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At Occupied Hartford

Live from Obamaville

by VIJAY PRASHAD

I. Hooverville.

Poor Herbert Hoover. A multimillionaire by thirty from the vast profits of gold mining, Hoover went into public service as retirement. His early administrative work was in agriculture, but he spent the longest time of his career in the Department of Commerce. In 1925, Hoover warned Calvin Coolidge about the dangerous speculation in Wall Street. Coolidge was not interested (he had a witlessness about economics, having once said, “When more and more people are thrown out of work, unemployment results”). It was Hoover’s cross to bear that the stock market crash of 1929 came on his watch. It is a sad fact that just before the October 29 debacle on Wall Street, Hoover told the country, “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land.”

The final triumph never came. By 1933, the jobless rate was twenty five per cent. In May 1932, seventeen thousand veterans came to Washington on a Bonus March. They were fed up. Their friends and relations had been thrown by the wayside, and promises made to them had been betrayed. Across the Potomac from Washington’s offices, the Bonus Army created an encampment. It would soon be given the name, Hooverville, and it was soon to be imitated across the country. Hoover sent General Douglas MacArthur (later of the wars in Asia) to quell the peaceful Bonus Army. MacArthur unleashed tanks and tear gas.

But the Hoovervilles continued.

II. Hartford.

The Occupied Hartford encampment has a significant view. If you stand in the middle of the camp at the intersection of Broad and Farmington, you can see Richard Upjohn’s dazzling Connecticut State Capital (the Government), the plantation of Aetna and various office buildings of the major insurance firms (the Corporations), the office of the Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published newspaper in America (the Media) and the Connecticut State Armory (the Military). The ensemble of power is within sight of the protestors.

So too is the city’s heartbreaking poverty (the official jobless rate is thirty-three percent, the highest in the nation).

I asked a group of Occupiers whether they have formed Obamaville, the 21st century’s Hooverville. It was fitting that they missed the point of my question. Brian leapt in. “I’m not here for any politician,” he said, “I’m against all political parties. Our politics are the problem.” Talk of the Occupy movement being co-opted by the Democratic Party had come here, and it had been rejected. “This is not for Obama,” Dave interjected, “but it is our fight against the corporations.”

I heard much the same thing at Wall Street. There is no appetite for Obama.

What unites the Occupiers is that they are in general not coming into the movement for the first time. Most of those in Hartford came from the more beaten up side of the tracks, raised in Hartford’s streets where the bonds of community battle daily with the temptations of the drug economy and the itchy fingers of the police department. For many that I spoke with the reality of poverty and inequality led them to despair until they found each other, to work together in groups like Food Not Bombs, anti-war organizations, and in ad hoc groups to defend their communities’ right to survival. “When we struggle, it’s therapy,” raps M1 of the dead prez. So it was for many of the Occupiers.

Hartford struggles to survive. Chronic joblessness, with a collapse of state institutions to expand the social wage, is met by an increase in the means of repression (police and jails) and the ideology of consumerism. It is the same condition along the Interstate 91 corridor, from Hartford to Springfield to Holyoke. The future along the Freeway has been left to the resilience of families and communities and to the underground economies (legal and illegal). Michaelann Bewsee of Springfield’s Arise for Social Justice calls these neighborhoods “an economic dustbowl.”

Angelo, born in Hartford to Puerto Rican parents who worked in a factory and in the lunchroom of a school in the North-End, came from economic poverty but social dignity. His father’s political roots lay in Puerto Rican socialism, and pictures of Fidel Castro decorated the walls of his home (Angelo inherited these pictures). At seven, Angelo joined his father on the picket line. It took years for Angelo to put these memories into focus and to find the confidence to believe that change was possible (getting a computer helped, he says, as it “opened up the world to me”).

Victoria, born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, found her hope in prayer. But it was not enough. One day she was listening to an interview with the band members of Me Without You, when one of the musicians mentioned a book (Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, written by Shane Clairborne). Victoria read this book, which tells the story of Clairborne’s radical faith community house from the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia called A Simple Way. This house was in the same neighborhood as the Kensington Welfare Rights Organization, whose long-time leader, Cherie Honkala is running for sheriff of Philadelphia on a Green ticket, with the express purpose of fighting foreclosures. Visiting A Simple Way and then other intentional communities, Victoria came to Hartford to be part of a movement that engenders this form of social living (there is a Catholic Worker house in the North-End of Hartford, held down by the remarkable Brian Kavanagh who should have a cell in the Hartford jails named for him).

Jeffrey Harris had recently lost his job, and then his wife died. Returning home from the hospital on the public bus, Jeffrey saw the tent city. He got off at the nearest bus stop, walked over and has stayed. The epidemic of foreclosures in the city angered and saddened Jeffrey, a pleasant man who wore his life’s tragedies with grace. “It’s crazy,” he said of the inequality in the city. “It’s a bunch of bullshit. These guys, the corporate elite, have to back down and give us something. It’s crazy man. When the system’s not working, then it has to be fixed.”

Such sentiments are commonplace at the Occupied camps that I have visited. John Pitman, standing near Jeffrey concurred. “People that are out here are here to bring back the country from the corporates,” he said. I asked John what gave him hope through his agitation. “Hope?” he said, “It’s not hope. It’s survival. I want to take back what belongs to us.”

III. Banks.

On August 31, George Magnus, the senior economic advisor to UBS in London, published a letter in the Financial Times, which the newspaper titled, “Capitalism is having a very Marxist crisis.” Magnus pointed out that Marx “analyzed and explained insightfully how and why capitalism would succumb to recurrent crises, and especially big ones after a credit bust.” In light of this analysis, Magnus from his perch in the well-appointed glass towers at Finsbury Square, wrote that we need to “reboot intellectually and think about how to address a very Marxist crisis of capitalism, starting with job creation, income formation, and money gross domestic product targeting.” It is sensible stuff, but rather odd coming from the same building where a Delta One desk was busy conducting the kind of prop trading that has given bankers an especially ugly image problem.

Magnus is an unusual banker. Most have battened down the hatches, ready to weather out this storm toward the Seas of Business As Usual.

Up the river from Hartford, in Springfield, a significant coalition of community activists and survivors of foreclosure named No One Leaves had pushed for a far-sighted city ordinance. Banks would have to jump through some cleverly crafted hoops before sending in the sheriff to eject people from their homes. Among these are a mandatory mediation program and a $10,000 bond to secure and maintain properties that had been foreclosed upon. This is the kind of innovation that one has come to expect from community organizations, and it is the kind of policy that we have come to expect would be pushed by local politicians such as Springfield’s Amaad Rivera and Hartford’s Luis Cotto.

The banks did not take this quietly. The Massachusetts Bankers Association sent a seven-page document to the city, saying that the council was not on firm legal footing. Florence Savings Bank, one of the parties to the letter, has made much of its localness since the credit crisis, with its slogan, “Don’t Blame Me, I Bank Locally.” But that does not stop this Northampton institution from getting into the fight against the residents of Springfield. On Monday, October 17, No Ones Leaves and Councilor Rivera will hold a rally against the banks’ maneuver in front of city hall in Springfield.

“We believe that this is the strongest anti-foreclosure ordinance in the entire country,” said Councilor Rivera (who is up for re-election this year, and needs all the help he can get). I think he is right. No One Leaves is effectively Occupied Springfield.

IV. Counterrevolution Cometh.

The Boston police, in the name of protecting flowers, has already clobbered and arrested the residents of Occupied Boston. They are unmoved.

The New York mayor has threatened to remove Occupied Wall Street to “clean the area.” There is an emergency mobilization to defend Liberty Park.

The patience of the elite has been tested, and found wanting. They want their country back.

In 1786, the farmers of western Massachusetts were angered by the denial of the right to vote in their new republic and by the shoddy treatment of the veterans of the revolutionary wars. One farmer, Daniel Shays, led his band of veterans and farmers to Springfield, where they marched around with fife and drum to prevent the court from hearing cases against rioting farmers. The Shays’ movement then marched toward Boston, where the Senate’s President, Sam Adams, signed a Riot Act and sent General Benjamin Lincoln to crack some heads. Northampton, where I live, was the home of the trials of the captured rebels, many of whom were put to death.

From Paris, France, America’s Ambassador, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison about Daniel Shays’ rebellion. “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, & as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu 

On October 16, he will speak at the “Bring the War Dollars Home” rally at Hartford City Hall, alongside the newly re-elected mayor Pedro Segarra [for more information, tokujiokamoto@gmail.com]

On October 23, he will deliver one of the Howard Zinn Memorial Lectures at Occupy Boston [for more information, zinn.lectures@gmail.com]