Killing Your Past To Become Your Future

By Curtis Price

July 14, 2020


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.

The Failure Of An Identity Warrior

By Kwesi P. Dean

June 20, 2020


At a BLM demo recently, a young woman had a sign that said “I’m proud of being in a generation that stands up”. It made me think about my generation and wonder what do we have to be proud of? Members of Gen X, born between 1965 and 1980, are in positions of power throughout global systems and I wonder, what have we done to bend the arc toward justice?

My conclusion is, not much. More personally, I haven’t done much . . . certainly not enough.

My personal reality is one of relative comfort marked by the individual pursuit of success because, though black, my family provided that privilege. My dad served twice in Vietnam, and in the course of his military career moved our immediate family from its working class origin to a solidly middle class status. I started in private, predominantly black grade schools where believing I could be most anything was practical because we were surrounded by people like us who were doing most of the things we could imagine.

According to US census bureau data, black income increased by 28% between 1965 and 1970. With unprecedented growth and opportunity, it was easy for my parents and their circle to imagine that it would go on, “the rising tide“ and all of that.

We faced racism by living in places where some people didn’t think we should live and doing things others thought we shouldn’t. Those incidents, painful as they were, were mostly seen as inconvenient as they didn’t prevent our access to safe spaces. There was so much good happening in our lives that the bad couldn’t outweigh it.

Growing up in the 70’s meant multiple black “firsts” were a part of my life…I watched Arthur Ashe win Wimbledon, Dr. J become a sports icon, and I could read Black Panther, Falcon and Power Man comics. Tom Bradley’s election as Mayor in Los Angeles was a political first and he was the exact opposite of a 60’s protest veteran turned politician. Bradley’s rise to power seemed to indicate a certain acceptance because he was simply good enough in a multiracial environment. Black trail blazers used access forged by civil rights and affirmative action victories to create a false sense of confidence in the coming merit based society.

On the other side of the coin, I remember watching the Watergate hearings and Nixon being held accountable for lying. If the most powerful man in the country could be punished for not following the rules, anyone could.

Falling into the individualistic trap of the 80’s was easy. Pursuing the good life while black seemed to bring about the promise for which so many had sacrificed. Moving to a small town in the Midwest meant leaving the protective circle of a vibrant black middle class. That brought more slights, subtle limitations and missed opportunities explained away for one reason or another. The explanations felt like lies and excuses, but those explanations didn’t register. I was taught my success was in my own hands. Like so many others in my generation, working twice as hard was the formula to overcome set-backs and road blocks.

Focusing on the successful, near superhuman black exceptions as the rule meant that my failures were personal responsibilities, signs of a lack of character or persistence. We were only getting part of the picture as we didn’t see the communities that supported our heroes. We didn’t know who picked them up when they fell. Believing the “by your own bootstraps“ fairytale meant there was no need to see what was happening to others like me or to care much about those whose failures weren’t my responsibility. Life is what it is but we still get what we work for, no matter how unequal the system.

Despite living in a small, predominantly white town, I grew up in the mostly working class black church scene. In high school, I followed my mother’s social justice work in the NAACP, I read Baldwin, Ellison and Malcolm X, and I started to acknowledge that I may not be crazy in having the feeling that things were unfair. No matter, I was still privileged, “living in the lap of luxury” as one church mother put it. My mother never had to clean white peoples’ houses like her mother to make ends meet. No matter the problem, I should just put my head down and keep pushing. With all of my advantages, personally advancing was a duty to the race.

While at the university and after moving to Chicago, I connected with black professionals who, like me, wanted as much of the good life as we could afford. We worked hard, made our social bubble of house parties, tennis dates and skiing trips while moving up the ladder. We treated the Rodney King incident as something tragic, enraging, and remote…not likely to happen to us. All the while it was happening around us regularly with Chicago police earning a reputation for harassment stops and coerced confessions.

As someone black who made white people comfortable, I fell into diversity work at a small, mostly white, community college. I started teaching classes to low income adults returning to school for GEDs and job training and then as an advisor to a small number of minority students. The biggest part of my job was keeping the black basketball players eligible to play and out of trouble. A promotion to being the Equal Opportunity officer of the college system put me in the position to investigate violations of the same laws that made my life possible, but only on a case-by-case basis.

I was good enough at playing the honest broker to get hired in HR by a local plant for a Fortune 500 company. It was a lawsuit mandated position forced by black employees to address systemic racism in the plant’s HR processes. No one told me that in the interviews. Named a “change agent” by the business unit president, I was aware enough to know the ghetto I was confined to. Authoritarian cultures rarely reward change agents.

I did enough in good faith to keep the company out of court while noticing that most of its zero tolerance policies and pronouncements about fairness were just things they were saying. There was no intention to lead the community toward a more equitable future. Working in the system for change wasn’t really changing anything. I was providing cover for making money. I was making money too so why should I complain?

The foundational lie of identity politics and policies in the US is simple. They are based on a hierarchical, positivist framework created by the most privileged group to maintain that very privilege without looking like assholes to the market. Note that it was the Nixon Administration that first implemented Affirmative Action at the Federal level.

I think back about that time as a diversity manager, leader of the “get-a-long” school as it was called on the plant floor, and how hollow it all was. . . . how hollow much of my equality work was in an inherently unequal system. Progress was subject to the personal commitment of leaders with no skin in the game. Equality work was largely PR, window dressing, with box ticking activities that just needed to be under budget and not too progressive. Placating those who would judge that we had done enough was enough. Most of those who judged really didn’t care.

At best, I whispered truth to power in inoffensive language to try to guide leaders to the self realization that openness and equity were the right things to promote and that they were profitable. Little did I know that businesses have other goals besides making profits Maintaining a social order leaders can support is part of their motivation too.

My job was to create programs and systems for awareness and fairness so people of color could justify their existence to those in power and the white majority through affinity groups, banquets and minority awareness month celebrations. All the while, people were dying in the streets at the hands of the very system in which I was working. Though my job was directly in the identity industry, I wasn’t alone. Many like me invested in attempting to change the system from the inside through personal achievement to prove black people are worthy of inclusion.

The foundational lie of identity politics and policies in the US is simple. They are based on a hierarchical, positivist framework created by the most privileged group to maintain that very privilege without looking like assholes to the market. Note that it was the Nixon Administration that first implemented Affirmative Action at the Federal level.

Each non-white male group was tacitly pitted against each other, measuring progress against the relative attainment of success as defined by the group at the top of the pyramid. Class issues and differences could be sublimated and enhanced at the same time in a so-called merit system. “If one could make it, it is possible for all” became an ideological club to beat down talk of general inequality in social power and distribution of wealth. Absurd conversations involving choosing an identity category if one could identify as more than one or companies getting “two-fer” credit by hiring a Hispanic female somehow made sense. Tolerance was the goal and the person showing the least amount of tolerance was the starting point.

Angela Davis noted in a speech to the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelonain 2018 that “if we stand up against racism, we want much more than inclusion. Inclusion is not enough. Diversity is not enough…We do not wish to be included in a racist society.” She concluded by indicating that true change will require a broad series of revolutions, both personal and systemic, in all of our social relationships, including economic relationships. (1)

I spent years of appealing to the better angels of the nature of others by being good. Later I used identity statistics for exposing the gaps of fairness, all to have a seat at the table where oppressive decisions were made. It was no more than placing band-aids on an open wound as the body count of destroyed lives mounted.

Notes

1. https://youtu.be/bzQkVfO9ToQ – Angela Davis address to CCCB

Commodifying Leisure

By Curtis Price

June 11, 2020


When I was younger, I remember my father – a railroad worker – coming home from work and hiding out for hours in his workshop in the basement. His improvised workshop was full of tools of different sizes and shapes; he poured over copies of Popular Mechanics, studying the schematics, drawing his own blueprints. I’d look at the Popular Mechanics and feel intimidated by the complexity of the designs – they made no sense but instead looked like some sort of secret code interpretable only by the initiated of some secret brotherhood, a Templar Knights of hacksaws and hammers.

Much later, when my father separated from my mother and had moved out, self-isolating to a house in a patch of the woods that he called “Poverty Hollows” – yes, he’d actually answer the phone “Poverty Hollows –he turned the garage into a workshop. (I should add he got out of a couple decades of working with a full railroad pension for having a diagnosis of vertigo;  a vertigo though that didn’t stop him from driving to shop and drink beers at the local bar anytime he chose.) When he died, we had to sift through the wreckage – “clutter” is too generous a term – the turned over, abandoned chicken coops, the old refrigerators and car-carcasses in the yard straight out of rural Mississippi and a workshop where everything had rusted. Perhaps a fitting symbol for the whole scene was a mummified rat that had somehow gotten trapped in its death throes dangling from a stopped wall-clock.

Now, for many men of my father’s class and generation, the home workshop was an arena of self-expression and self-mastery, qualities that were probably lacking on their jobs. Working with your hands and tools outside of the demands of paid employment was a form of creative play, perhaps in a small way close to Marx’s famous observation from “The German Ideology” about hunting in the morning and criticizing in the evening without becoming either a “hunter” or a “critic”.

A couple years ago, I was browsing magazines in a bookstore and opened Popular Mechanics. The majority of articles were product reviews of some new whiz-bang gadget; the self-help schematics  relegated to a distant second. In a tiny way, it illustrates to me the onward march of the commodification of leisure, where instead of building you now buy objects from the Sharper Image. In its small, almost insignificant manner, it signifies yet another step toward deskilling, of replacing the active ethic of the producer with the passive ethic of the consumer.

But there are two exceptions to this general trend. One, which I’m only superficially aware of, is the tinker movement, which strives to recapture some of the old skills of the home workshop, even if most of the tinkering is done with electronics. But its enthusiasts are young IT and creative types, not blue-collar workers.

The second is repairing and messin’ around with your own car. This is more widespread in the South than in the north, in part because of more relaxed zoning and code enforcement so that you can fill your yard with old cars without racking up city fines. Now, in part, this self-help repair is out of necessity and not from creativity: since people are poorer down here, working on your car becomes a responsibility and not a hobby, especially in car-dependent Southern cities.  Noel Ignatiev once wrote about how auto industry supervisors complained of lazy line workers, yet these same workers spent hours off the clock fixing and souping up their own cars. It’s  true:  Removed from the compulsion and the regimentation of labor, a worker’s creativeness can flower.

 Where I live – a low-income apartment complex – on weekends there are at least a half a dozen men with their hoods up, staring intently inside, banging and pulling at something, what I can’t see. Often their labor becomes a communal affair; others come up and watch – or pitch in. A black guy will call up a white co-worker to help him with his car – and vice versa. (1)It’s just part of the informal mutual aid that comes easier in the South, with workers of different races interacting freely and un-self-consciously; true, an infinitesimally insignificant act in the grand scheme of things but a tantalizing glimpse that prefigures a different mode of living than our present.

Prey

By Josh Wann

June 8, 2020


I guess my daddy took me hunting, because he felt bad that he never did when I was a kid. Even though I’m the oldest, I’m also the only girl in our family, besides mom. Oldest of four, but a girl. All brothers and each one he took camping, shooting, hunting, and all that “man-stuff.”

He must’ve woken up one day and realized that he never took me and maybe felt some kind of guilt. He called me and asked me on the hunt, to see if I’d, “be his camera lady.” A documentarian role not a partner or hunting buddy with a gun, he was still just testing the waters with this whole inclusion of women thing. I guess he thought having me there would be progressive enough, taking it one step at a time, which was just as well because I really didn’t want to shoot nothing.

I was excited that daddy wanted me there, in the great outdoors, his special place, his church,that I just upped and agreed without asking what kind of hunt. So the next thing I know we’re in the parking lot of some gas station in the middle of nowhere. When I say we were in the middle of nowhere, I mean it. One of those places in Oklahoma that reminds you a place called “The Wild West” actually existed at some point in time. A place God had forgotten he made and therefore was left to its own devices. In other words, a place where this story would even be possible.

My dad told me we were supposed to meet up with this guy and his sons and they would take us around for the hunt.

“Do they have a property with a pond or running stream or something?” I asked.

“A pond?” My dad knitted his eyebrows.

“Yeah, something the deer come down to drink from at dusk.” I knew enough from growing up with my dad that duck hunting was done in the morning and deer hunting sometimes happened right before sundown. The golden hour was just about finishing up and I thought we’d be cutting it close enough with sunlight for deer, but I wanted to show him I had been paying attention.

“We’re not hunting deer, sweet-ums.”

“Oh.” I racked my brain for other possible critters that we’d be after in this part of the state at this time of day. My dad wouldn’t need help finding coyotes, crow, or opossum. Raccoons? My dad didn’t have dogs and I knew dogs were sometimes involved with raccoons. Dammit, I hope it’s not racoons. They look like cute little bears with bandit outfits and those little human-like hands. It’d feel like murdering a furry toddler with a mask. Plus, we read Where the Red Fern Grows in fifth grade and it destroyed me when the dogs died. Did both of them die? I can’t remember, but I remember sobbing at my desk. Worse than when I got my first period like a week after the sex-ed talk and that stringy haired bitch, Andrea Hughes put an open tampon on my desk to announce to everyone, including super-cute Brad Smittle who sat next to me, that my womanhood had arrived. God, fifth-grade sucked a hard one. If I saw a dog get killed on my first ever hunt with my daddy, that would jack me up.

“We’re getting hogs,” my dad said as he looked out through the car window with a discernible blood-lust in his eyes.

I thought it was weird he used the word “getting,” when he meant hunting, killing. Like we were “getting” a pet cat or “getting” a gallon of milk. As if it was, “I’ll be home soon, honey.

I’m just running up to the store and getting a hog.” But I let the prospect sink in.

It finally occurred to me, that I wasn’t completely sure so I asked, “What makes it a hog and not just a pig?”

“Well, pigs are what’s on a farm and hogs run wild. They’re more like pests,” my dad explained.

“Like the hairy ones with the giant tusks? Warthogs?” I immediately tried to rid my brain of the image of my daddy executing Pumba from The Lion King.

“No, that’s a different animal. This is more like a boar.”

“Like boar, but not a boar, but also not like Babe or Charlotte’s Web?” I was mentally crossing my fingers. I know it’s shallow and immature of me, but killing animals possibly construed as cute or even magically capable of language or maintaining healthy relationships with literate spiders was off the table for me, even if I was just the camera lady. I know what you’re thinking and yes I eat hamburgers and yes sometimes I pay $2.50 more to add bacon to them and I’m sure if I knew the names and personalities of the creatures that lay slain in my past, simply to give me a delicious lunch or dinner, I’d be devastated, but I don’t and I guess I do some moral juggling with all that, but right now I was just concerned with spending time with my daddy.

“A long time ago, boars were brought to the continent and they got loose in the wild. They mated with the domesticated pigs and then you have hogs. Or, domesticated pigs get loose and over generations they kind of turn into hogs.”

“Like evolution?”

My daddy, a staunch and life-long member of the Church of Christ recoiled from the word. “Uh, not really. Just changes that help them navigate their new habitat.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s evolution. Like horizontal evolution.”

As soon as the word escaped my lips I just knew my daddy was gonna go on another tear about how they should’ve never let me go to, “that damn Liberal college,” at the University of Tulsa, but instead he just said, “Well, horizontal, vertical, whatever, they’re just hogs now. Not Babe or a Disney character. They got fur and long teeth called cutters and they tear up a lot of the crops around here. They’re pests.”

About that time what can only be described as a Mad Max style caravan rolled into the desolate lot. It was a band of men and dogs and boys in pickup trucks. We all got out and greeted one another. Once you got past the camo and guns it was really quite a jolly energy. They were smiling and giving each other shit in a playful way and it felt bizarrely comforting to be in the glow of this unabashed example of male camaraderie. I fought hard the urge to make speculations about what their politics probably were. I felt ashamed that it was a struggle for me to push those things away. To try to just focus on positives and the reason being there was to enjoy my daddy’s company.

The dogs seemed as excited as the men. I didn’t recognize the breed of most of them and they just looked like any old mutt you might imagine loose on a farm or in the country but one of the younger boys informed me they were curs and Blue Heelers. There were two other dogs that I immediately knew were Pit Bulls. Not only did they distinctly look different than the others, square and muscular, their whole dog-vibe was different. The others seemed playful and rambunctious. The two pit bulls seemed restless, ready to get to work. They had grey vests on and reminded me of a cartoon where they would be the policemen dogs.

The guy, whose name was of course Chuck and seemed to be in charge said it was time to go. We hopped in the back of the bed of one of the pickup trucks and in a matter of minutes we were deep in the backwoods. We were going so fast that I thought we were maybe already hot on the heels of our prey and I tried to look around the cab of the truck to see if we were chasing a herd of hogs. I’m not sure if hogs travel in herds or if they’re more loner types, but for some reason I pictured hogs roaming the countryside in rough, squealy gangs. It appeared there was nothing in front of us and nothing was chasing us and I wondered why we were going so fast. Before I could ask my dad, both the trucks took a violent turn and we pulled into what appeared to be a destitute crop of some sort. I figured this would slow us down, but no such luck. We maintained the same break-neck pace only now it was on a bumpy, dirt field.

I looked over at my dad and he was holding on to his hat with one hand and onto the side of the truck with the other. He gave me a look like, “Sorry, this is hunting, but also isn’t it fun if we don’t die?” What he said was, “Hold on good sweet’ums.”

“10-4,” I hollered over the noise of the truck. I’ve never said 10-4 in my life, but it felt like now was as good a time as any, but I immediately felt embarrassed. My dad smiled back at me.

The trucks drove back onto main roads, well, they were one-lane gravel and dirt country roads, but compared to the fields we had been on, it was a lane of luxury. We hauled ass down several more roads, across several more fields, and through a good deal of brush and shrubs. At one point I was convinced they were pranking us because they thought it would be funny to disorient two city people and leave them stranded in the woods after they bucked us out of the back of their trucks. But eventually we stopped in a grassy field and one of the boys yelled, “This is it!”

We all jumped out. Just like that a flurry of fur and barking mess were released and all the dogs, minus the two pit bulls, seemed to be in hot pursuit of something.

“WE DON’T LET THE PITS GO YET, BECAUSE THEY’LL RUN ALL NIGHT IF WE LET’EM GO TOO EARLY,” one of the crew yelled this explanation to me over the madness of barking.

Then we ran forever. Us and the two pit bulls on leashes, hobbling over rough terrain, trying to keep up with the curs and Heelers, who were supposedly chasing down and corning a pesky hog.

The good thing about hog hunting, as your first hunt, is that it happens so fast that you don’t have time to think too much about all the ethical intricacies that you might feel or have concerning the whole ordeal. You should’ve done all that back at home, anyway, but you were too busy thinking about how you just wanted to spend time with your daddy before he got too much older or you got too busy. How many more times would you get a chance to drive off somewhere with your dad and hear him sing every third word to the same four country songs you grew up with in that pitiful but endearing way? How many more times would he have the energy and you the schedule to be hours away from home? To see him pull his stiffened body back into the car and hand you your favorite candy bar with that giant, toothy grin because he’s proud he still remembers it’s Mr. Goodbar and you eat it in five giant bites, even though you’re trying to swear off sugar and you’re on your third Whole 30 of the year? You’re guessing not that many, because mom told you that dad went in for yet another test and “Well, honey you know the

history of heart disease in your daddy’s family.” And you can’t seem to carve out any time for family these days, because your manager keeps asking you to take on more and you still feel like you have to prove yourself even though you’re one of the only ones with a Master’s degree and you’re certainly the only one in the office who knows how to help a client over a Zoom call because everyone else seems to be from the Victorian era. That’s how you end up working 60 hour weeks more and more and missing family events more and more. So if a couple of hogs or boars or whatever have to get wrecked so I can have quality time with my daddy then sorry, but like aren’t they pests? I mean they are destroying crops and multiplying like rabbits. But like rabbits that dig up your whole livelihood and weigh more than most of your cousins. I mean you support farmers, right?

The bad thing about hog hunting is that it’s bloody. It’s so bloody, like oh my god, why is it so bloody? It’s so fricking bloody. And loud. There’s men yelling at the dogs, and the dogs always barking which is a dog version of yelling. The smaller dogs yelling at the bigger pitbull dogs who are growling at the hog who is squealing which is a hog version of yelling and they are just yelling like “HOLY SHIT! WHERE DID ALL THESE DOGS COME FROM???!!!”

Because Chuck, the guy who hunts and traps the hogs for a living, uses dogs, you can’t use a hunting rifle. You can’t use a rifle to kill the hog on account of the likelihood that a nervous city person hunting a hog for the first time and who just stepped off the rollercoaster of a truck ride is probably too dizzy to aim right and runs a high risk of shooting one of your hard to train hog dogs. Instead, you have to use a long hunting knife or spear and picture yourself as one of those lost boys from The Lord of the Flies. So my daddy, acting like a stranded British boy, gouged a spear into the heart of this giant hog and after much sweating and barking and yelling and squealing, it was over.

I never once even pulled my phone out to film the whole thing. It was my one job, but I didn’t think about my phone. In the midst of it all, I didn’t think about my job, my student loan debt, my dad’s heart health, my dad’s medical history, evolution, politics, space, time, the Church of Christ, mean girls from my school days, ex boyfriends, dog breeds, nothing. There was just the event of death. It didn’t even seem attached to a good or bad thing, it just was.

My dad is mostly used to shooting things from afar so I think we were both a little stunned. He never asked to see the video of the hunt. We didn’t talk until we got back to our own car. Right before we merged on the highway, we pulled over to use a gas station bathroom before the long trip home. When I got back in the car I handed my daddy a Mr. Goodbar.

He said, “You remembered. My favorite.”

“To be fair, it’s mine, too,” I said.

“I know,” he broke it in half and handed me one side. “You learned it from me.”

“Masks=Slavery”: Freedom In The Time Of Coronavirus

By Kwesi P. Dean

May 30, 2020


Coronavirus stay-at-home orders began in the United States mid March and ruptured a particular pact with some Americans who believed in an implicit promise, a promise that their lives would not be subject to, as Marx put it, a “relation of domination” that is inherent to direct forced labor and social control. Of course, none of them would put it that way since there is little redeemable in the Satan of capitalism but it makes sense nonetheless.

No matter the noble nature of the stay-at-home order or mandatory public masking, they are orders regulating public behavior enforceable by law. People who are not used to being told what to do by the state are being forced to do things, or not do things, they want to do.


In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Americans were told, changing their patterns of living may save lives. Americans in stay-at-home states were told to tolerate temporary inconvenience to “flatten the curve” of viral transmission to give society time and capacity to care for the sick and find treatments and cures. That didn’t matter enough for these so-called supporters of liberty to justify the limitations on their rights.


From the very beginning of the implementation of stay-at-home orders there was pushback on economic grounds. President Trump even said “We can’t have a cure be worse than the problem” on 23 March, 4 days after California set mandatory stay-at-home restrictions. The effect of economic hardship may be worse than the preventable loss of life, pitting a way of life for many against,for some, actually…living.


The stay-at-home orders definitely had direct and immediate economic consequences with thousands of businesses closed and 26.4 million newly unemployed in 4 weeks. This reaction is predictable in a country with a “hire and fire” mentality where employers’ well being is above that of workers at every turn. Unlike in many European countries where the state partially paid employees to keep their jobs, the US relied on a largely antiquated, state level unemployment system to deal with the deluge of new filings for benefits. Many people couldn’t even get through to file, let alone receive benefits.


All the while, many more Americans than normal were getting sick and dying. Reports of thousands of people dying daily is the norm as is the acceptance of those deaths.


This norm of the acceptance of death has lead to an inevitable conclusion by some that in the face of economic hardship, the US should accept even more death as a fair trade for prosperity. Sen. John Kennedy (LA) and Rep. Trey Hollingsworth(IN) claimed that ending stay-at-home and social distancing measures and opening businesses was worth the near certainty of more people dying from complications due to the accelerated spread of Covid-19.


They weren’t hiding behind the language of risk. There was no confusion about the causal relationship. It is simply worth it for thousands of people to die to protect the economy. Hollingsworth passionately noted on the Tony Katz radio show on 14 April “it is always the American government’s position that in the choice between the loss of the way of life as Americans and the loss of American lives we always have to choose the latter and this is what I push back on.” Kennedy on 16 April when talking to Tucker Carlson on Fox noted when “we end the shut down, the virus is going to spread faster…we got to reopen and when we do the Coronavirus is going to spread faster.” For Kennedy, reopening is justified to protect an American economy on the verge of collapse. He imagines a US collapse would lead to a global collapse.


By 15 April, protests against the stay-at-home orders with slogans like “Freedom over fear” had begun across the US with acts of civil disobedience that at the same time put protesters at greater risk of infection. We now know some protesters have tested positive for the virus. Yes, the protests were organized in some cases by conservative organizations with ties to the administration and encouraged by presidential tweets but that didn’t force people to illegally gather in defiance of state orders meant to protect them and others from illness.


So why would they do it? Though no one answer would cover it, one perspective is what’s at stake for them is much more than a an economic way of life. They are losing a social contract that entitled them to believe, despite the obvious precariousness of their economic well-being, their social freedom as Americans would be unquestioned. The so-called “nanny state” with the support of the majority of Americans was forcing them to act without their choice.

The concept of being controlled and tracked by the state is too much for some Americans to take, no matter the cause. Americans know instinctively the counterpart of freedom is social control. That social control was a part of the fabric of the state from the founding of the country with indentured servitude and slavery. It continues today with the criminal justice system that even extends to remove citizenship rights like the right to vote. That social control was and is acceptable to many Americans as long as they aren’t subject to it.


For a significant minority of Americans, stay-at-home orders should end. The risks are acceptable. It’s about more than the economy. The reality of state control is too much to tolerate as a reminder that they have a lot more in common with people who are unfortunate and underprivileged than they hoped to believe.


It didn’t help that the face of the coronavirus victim in the US was becoming black, brown, poor, old and sickly. People who would die anyway. Why should Americans suffer on behalf of the least of these? The answer for the anti stay-at-home protesters was, they shouldn’t.


Freedom from state control is an organizing principle for the American far right with hyper individualism and a lack of social responsibility as consequences. They thread is clear, they don’t want to serve people whose lifestyle they oppose in their businesses, go to classes or schools that teach what they don’t want to know, pay taxes that support programs with which they disagree or view protests that support people’s lives that don’t matter to them.


The desire to be free of social control in the US is more than inspiration for conspiracy theories or votes for a reality tv star to be president. It’s more than political, it’s a matter of life and death.


https://www.wibc.com/news/trey-hollingsworth-we-have-to-get-americans-back-to-work/
https://video.foxnews.com/v/6149768220001#sp=show-clips

https://theundefeated.com/features/public-health-expert-says-african-americans-are-at-greater-risk-of-death-from-coronavirus/
Wealth confronts direct forced labour not as capital, but rather as relation of domination [Herrschaftsverhältnis]; thus, the relation of domination is the only thing which is reproduced on this basis, for which wealth itself has value only as gratification, not as wealth itself, and which can therefore never create general industriousness. (We shall return to this relation of slavery and wage labour.) Grundrisse

At the end of the interview Carlson noted you know what kills more people each year than Coronavirus, a lot more? Poverty, poverty kills people in massive numbers and we should remember that.”

If You Can’t Talk To Conservatives, You Can’t Do Revolution

By N.W.O

May 22, 2020


It goes without saying that the work of building a new society is complicated, multifaceted and difficult. Like any process it’s complications arise from a whole host of actions that are by themselves simple, but as Clausewitz Everything in war is very simple. But the simplest thing is difficult.” The single most important process that is necessary to building a new society is the personal one, the leaving of the cave, the engagement with the world as it is and not as it is presented to you. Going hand in hand with this is maintaining your understanding of the outlook of those who have yet to leave the cave. Most aspiring radicals that I know or have observed tend to be good at this, to a point. Coming mostly from the centre left cultural bloc it is often difficult for radicals to talk to right wingers.

The principle contradiction in capitalist society remains the conflict between the owning class and the working class. Despite this historic fact, the Marxist paradigm has yet to emerge in the United States. This is intentional, as the parameters of popular debate can never threaten the system that it is contingent upon. American politics is arrayed along cultural lines. The dominant cultural groups are the two wings of the white liberal population, Red Tribe ‘Conservatives’ and Blue Tribe ‘Liberals’. Non-white ethnic groups participate in these ‘Tribes’ to some extent but to a large degree they have their own cultural divisions. If I were to list in detail how all of these groups interact I would be talking out of my ass and spending more time writing than I am currently comfortable with. All of that being said, this state of affairs is not organic.

The cultural conflicts between these two groups are perpetuated by competing capitalist media conglomerates that despite shallow differences agree on one fundamental thing, that class society needs to be upheld at all costs. Disagreements on tax policy and how many dead civilians are acceptable overseas make up most of the topics up for discussion, but the necessity of hegemonic wage labor is never under discussion. This remains true whether you watch CNN or Fox News.

Most anarchists, communists, socialists, college activists, and anti-colonialists radfem types tend to come from liberal middle class and petite-bourgeois families. It’s easy to see how coming up in a cultural milieu of Daily Show viewers, contrasting themselves to the calculated displays of folksiness from the Bush administration, could result in someone sprinting as far to the ‘left’ as their horizons permit and begin to associate appeals to the rural American archetype with reactionary positions. This has been reinforced in recent years with the rise of the MAGA right and the continuing association of liberal, blue tribe cultural values (principally, diversity and civility) with mainstream youth culture. Coming from the blue tribe cultural sphere there is an often unconfronted assumption that Liberals are merely mistaken Socialists, that one can walk them backwards from their ‘left’ cultural positions and get them to reach genuinely radical ones. While this surely works on occasion it has proven itself to be a losing strategy, as the ascendancy of the Biden campaign indicates. The class interests of the existing professional managerial class and the debt-laden woke reserve army of Buzzfeed writers will always reassert itself in opposition to any genuine challenge to the status quo, and it will mask this reassertion of bourgeois structures in the most progressive language that Zeitgeist permits.

This assumption of good intentions for what has so far been the most destructive political force in North America’s recent history, Democratic Party supporters, is almost never extended to the other half of the culture wars. When ostensibly right wing activists cite concern about government overreach, alphabet boys, and the outsourcing of labor to China, it’s all too easy for wannabe lefties to cluck their tongues and dismiss them as bad faith actors. Sure, some of them are, we live in the age of the grifter after all, but the concerns they are aping to sell 2nd Amendment t-shirts or jump start their Veteran owned CBD company are the real concerns of huge swaths of the Proletariat. It’s the ‘right wing’ mirror of the appropriation of formerly radical aesthetics by corporations to sell gay cars or whatever it is when a bank sponsors a pride parade. Aspiring radicals, even and especially your prototypical precariat yuppy DSA member, often fall into this trap.

. We must be effective in laying bare the contradictions of North American society and sabotaging any attempt to reconcile them in favor of the master class, and if we want to be effective in that we have to disabuse ourselves of the notion that furthering the liberal cultural project is conducive to our goals. There is nothing compatible to socialism in racism, homophobia, or patriarchal domination but equally we must recognize that liberal identity politics is just the cosmopolitanization of a formerly white supremacist system at best, and at worse just a wallpapering over of an inherently white-supremacist capitalist system. That is, you can’t fix capitalism with diversity in the boardroom or rigid language policing. By refusing to engage with the white working class on it’s own terms in a misguided attempt to signal appropriate, woke social values to our class enemies we are doing the work of the bosses. Dividing the proletariat along lines that are inherently irreconcilable (i.e, the debate surrounding ‘Happy Holidays’, whether you drive a truck or Prius, etc) and setting at one another with all the ferocity that liberal norms permit. As destructive as public call outs and doxxing can be to individuals, these tactics and the moralistic assumptions behind them do nothing to actually engage with class society.

 In short, if you are serious about doing the work of building a new society free of domination you have to get comfortable with and good at talking to people that self-identify as conservatives. I say self identify, because there are many liberals that call themselves radicals there are plenty of people on the cultural right that have nothing more than a surface level affinity for the MAGA movement and what it represents. NRA members with Mexican wives, young veterans that oppose racism in all its forms in their private lives, hillbillies that have been evading the law for generations. People who are genuinely ungovernable. As the child of middle class liberal lesbians growing up in a ‘Shallow South’ college town this was difficult for me to grasp. The only thing that forced me out of the moralistic liberal mindset was my class position changing rapidly and significantly in my adolescence. Putting me in working class environments entirely incompatible with any degree of “call out culture” and removing me from liberal cultural sphere. Now, probably to my detriment, I’m more comfortable talking to conservatives-types about my politics than liberal types.

I’m not suggesting that every sociology student in the flyover starts wearing cowboy hats and boots. That would go over about as well as all of us all wearing doo-rags. What I am suggesting is that we don’t wrap ourselves in a thin veneer of cultural superiority and marry ourselves to causes that have very little to do with our real project. The abolition of class and thus all of its contingent social systems. Our duty is not to morally posture, our duty is to defeat capital. To do that we have to disentangle ourselves from surface level cultural struggles that do nothing to challenge the basis of capitalist power. Until a sufficient mass of class conscious workers reach these conclusions we will be stuck as the useful idiots of one block of capital or another.

Bertha

By Jeanetta Calhoun Mish

May 16, 2020


Las Vegas. The name conjures visions of neon, sounds of one-armed bandits, the rainbow of stacked chips. No one notices the ramshackle houses and boring people who set alarms, brush their teeth, and go to work serving all-day breakfast to all-day drunks. The woman sitting in the darkest corner of the diner sucking the life out of a Pall Mall knew what it was like to epitomize plainness in a town that thrived on glitter and glam. Sometimes she thought she was invisible.

She believed her life had gone wrong because her mother named her Bertha. She remembered how nasty-boys called her “Bertha Butt” and rubbed up against her in the halls, growling “Bertha Baby Bump My Boner.” She envied cheerleaders whose names held the secret of blondeness and sensuality. She remembered the summer at her aunt’s in Oklahoma City—she told everyone her name was Mary Ann, like the girl from Gilligan’s Island. It seemed everyone was kinder to her. It seemed she laughed easier and told better jokes. Her facade collapsed the day her aunt called to her across the street.

“Bertha, will you be home for dinner?”

Bertha tried to pretend the woman in a faded housedress with pink foam curlers in her hair was calling someone else, but her aunt strode across the street yelling “Have you gone deef, Bertha?”

The girls she thought were friends laughed cruelly. As they walked away, Sally told Misty and the others that if Bertha lied about her name, she probably lied about everything else. The last ten days of that summer were spent in her room. She cried as her eight track played “Alone Again, Naturally” and “At Seventeen.” A hollow ache welled up in her gut and Bertha stumbled to the pea-green bathroom to throw up. Shame always made her throw up as if she could flush her self-loathing down the toilet.

The shame Bertha felt that summer never went away. In high school she was pretty but no one mentioned it. Bertha got straight A’s but none of her schoolmates appreciated that, either. The few times boys asked her on dates, they took her straight out to the lake, expecting Bertha to put out. She usually did, faking orgasms on Naugahyde bucket seats, finding cold comfort in the thought that her body was desirable. Her dates never took her where someone from their school might see them—no drive-in movies, no dances. The sucking vacuum surrounding her heart repulsed everyone. In her senior year, she learned to drink and drug with the heads, found the place she belonged. Getting wasted was the primary purpose of life among Bertha’s circle. No one noticed her darkness and her need. Sometimes even Bertha didn’t notice any more.

Bertha met Sam during a wild party that lasted for days until the coke ran out. Sam drank some, but didn’t get stoned or coked up, so Bertha wasn’t really interested. But Sam called and called until at last she agreed to go out with him. The night of their first date they ran off to Vegas to get hitched in atacky marriage bungalow next toa potholed highway. They never went back home.

Bertha didn’t sober up and realize what she’d done until three months later. At the same moment, she realized Sam was gone more often than he was home. She went straight to the bathroom and threw up. She took a three-hour bath and scrubbed with a loofah until her skin was red and sore. She washed her hair three times and brushed and flossed three times. She put on her makeup and the dress Sam liked best.

When Sam rolled in at 4:00 a.m., drunk and smelling of cheap perfume, Bertha was sitting on the couch, waiting for him. Her sultry pose excited him and they made vicious love right there on the couch until he passed out. Bertha was sure she’d won him back. In the following weeks, Bertha wore party dresses every day and Sam started coming home earlier.

A month later to the day, Sam didn’t come home at all. While Bertha waited for him on their second-hand love seat, she began to hear things. Mocking laughter from the refrigerator. The creak of Sam’s dress shoes in the closet. Bertha covered her ears and cried out in a frenzy for the sounds to stop. Finally, she made herself a stiff gin and tonic and slipped into oblivion after the sixth one.

That weekend, Bertha asked Sam to take her out partying. He was surprised but also pleased the old Bertha was back. Bertha hovered around the edges of the party and tried to look like she was having fun. It was unnerving to see how many women wrapped themselves around Sam, calling him Sammy and sharing stories she wasn’t privy to. The worst of it was their names. They had names just like those city-summer girls.

Bertha kept up with Sam for two weeks before surrendering to exhaustion. She was tired of faking pleasure. She was tired of being shunned. She was angry most the time, morose the rest. The few times he came home, Sam sneaked in before noon while Bertha was still sleeping off the previous night’s gin and Xanax. He grabbed a couple changes of clothes and dropped the dirty ones on the washing machine. He snooped around for loose money and booze. He left notes: “I was here . . . Sam,” and closed the door behind him, softly—he didn’t want to wake her. He didn’t want to hear her bitch about his absences.

In the hours Bertha was awake, she obsessed about her marriage. It was an empty bag; a game of craps gone bust. She hated the young women Sam slept with. She spent her days imagining their names. Rita, maybe, or Saundra, or maybe one of those slutty names women like Bertha spit out between their teeth. Names like Candi and Cheri and Bambi. Names that end with an “i” dotted by a heart. By Labor Day, the names became her chant of anger, her litany of loneliness.

The last time Sam and Bertha went out together, they invited everyone in the bar to a Labor Day party. The morning of the party, Bertha put on her best dress, applied her makeup, and pulled her hair back because people said she looked younger that way. She knew Sam would show up for the party. He liked for people to think of him as the ultimate host. She reached under the mattress and retrieved the pawn shop .45 she’d purchased a few days before. She cleaned and oiled it, leaving on it a trace of the perfume clinging to her fingers. Time slowed to the moments between the tick of the clock and the beat of her heart. Two o’clock might never come or at least not soon enough.

When the doorbell rang, Bertha startled and almost dropped Cassandra. Bertha was pleased with the name she gave the gun. She caressed the steely blue-black metal one last time before wrapping it in the slinky polyester nightgown she last wore on her wedding night. She rose, confident and clear, then went downstairs to stash Cassandra in the kitchen cabinet behind her grandmother’s mixing bowl. Putting on her best hostess smile, Bertha opened the door to the river of guests who came to drink her beer and call her “Bertie.”

Bertha moved through the party with a new walk, a confidence she never before experienced. Her guests whispered in on the back porch. Did she take a young lover, did she have a facelift, did she go to Weight Watchers? Her husband was late, as usual, so it was four o’clock before the charcoal on the grill was ready. Bertha watched him out of the corner of her eye. He laughed and flirted with all the women. He charmed the men with the same old stories she found obscene and disgusting. She wondered whose smell was on his hands and in his mustache. She wondered how she ever loved him. She questioned if it was love at all or only the relief of being the object of interest. Her mother had told her often that she couldn’t afford to be choosy. She was a plain girl, unlikely to attract a suitable man. Bertha knew her mother spoke the truth. After all, wasn’t she the one who chose the name to match the baby with big feet and no hair?

After the guests gorged themselves on hamburgers and corn on the cob, the evening mosquitoes drove them inside the house. Bertha could feel her pulse in her fingertips. She glanced toward the kitchen cabinet and silently acknowledged her friend Cassandra. Cassandra, with no last letter “i’” on her name. A friend who would never betray her. Prissy names of perfect women throbbed in her temples and her hostess smile straightened into a hard line. She waited for her husband to begin another one of his interminable stories. Lies. They were all lies. The guests turned to her husband like a flock of sheep, their backs to Bertha.

Bertha slipped off to the kitchen. Those women’s names rose like nausea; they pounded like a jackhammer. She reached behind the mixing bowl to retrieve and unwrap the pistol. Caressing Cassandra in her capable hands, she returned to the living room. No one noticed her absence or her return. She raised the gun, pointed the oracle of accusation at her husband. She saw him look into the barrel and his mouth drop open in surprise just before the bullet entered his brain. There were screams, but Bertha didn’t hear them. For the first time in years, there was no chanting in her ears. No names. No taunting. No ridicule. Only the sweet ringing of what sounded like bells.

Says Pug

By James Murray

May 9th, 2020


If you grew up in a small, straight-laced agriculture and manufacturing town in Oklahoma like I did, and driving into ‘wild towns,’ like Tahlequah as a teenager because that’s where minors would be served beer, you naturally heard about the ‘Dixie Mob.’ ‘Stories of crime and corruption yes its true,’ as the Drive-By Truckers song says, ‘Greed and fixed elections and guns and drugs and whores and booze.’  To the extent any such formal organization ever existed it is now long defunct, the stories now forgotten. When I realized I had mutual friends with an ‘old-timer,’ who would have been a ‘young guy,’ in the 70s heyday and 80s apogee of the ‘Dixie Mob,’ I jumped through hoops to arrange an interview.


Pug says he was trying to make thirty-thousand dollars in thirty minutes but he ended up catching thirty-one months. He thought he might escape with probation since he was nearing sixty years of age and the felony charges were nonviolent. He had caught some DUIs and drug possession charges here and there through the decades but had never been arrested for anything serious. “I don’t know why,” his attorney told him, “The D.A. doesn’t want to talk about a plea deal. For some reason they think you’re a career criminal who has just been lucky.”

     “They’re right,” Pug told the attorney, “I’ve been robbing pharmacies, jewelry stores and pawnshops for thirty years. The attorney was shocked and frightened by his client’s revelation. “I don’t know why he acted so offended,” Pug tells me, “He’s the one who chose criminal law. Who did he think he was going to be representing?” After dragging out the case for months and absorbing more than ten-thousand dollars the attorney finally got the D.A. to cut a deal. Pug would plead guilty and save the state the cost of a jury trial. The judge promised to sentence him to less than three years and guarantee all the time would be served in a minimum security facility.

     Pug believes most guys do prison time because, “They pissed off a woman who got back at them by snitchin’,” or because, “One of their dope fiend homies got busted,” and being a “broke, stupid, scaredy-cat,” and without old school honor and ethics, “They start squealin’ to save their own hides.” Pug says they begin their prison incarceration with a lot of rage and someone in mind to blame and hate. “I didn’t have any of that because I had no one to blame but myself,” Pug says, “I was just driving down the alley, goin’ to Dollar Store for cigarettes and a lighter. No thoughts of committin’ crime, I didn’t need any money right then. Been just layin’ low in Muskogee livin’ in a rent house.”

“They pissed off a woman who got back at them by snitchin’,” or because, “One of their dope fiend homies got busted,” and being a “broke, stupid, scaredy-cat,” and without old school honor and ethics, “They start squealin’ to save their own hides.”

But when he drove behind the small city’s Walgreens pharmacy he instantly noticed the back door was left ajar. “I seen that strip of light between the edge of the door and the door frame. It happens sometimes, the janitor or the pharmacy clerks forget a particular door needs to be slammed to lock. Or you gotta shut it while turning the knob for it to lock. They’re just in a hurry to leave work, they do the same store closing routine every day and get careless. When I seen that strip of light I knew the whole story. I got so excited I started hyperventilatin’  and had chest pains. I knew I was goin’ in. I had to. I just love thievin’ so much. It’s like when a beautiful woman offers up that pussy. Only a strong man could say, ‘No.’ And I’m just not that strong. I was so excited I could barely drive. I knew exactly what to expect to find in a Walgreens. All the stores are laid out and organized the same way. I was havin’ visions of cases of Xanax still in the shrink wrap and one-thousand lot bundles of Adderall and all the Oxys and how much it would all be worth in Tulsa and how fast I could wholesale it out. I went back to the house and my ol’ lady knew somethin’ was up, I was amped up, covered in sweat. She thought I was having a heart attack and wanted to call 911. ‘No no,’ I told her, ‘That goddamn Walgreens is unlocked and I’m going in! Pack all the shit! Clean the house! Wipe down all the surfaces! We’re moving into a hotel in Tulsa for a while!’”

    I watch as Pug does a thin line of methamphetamine off of a tourist-trap ‘souvenier plate,’ celebrating Beaver Lake, Arkansas, a huge bass wiggles in enamel as he expertly cleans up the drugs with a cut-down McDonald’s straw before continuing. “Of course, it was a bad idea. All my tools and gear were forty miles away in a storage unit in Tulsa. I didn’t have no plan. Didn’t have no helper except for the ol’ lady and she didn’t know nothin’. Didn’t even have gloves and a ski mask, it was the middle of summer and I hadn’t been plannin’ to work. I was breakin every rule the old guys ever taught me. But I was so excited. Like a young Angus bull when his balls is fully dropped and he smells those young tight heifers in heat. He can’t help himself. It’s instinct. Course I’m a man with a brain but I couldn’t stop myself either.

They got real good pictures of me holding up that bottle of liquid cocaine. They showed em at the arraignment and I look like a man seein’ Jesus Christ in heaven.”

So I went to Dollar Store and bought jersey gloves. I shaved my head and face so I wouldn’t drop no hairs. I made a ski mask out of an old t-shirt. And I went back down there and stashed the car and went into that goddamn Walgreens. Of course in all the excitement I forgot some things. Like a flashlight and my bifocals. The storage room was lit up but the rest of the store was dark. It was like committin’ a break-and-enter in a coal mine. I couldn’t see shit. Now I know my way around a Walgreens. So I went straight to where the Xanax would be. That shit is solid gold. I don’t like it personally, I just drink and do powder but people love that Xanax. It’s the easiest dope in the world to sell. People think something out of a pharmacy is cleaner and safer than street dope. Of course a lot of people kill themselves with xany, it’s more dangerous than speed or cocaine but there’s not a stigma attached to it. The wholesale moves easy. I was just gonna get the high-value shit. The xanys, the Adderall, the opioids, but without my bifocals I can’t read anything unless I hold it right up to my eyes.

So I started going through the boxes of dope, holding every box up to my eyes but it was too dark I still couldn’t read the labels. So I went out to the front of the store where they sell knick-knacks and fumbled around until I found a flashlight and batteries. Then I could read the labels and I started throwin the shit I wanted in my bag. When I got what I wanted, I shined the light around the shelves and I saw a glass bottle with a security-sealed red top. I hadn’t seen anything like it in twenty years. I took it down and shined the light on the label and sure enough – liquid cocaine. A goddamn quart of it. Very rare, very dangerous. Easy to kill yourself with. Must’ve been a special order. I’ve only seen it twice in my life. I almost couldn’t believe what I was holding in my hand. Jesus fucking Christ, I thought, I’m gonna be the highest motherfucker in Oklahoma by dawn. For some reason, I don’t know why or what I was thinking, I pushed the t-shirt ski mask up to get a better look at that shit. My back was to the obvious cameras but unbeknownst to me there were hidden cameras all over the goddamn room. They got real good pictures of me holding up that bottle of liquid cocaine. They showed em at the arraignment and I look like a man seein’ Jesus Christ in heaven.”

“So I got away with the shit and we went to hideout in Tulsa and flip it. MPD got the OSBI involved and they started showin’ the picture around. Puttin’ it on the Facebook and all kinds of shit. Of course people know me all over the state. Who claimed the reward for putting a name to the face I don’t know but I was arrested about three months later.”

     “When I reported to DOC to begin my sentence there was an interview and they asked me if I had a ‘Racial ideology?’ I really thought that was funny. I told the woman, “I was born and raised  in north Tulsa and lived for years on end in Wewoka, and Muskogee. I don’t hate n*****s and I’m not afraid of ‘em either.” She wanted to know if I could live peacefully in a pod with blacks and I said, ‘Woman, did you not hear a word I said? Just keep me away from perverts and rape-os and I won’t cause no problems.’  Pug says during the intake process the prison staff photographed all his tattoos and questioned him about if any of them contained coded messages or revealed gang affiliation. “They ask, ‘What’s this one mean?’ And I’m like, ‘Man, its the Grim Reaper, surely you know what that means?’ Where they hire these guys, I don’t know. Not the sharpest knives in the drawer. When you got as much ink as I do it get’s old explainin’ what they all mean, like ‘This is a hot bitch in daisy duke shorts leaned over showing her ass,’ and ‘This is Donald Duck with a razorblade in one hand and a rolled up hundred dollar bill in the other.’ It get’s ridiculous after a while.”

So I went up to him and told him if he didn’t shut the fuck up I was going to put a contract on him and he would be stabbed and murdered in the shower

“I wish I had some dramatic prison stories but it really wasn’t that bad. Minimum security bullshit. A bunch of old lifers too decrepit to do anything but watch T.V. and stagger around muttering to themselves.And a bunch of repeat DUI offenders, pot dealers and pissant casino-addict embezzlers. I felt like I was the only real criminal there. Somehow they found out…” Pug pauses to choose his words carefully, “I had been around Dixie Mob guys all through my lifetime and they were all terrified, they didn’t know what ‘Dixie Mob,’ even meant and they thought I was John Gotti or somethin’. I didn’t tell em any differently. What they don’t know won’t hurt em was my position.

Some of the inmates were so pitiful I was embarrassed to be there with them.  There was this one middle-aged yuppie guy, he had gotten like, I don’t know, maybe ten DUIs. He cried every night. Like a goddamn little kid cryin’ for mama ‘cept I swear to God he would cry for his wife. I just couldn’t take it any more. I was never a violent criminal. I can get violent to defend myself but that’s not what I am. I’ve never even hit a woman tho I’ve been tempted about one-hundred and one times. But I couldn’t listen to this motherfucker cry all night. Night after night. So I went up to him and told him if he didn’t shut the fuck up I was going to put a contract on him and he would be stabbed and murdered in the shower. Total bullshit of course, there was no one there capable of that and I had no crew, no authority, no money. But he believed it and started chewing on a sock to keep from crying.”

“Of course the food was terrible but since I wasn’t doing powder I gained forty pounds in thirty-one months. I had to waddle into the goddamn halfway house looking like a showpig at the fair. Two years later I’m still trying to get back to fighting trim….”

Corona Blues (In The Key of Black and Blue)

Above: Share of Adults Most at Risk for COVID-19 Because of Pre-existing Conditions

By Curtis Price

Charlene’s been dead for a couple weeks, I just found out. When I heard the news, I thought “Well, Victoria’s Secret at the Mall will finally turn a profit this year.” Because, Charlene was a “booster,” a professional shoplifter, a practitioner of the fine arts of the five-finger discount, one of Huntsville’s finest.

 She was the first person I knew who died of COVID-19 here; for me, her death supplied a face to associate with the flow of anonymous numbers. But truthfully, I can’t say I really knew Charlene; more accurately it was more the case that I knew OF her because our paths crossed only once. All the rest of my knowledge, consisting of street-grapevine anecdotes – Charlene’s been busted again, Charlene’s sleeping on so-and-so’s couch –I gleaned second-hand.  I recall Charlene (from the passenger seat view to the back) during our one encounter as an obese, dark-complexioned Black female in her late 40s, with a flashing, hawk-like glint and wearing a slightly askew wig – perhaps from stuffing Tylenol bottles from the Dollar General inside?- who needed a ride from a friend to Social Services.

Now Charlene had the habit of a heavy crack user, for which there is never enough money because, unlike heroin users, a crack habit has to be fed not once but many times a day, reaping a high lasting  little over five minutes yet a high that relentlessly stokes the need for more.. The wolf was always at Charlene’s door, howling, insatiable, its appetite never fully slaked.

I can’t imagine Charlene having much capability of self-reflection. Finely tuned to the external stimuli of the eternal hustle, she had little time or inclination to stay still and look inward. Even in her many stints at Wetumpka, the women’s prison outside Montgomery, I can instead see her playing cards on the tier or getting dragged into endless convict bulllshit of the “he-said-she-said” variety. She wasn’t the type to go to church, confessing some real or imagined sin, although she believed surely there was an omnipresent God watching her every move, the celestial equivalent of a Walmart security camera.

From a structural viewpoint, Charlene’s life can be easily analyzed. She was a poor Black woman in the Deep South in an advanced capitalist democracy, born in trouble and died in trouble. But that in itself won’t tell us much. Just as Sartre said, Flaubert was a bourgeoisie, but not every bourgeoisie was a Flaubert, the same can be said of Charlene: she was poor, Black and female – but not every poor Black female in the Deep South becomes a hard-core street junkie. We can’t glean her subjectivity from structure, why she became what she became and not ending up, for instance, a cashier at the Thrifty Mart churching every Sunday.  Who can truly grasp the vagarities of individual consciousness that makes someone “this” and not “that”?

In the South, COVID-19 acts as a great un-equalizer. “Body by Biscuits” fills caskets. The Stroke Belt is becoming a noose. (1) The South’s concentration of pre-existing conditions such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and asthma ensures that COVD-19 disproportionately affects the poor and working class. In Alabama, African-Americans, who make up one-third of the population, make up nearly half of COVID-19 cases. These figures are mirrored in Mississippi, Arkansas and elsewhere. A boosting street hustler is the last person capable of maintaining social distance.

So she’s dead now, just another number in the ranks of the felled, a hole in others’ memories that will be soon forgotten and even more quickly filled, a race that’s finally been run. But maybe, just maybe, Charlene’s behind those Pearly Gates of the Great Beyond trying to hawk St. Peter a pair of boosted angel wings, “5 on 10” on the “up and up.”

Notes

1. The Stroke Belt, the name given in public health circles to the swath of counties in the Deep South where incidences of stroke are much higher than the rest of the country.