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Small Town Values

Well I was born in a small town
And I live in a small town
Probably die in a small town
Oh, those small communities’

– John Mellencamp

A few weeks ago, another young man was shot to death in Michigan City, Indiana. He was the fourth or fifth in the past several months (no on really keeps count, especially when the victim is black). Here, in the shadow of the nation’s third-largest city, poor and working class people slave away at low-paying service sector jobs that provide no benefits, seasonal wages (at best), and no future. The ghosts of Neoliberalism and Deindustrialization continue to haunt our small town.

Those pesky shootings, however, haven’t deterred the tourists, or our glorious mayor. Oh no. They love the ‘low-cost of living,’ minimal taxes, and scant regulation the state of Indiana and the Michigan City municipal government provides. The mayor openly talks about gentrifying the city on the front pages of the local newspaper (who’s more than happy to showcase his classist vision), and gloats about the corporate subsidies and tax abatements the city dolls out to multinational corporations who provide $10 an hour-non-unionized jobs, mostly to non-Michigan City residents.

Some of the better paying jobs can be found at the Blue Chip Casino, a landmark to the hypocrisy, corruption, and horrors of Neoliberalism. Forty-plus years of tax cuts for the rich and corporations have put states like Indiana in an impossible situation. State law prohibits localities from raising the minimum wage above the federal average. Municipalities are also prohibited from raising income taxes or corporate taxes. Hence, cities like Michigan City are held hostage by decades of Reaganism and Trickle Down economic ideology and practice. In order to raise funds for even the most basic city functions, Michigan City has sold its soul to Boyd Gaming, a legal loan shark.

As Chris Hedges writes:

Americans in 2013 lost $119 billion gambling, with an additional $70 billion—or $300 for every adult in the country—spent on lottery tickets. Federal and state governments, reliant on tax revenues from legal gambling and on lottery ticket sales, will do nothing to halt the expansion of the industry or the economic and psychological toll it exacts on those in financial distress. State-run lottery games had sales of $73.9 billion in 2015, according to the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries. This revenue is vital to budgets beset by declining incomes, deindustrialization and austerity. ‘State lotteries provided more revenue than state corporate-income taxes in 11 of the 43 states where they were legal, including Delaware, Rhode Island, and South Dakota,’ Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic. ‘The poorest third of households buy half of all lotto tickets,’ he noted. Gambling is a stealth tax on poor people hoping to beat the nearly impossible odds. Governmental income from gambling is an effort to make up for the taxes the rich and corporations no longer pay.

Our local politicians, either too dumb to realize the error of their ways or too connected to want to know, speak only in glowing terms about Blue Chip. Anyone who brings up the ills of gambling culture is called a ‘naysayer’ or ‘cynic.’ Meanwhile, the casino workers, at least some of them, are fighting back. While portions of the casino are unionized, others are not. Workers have no control over their scheduling, hours, or work conditions. If they speak-up, they risk being fired. In Michigan City, where service sector jobs are as abundant as the local heroin supply, working at the casino is a step-up from the ‘Mom & Pop’ restaurant gigs, where sleazy business owners get away with illegal labor practices and sexual harassment, and routinely take advantage of illegal immigrants and migrant workers.

***

Last year, a local bar owner was arrested for assault after he called a young woman a ‘nigger’ before hurling a beer bottle and splitting open her lip. Those in power go out of their way not to talk about race relations in the city. Dealing with the issue of systemic racism, if it’s even understood by those in power, is totally out of the question. In a city that has experienced multiple race riots since the 1980s, it’s clear that the social and economic ingredients for another violent uprising remain potent. The question isn’t ‘if,’ but ‘when?’

According to a study by the United Way (none of the regional universities or local governments fund studies of the sort in our town), 53% of Michigan City residents can’t make ends meet. That means people can’t afford the basics: rent, car note, phone bill, medical expenses, etc. NPR reports that less than 25% of Americans have $500 in their savings account to deal with an emergency. In Michigan City, that number is probably around 10%.

In yesterday’s paper, the mayor and the city received a glowing report ($13.6 million in revenue for the county) about the ‘Grand Prix Boat Races’ that took place in August on the shores of Lake Michigan, where ArcelorMittal (a Luxembourg-based steel company) was recently busted dumping over 175 lbs of cyanide into the Little Calumet River, which streams into Lake Michigan, killing over 3,000 fish and shutting down portions of the beach. Local officials, IDEM, the DNR, and EPA talked about how this recent ‘incident’ would hurt the local tourist industry and the newly designated ‘Dunes National Park.’ They ranted and raved about the tens of thousands of tourist dollars lost. Of course, no one mentioned the fish.

Several local officials virtue-signaled in the local press, but no one takes them seriously. In the end, they can’t do anything anyway. They’re peons on the ladder of power in the state of Indiana. The Republicans downstate will never allow the legislature to kneecap industry, and the Democrats who dominate politics in Northwest Indiana, the most industrialized portion of the state, would never push the issue for fear that the local unions would stop supporting them. And of course the local unions won’t do much because their leadership is in bed with industry and the local politicians who facilitate whatever industry wants.

The steel mills, oil refineries (BP operates the largest tar sands refinery in the Western Hemisphere about 40 miles down the road in East Chicago), and casinos devote hundreds of thousands of dollars to corporate philanthropy. Their pittance is enough to buy off environmental organizations, local unions, state politicians, and regional art institutes and artists whose foundation dollars come from the very entities that have destroyed the natural environment and entire communities. Turns out, absent actual communities, it’s tough to build an ‘art scene.’

The regulatory agencies are almost as bad as the corporations they’re supposed to police. In Northwest Indiana, IDEM and the EPA are virtually useless. ArcelorMittal, whose annual revenue in the year 2018 was $96 billion, will pay a minuscule fine (maybe $10,000). This latest ecological disaster is a case study in why no one in The Region trusts corporations or the government that’s supposed to regulate them. Again, why would they?

***

Back to those shootings. Our mayor, city council, and local police chief say that no one should be worried. The crime statistics are going down, they say. Our city is primed for ‘development.’ Local government has created a ‘friendly business climate.’ That pesky ‘Big Government’ is finally neutered. One of our city council members, a Democrat and middle-aged black professional who thinks very highly of himself, once told me at a community BBQ that “black people in our city are poor because they buy Air Jordans and Cadillacs.” Try talking to the white politicians.

The local churches and NGOs are equally reactionary and impotent. The local chapter of the NAACP regularly holds ‘financial literacy’ courses for low-income communities, hoping to teach those irresponsible poor folk to better spend their monthly $900 social security check. Even worse, the NAACP supported a Republican in the last state-wide elections. You know, the party dedicated to making life a living hell for anyone who’s not a white male making over $250,000 a year (if you think the national GOP is nuts, you should meet some of the Republicans in downstate Indiana).

The local black churches, for the most part, preach the prosperity gospel. They tell their overwhelmingly poor congregations that if they just work hard, get right with God, and invest their money properly, they too will eventually drive a BMW and wear shiny suits. Justice of any sort — environmental, social, economic, or otherwise, is never mentioned. The Cult of Entrepreneurship abound.

***

Ah yes, a local mayoral election is coming up, but no one really cares. For those in power, the key is to keep voter turnout as low as possible. That means we’re lucky to get 20% of the city to vote in municipal elections. And why should they? After all, none of the people running for local office express any willingness to deal with the decades-long injustices that have plagued Michigan City. For them, running for office is akin to a high school popularity contest. The lack of substance, superficial pageantry, and hollow gossip that dominates our presidential elections has seeped into local politics. Perhaps it’s always been this way. Who knows.

What we do know is that the planet and our lives are being destroyed and no one in our local or state government has any clue what to do (not that we expect them to). In fact, quite the opposite: they actively support policies that will further catapult the planet into ecological despair. The topic of climate change isn’t even discussed. Instead, local environmental NGOs hold workshops on gardening techniques and native species while the planet is murdered by the fossil fuel industry.  Other than a few dedicated groups of community organizers and activists (none of whom are paid), virtually no one is fighting back.

Opioid addiction and alcoholism is rampant. The horrors of addiction are compounded by systemic poverty, an increasingly militarized police department, social alienation, an eroded welfare state, and political nihilism. Everyone knows that things are completely fucked (that’s why they’re drunk and high), but people remain unconvinced that fighting back will do much. Sometimes, I don’t blame them. Other times, I get angry, or sad, or both. Persuading people that they have a voice and power (if they collectively organize), is a monumental task.

***

Earlier today, I went to the gas station and a young gentleman who couldn’t stop scratching the oozing scabs on his weathered face (Meth or Crack) was telling the cashier that she’s gotta watch out for the ‘niggers’ because ‘they’re’ starting to ‘take over Midtown.’ She nodded her head, and smiled. On my way home, I ran into my buddy Mike, an older black guy from down the street, who, after telling me about a local stabbing, was happy to inform me that his nephew is being transferred to Indiana State Prison, which is located in, you guessed it, Michigan City.

Outside my window, there’s a cascade of sirens pouring down Franklin St. While NIPSCO spews pollution from its coal fired plant (located on the shores of Lake Michigan), there’s a homeless man walking down the street. He’s looking through trash cans and between cracks on the sidewalk for half-smoked cigarettes. Just beyond him, there’s a couple screaming at each other in the Walgreens parking lot. They must be in their early 20s. My neighbor, Rick, is sitting in his car on the side of the road, drinking a beer. His wife kicked him out of the house because he ‘pissed off that fat bitch’ (she’s 8 months pregnant with their third child).

You know, those Small Town Values.

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Vincent Emanuele writes for teleSUR English and lives in Michigan City, Indiana. He can be reached at vincent.emanuele333@gmail.com

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