oversized beer coolers. They have heavy steel doors, and clerks work inside metal cages. The Arrowhead Inn, a former filling station that is kept at a chilly forty degrees, has stacks of beer that are nine feet high. The liquor stores dispense the equivalent of 4.5 million 12-ounce cans of beer or malt liquor a year, or 13,500 cans a day.1
Whiteclay’s primary business venture brings in an estimated $3 million a year in revenue. Whiteclay’s clients, however, are some of the poorest people in the country. They are Native Americans from the Pine Ridge reservation that is less than 200 feet away, just over the state line in South Dakota. Most of those who live on the reservation earn between $2,600 and $3,500 a year. Dedicated drinkers must often beg, as many do outside the liquor stores, buy on credit, trade food stamps for alcohol, or offer sexual services to get money. Alcoholism on Pine Ridge, although the sale of liquor is banned on the reservation, is estimated to be as high as eighty percent.2
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, where screaming women and children were shot down as they fled, and the systematic eradication of food sources by the white colonizers, who soon reduced bands of ragged Indians to destitution. Fights, brawls, and shootings eventually shut down the bars and saloons of Whiteclay. All sales are now carryout. But Whiteclay still provides the liquid fuel for the 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. The average male life expectancy on Pine Ridge is forty-eight, the lowest in the Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti.3
The poison pouring out of these little shrines of death and profit, erected by tidy white capitalists, greases old, familiar cogs. 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 religious or cultural customs; the eighty percent unemployment on the reservation;4 the racism by the 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 fury of self-destruction sweeps across Pine Ridge like the Black Plague. Whiteclay is the modern-day version of the old Indian agencies. It is where Indians surrender. It is where they hand over their self-esteem and autonomy and wait passively in line for a bag of flour, a piece of lard, a few blankets, and the firewater that blunts the pain of what many have become.
Families, wracked by alcoholism, poverty, despair, and domestic violence, living lives in which tenderness and security are grabbed in desperate snatches, disintegrate swiftly under the onslaught on the reservation. The violence imposed on Indian culture has become internalized. Despair and pain of this magnitude lead to lives dedicated to self-immolation. The agony is expressed in self-defeating and self-destructive urges that shred what is left of dignity and hope.
Verlyn Long Wolf is sixty-two, with silver wire-frame glasses and salt-and-pepper hair pulled back into a ponytail. She works at a drop-in center for the homeless in Rapid City. Most of her life, including her childhood, has been colored by alcoholism, and the verbal, physical, and sexual abuse that drunkenness brings with it.
When she was a child, she and her brothers and sisters, terrified of the alcoholic rages of their parents, dug a small cave overlooking a creek near where they lived. The children would flee to the hiding spot when the parents, who were physically abusive to each other and the children, drank heavily. Her father’s alcoholism was exacerbated by the trauma of his time in World War II in Europe.
“He was in the Army five years, six months, twenty-nine days, ten hours,” Long Wolf says, laughing. “I could tell when he was getting high because he used to say that. ‘Been in the military, five years, six months, twenty-nine days, ten hours.’ He was in infantry.
“You couldn’t even, like, touch him, especially when he was sleeping,” she says. “If you touched his foot, boy, he’d be nipping you where’s you gonna end up . . . he’d jump up. He’d start swinging at you. There were times when he’d get up three or four in the morning. He’d wake us all up and have us march up the hill, come back down. If our beds, even in the tent, if we didn’t fold our quilts right, then he’d tear it apart and make us do it again.
“My brother and I, when we were ten and twelve years old, we picked fields of tomatoes and saved our monies,” Long Wolf says. “Forty-two dollars. That was what divorce costed back then on the reservation. So we save all that money and then we gave it to [our mom]. She went out and got drunk with my dad.”
The family, impoverished and in need of work, traveled to ranches and farms where her father could find seasonal employment. They camped out in tents or lived out of their car. Long Wolf did not have a permanent place to live until she was in eighth grade. As Indians in rural, white farm towns, the family endured racist taunts and abuse. When she was eight and her sister was four, they were each raped by a gas station owner in Hot Springs. Her father at the time was in prison for a forged check, although she says it was her mother who forged it and her father who claimed responsibility to serve the jail time. Her mother, destitute without her father’s meager income, moved to her brother’s house on the reservation. Here Long Wolf was repeatedly raped by four of her cousins. When she was eighteen an uncle raped her “down by the river.” Rape became a persistent problem, perpetrated by male relatives and casual acquaintances, many of whom were drunk.
“From that district where I grew up, I know that every family along that river, there was sexual abuse,” Long Wolf says.
“And most of these cases were among family members?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says.
Long Wolf was sent away, like many of her generation, to an Indian boarding school. One of her classmates, when she was in fourth grade, was killed by four other students. The girl’s body was discovered in a nearby creek beneath a large tractor tire.
“They only stayed in prison until they were twenty-one and then they let ’em out,” Long Wolf says of the four girls. “They just beat her to death. When I was working at the treatment center . . . two of them walked in and I was like, ‘OK, God, help me!’ So, I asked them what they wanted. They were selling beadwork. I said, ‘No, I don’t have any money.’”
By the 1960s the boarding schools began to shut down, and she and several of her siblings returned home. Her parents abandoned them. It would be two and a half years before her parents were located by the Department of Social Services in Denver. During this time as a young teenager, she ran the house, cooking, cleaning, and getting her younger brothers and sisters to school. Once her parents returned she left home. She began to drink heavily and ended up on the street, drifting from one city to the next, with prolonged stays in Denver, Dallas, and Albuquerque.
She was married and divorced seven times, gravitating to Vietnam veterans who replicated her father’s rigidity, alcoholism, and struggles with trauma. One of her husbands was white, the others Indians.
“They’re all dead,” Long Wolf says, “except for the one who wasn’t in the military. The longest one I had was four years.”
She quietly lists the ways her ex-husbands died.
“Car wreck. Fight. Suicide.”
She stops, coughs, and adds softly: “Two of them to suicide.”
Long Wolf adds that the husband in the car crash “didn’t die from the car wreck itself. He got stuck underneath the truck, so then the coyotes went and killed him.”
“How many of these relationships were physically abusive?” I ask.
“All of them,” she says, “Except for the one that I had two sons with.”
She began to have prolonged blackouts, often not remembering where she had been for days and even weeks. She frequented the liquor stores in Whiteclay. She panhandled for money and burglarized houses, selling the stolen items to buy alcohol.
“There’s places you can hide,” she says of the tracts of land around Whiteclay. “If you’re with a group of people, you kinda claim a territory. You all stay there, drink until the money runs out.”
“In one period of my life, there was nothing but females,” she says:
There was eight, ten of us females. When I reflect back then, we all had a hatred for . . . just being born, or something . . . the thing we had in common was the rapes, the sexual abuse. It didn’t matter. It’s like nothing matters. I mean, here we are, already dead anyway. I used to think that. And then on top of that, growing up in a Catholic school, the Ten Commandments. It’s like, you look at that list and then by the time you’re eighteen, nineteen, twenty, it’s like, you’ve already committed most of them. It’s like, “I’m going to hell anyways, might as well live it up.”
She got sober, she says, on August 3, 1981, when she started attending Alcoholics Anonymous. She had by then lost custody of all her children, most of them living with their grandmothers. She had given up her oldest for adoption to a white Christian minister. Her brothers, trying to pull their own lives together, had found solace and meaning in the old Lakota rituals, including sweat lodges, healing ceremonies, and the traditional four-day Sun Dances, in which participants fast, dance, chant, and make small offerings of flesh. She attended a Sun Dance after she got sober and watched her brothers circle the ceremonial cottonwood tree festooned with colored ribbons. She broke down. It brought back “all the pain we grew up with.” It reconnected her with her vanquished culture and religion, she says, and saved her. Those who come out the other end of the hell that can be Pine Ridge almost always endure by turning away from white culture and reviving the traditions and religion the white invaders attempted to destroy. She has listened to old recordings of her great-grandfather Lone Wolf, who toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in Europe and died of pneumonia in England, speaking about the life her ancestors led on the open plains before the Indian Wars. For the first time, she says, she feels rooted.
She and a friend recently visited the abandoned buildings of her old boarding school. She walked alone around the empty dormitory where she had lived as a small girl. She said she could hear the cries and screams of children. And then she stops speaking to us. She buries her face in her hands and begins to sob.
- On Sale
- Apr 8, 2014
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Bold Type Books