By Curtis Price
July 14, 2020
But trucking is also work that relies on the commodification of the trucker’s body. This body has to be primed for maximum efficiency, pushing itself to the limits to overcome the inevitable routine obstacles and delays. Trucker’s work life is determined by an intersection of time and distance and at this intersection is where their money is made. (1)
COVID19 has thrown a new spanner in that equation, besidse the shutdown in commercial traffic in the early days of the pandemic: increased piracy.
Industry sources report a 56% increase in incidents of theft and 80% increase in the value of goods stolen in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same time in 2019. In April 2000 alone, thefts skyrocketed 300%. But actual thefts are notoriously under-reported because trucking companies don’t want to get a bad rep for not securing their trucks. The true figures are much higher and the reported figures misleading because there are incentives for all parties concerned to keep quiet. Since industry reporting is voluntary, the federal crime figures woefully underestimate the true extent of theft and piracy on the highways..
The type of goods stolen since the onset of COVID-19 has shifted too. Before COVID19, electronics scored high, with most electronics stolen by professional gangs that then shipped the goods overseas to South America to be broken down and sold in Asian markets. But with slowdowns in international trade in the first few months of the epidemic, thieves turned to food, bottled water, and other household consumer items. These goods are easy to unload on the domestic black market and thieves with a determined hustle can peddle food stuffs to mom-and-pop stores with virtually no ability to trace such transactions. As one industry loss expert says, “You can’t put serial numbers on almonds.”
But as the economic pain from COVD19 spreads, the incentive to pirate trucker loads has only increased. As good capitalists, criminals will tailor thefts for local markets; for instance, nitrate gloves were stolen for areas with shortages and stolen bottled water gets diverted to hurricane-struck areas where drinking water fetches premium prices. In one heist, 18,000 pounds of toilet paper were spirited away for black market destinations.
Another factor boosting opportunities for theft is lay-offs or absenteeism because of COVD-19 at shipping docks, which leaves less eyes to keep track of goods and gives thieves more opportunities. Even before COVID19, truckers faced a shortage of berths at truck stops and with COVID-19, many truck stops closed or cut-back staff and hours, forcing truckers to bunk down in less secure areas, which has led to a number of violent attacks. Trucks, for instance, have been commandeered at gun point. In one case, a trucker who had pulled over for the night in a parking lot in Detroit was shot and his rig set on fire,
Many of these attempts are small-fry crimes of opportunity where attempts to steal unprotected goods devolves into violence. The big boys use more sophisticated technique such as hacking into logistics computer systems, posing as legitimate cargo shippers and even setting up phony shipping companies.
The figures for shootings and other violent acts against truckers have mushroomed since COVD-19, leading some truckers to start a “Trucker Lives Matter” Facebook group to fight for the right of truckers to carry arms. Trucking companies for insurance purposes forbid drivers to drive strapped and state laws don’t recognize gun permits held out of state so even a trucker with a permit in Oklahoma can be arrested for carrying the same weapon in Arizona. Truckers are demanding not only that companies allow them to carry arms for self-defense but also are demanding a federal law letting truckers traveling cross-state to be armed without legal repercussion.
COVID-19 is having a ripple effect throughout U.S. society and if economic hardship grows, it logically flows that attempts to appropriate necessities by any means necessary may stand to increase too. The uptick in violence and piracy in the trucking industry is just one of those hidden, unacknowledged markers of social disruption following in the wake of COVID-19. As one truckers posted on a trucker’s list said, “It’s wilder out here now than anything I’ve seen in 35 years of driving.”
1. See Benjamin H Snyder, Dignity and the Professionalized Body: Truck Driving in the Age of Instant Gratification, The Hedgehog Review, Fall 2012. Accessed from https://hedgehogreview.com/issues/work-and-dignity/articles/dignity-and-the-professionalized-body-truck-driving-in-the-age-of-instant-gratification
John Bell, a son of the South, moved to those “Cities of despair/ Where black and white fight over the same grey jobs/ They both came north for” (I am probably mangling from memory the poem by Phillip Levine). I never knew much of John’s early life before he ended up in Baltimore except that he had done time in North Carolina and served in ‘Nam.
Baltimore – a cramped, monotonous city of no-trees, no-grass, brick row-houses stacked like coffins on end with white marble sarcophagi steps, each embalmed with thwarted life. Then and now, Baltimore can only tear down, it never builds up; it destroys, not nurtures. John either developed or brought north his heroin habit, I can’t say which.
“This is the dark time, my love/All round the land brown beetles crawl about./The shining sun is hidden in the sky/Red flowers bend their heads in awful sorrow” – Martin Carter, Guyanese poet
I met John in crisis in the late 80s while working as a street outreach worker/case manager for IVDUs with HIV. He had tested positive for HIV and like so many at the time, his life collapsed before his very eyes. This was pre-AZT, where the only drug available was “hope,” that pharmaceutical of doubtful efficacy.
It’s hard from the vantage point of today to remember the war-like intensity of that era. Gay men with AIDS volunteering at the agency where I worked would disappear and then you would hear in whispers that so-and-so had tied a plastic bag around his head and “called it a day.” The Larouchites held meetings calling for quarantine and claiming mosquitoes spread HIV: The only people who came to those meetings were poor black folk with HIV. The director of a Black Nationalist clinic in DC “discovered” a cure for AIDS from Kenya called Kemron which he claimed was being “suppressed” by the white supremacist medical establishment. Poor people from Baltimore dropped out of medical care and spent their last dime running to DC to get this “miracle” treatment which like most miracles cost dear and failed to deliver. The white doctors at Hopkins knew it was a fraud but were afraid of being labeled “racist” by speaking out. So the doctors stayed mum, demonstrating, then and now, how white guilt can harm black lives as much as white hatred.
In this maelstrom, John always kept cool. His burning intense eyes and an aura of calm radiated to those around him. But behind this surface, he was riven with conflict and uncertainty. He would repeatedly relapse, disappear into the streets and the shooting galleries, then go into rehab. “Rinse, lather, repeat”: building his life up and smashing it down. Fortunately, John had a good union job with the railroad with seemingly inexhaustible rehab benefits. (As an aside, knowing that John’s job was to inspect the track for damage in northern Maryland and knowing too that half the time, John would be nodded out in his Amtrak truck, I always held my breath catching the train until it passed into Pennsylvania. )
One day I heard that John had signed himself into a rehab program in Philadelphia, which also had a long-term half-way house. When he finished, he decided to stay in Philly, a move that probably saved his life by escaping from the stagnation and slow-motion death that is Baltimore.
He got involved in Philadelphia Act-Up, which alone among Act-Ups was dominated by straight black and Puerto Rican people in recovery. His quiet charisma came to the fore and he quickly became a leading member. He spearheaded a counseling program to inmates with HIV and traveled all over the state giving presentations. He was arrested many times for civil disobedience in Act-Up actions. When I’d visit him in Philly, he was always excited about some new project or workshop he was giving. He teased me and said all that “hippy, Commie, pinko” stuff I talked to him had finally sunk in.
How do people change and remake themselves, why do some remain prisoner of their environment and others challenge it, even when they are both subject to the same external conditions? It seems to me that this consciousness is truly an independent factor; a wildcard not determined by structure alone. Whatever the chain of causation, John Bell escaped his chains. He killed his past to become his future.
When John died, his partner Gloria asked me to speak at the memorial meeting because I was the one person who linked John’s past and present. The room was packed with people from Narcotics Anonymous, Nation of Islam, gay men, lesbians, and transgenders – and the former Commissioner of the Pennsylvania prison system: a true testimony to the impact John had on people.
When I got up to speak, I said there are two types of people, “circle-the-wagon” types and bridge types. The circle-the-wagon types associate and mingle only with people sharing their identity or views while bridge people cross boundaries and disregard socially imposed branding. Bridges, of course, can get stepped on but they always lead to somewhere else. John Bell was of this latter mettle. Today, the “circle the wagons” types can be seen most clearly in identity politics, the cramped, stifling dogma that reduces human complexity to a group label, something that John’s life in practice was admirably a direct refutation of. Today, a clinic serving newly-released inmates in Philadelphia, the John Bell Health Center, bears his name; a fitting tribute.