News & Politics

Man Kills Himself Holding 'Tax The 1%' in Front of Capitol—and Nobody Hears About It

The exhortation of the unknown man's sign is focused and direct, and frighteningly accurate.

When 64-year-old Vietnam vet John Constantino burned himself to death on the DC Mall in October of 2013 I couldn’t stop thinking about this man and his act. Who was he? What compelled him? What was his life’s story? What were his political views, his life’s station, etc?  I wanted to write a blog then but didn’t.

Then Saturday happened.

On the kind of beautiful sunny day when hope springs eternal, an older gentleman wearing a backpack walked over by the fountain in front of the Capitol Building in Washington DC. And a sign. According to people who saw him, it said simply: “Tax The 1%”

The police captain on the scene who addressed the news cameras eerily avoided the question, mumbling that it was “something about social justice,” as if he were annoyed to address any specifics. So we know nothing else. Not even a name was given. A dog run over by car might have gotten more respect and news coverage than this unknown man.

What kind of a society have we become? A man decides to commit suicide as an act of political courage, and is dismissed by both the police and media as unworthy of further examination?

When a man in Tunisia set himself on fire in protest of the draconian taxation and intimidating police enforcement of the state (not unlike in Ferguson and most American racially and financially motivated policing toward black Americans) it led to the Arab Spring.

How would Americans react if these stories were given a full airing on the news? How many could relate to the sheer despair, his plea in addressing squarely the plight of economic inequality, or the implicit message that our present an economic system has a savage inhumanity as its core feature, and that feature grinds people down in the most undignified of ways and that the rich must stop gaming the system and pay their fair share? Our media chose to look the other way in speculation about any of these salient truths.

It is not unclear that these two men brought their grievances to DC and in spectacular fashion attempted to connect with our deepest consciences.

Both stories have been utterly buried by a colluding mainstream media. The same stale perfunctory non-reporting was assigned to both incidents. Not one reporter has been compelled to follow up on either of these deeply compelling, heartbreaking cries of despair, which is nothing less than an existential scream from the heart of America’s declining middle and working class.

John Constantino was a Vietnam veteran living in Mount Laurel, N.J. when he came to DC to kill himself. His family declined to comment, choosing instead to release a stiff statement through a lawyer saying only that he had mental problems, as if that would suffice to explain his planned act away.  

Like the man who killed himself Saturday there was pretty much nothing in the news that told of who Constantino was. After slogging through the same repeated stuff I finally found only one reporter who at least bothered to ask a couple of questions to some who knew him. Here’s a little bit more about who this US Marine suffering with mental illness was: an eyewitness reported he said something about said "voter rights" or "voting rights," and another said he gave a “sharp salute” towards the Capitol before he lit himself. A neighbor who was contacted by a local reporter said Constantino believed the government "don't look out for us and they don’t care about anything but their own pockets.” But that's all I've got for you. No one's looked into his story further.

Of these issues the two addressed we continue to bury our heads in the sand about. Wall St gets bigger and more intoxicated with greed and power. Their omnipresence exerts a dark cloud over all of our lives with respect to pretty much every facet of our lives, including student loans, consumer debt, fortified positions in the real estate and financial markets, and the fact that our electoral politics are officially an auction completely hijacked by their unopposed position as the highest bidders. Now we have the ostentatious spectacle HRC’s Presidency, already anointed by the Power Elite brokers. The whole charade is a mockery to anyone with a sense of morality, dignity and righteousness. This is not democracy. It’s plutocracy. The man with the Tax the 1% sign was saying something most people deeply resonate with: the current system of unbridled capitalism, concentrating wealth in the hands of the very few, is manifestly unfair and is destroying the lives of too many.

To "Tax the 1%" would be the height of prudence, as the honorable unknown gentleman suggests. Progressive taxation (at very high rates on the wealthy) in the period of between the 1940's-70's led to the most prosperous and robust economy we've ever had for middle class people. That was arguably the American Dream. Not the get-rich-quick schemes propagated by Wall St and the popular fallacy that if you just worked hard enough you too can be the next contestant on the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire American Idol Sweepstakes.

It's the ultimate fraud that people, even here at DK, defend the current ponzi economy. The true American Dream is one in which "the large majority should be able – in accordance with the tenets of the 'American dream' … to count on living in an atmosphere of equality, in a world which puts relatively few barriers between man and man," as described by James Truslow Adams in 1931. He nailed it here too,

"Throughout our history, the pure gold of this vision has been heavily alloyed with the dross of materialistic aims. Not only did the wage scales and our standard of living seem to promise riches to the poor immigrant, but the extent and natural wealth of the continent awaiting exploitation offered to Americans of the older stocks such opportunities for rapid fortunes that the making of money and the enjoying of what money could buy too often became our ideal of a full and satisfying life. The struggle of each against all for the dazzling prizes destroyed in some measure both our private ideals and our sense of social obligation."

There’s a corollary about the media here too. Just as our simplified, fable-making, education system teaches history our media does the same. Omit the hard questions and roundtable discussions, bury the sweat and toil of dissenters, and drown out those who speak for the powerless and marginalized. They ‘re just bummers. Leave room only for the exaltation of our constructed heroes, the knight in shining armor who’s going to swoop in and save the day – just like in the movies.  George Washington cut down a cherry tree and never told a lie, Lincoln freed the slaves, the Indians were given their own land on reservations, all blacks enjoy the same equal rights and freedom in America just as everybody else does, we must wage war with military might to defend freedom around the world, especially from the communism threat.

The erosion of journalism in this country is deeply troublesome, endemic of a consumer and oligarchical society that brazenly operates under a scheme of profit over people. As the progressive news host Thom Hartmann has said, "The Constitution - our nation’s founding document - mentions only one industry by name. And that industry is the press. For the Founding Fathers - there was no institution more important for a democratic society than a free and independent media. Right there at the top of the Bill of Rights - they wrote that 'Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech - or of the press...'"

When only 6 media companies control about 90% of what we seem read or hear, what's the point of pretending we're a democratic and free nation?

Yes, there are abominations like the RW hate-machine of Rupert Murdoch et al, who spew frothing propaganda, obfuscation, sowing confusion and selling the red meat of racism and bigotry to the fearful and malleable, but that's just one half of it.

But really it’s the tactic of omission that’s perhaps even more insidious and egregious.

When we don’t see our lives being reflected back to us on the news, the every day realities of living in the cauldron of enforced austerity, which is the price for bailing out the banks, tax break for the rich and military spending, we don’t have a sense of ourselves and live in a festering state of malaise and confusion.

Where are the thousands and thousands of stories of everyday people who have been thrown out of their homes from the foreclosure crisis due to the subprime mortgage scandal, the lower pay and longer hours for workers while CEO to worker pay ratio has skyrocketed, reliable investigation to disprove the existence of WMD’s to justify war with Iraq, a serious national dialogue about how Guantonomo Bay torture tactics make us more vulnerable to terrorism and destroy our credibility worldwide, and how the school-to prison pipeline/industrial complex results means we have the largest per capita prison population in the world but it's mostly racist enforcement leading to an explosion of black and brown young men in for non-violent crimes? These realities are hardly taken on with a dispassionate voice and with a clear eye for justice. Bad news is swept under the carpet.

We keep looking for a serious media conversation that takes on the totality of the destruction, which would simply require just following the money. But it never comes. And life slogs on for the dispossessed, marginalized and voiceless. Their backs have been in the corner for a little too long now.

To be frank, I’m getting exhausted of living in a world of two sides: one that regards empathy as a human deficiency and the other that sees it as an opportunistic campaign slogan. Either you're working hard, or you're not and don't deserve anything. You're either pro-gay or you're not. You either believe in women's reproductive rights or not.

If you don't have a home, or live in a constant state of fear about where your next meal is going to come from, or are trying to rearrange your life so you can pay the utility bill, or have to bypass going to a doctor because you can't afford it or the insurance company doesn't cover it (profit > people), none of these social issues really matter.

We're in a dangerous place, despite how many apps we can get for our smartphones and how well-stocked the supermarket shelves may appear. Red vs. Blue is not life, Democrat vs. Republican is a ruse, the culture wars divide and conquer us. We need to get on the same side of the 99% or there will be soon be many more desperate acts.

This man's story, and John Constantino's, must be told. Who were these guys? The exhortation of the unknown man's sign is focused and direct, and frighteningly accurate.

The unknown man is right; a society in which a few are living off the misery of the vast majority is untenable.

Is anybody out there?

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