Chris Hedges Explains How Entire Regions Within the US Are Treated Like Exploited Colonies
The following is a recent interview conducted with Chris Hedges surrounding his latest bookDays of Destruction, Days of Revolt:
Emanuele: In Chapter One of your new book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, you describe the horrendous conditions endured by the Native American population living in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. This population earns, on average, anywhere from $2,600-$3,500 a year, with 49% of the total population living in official poverty status. However in a broad sense, and to inject a historical context, you describe the systematic destruction of Native culture and society; namely, through the practices of physical termination and cultural genocide. Can you talk about why you began this journey in South Dakota and the importance of recognizing previous national injustices?
Hedges: Well, it's important because that's where the project of limitless expansion and exploitation, especially the plundering of natural resources, began. There you had the timber merchants and the railroad magnates, mine speculators, and land speculators seizing territory on the western plains and exterminated the native populations who resisted. Many of which did not even resist. Then, herding the remnants into what were originally prisoner of war camps, which then finally became tribal residencies and eventually reservations--breaking the natives capacity for self-sufficiency, while creating a culture of dependency. Remember, all of this is for profit. This became the template for which the American Empire expanded: the Philippines, Cuba and all throughout Latin America. And today, places like Iraq and Afghanistan. So that's why we wanted to examine where this ideology first took root; where it was first formed; and what happened to these peoples, because in an age of corporate capitalism, where there are no impediments left, what happened to them, is going to happen to us. In the end, we're all going to be herded on some form of a reservation.
This book is about these "sacrifice zones." Whether its in Pine Ridge, or southern West Virginia in the coal mines, or whether that be urban decay such as Camden, New Jersey, which is per capita the poorest city in the country, and on target this year to be the most dangerous, per capita in the country. As we've reconfigured American society, there's no longer any mechanisms to restrain these forces. And I think the other reason Pine Ridge is important, is because the native communities were structured very differently. People who hoarded and kept everything for themselves were disposed; everything was communal; there was an understanding that all forms of life, including the natural world, were sacred. This is unacceptable in a capitalist society where human and natural life are commodities that you exploit for money until exhaustion or collapse. We see the devastation visited on the western plains now being visited in places like the Arctic, where 40% of the summer sea-ice now melts, and the response is that it's a business opportunity, where people go and slam down half a billion dollar drill bits. It's insanity of course, because in the end, these forces will not only kill us off, but they'll kill themselves off as well. That is the awful logic behind it. I think Pine Ridge provides a window into how this ideology took root, and how it works.
Emanuele: Now, you mention that throughout the 20th Century the US government systematically destroyed native cultures and continued to take their lands. Later in Chapter One, you mention the Indiana Reorganization Act of 1934, and the US government's relocation program in the 1950s. Conversely, you highlight the Wounded Knee uprising of 1973, and subsequent crackdown waged by the FBI ,and various other governmental organizations, on Native American activists from the 60s and 70s. You mention that the majority of those who fought in the 1973 uprising at Wounded Knee were products of the US government's relocation and reeducation programs of the 20th Century. Can you talk about the importance of Wounded Knee 1973?
Hedges: The series of laws, treaties and decrees that were passed out of Washington, some four hundred of them, and in every single case were essentially violated, or subverted by further decrees and laws which stripped American Indians of more and more of their land and created mechanisms by which they were utterly disempowered. By the 1970s you had a tribal system in place. You know, these people function the same as a colonial system: They take a native aristocracy and use them to further the interests of the colonial power. This is what happened at Pine Ridge, and as well as other reservations around the country where you had quislings: many of these people weren't full-bloods. In the name of American Indian society, they served the interests, in the case of Pine Ridge, of the ranchers and the FBI. So, Pine Ridge became particularly violent, coming out of the 60s there were there were movements and activists, included the American Indian Movement, and the repression akin to the case of Philadelphia, the police chief Rizzo, who conducted horrific acts of violence and repression on the African American community.
You know, constant beatings and abuse led to a response, which, for the Native American community culminated in a 73 day occupation of Wounded Knee, where they were surrounded by federal marshals, FBI agents and several people were killed. But it was a consequence of the State being utterly tone-deaf. Again, by the way, you saw the same sort of violence erupt in Philadelphia, or Chicago with the Black Panthers. The State was completely tone-deaf to legitimate cries for justice on the part of oppressed communities, and exclusively imposed force. This gave way to a response of violence, or force. And that's what Wounded Knee was about. That's what the Black Panther party was about. Then, we saw a series of trials and persecutions of American Indian activists. Of course Leonard Peltier is still sitting in prison, and anybody who's read through his trial transcripts will tell you there were so many questionable and mendacious tactics used by government prosecutors, that if used in a fair court of law, that trial would be thrown out. Yet he still sits in a prison in Florida, very, very far away from South Dakota. This is important to recognize in a society that has become politically paralyzed. We are seeing the government respond to discontent by criminalized political dissent, and using harsher and harsher forms of control that eventually, as in Wounded Knee, or as in Chicago and Philadelphia, or Oakland, or anywhere else, violence ultimately provokes counter violence.
Emanuele: In Chapter Two, "Days of Siege," your commentary is focused around the city of Camden, New Jersey. However, for many of us, including myself, who grew up in the "Rust Belt," you could have easily switched Camden, New Jersey for Gary, Indiana; Detroit, Michigan; Cleveland, Ohio; Fort Wayne, Indiana; South Bend, Indiana, or so many other post-industrial areas in the United States. So, why Camden, New Jersey? Was there a symbolic and practical purpose for moving from the Native American population to a largely African American population?
Hedges: Well, I think we wanted to show this was something happening in both rural and urban areas, and that it was the same system: i.e. the reconfiguration of American society into a Corporate State. We didn't consciously set out to profile different ethnic groups in the chapters, but it just came out that way. Camden of course being largely African American; Native communities in Pine Ridge; poor white communities in southern West Virginia; and Latino communities in the produce fields in Florida. These are all manifestations of the same process. And it's a process by which the American citizen is politically and economically disempowered as the Corporate State creates an Oligarchy, where a tiny percent amass vast fortunes and workers around the globe, in sort of a neo-feudalism, are told that in a global marketplace they must essentially compete with sweatshop workers in Bangladesh who make 22 cents an hour, or prison labor in China. That's the world we've created. We have allowed our manufacturing base to be dismantled because it's more profitable for these corporations to employ sweatshop workers in southern China, who work 70 hours a week, without any sort of protection, or rights. Remember, that's 700,000 workers for Apple, none of them are in the United States. They live in Dickinsonian, 19th Century conditions. That's the world that has been cemented into place by these forces, and the consequences are that whole cities, such as Camden, are virtually abandoned.
At one point, Camden was an industrial center: Campbell Soup was made there; RCA Victor was there; the ship yards there, by the middle of the century, employed over 36,000 people--it's all gone. There's nothing. Whole city blocks are abandoned. And of course people are trapped within these internal colonies, by both the very visible, and not so visible walls of the Prison-Industrial-Complex. So people fall into a kind of despair: the abuse of narcotics and alcohol, in all of these places, was absolutely rampant. In southern West Virginia people would retreat into Oxycontin, or what they call "Hillbilly Heroin." In Camden, on the streets they use a drug called "Wet," which is a mixture of marijuana and PCP; Pine Ridge has an 80% rate of alcoholism. So all of this physical devastation brings with it a kind of human devastation. If they rest of us don't wake up, and begin to resist, the forces that carried out these assaults within these internal colonies, or these sacrifice zones, since they have now been unleashed on the rest of us, we will of course replicate what happened in Biblical terms to our "neighbor." There has been a failure on the part of the Left in this country to stand up to the assault carried out by both the Democrats, and Republicans. Of course, Clinton was one of the worst: he destroyed the welfare system, which under the original welfare system, 70% of the recipients were children; NAFTA, of course, 1994, the greatest betrayal of working class people in this country since the Taft-Hartley Act of 1948, which makes it difficult to organize. You know, the Left, or the Liberal-Class, sort of busied itself with the boutique activism of multiculturalism and gender politics--all of which I support--but forgot about the primacy of justice. And because of that, what's happened to our "under-classes," is now happening to the middle-class.
Emanuele: Now, you write in that same chapter, "The Civil Rights Movement was a legal victory, not an economic one. And the economic barriers remain rigid and impenetrable for the bottom 2/3 of African Americans, whose lives are worse today, than when King marched in Selma." You go on the mention that 1/3 of African American males, at some point in their lives, will go to prison within the United States. While the school system in Chicago is now more segregated than during the Civil Rights Era. Can you talk about the difference between "legal" and "economic" victories? In addition, further along in the chapter you mention the work of theologian James Cone, and his work The Cross and the Lynching Tree, and further along, the work of Father Doyle and the Sacred Heart School. Can you talk about the importance of religion and theology in the African American community?
Hedges: Well, what a lot of white Christians don't grasp, and this is the importance of the theologian such as James Cone, is that the black Christian tradition is radically different from the white Christian tradition. I, as a former seminarian, would argue that the Gospel was written by the oppressed, for the oppressed, as was the Hebrew Bible. These were communities that endured horrific repression, and were deeply sensitive to what it meant to be oppressed. So, Cone writes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, about the long nightmare of terror, through lynching, that was unleashed on the African American community, and how that embodied, for African Americans, the crucifixion. And yet white churches and white theologians were utterly unable to see the connection between an innocent body on a tree, in their midst, and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The whole story of Moses leading forty-years into the wilderness--that carried a whole different import if you were a slave, or suffering in the South, being disposed by Jim Crow laws. I think Cone is right: I think while it uses the same language, iconography and even symbols, it means something very different to African Americans.
I think Cone is also right that this interpretation is a far more genuine rendering of the Christian narrative than the sterilized narrative adopted by the white-elites, that identify with systems of power, and ultimately systems of oppression. People in all of these communities tended to fall on two sides of the divide: One, there was the use of alcohol, narcotics and drugs to cope with horrific human suffering and pain, and the other was faith--not necessarily Christian faith. For example, in Pine Ridge, those people who managed to pull it together recovered their identities as Lakota--through their language, sweat-lodges, sun-dances and various other rituals. I went to one over the summer. It was deeply moving, with four days of fasting, and dancing, and sort of flesh offerings. They take pegs with ropes attached to them and at the end of the four days will pull them out, leaving small scars on their chests. Many of these men were just out of prison. So, when you fall that low, when life is desperate, you can hang on by building a structure of belief, or you often disintegrate. That was very common. There were very few people in the middle.
Emanuele: Can you talk more specifically about the difference between "legal" and "economic" victories?
Hedges: Sure, well, King recognized this towards the end of the Civil Rights Movement. Of course he was killed while supporting a garbage workers strike in Memphis. Remember, King kept saying that there would be no racial justice if there is not economic justice. And that is where the white liberals walked out on him. They were willing to support legal mechanisms by which African Americans were theoretically granted equality before the law. But economic justice was something totally different. So they managed to get that legal victory, however it's been subverted: I was just in Alabama, and 34% of African American males in Alabama are disqualified and subsequently disenfranchised from the voting rolls because of prior convictions. It's essentially a resurrection of Jim Crow. So, once people got the right to vote, they created mechanisms to take away that right. And I think the Occupy Movement is important in this regard, because it recognizes the issue of inequality as one that has effectively been used to keep the majority of the poor, and especially African Americans, trapped in what King and Malcolm X called "Internal Colonies." Again, places like Camden, New Jersey, where the upper 1/3, or elite within the African American community, were integrated into white culture and society, the way Michelle and Barrack Obama have been. But for the bottom 2/3 of African American society life is worse than when King marched in Selma, Alabama.
Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans. He has reported from over 50 countries around the world. Hedges is currently a senior fellow at the Nation Institute in New York City and has taught at New York University, Columbia University and Princeton University. He currently teaches inmates at a correctional facility in New Jersey. He has written twelve books, his latest, written with illustrator Joe Sacco, is entitled Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. This transcribed interview covers the first two chapters in Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.