Black Friday Revisited

5 Dec

Steve Zeltzer, Protecting the Merchandise on Friday in San Francisco, digital photograph, 2011.

“When such men as these, together with the cheap college professors and still cheaper writers in muckraking magazines, supplemented by a lot of milk-and-water preachers with little or no religion and less common sense, are permitted to assault the business men who have built up the great industries and have done more to make this country what it is than all the other agencies combined, it is time that vigorous measures are taken up to put a stop to those vicious teachings which are being sown broadly throughout the country.” — Lamont Montgomery Bowers, in a letter to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., October 11, 1913, (vice president, treasurer, and chairman of the board to owner of Colorado Fuel & Iron [CF&I]), quoted in Scott Martelle, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West (Rutgers University Press, 2007), page 92

“…[the CF&I Primero mine was] probably caused by some miner smuggling in pipe and matches, the use of which is prohibited.  The mine was thoroughly ventilated, but, like most soft coal mines, has pockets of gas that are struck which causes explosions, and then the dust ignites and havoc follows.  The latest reports indicate that the mine is not damaged, and work will resume as soon as the miners get over the excitement.” — Bowers in a letter to Frederick T. Gates, a Rockefeller advisor, February 1, 1910, on an explosion that killed 75 workers, quoted in Martelle, page 45

Indeed, the Colorado coal mining region at the time of Bowers’s writing was the site of a deadly class war, just as it had been in West Virginia.  Earlier union organizing struggles at the Colorado fields had resulted in the suppression of that effort in 1903.  The mine operators then imported labor from areas of Europe, including large numbers of workers from Greece and Italy, a payroll reflecting thirty nationalities, with the intent of replacing an English-speaking force of American-born workers and immigrants from Cornwall, Scotland, and Wales.  The purpose was, of course, to thwart unionism’s progress by “produc[ing] in advance a condition of a confusion of tongues, so that no tower upon which they might ascend the heavens could be erected,” according to what Edwin V. Brake, Colorado’s deputy labor commissioner, learned by admission from one of the coal companies in 1913.  Further, the newer hires were inexperienced in mining, “not conversant with the rate of wages or the conditions that prevail in this country, and they will submit to conditions that men will not tolerate who have had experience as practical miners.”  This second point is why mines were so dangerous when operated by owners who were virulently anti-union (see Martelle, page 26, for quotations and points).

With this understanding, it is clear why Bowers would rather wait until the “excitement” of his company’s workers subsided in order to resume business as usual, workers’ reaction in reality probably closer to shock and fear at the death of 75 others.  The Colorado coal companies at the time flouted state law regarding mine regulation and safety.  They also had the ability to prevent miners from seeking legal avenues of redress since these companies controlled local law enforcement and the courts.

Corporate business has always had the upper hand in this nation’s affairs.  As Robert Scheer observed on the recent dismantling of the Occupy Los Angeles encampment: “The bankers slept well. Their homes in Beverly Hills were not spotlighted by a noisy swarm of police helicopters, searchlights burning through the sanctity of the night, harassing the forlorn City Hall encampment of those who dared protest the banks’ seizure of our government” (Scheer, “You Can Arrest an Idea,” Nation of Change; http://www.nationofchange.org/you-can-arrest-idea-1322835690, accessed December 2, 2011).  Concrete barriers were erected following the eviction of tent encampment occupiers, Scheer surmising: “However, the result was the same as elsewhere; the bankers were protected from the scorn they so richly deserve and there will no longer be a visible monument to the pain that they have caused.”

The dominant rhetoric employed to dismantle Occupy camps across the country cites concerns for health and safety.  Corporate media safeguards the cover of this tone of language in order to further the corporate cause.  Dan Whitcomb and Mary Slosson, writing for Reuters (picked up by Yahoo! News), reported: “…city officials complained of crime, sanitation problems and property damage…”  City park workers were tasked with “rehabilitat[ing] debris-strewn ground whose landscaping was ravaged by campers…,” later “collect[ing] 30 tons of waste from the site…”  Mind you, police pulled down and flattened tents, so the reader cannot know from the text how much of the strewn debris was a result of police action.  A police lieutenant is cited to convey that “some protesters had been reported to be storing human waste at the site for unknown reasons” (italics mine).  Additionally, the article claims “police entering the camp had encountered a ‘horrible stench'” (see Whitcomb and Slosson, “Police take down Occupy L.A. camp, arrest nearly 300,” Reuters [http://news.yahoo.com/police-down-occupy-la-camp-arrest-nearly-300-015210061.html; accessed November 30, 2011).

The dependence upon portraying Occupy protesters as filthy individuals challenging public health and safety relies upon a formula of containment that runs deep in our history.  The logic behind such containment stresses the distance from the mainstream of elements of society, but in terms that avoid true ideological or political points of contention.  Much as Communists and homosexuals were constantly portrayed as infiltrating the American population, as if they were organisms entering the human blood stream, from the end of World War II through the end of McCarthyism, today’s protesters are portrayed as infecting the body politic.

Within the structure of containment, infection and political infiltration — read social infiltration as highlighted below in Lait and Mortimer’s exposé — are one and the same.  Rather than portray today’s Occupiers as representative of a more widely held view that American society is not functioning to the benefit of all, as some news agencies are willing to do, these protesters are presented by corporate media as infectious stains that must be removed from public spaces.  The one element of Zeltzer’s photograph that truly stands out are the hands of the police officer in the foreground, wrapped in rubber.  The first time I knew of police officers using rubber gloves to handle protesters was during the 1980s as AIDS activists took to city streets, corporate offices, and government headquarters to protest restrictive drug policies and pharmaceutical corporate greed.  AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) inspired a generation in its use of bodily occupation of space, contesting the boundaries between private and public (dates and actions can be consulted at: http://www.actupny.org/documents/capsule-home.html).  On June 1, 1987, as ACT UP protesters staged an action of civil disobedience outside the White House, police wearing rubber gloves removed activists.  On June 23, 1988, ACT UP met with the homeless at a “Talk-In” at a tent city at City Hall Park in New York, “built to protest the city’s policy on the homeless.”  September 14, 1989: “ACT UP once again makes history by stopping trading on the Stock Exchange floor.  Seven ACT UP members infiltrate the New York Stock Exchange and chain themselves to the VIP balcony.  Their miniature foghorns drown out the opening bell, and a banner unfurls above the trading floor demanding ‘SELL WELLCOME.’  Other ACT UP members snap photos which they then sneak out and send over newswires.  Four days later, Burroughs Wellcome lowers the price of AZT by 20%, to $6,400 per year.”

Not only do the rubber-encased hands in the Zeltzer photograph make immediate reference to government policy regarding political and social infection, but they also act as figurative conductor’s hands, ready to orchestrate the movement of a phalanx of police officers guarding the entrance to Macy’s.  During these current tense days of provocation and suppression over the occupation of public space, relatively little has been reported regarding the health and safety of the occupation of outdoor and indoor space as Black Friday shoppers progress to point-of-sale.  Yet, clearly, the danger to public health and safety is greater at WalMart locations across the country on Black Friday than at Occupy sites currently being dismantled by city governments.  We can expect more of the same during next year’s holiday season, i.e., more maiming, more killing, because corporate America ultimately governs how public space is policed.  Nor, should we hope that the public take on the issue of health and safety on Black Friday, since the buying public, the mass of individuals who agitate to obtain goods of consumption, descend upon their destination somewhat akin to the animated zombie of the West African Vodun and Haitian Vodou, the hypnotized person “bereft of consciousness and self-awareness, yet ambulant and able to respond to surrounding stimuli” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zombie).  The witchcraft involved here relies on the manipulation of markets by corporations and their tools: advertisers and merchandisers.

Scheer refers to a decision by U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff in a case against Citigroup for that company’s “sale of a billion dollars’ worth of toxic securities that were designed to fail and which the bank had bet against.”  While the Securities and Exchange Commission found Citigroup guilty of “negligence,” Rakoff points out that the company had already been fined for four similar scams, thus, one would expect far more serious charges to be leveled against such a repeat offender.  Rakoff is quoted from his case summary: “…in any case like this that touches on the transparency of financial markets whose gyrations have so depressed our economy and debilitated our lives, there is an overriding public interest in knowing the truth.  In much of the world, propaganda reigns, and truth is confined to secretive, fearful whispers.  Even in our nation, apologists for suppressing or obscuring the truth may always be found.”

Page from Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer, Washington Confidential (Crown Publishers, New York, 1951).
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