Tag Archives: colorado

Tents I

13 Jan

Joanie Mitchell. Occupy Tents, 2011. Digital print, 26 x 18 in. (On view at Expressions Gallery, Berkeley, through March 2nd).

“The evils that are permitted to generate, unmolested in industry, must always, sooner or later, assert themselves in politics.” — Ethelbert Stewart to Louis Freeland Post, U.S. Department of Labor, November 21, 1913, Records of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Archives, quoted in Martelle, Blood Passion, page 33

Tents are intrinsic to the landscape of American history, especially its history of political redress.  The Occupy movement continues the noble tradition of placing citizens’ concerns within a public dialogue through the bodily occupation of public space.  It cannot be otherwise.  The radical ideas under circulation at this time regarding social equity, public good, and material property can only be argued free from the restraints of preexisting structures.  The goals of corporations are antithetical to the concerns expressed through this movement.  The interests of non-profit centers can address these concerns in piecemeal fashion, but the broadly articulated critique on the ills of American society must be broached beyond the doors of any particular institution.  The ideals of such a movement can be utopian, as we can see in Mitchell’s drawing of circles of discussion during an Occupy Oakland day.  The utopian vision is reinforced by the cluster of tents at the top of the drawing suggesting a city of brotherly/sisterly accord.  The makeshift dwelling of the tent is suitable to a people’s movement and symbolic of the loss of home epitomized by today’s failed home mortgage industry.

So it was in Ludlow, Colorado when coal miners struck in September 1913, that tenting and political redress merged.  Ludlow was one of the sites in the southern fields of the state’s mining industry.  Miners were paid by the ton of coal brought up from the mines, where they were often cheated at the scales.  Often, they were not paid for the work required to set up excavation, such as bolstering underground roofs or laying tracks for coal cars.  Mining companies ignored state mine safety laws.  According to historian Scott Martelle, “organized mines, particularly those in states where unions dominated, had 40 percent fewer fatalities than nonunion mines, such as those in Colorado” (see Martelle, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, Rutgers University Press, 2007, page 19).

Here, towns were few and far between; many coal seams were remote from human civilization.  As a result, mine owners established camps, where low-grade housing was erected, in the words of Martelle, “little more than shanty towns in some cases.”  The structures were usually frame, while the more recent vintage were made from brick or concrete block.  Martelle notes the closed economic system that a typical camp comprised, where workers “were paid in company scrip, forced to live in company houses (or at least on company land in jerry-built shanties), shop at the company store, worship in the company church to sermons uttered by the company-hired minister, and drink in the company saloon…” (Martelle, 27).

The United Mine Workers of America secured tents for the strikers evicted from company-owned homes.  These tents were placed on leased pasture land, the strikers’ main settlement situated east of a railroad line connecting Trinidad to Denver, and north of Ludlow, a string of buildings that included a post office, saloon, store, and “a small cluster of houses” (Martelle, 68).  Following a gun battle between mine owner’s guards and tent colony residents on October 7th, trenches were dug beneath tents and a “deep underground bunker” was dug for the purposes of providing a birthing chamber for the colony’s pregnant women (Martelle, 89).

Living conditions were harsh in the tent colony, given that winter had set in.  But the residents made what they could of comfort.  Union meetings were held outside in good weather.  During rain or snow, a big tent with a potbellied stove in the middle was used for gatherings.  There were makeshift picnic tables and clotheslines outside the tents.  Old linoleum was used to cover cracks in floorboards to guard against the winter’s cold.  There were tables and chairs for some, and orange crates in service as stands for storage.

According to Zeese Papanikolas, as many as 1,300 people lived in this colony (see Papanikolas, Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre, University of Utah Press, 1982, page 83).  To diffuse tension following an October 17th machine gun attack by men of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency against a strikers’ tent colony at Forbes Junction, union man John Lawson organized Ludlow colonists into squads, with work organized around grounds, building, sanitation, and other useful preoccupations; a police force was organized with an effort to provide enough squad members who could service the 22 languages spoken in the camp (Papanikolas, 92).  (Like a modern-day Academi, previously known as Xe Services LLC, Blackwater USA and Blackwater Worldwide, Baldwin-Felts was a private Virginia-based police force for railroads, mine operators, and other businesses, whose apparent purpose during the Ludlow strike was to provoke violence from the strikers in order to force the governor of the state to send state militia.)

As much as the strikers tried to keep peace, their efforts did not stop a state militia from being formed to command the strike zone under undeclared martial law.  And before the year ended the same militia broke the governor’s promise to keep the mining companies from importing labor during the strike.  The state would draw down militia forces, but within this vacuum was formed a local troop, a “hastily-assembled collection of mine guards and pit bosses armed and paid by the [mine] companies…one hundred and thirty men or more, unorganized, without uniforms, scarcely drilled.”  Additionally, a Lt. Karl E. Linderfelt, already relieved of militia duty, remained with 34 men, “nursing his anger at his superiors and the ragged foreigners in the tents” (Papanikolas, 211).

On April 20, 1914, following orders from a Major Pat Hamrock to send troops to the tent colony, an all-out attack ensued in which machine guns ripped through tents during a ten-hour gun battle.  Under orders from Linderfelt, tents were burned while militia men ransacked strikers’ property.  Eight men died in the battle.  The next day, the bodies of two women and eleven children were found in a trench below a burned tent, having asphyxiated during the marauding fires set above them.  The seven-month strike remains one of the bloodiest capitalist-labor battles in our history.  Little was accomplished following the strike.  At least John D. Rockefeller, Jr., unlike his father, paid attention to the costs of the struggle by developing a “company union” for Colorado Fuel & Iron Co., which sought to put in place a model that would preclude the need for worker-organized unions.  The model became popular enough, and workers would wait until the 1935 Wagner Act established the National Labor Relations Board, banning company unions and protecting workers in their choice to join independent unions.  Rockefeller also hired Ivy Ledbetter Lee to present the company’s version of strike events at Ludlow, who created what may have been the first “major public relations spin campaign” (Martelle, 214).

While worker-organized unions remain viable today, despite sustained attempts by capitalists and their paid political representatives in Congress, the courts, and the executive branch to eviscerate the power of the working class, so does the deceptive spin issued from advertising offices via corporate media.  The battle is not over, no matter what lessons were learned.

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).