Strange Fruit Down South

“Southern trees bear
A strange and bitter fruit–
Blood on the leaves
And blood at the root”

Cape Fear seemed an appropriate geopolitical point from which to launch my odyssey through the nether portions of the North American South. The terror alert was at Orange level as we waited for the small ferry that would move us up the Carolina coast to Wilmington. The bay is ringed with choice targets – a nuclear power plant, an Army ammo dump, strategically significant port infrastructure through which a lot of war machinery is shipped towards Iraq. Camp Lejeune and Fort Bragg are a few degrees north and kids here wear camou and blacken their eyes with battle paint when they go out to play.

Fort Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne, the Green Berets, and the Center for Special Forces trains the killers of Latin American babies. General Mario Renon Castillo, a graduate in counter-insurgency warfare, plotted the massacre of 49 Tzotzil Indian supporters of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation at Acteal on the eve of Christmas 1997 – four babies, nearly at full term, were ripped from the wombs of their dead mothers. Mexican drug fighting troops are trained at Fort Bragg. One group of trainees defected to the narco cartels, renamed themselves the Zetas, and are deemed accountable for dozens of public beheadings in Acapulco and other disputed turf.

While year after year, the nuns and the priests summon thousands of activists to the School of America at Fort Benning, Georgia, Fort Bragg continues to crank out its quotient of killers without much protest. It has not always been that way.

Chuck Fager who runs Quaker House in Fayetteville showed us display boards chronicling Bragg’s bad old days. One of the first G.l. coffeehouses was set up here as the bloodshed surged in ‘Nam. Fonda and Donald Southerland, Peter Boyle and Country Joe came to the Haymarket which was heavily infiltrated by intelligence agencies. Drugs were planted on anti-war activists and there were firebombings. Main Street was honky tonk rowdy in those days and there was lots of heroin on the scene.

All that changed with the volunteer army, Chuck observes. Now more often than not, the soldier boys and girls are married, however dysfunctionally. The 82nd Airborne is stretched to the max with its three battalions always en route to Iraq with little breathing room between tours. Hundreds have come home in body bags or too damaged to go on living. Some arrive in the morning and murder their families by afternoon. There are multiple suicides. The local press does its best to muzzle the bad news. “Words conquer!” Fort Bragg Psy-Op officers caution editors.

Human blood is not the only body fluid that fuels Fayetteville. Smithfield Farms, owned by the Cargill conglomerate, kills a reported 30,000,000 hogs here each year at a high-walled penitentiary-like enclave just down the road. Many undocumented workers are paid a pittance to do the rendering. Mostly, they are kept out of sight, living in the backwoods under trees and tents. You know they are here because of the roadside crucifixes erected to mark the demise of a loved one killed in an auto accident.

But according to “Que Pasa?” a combative North Carolina weekly that zeroes in on the exponentially expanding Mexican community, many families are in hiding.

ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is cracking down everywhere in the Carolinas, snatching people off their bikes as they pedal off to work in the early morning dark, doing workplace raids and home invasions and gratuitously terrorizing the indocumentados. A lot of families are so fearful they won’t even venture out to the nearest Piggly Wiggly. One moment they be picking their way through the frozen food aisle and then you can’t find them anywhere anymore. People are disappearing.

I didn’t see many Afro-Americans either as I shuffled through Raleigh and Chapel Hill. It was a mystery to me until I shipped out of the Winston-Salem Greyhound station and realized that was where they were hanging.

Greyhound was the preferred travel mode for the Freedom Riders back in the early ’60s. The buses they rode got burnt up at southern route depots and the riders set upon by Klan-led lynch mobs. Things are quieter on the Big Dog runs these days but a whole lot more desperate. Greyhound is the bottom-rung ride for those with no fixed destination and hardly any money to get there. They climb aboard with all their worldly possessions bunched up in a garbage bag. Some just got out of prison or the local psycho lock-up and everyone is eager to get out of town. Skinny crack head mothers hauling their screaming infants and battered woman running scared from killer boyfriends, stagger on board. The lame, the halt, and the mad scrunch down in the grungy seats and snore fitfully under cheap towels. I watched a young Mexican worker who had been hugging the back seat by the toilet since New York City descend from the bus in Cleveland Tennessee with a puzzled look troubling his eye – maybe he had meant Cleveland Ohio when he bought the ticket. Now all his luggage was missing, had never been moved from one bus to the next. The driver instructed him to ask up in the U-Haul that doubled as the Greyhound depot but he didn’t understand the language. He was still standing there clutching what he had left, a greasy paper sack, when the driver slammed the door shut and pulled out of the deserted mall.

This is what Amerikkka looks like from inside the belly of the big dog. Amy Goodman, Noam Chomsky and all the others who interpret this oozing wound that calls itself a country ought to be riding the bus to see what’s really coming down in the Land of the Tree and the Home of the Grave these days.

“They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there –
You either are a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair.
Which side are you on boys?
Which side are you on?”

Times have come full circle in the coal fields of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky in the year of Our Lord 2007. Now coal is the “patriotic” fuel because it keeps us from being dependent on raghead terrorists and commie dictators like Hugo Chavez. You mess with the rights of the coal companies to kill miners and murder the oldest deciduous forests on the American continent, decimate the streams and the songbirds, the fish and the deer and the soul of the hill people, and you got Homeland Security knocking on your door, explained Terri Blanton, a coalminer’s daughter from Harlan County whose own brother got cut down down in the mine “where its dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew (and the sun never shines/and the pleasures are few.”)

These days, Terri is organizing against what the coal barons euphemistically label “mountaintop removal” where they just decapitate the hills to get at coal seams they can strip quick and then shove the debris into the hollow between here and the next hill over.

Although she probably never heard of the Zapatistas – I didn’t get to ask her that the night she spoke at a lonely Catholic church out by the Interstate in Berea Kentucky – Terri is being a Zapatistas where she lives anyway, speaking truth to power, ripping the mask off savage capitalism, and serving her community.

In Atlanta, where King Coke and the Carter Center dictate the moral tone, I spoke about being Zapatistas where we live and what that meant, to a bunch of hungry minds at the MadRatz Infoshop under a highway overpass in a dilapidated warehouse district – the MadRatz is, of course, Ignatz the Rat who never tired of hurling bricks at Officer Pup in George Herriman’s loony, artful “Krazy Kat.” There were real anarchists there – George Sossenko, now 88, fought with the Durutti Column in the Spanish Civil War. Together we sang the Internationale and cut a cake to mark my seventh decade on this lonely planet. Dr. Mark Heffington who heals farm laborers up in North Carolina drove three hours to learn about this being a Zapatista where he lives idea – many of his patients are speaking Tzotzil now, the language of the People of the Bat (“Tzotz”), the Highland Maya who are so integral to the Zapatista rebellion.

Atlanta will play host to the U.S. Social Forum come June and there is a lot of jostling afoot about who gets to set the agenda. From this bend in the river, the affair looks suspiciously topdown with a national directorship and leaders of Atlanta’s social change movement (the progressive, patriarchal Black Church will play a key role) at the controls. The topdown model is how these conclaves have been conducted ever since Lula and the PT ran them from Puerto Alegre with a velvet glove and crowbars behind their backs (ask anarchist guru John Holloway about the PT goons) – similarly, Comandante Hugo called the shots in Caracas.

Making the U.S. Social Forum work from the bottom up without hierarchies or patriarchies, fending off all the old -isms and the vanguard parties, taking decisions collectively and uncompromisingly confronting savage capitalism is going to be a hard climb in Atlanta. These spectacles are so huge that it is hard to get a grip on where we fit in – how to see the whole elephant and not just an abstract haunch concerns anarcho printer Barry Weinstock. Nonetheless, we need to be there and mix it up with the tired old North American Left sworn as it is by inertia to keep doing business as usual. The U.S. Social Forum offers U.S. Zapatistas an alluring opportunity to smash sectarianism, find commonalities, and form coalition from the bottom up.

I hopped the New Orleans-bound Crescent through the piney woods and murky, gator-laden swamps of Alabama and Mississippi. Emmit Till’s body was still on the bottom of the Tallahatchee river. Two black women who had fled Katrina for Atlanta to find a comfortable niche in that black bourgeoisified city and were returning for the weekend to visit family members left behind, sat across the aisle from me the whole route, telling each other the stories of their lives. They both had married well to husbands with military careers and their children had followed their fathers’ footsteps. Some were in Iraq, which made the women fret. “I know she will be alright” the retired nurse assured her companion who ran an Atlanta dance studio, “I brought her up to take care of herself.” But she didn’t sound convinced.

They talked a lot about the dying city from which they had escaped 18 months ago. “Crime” was a frequent theme – what they meant was black on black crime – and they dissed the underclass i.e. the “project niggers” unstintingly for having driven them from New Orleans. “Project nigger”, I would soon learn, is the anthropological designation of those people of color down at the bottom who were flattened by Katrina and have had the audacity to fight back.

“What has happened here
Is that the wind has changed,
Clouds roll in from the north
And it start to rain”

If New Orleans was a novel or a film, it would no doubt be entitled “American Chaos.” But New Orleans is not a work of fiction although the corporate media tends to confuse it with one.

In Latin America, cataclysm has often gestated social cohesion and fightback from the bottom. I lived through the aftermath of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake that took 30,000 lives and leveled my barrio and I watched my neighbors organize themselves to take back their lives from a government that ran away from the tragedy and pocketed the relief donations. The damnificado movement signaled the rebirth of Mexican civil society that continues to flourish today in Oaxaca and the jungles of Chiapas and at the portals of power up in Mexico City. The thieving Somoza dynasty’s disregard for the Nicaraguan people following the 1975 earthquake in that threadbare banana republic fanned the flames of the Sandanista revolution.

But across the Gulf in New Orleans, the process has been one of disintegration. The racial divide, always the snake in the baby’s crib here, has festered way out of control. Fear and loathing permeates the languid air.

The National Guard, decked out in Baghdad camou, still patrols the streets in squat Humvees and the number of concealed weapon permits issued last year broke an American record. Everyone has got themselves a big bad dog. They lunge furiously at you on tight chains from behind spiked gates when you walk the streets on the edge of the Quarter.

Terror stalks the merchant class – mug shots of accused black muggers are taped to the windows of their establishments. Marsha, a crinkly-eyed woman from Alabama, drove us around one night. She saw the dead everywhere as if they were police outlines of the corpses of victims drawn upon the sidewalks. We didn’t slide through a corner where someone hadn’t been shot or stabbed or bludgeoned. Nervous all night, she freaked bad when she spotted a flattened black cat in the gutter by where we were staying. “I’m getting out of here soon as I can” she mumbled and sped off in her big rented car.

Visitors are warned to take precautions. The owner of our guest house, an affable gay man who worried about his guests putting Tampax down the toilet, urged us to take a cab to catch Ellis Marsalis a scant two blocks away on Frenchman. He too could identify the bodies that turned up on his doorstep out on Elysian Fields. He wasn’t a prejudiced person, he insisted, but these people who wanted the government to do everything for them were just a drain on the property-owning class. He didn’t actually pronounce the project nigger epithet but that’s whom he was talking about.

Big Steve Jennings, a dangerously overweight 65 year-old Creole man who calls himself white, didn’t have any such compunction. We tooled through the Lower 9th Ward where every home is gutted – those who have returned are encamped in front of their damaged domiciles in FEMA trailers. “That’s where they got Fats Domino off the roof.” Steve pointed a sausage-sized finger at a modest frame house, now uninhabitable. I marveled that so legendary a New Orleans luminary would be living down here at the bottom. “Well, let’s face it – the blacks and the whites don’t get along down here so I guess he wanted to stay with his own people” Big Steve philosophized.

The driver didn’t want to waste much time on the Lower 9th where he thought the people were all crack heads and prostitutes or else project niggers – although the Lower 9th has the highest percentage of Afro-American homeownership in the state of Louisiana. He couldn’t figure out why they were getting all this attention when white folks had been screwed blue and tattooed a whole lot worse. Steve drove me over to his home in Saint Bernard Parrish, just a foundation slab now like a big flat tombstone. The tidal surge had wiped him out and the insurance company wouldn’t compensate him for wind damage although they kept dunning him to pay off the premiums. “I just had it bulldozed – would have cost me more to make it right again. But they still after me to pay up even though the house isn’t even standing here anymore.”

Steve drove me out to Lakeside and over to New Orleans East where half million buck homes stood empty and unsteady and the upscale “chopping” centers had all drowned in the flood, then out to the 17th Avenue levee where Lake Pontchartrain, really an inland sea, had broken through the flimsy sea wall and inundated the city. His mantra was incessant. White folks had gotten fucked over and all you ever heard about is the project niggers over there in the Superdome raping and eating on each other.

“We whites should be marching on Washington and not paying our taxes” he grumbled, “but we aint.” When the niggers put a boycott on a store no one crossed the line, but white people, they went shopping all the time. “I don’t understand why we can’t get together. It make me sick.” When I suggested that maybe that was because they would be behaving too much like black people, Steve shrugged and looked about as sheepish as a 300-pound peckerwood can get. “Maybe you right.”

This project nigger thing digs right into the nerve of all the race and class umbrage that is seething in this doomed city. Poverty blacks have been driven en masse from New Orleans – some call it the diaspora and others a pogrom but what’s happening is a species of genocide anyway you look at it. The population is down to 200,000 and leaking from a half million on the morning that Katrina struck and most of those who are missing are darker than white. The city fathers and mothers, black and white both, seem determined to keep it that way too. Closing down the projects is a cornerstone of this strategy to get rid of the poor so Donald Trump can build his tower and up the property values in what used to be called the Big Easy and now aint nothing less than the Big Hurt.

It was Spring Break and March Madness when I got to New Orleans and tens of thousands of nubile white university kids were piling into town. Some had actually come to this blighted urb to do good, gut houses with ACORN or Habitat or the dozens of church groups at work here. Others were volunteering at Common Ground, which has a more combative line and confronts power with truth in a city where the truth is a precious commodity.

But bridging the race and class divide too often results in disconnect. One Saturday, I went down with the Common Ground kids to a block party at Survivor Village where former project residents are encamped and all the white students clustered together on their side of the circle and watched the black folks eat bar-b-cue. Some Revolutionary Communist Party hack got into my ear about the projects and overthrowing the ruling class. It didn’t sound much like being a Zapatista where one lives.

I had what old James Joyce used to call an epiphany on our last day in New Orleans. It was “Super Sunday” when the Wild Mardi Gras Indians traditionally parade through the black neighborhoods in Uptown. But by the time we finally made it down to LaSalle and Louisiana in Central City, they had long ago passed through although hundreds of residents were in the street anticipating their return. There were not a lot of white faces in the crowd and we sat down on the steps of the boarded-up Magnolia-C.W. Peete projects to watch kids race FEMA motorcycles (bought with FEMA money) up and down the street. One large gentleman came over to snap our picture – aging bohemians are a rare sight in Uptown these days. Rosemary Johnson sidled over and announced that she was the “Chancellor” of the Magnolia Projects. Illysa pulled out her camcorder and the Chancellor slammed everyone from the housing authorities to George Bush on camera. “This is where we live in America and honey, we going to show them what America is” Rosemary snarled, looking like she was about to bite the head off Illysia’s mic.

Meanwhile, the afternoon was getting seriously stressed. No Indians were on the darkening horizon and the crowd pushing in around the intersection was bored and edgy. We called a cab to bail us out of the neighborhood but, of course, no cab would venture into Central City. Dozens of patrol cars were now cruising the streets, waiting for the first bottle to fly.

Tilda and I walked a few blocks west and called the cab company again. The dispatcher assured us that one was on its way but it never came. We stood on the street corner for an hour and finally put our thumbs out. An older brother stopped and pulled us into his pick-up. Pierre had stood in water up to his neck for three days after Katrina washed through his home and it had wrecked his lungs. But God had come to him during his ordeal and gifted him with the powers of discernment – that’s the word he used – and he had discerned that we were o.k.

Which is to say they have cruelly fucked over New Orleans, tried to drain this city of color of color, and crush its spirit into the mud but they can’t quite extinguish the juju that has always powered this place. If I were Donald Trump, I wouldn’t build that tower anytime soon.

JOHN ROSS is on the road with his latest opus ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible–Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006. and will be hitting the east coast in April. He can be reached at:


JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to