Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco: Sacrifice Zones in the American Dream
Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges and illustrator Joe Sacco spent years chronicling life in the ‘sacrifice zones’ in the American Dream, where human beings and natural resources are used and then discarded by corporations. The result is Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, which culminates in the Occupy Wall Street movement. In the excerpt below, they detail the effects of coal mining in West Virginia, a state destroyed by mountaintop removal also. Plus, a dying miner tells the story of his life,illustrated by Sacco.
First time I knew I was poor was when I went to Cleveland and went to school. They taught me I was poor. I traded all this for a strip of green I saw when I was walkin’ the street. An’ I was poor? How ya gonna get a piece of green grass between the sidewalk and the street, and they gonna tell me I’m poor. I thought I was the luckiest kid in the world, with nature. I could walk through the forest. I could hear the animals. I could hear the woods talk to me. Everywhere I looked there was life. I could pick my own apples or cucumbers. I could eat the berries and pawpaws. I loved pawpaws. And the gooseberries. Now there is no life there. Only dust. I had a pigeon and when I’d come out of the house, no matter where I went he flew over my head or sat on my shoulder. I had a hawk I named Fred. I had a bobcat and a threelegged fox that got caught in a trap. I wouldn’t trade that childhood for all the fancy fire trucks and toys the other kids had. I didn’t see a TV till I was thirteen. Didn’t talk on a phone till I was fourteen. There was crawdads in the streams down at the bottom of the mountain. I could pick them out with my toes. Now nothing lives in the water. It stinks. Nothing lives on the land. And it’s irreversible. You can’t bring it back.
“There was one thing I was taught as a boy livin’ in the coalfields,” he says, “and that was bein’ organized. We didn’t know who the United States president was, but we knew the United Mine Workers president. We had learned to always fight back.”
His defiance has come with a cost. Coal companies are the only employers left in southern West Virginia, one of the worst pockets of poverty in the nation, and the desperate scramble for the few remaining jobs has allowed the companies to portray rebels such as Gibson as enemies of not only Big Coal but also the jobs it provides. Gibson’s cabin has been burned down. Two of his dogs have been shot and Dog was hung, although he was saved before he choked to death. Trucks have tried to run him off the road. He has endured drive-by shootings, and a couple of weeks before we visited, his Porta-Johns were overturned. A camper he once lived in was shot up. He lost his water in 2001 when the blasting dropped the water table. He has reinforced his cabin door with six inches of wood to keep it from being kicked in by intruders. The door weighs 500 pounds and has wheels at the base to open and close it. A black bullet-proof vest hangs near the entrance on the wall, although he admits he has never put it on. He keeps stacks of dead birds in his freezer that choked to death on the foul air, hoping that someday someone might investigate why birds in this part of the state routinely fall out of the sky. Roughly 100 bird species have disappeared.
“By the way,” he says, arching his eyebrows:
“y’all bin talkin’ to me fer an hour now, and y’all ain’t never asked me my opinion on coal. I’m against coal. I think coal should be abolished, ’cause the science is in. Ther’ been test after test after test ’bout the coal an’ related disease that kills people. Coal-related disease that kills people who never worked in the mines. We lose 4,500 people every year who never worked in a mine except they live in the coalfields. Mostly a lot of them is women, a high percentage of them is women, because women’s tolerance against coal dust is lower than men’s. Now, you have this here black lung, which affects 500 men a year. And then we have the emissions code. You heard about the World Trade Center terrorists? 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 640,000 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.
In the book, Joe, who also spent time with her, illustrates the story of Lolly’s life. Lolly radiates the indomitable and magnificent strength of the women and men who rise up in the pockets of poverty and despair we reported from, whether in Camden, Pine Ridge, S.D., the coal fields of southern West Virginia or the produce fields in Florida. They resist not because they will succeed in reversing the corporate onslaught against them, or even save themselves or their communities from poverty, but because it is right. They wake each day to defy, often in small, unseen acts of revolt, the intractable poverty, the despair and violence, by nurturing life. They often can do little to protect the lives, especially the lives of children, that are daily crushed and destroyed. But they refuse to bow before the forces of oppression or neglect. And in that defiance they achieve grandeur.
“The poor have to help the poor,” Lolly says, “because the ones who make the money are helping the people with money.”
Camden’s plight is worse than that of Youngstown, Ohio, or Detroit, worse than that of east New York or Watts. It is a dead city. It makes and produces nothing. It is the poorest city in the United States and is usually ranked year after year as one of the most, and often the most, dangerous. Camden is one of our many internal colonies in North America beset with the familiar corruption and brutal police repression that characterize the despotic regimes I covered as a reporter in Africa and Latin America. The per capita income in the city is $11,967, and nearly 40 percent of the residents live below the poverty line.
Large swaths of Camden lie empty and abandoned. There are more than 1,500 derelict, abandoned row houses, empty shells of windowless brick factories and gutted and abandoned gas stations. There are overgrown vacant lots filled with garbage and old tires and rusted appliances. There are neglected, weed-filled cemeteries and boarded-up storefronts. There are perhaps a hundred open-air drug markets, most run by gangs such as the Bloods, the Latin Kings, Los Nietos and MS-13(Mara Salvatrucha). Knots of young Hispanic or African-American men in black leather jackets, who can occasionally be seen flipping through wads of cash, sell weed, dope and crack to customers, many of whom drive in from the suburbs, in brazen defiance of the law. The drug trade is perhaps the city’s only thriving business. A weapon is never more than a few feet away from the drug set, usually stashed behind a trash can, in the grass or on a porch, always within easy reach. Camden is a city awash in guns, easily purchased across the river in Philadelphia, where Pennsylvania gun laws are lax. The guns are kept for protection from rival gangs that send out groups to prey on rival drug dealers, stealing their drugs and cash. To be poor is to face the awful fact that nonviolence is a luxury that few on the streets can afford.
Land of the free, home of the brave.