By James Murray
Posted October 7, 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
People have been cruising south Memorial Drive in Tulsa for decades. Showing off their cars trucks and motorcycles or just burning through hours and gallons of gas in unremarkable vehicles. “It’s something to do,” I can imagine a cruiser saying. And a possibly cheaper, if less efficient way of meeting the opposite (or same) sex than going to a bar or nightclub. As a youth pastime cruising goes back to at least the 1950s, but nowadays the participants might be of any age.
A dedicated hot rod car or truck costs a lot of money and few kids can afford the entry fee. From teenagers in mom’s borrowed Honda or Escalade to retired greybeards with tens of thousands invested in their weekend show rides, south Memorial is packed on Saturday nights, in warm, windows down, bumpin’ sound system weather the traffic is bumper to bumper. With parking lots occupied on both sides of the street by cruisers who have stopped to socialize, some with lawn chairs so they can watch and comment on the traffic and vehicles. I imagine different lots ‘belong,’ to different subgenres of cruisers – Chevy trucks, vintage hot rods, etc.
In my estimation, “Cruising,” has always been a rather tame, ‘Square,’ pastime. It’s the kind of thing working-class people do when they’re not into ‘Alternative,’ scenes or drugs or Jesus. When they want to get out of the house on weekends but aren’t that interested in movies or live music or distrust the downtown “Entertainment District,” as too effete, liberal, sophisticated and gourmet. Or when small-town kids from the surrounding area want to come to Tulsa and show off their cowboy hats and rural authenticity but don’t know exactly where to go, or what to do, and they have fantasies of meeting, “City boys,” or “City girls.” So they drive around in pickups discreetly sipping beer and taking in the sights and sounds of bright lights in the big city.
In the wee hours of the morning, when the traffic has dissipated and the cruisers have gone home, street racers run their bikes on south Memorial. These are an adrenaline-dependent and nihilistic type – black and whiteboys in equal measure, they get spun on stimulants and race stripped down and modified motorcycles for a quarter mile. Completely illegal and extremely dangerous, these races are conducted for hundred dollar bills or motorcycle titles. A bike bought and worked on for months can be lost via wager within seconds. Or crashed and totaled, many times the bikes themselves are not street-legal or even tagged. Insurance and registration? Forget about it. Every race carries the risk of death or jail. Lives are lost in this pastime every year.
But they do it anyway. Machismo and competitiveness cannot be legislated away. At one point the city offered to occasionally open a street and allow legal, regulated racing with police and ambulance at the ready to assist, but there wasn’t much interest. “Outlaw shit,” is always more fun, and provides its own reward and extracts its own price.
It’s about ten o’ clock on a Saturday night in late September. A friend and I have been to the dwindling and disappointing downtown “Entertainment District,” and we’re going back to her place. I pull off the crosstown expressway and onto Memorial Drive. We’re critiquing the hip-hop they are playing on Sirius 45 and gossiping furiously. The light on the off-ramp turns green and I pull into heavy Saturday night cruise traffic. I am southbound and I see a remarkable and novel sight northbound coming at me – a large convoy – hot rods, lowriders, SUVs, work trucks, vans, sedans are driving in close formation – dozens of vehicles all flying the same sized large Mexican flags.
I am amazed at what I am seeing. Over the summer, American flags or”‘flags associated with Trumpismo,” have been seen more and more. Both on south Memorial weekend nights and all over the state, but never have I seen such a display of immigrant or “Ethnic pride.” I comment to my friend, and we agree – as native Tulsans we’ve never seen such a sight. Of course we are close to the constantly expanding “East side,” here on Memorial, that area also known as “Little Mexico, or “Cartel Land,” but we think this is something entirely new.
We don’t know how to interpret what we are seeing? Are the convoy and Mexican flags a way of saying”‘Fuck you,” to Trumpismo and its adherents? A declaration of identity-based ‘nationhood?’ A simple patriotic gesture not that much different from flying the American flag?
As the “Mexicans,” drive in tight phalanx north bound we are surrounded by a loose assortment of Jeeps, 4×4 trucks and cars scattered through the traffic flying American flags, Trump portrait flags, and Blue Line flags. Whereas the ‘Mexicans,’ seem disciplined and stoic as we meet their column the white Trumpismo element is boisterous, jeering and laughing and throwing up the occasional obscene gesture. The whole street scene is energized, politicized, kinetic and restless. Yearning and aggression hangs damp in the air.
I am anxious to get clear of all this mess, it is Oklahoma after all, and chaos can erupt at any time. I am sober with a .38 snubbie in my waistband but I have no doubt there are heavy firearms all over the place, as well as ample alcohol and white crystalline substances. A dangerous mixture even on an apolitical Saturday night in a normal year of economic good times. But this is a bad year of ‘pandemic,’ and economic contraction and riots and paranoia and hysterical emotion across the political spectrum.
The masses stressed, barely functional, ignorant and irrational. Between stop lights on the crowded street I recognize all the elements of a ‘Violent racial incident,’ are present and it would be easy for young males (white or brown) to blunder themselves into CNN ’Breaking News.” I’m a (so-called) white male with a black female in the passenger seat and I just want to get out of there. But first I want a six-pack of microbrew.
I stop at Quik-Trip and vehicles flying the competing flags are circling the store. A large group of street racers have parked their bikes in one corner of the expansive lot and they stand around smoking cigarettes and observing the spectacle. The sweet skunk smell of cannabis wafts in the air. I walk into the QT and the patrons are mostly black, (all of them, like myself, are unmasked, in unconcerned violation of city ordinance and the wishes of white liberals.)
A single mom with two rambunctious toddlers is buying late-night snacks for the kids and tall can of beer for her self. A girl in short shorts and multi-colored ‘Brooklyn Braids,’ is using the ATM. I grab some beers and get into the checkout line. I notice a teenager with red Jordans, red ball cap and red shorts is wearing a “Scarface,” t-shirt, in this unlicensed rendition of questionable artistic merit a single tear runs down Al Pacino’s cheek. No one says anything, we’re all in a hurry to leave. Maybe just my imagination and projection, but I sense these folks, like myself are just trying to keep their heads down and get home to “Party,” or watch T.V.
Making political or cultural statements on Saturday night is not in our lists of interests. We just want to enjoy a few hours of intoxication and relative relaxation before another week starts all over again. They (and I) don’t”‘Identify” with either Trumpismo or the reactions thereto. Everyone wants to tell us what to think and we don’t believe anything we are hearing. We’re all frazzled from months of acceleration. The flag-flying drama show circling outside is just another unexplained bewildering event in a year full of them. What does it mean when folks feel it is necessary to fly flags indicating “Ethnicity,” or “Nationhood?” I don’t know. Do single mom, Brooklyn Braids girl and Scarface fanboy understand this spectacle better than I do? Do they think it’s very bizarre?
Obviously I have no idea.
I get back in the Jeep and steer carefully back onto the street. “What is black america’s flag?’ I ask my friend and she just shrugs.
“I don’t know.”
I think about my own query for a minute, the traffic is stop and go, “Red black and green?” I ask.
She shrugs again. “I understand the RBG. Blood, skin and earth, but most don’t know what that means.”
“Also ‘Revolutionary But Gangster.’” “Yeah I’ve heard that too.”
“Y’all better get a flag,” I kid her, “Looks like everyone else has one.”