A Look at Life in our Sacrifice Zones

I heard about Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco a while back and was finally able to borrow it from a nearby library. Hedges and Sacco wanted to write a book about the “sacrifice zones”, those areas in the United States that have been exploited through capitalism for profit. “They wanted to show in words and drawings what life looks like in places where the marketplace rules without constraints, where human beings and the natural world are used and then discarded to maximize earnings.”

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They succeeded. Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is an amazing book told through the stories of the people who live in these sacrifice zones. It’s one thing to read about the destruction in a news piece and another to hear the heart-breaking first hand accounts as only Hedges could inspire his subjects to open up so fully.

The book looks at four areas of the US: Pine Ridge, South Dakota and how the Indian tribe there barely survives;  Camden, New Jersey a town that businesses left and corrupt politicians ignore because the population is mostly black; Welch, West Virginia a city that is being polluted by coal mining; and finally Immokalee, Florida through the stories of the undocumented farm workers. Finally, Days of Revolt, the final chapter tells of the author’s hope that the people are ready to rise up and take back their power from the elites focusing on the Occupy Movement (which Hedges participated in and was arrested with the other protestors).

Pine Ridge

“Most of those who live on the reservation earn beween $2,600 and $3,500 a year.”  Take just a moment to think about that. How does one live on less than $4,000 per year in the US?  The result has been widespread alcoholism (in a place where sale of alcohol is banned) and in the homes sexual and physical abuse is rampant. The history of relations between the US government and the tribes is covered better in this book than almost any history text or museum we have access to.

The people of Pine Ridge mostly live without running water, have no electricity and live in what we would call shacks. Not only do the people here have the lowest incomes in the country but their medical care is short changed as well.  People die waiting for approval to be treated because they are Native Americans. Their life expectancy as a result is one of the lowest in our country.

As Hedges and Sacco travel through the reservation interviewing the residents they encounter those in gangs, drug dealers, ex-convicts and women  who hide the scars of abuse they suffered from early childhood on.  But they also found those who have fought to come back from dependencies who are trying to make a difference.

I’ll come back to Pine Ridge in a bit but let’s move on

Camden, New Jersey

Camden was a thriving city that supplied Philadelphia and New York City with merchandise and built ships providing high paying jobs.  Before the jobs left Camden “once had 18 movie theaters, numerous churches and synagogues, and the grand, eight-story Walt Whitman Hotel.”

Today it’s a town time has forgotten. Houses are falling down or boarded up, there are no jobs, gangs rule, drug use is rampant,  prostitution is every where, and home invasions take place on a regular basis. No one is safe.  The only grocery store is outside Camden because crime is too bad for a store and its employees to be safe if inside the city. Officially Camden has 733 homeless people but only 220 beds.  This could happen to any city that has it’s jobs outsourced.

During the course of interviews the authors spent time with three men who shared a house and suffered from mental health issues and drug dependencies. Just a week after their interview they learned one of the three had died of an overdose.

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Welsch, West Virginia

This is a  story of a state decimated by mountain-top removal to gain faster access to coal. It is a story that is deeply personal to me. I live just a handful of miles from the West Virginia border. I have friends that came from, and some have returned to, West Virginia and I worry about them.  But it’s also the damage to the natural world in this state that moves me deeply. I am drawn to mountains, always have been. With the removal of the mountains I feel a deep loss I don’t know how to explain. With the polluting of the land and water it is only a matter of time before that water and those toxins find their way to my state to poison my family, my grandchildren and the people I call my friends. What bothers me is that we think we can contain the poisoning of land to a geographic location and it won’t harm the rest of us.  So please bear with me as I barely cover the highlights of this part of the book.

The section starts with the story and interview of Larry Gibson a man whose family has lived in the Appalachian Mountains for 200 years. Larry is living in the middle of the mountain top removal that provides the rest of the country with coal for heating and electrical power.

We extract one hundred tons of coal every two seconds in the US. The size of the destruction is enormous.  Half a million acres, or eight hundred square miles of mountain ranges have been destroyed. More than 500 mountain peaks are gone and 1,000 miles of streams.

When a mountain is blown up the pieces that rain down can be the size of a basketball and are blown such a distance from the blast sight that residents and their homes have been hit with these chunks of rocks.

I have traveled the Appalachian Mountains many times in my life and can tell you they were beautiful. No they weren’t as large as the Rocky’s but they were close to my home.  They were covered in trees which resulted in wonderful smelling-air.

The water is polluted, mountains have been reduced to rubble (those trees are gone now as well) and slurry dams have broken loose wiping out entire towns.  The residents are sick, they are suffering from cancer, gallbladder disease (nearly every resident has had their gallbladder removed) and kidney disease.

Larry is fighting to stop the mountain top removal and as a result his dog has been hanged, he has been shot at and believes he will die one day soon. Inside his home is a bullet-proof vest and a gun he carries for protection. Larry doesn’t believe it will be the coal company that will kill him but by a scared citizen fearful of losing the only job left in that part of the country. This is the life for an activist in a sacrifice zone

What tugs at the heart from Larry’s story isn’t the fact that he has to live in fear, although that is bad, but his words about his childhood.

First time I knew I was poor was when I went to Cleveland and went to school. They taught me I was poor. I traded all this for a strip of green I saw when I was walkin’ the street. An’ I was poor?….I thought I was the luckiest kid in the world, with nature. I could walk through the forest. I could hear the animals I could hear the woods talk to me. Every where I looked there was life. I could pick my own apples or cucumbers. I could eat the berries and pawpaws….Now there is no life there, only dust…I wouldn’t trade that childhood for all the fancy fire trucks and toys the other kids had…..Now nothing lives in the water. It stinks. Nothing lives on the land. And it’s irreversible. You can’t bring it back.

We don’t often think of the lengths corporations will go to for that almighty dollar, or for that matter what we will close our eyes to and accept to have electricity.

Have we ever stopped to think that even those dead and buried are affected by corporate greed?  I don’t. I am quick to point out that I won’t live to see the total destruction but my descendants will.  Larry goes on to say,

“They pushed one hundred and thirty-nine graves over a high wall. They left us eleven graves.”

The corporations don’t even respect the dead.

Larry asks the authors after an hour of interviewing why they haven’t asked hm his opinion on coal.  He hates it.  “We lose forty-five hundred people every year who never worked in the mines [in West Virginia]…mostly a lot of them are women.  You heard about the World Trade Center terrorists?…Bombing, three thousand people dying, but have you heard that with the emissions of coal we lose twenty-four thousand people a year in this country?” Larry is angry and near the end of his interview states:

“So the rest of he country can have electric toothbrushes and leave the lights on all night in parking lots for used cars and banks lit up all night like and shit like that. We have been a national sacrifice zone.”

In a state that produces the natural resource that provides half our country with electricity you might think the people are doing well at least financially. Not so. The Average per capital income is just $12,595 and the median home value is just $30,500. Who is getting rich here?  Those who want to leave can’t because there is no value in their homes to sell, they were born here and they will have to die here.

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Immokalee, Florida

Out of all the sacrifice areas the authors visited Florida was by far the hardest to find persons willing to talk. In Immokalee, the main industry is farm work, farm work done by undocumented workers. These workers fear for their lives. Many are chained after hours so they can’t run away and threatened not to talk about working conditions or their families, abroad, will be punished. This is our modern day slavery.  The average farm workers makes just $3.85 an hour, at a time when the minimum wage is $7.25. Their average annual income ranges from $10,000 to $12,499 (in 2015’s Dept. of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey)

The workers who did talk spoke of insecurity. They line up each morning hoping to be chosen for that days work. They must pay $50 a week for a place to live, crowded in with several others in houses that have holes in the floor and roaches and rats running around inside.  When they can’t come up with the weekly rent they find a place in a field and sleep on pieces of cardboard which they say is worse because of the snakes and scorpions.

Workers talk of being overcome with the pesticides, unable to breathe and burning eyes so bad they cry all day long, which are used to keep the plants alive in a part of the country with the smallest amount of top soil and more pests than any other state. The pesticides, some which have been banned for use in the US, are still routinely used knowing the undocumented workers are too afraid to tell authorities of their continued use.

These are the stories of the forgotten people and places in our country. Hedges and Sacco have told their stories in a way that is both sad and engrossing. You can’t stop reading these stories of destruction we allow to happen all in the names of progress, capitalism, and the American Dream.

The story of the Occupy Movement, it’s this movement Hedges’ and Sacco’s one hope that the days of revolt have finally begun against corporate greed, while interesting I will leave for you to read on your own, if you should choose to, as this has gotten quite long.  But before I go I want to leave you with Hedge’s thoughts from the chapter on Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

The tyranny we imposed on others is now being imposed upon us. We too are wage slaves. We, too, no longer know how to sustain ourselves. We, too, do not grow our own food or make our own clothes. We are as dependent on the state as the Indians who were herded into the agencies and stripped of their self-sufficiency. Once trapped on reservations, once the buffalo herds no longer existed, once Indians could no longer move in bands to gather wild potatoes, wild turnips, berries, medicines, and cottonwood bark for their horses in the middle of winter, once they could no longer hunt in different places to prevent exhausting the game supply, they became what most of us have become – prisoners.

Pretty sad commentary about the country that heralds itself as the greatest nation on earth a book well worth reading. Kudos to Hedges and Sacco for bringing these people’s stories to us in a way we can’t ignore.

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28 comments

  1. That is a depressing, sad litany of what happens in our world. How can that be allowed to happen? – and yet it does. People won’t even be held to account. The native people and minorities of the world seem to come off worst.

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    • Hi Anne. It is a horrible situation, one I think will only change when we hold corporations to account to the people instead of this crazy notion that anything goes as long as they put the profits for the stockholders first.

      While the subject matter of the book was horribly depressing, the authors did such a good job in how they presented the story that it left me with hope knowing there are those fighting to make a difference and make these places better.

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  2. What an excellent review, Lois. I have seen the Pine Ridge Reservation, and I have relatives who sre teachers on Indian reservations in Minnesota and it is an American tragedy, in my opinion. I also see that kind of poverty around me where I now live in South Carolina and it’s overwhelming. You say the authors of this book are hopeful and I can’t wait to read it to find out why.

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    • I’ve visited many Reservations but not Pine Ridge. The one in New York state is pretty bad but nothing like what I know of Pine Ridge. I think the poverty of these sacrifice zones are spreading to pockets all across America. Hedges doesn’t have a lot of hope for these specific communities but he participated in Occupy Wall Street (was even arrested with the protestors) and it was the way they organized, the way they broke into groups to talk each day on how to address the concerns that came up such as feeding the homeless that showed up, that has convinced him the people are ready to revolt against the system and (hopefully) create a better one.

      I do hope you have an opportunity to read the book I’d love to hear your take on it.

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  3. it is a sad judgement of modern “society” that this type of “happenings”/ “routine business” / don’t know what to call it all, is as pervasive as it ever was, and I suspect more.

    Over the past years I have been falling over instance after instance of articles re powerful/wealthy/influential “civilized” / “influential”/”rich” / indifferent
    who carry out business practices / ethics which inflict this sort of effect on others.

    it just doesn’t (overall) seem to be getting any better.

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    • No it’s not. The creation of B Corporations was a big step in the right direction as these businesses must take into account the environment and other by products of doing business not just the incentive to increase the bottom line for stockholders. But it’s the biggest fossil fuel industries that are doing the most damage to the planet and those are subsidized and protected by government.

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  4. And we keep sending money out of the country and shaming ourselves with this in our own country. I’ve been aware of this. How do we make the change??????? I feel powerless to do anything. Heck, you and your neighbors aren’t living the high life, neither are our kids. I get angry and don’t know what to do with it.

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    • Like you, Marlene, I have no idea how to bring about the changes that would make life better. Unfortunately, I think it’s only going to get worse first.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. These people are the real casualties of what we call ‘Progression’ and my heart aches that we can treat others and their homeland so disrespectfully in the name of greed.
    I subscribe to a Native American Indian charity Lois..
    I have had the charity tell me The stories of people’s suffering especially in the winter.. And how the large electrical power firms do not care about their high costs or providing them with adequate heat.
    The conditions upon some of the reservations are appalling.
    But wasn’t that the whole reason of the then and now governments.. To crush the knowledge and the spirit out of such a wonderful tribe of souls who knew more of natures secrets along with perhaps our origins..
    These stories are heart rendering Lois, and I can see why Larry’s anger grew..
    Thank you for sharing them..
    Love Sue xxx

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    • Sue, I can’t even begin to tell you of the horrors of what the reservations are like to see in person. Many aren’t even ALLOWED to have running water in their homes. For many tribes their spirits have been broken, their heritage has been ripped from them and they have lost the stories of their past. They live in conditions so appalling it’s hard to wrap our minds around it.

      This is the history of how our government has treated people it feels are inferior. today we are seeing a repeat of this history in the nonchalant way we now allow “white” people to be reduced to similar conditions all for the profits of the corporation. In the words of Chris Hedges, American is turning into a third world country as we destroy communities, the people and the earth.

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      • I meant to add before my fingers clicked send.. That both of our governments have both treated various races to futher their own needs and profit from their lands.. They should look long and hard in the Mirror when speaking of equality!!!

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        • Very true,Sue. I don’t like to call out other countries as there are enough problems to face in my own but yes it’s happened and is happening in many.

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          • Yes, at least we are now seeing some of the corruption being exposed.. Such a long way to go but a good start…
            Lois I have a good film to share with you.. I will attach in my next comment here.. Just in case it gets thrown into your spam box you then can retrieve it xxx

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          • Thank you, I will keep a look out for it. Yes, it’s wonderful to see people bringing out in the open the way we treat our fellow humans, no matter what race they are. I admire Chris Hedges for his work as well. In this book he carefully selected four groups. A predominantly black community, a white rural community, the Native American reservation and a undocumented farm workers in Florida. In doing so he showed that it’s not just one class of people but all who are at risk of being taken advantage of.

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          • yes it is right across the board Lois.. I hope some day we can overcome class, race and gender issues and learn that we are all one.. Share, and live in Unity within a CommUNITY .. but think that day is still a long way into the future xx

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          • Sadly, I have to agree with you,Sue. The way things are going it’s going to be a long time.

            When I was young I saw schools desegregated, the violence was horrible. Within a couple of years of desegregation I entered high school where it was pretty equally balanced black-white. There were no problems and I thought at the time that we were entering a time of peace that would grow quickly from that point on. How mistaken I was.

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          • Thank you, I just clicked over but don’t have the time at the moment to watch it. I’ll watch it first chance I get as it looks very interesting.

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    • Now you’ve made me sad, I never planned on bringing such bad news to anyone first thing in the morning.

      You and I have talked about the differences between our countries. I do hope you don’t have such greed that you have sacrifice zones such as we do. It’s been getting worse here, which is why this election cycle has been so contentious and such a circus. People are angry and want accountability, sadly I don’t think we will get it.

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      • We fare much better here and i am proud of that however our once “Clean Green” image is being badly polluted and our present government does nothing for our people or the country. Our green party got 14% of the votes last time and that grows every election so I am hopeful of better in the future….though not overly optimistic given the current apathy about things. I have been watching Bernie Sanders and would like to see him do well, he has been in it for the long haul – not that it’s anything to do with me 🙂 Have to say, NZ’s are watching the Trump fiasco with interest and wondering how this is even happening!!!

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        • I too would like to see a Bernie Sanders presidency or Jill Stein. Jill will never be elected because she runs as a Green party candidate and all but the two main parties are excluded from the media and debates.

          Trump…. there are so many things that have gone into creating the conditions for Trump. First, my youngest son told me when Trump announced his candidacy that he would do well because of his reality TV and people today are obsessed with reality TV. He may be right. But Trump has also tapped into an ugly side of our nature. He talks as a bigot and right now looking for a place to lay blame for our ills is better than doing nothing. So when he talks about building a wall he is talking to those who think if we deport all the undocumented people they would once again have a decent job. He criticizes women and that touches the religious right who believe a woman should stay in the home and the men who see women as objects. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the point. Trump is trying to tap into those who feel disenfranchised and don’t do their homework about policy matters. In one of Trumps thank you speeches he listed group after group of people who voted for him, one was the “undereducated” my son and I both were shocked when people didn’t realize he was saying stupid people were voting for him. I’ve got my fingers crossed our election has a good ending but I’ll admit I’m really scared at the moment.

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