Here is part one in case you missed it. I am continuing on in this post by giving a short history of the region I was in at the time just prior to Obama’s selection and my experience with political activism within the community and online. To the point: I am going to demonstrate how the space that was supposed to open up for progressive change did anything but and was more likely a smokescreen that worked in many directions. My personal observations and experiences will show how this obscured (un)natural disaster and responses, extremist Tea Party starvation that followed in budgetary measures, and finally the desertion by “private” industry once the population had been laid low, culled, and generally materially devastated after they had sucked out as much labor and value as they could before moving on.
Not even a full two years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, the town of Coffeyville, Kansas, located in southeastern Kansas just a stone’s throw north of the Oklahoma border, experienced a “levee breach” of its own on 1 July 2007. Excessive rain caused the Verdigris river to flood which Coffeyville Resources LLC sits on, a crude oil refinery that produces millions of gallons of gasoline per day. It’s reported all over the web that the simple fact the refinery was submerged under water was enough to cause a massive leak of crude oil — accounts start at an admitted 40,000 gallons up to 70,000 the company’s spokespeople have not commented on — but some residents have told a different story, claiming that the real cause was due to a transference of the oil from one tank to the other the refinery undertook at the time of the levee breach.
Certainly, the rain had been coming down in days prior to the Verdigris flooding, and the residents conscious of their place within the state’s hierarchy after having witnessed the devastation of Katrina were not satisfied with easy answers. The tank transfer story is one that you will still hear among the population that remains, from the “lowlands” where some 2,500 people were evacuated from and those hardworking and class conscious people who serve its community. A full third of Coffeyville homes were ruined or otherwise rendered uninhabitable in the wake. As you might expect, these were not glamorous homes, but the owners took pride in them and many had been well established in the area for decades.
Long-time tractor repair shop owner Darreld VanTeighen received $14,700 from Coffeyville Refining for his modest house, its contents and two nearby open lots. It represented 110 percent of the appraised value of the property prior to the flood.
“Where am I going to find a house for that?” said VanTeighen, who is among legions of people in need of affordable housing.
The VanTeighen brothers received $4,800 to replace equipment in the shop. To top it off, a trailer used to haul vehicles and power tools were stolen in the flood’s aftermath. The old-timers are undaunted. Frustrated, but undaunted.
“We will get there,” VanTeighen said. “I’m working to get there. What else is there to do?”
While the company offered payment for destroyed homes, individual owners were left to their own devices to haul off remains that the municipal and state government declared as hazardous. Community resource centers eventually made efforts to relieve people left helpless despite small cash renumeration. As evidenced above, these paltry amounts cannot make up for the social connections that sustained them for so long. Painful memories dotted the hollowed out region for years to come as houses still stood with the stains caused by the toxic mixture.
Although I was not located in Coffeyville at the time of the flood, my life had been involved with “SEK” (southeast Kansas) and the “four state area” (communities, networks, and relations extended past borders to Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma) for some time. While I moved from job to job as I could find them in the eastern part of the state during my 20s, up north toward Kansas City and then back down and forth again, I found myself drawn back for numerous reasons and felt more at home there than I had in any place I had lived up until that point. While I worked for the Coffeyville public school district, I lived in the city proper, in a smaller community not so far away that was part of the nexus of towns that made the region what it was (if it still is the case in the aftermath of all this, I will leave that up for you to decide), and in the larger university town further north that was over an hour commute. During the periods when I had a longer commute, I saw the still oily homes with warnings of more to come spray painted on them by righteously angry citizens as I drove into the city from the north, some which still stood up to four years after the flood.
If you look up the state’s tallying and categorizing of populations by school districts, you will find that Coffeyville has one of the highest “diversity points” per student in its larger region of counties. The leadership I directly worked for in the after school, community, and social work programs was black and was determined to never have that changed for them. It is obvious why this was the case; the 15% black population of the city is the backbone of the working class while their children remain criminally underserved, and the people who served in these leadership positions had long histories in the area knew what was at stake — not merely survival, but any promises of a future for the children they cared so much for.
During the period between the flood and just after Obama had been elected, there was a light that was emanating from Coffeyville, and it wasn’t just the refinery’s flame. The black leadership that extended to churches in the area as well had been busy organizing workshops that educated school staff and other interested community members and leaders on the realities of race and the greater history of slavery and apartheid left out of textbooks — of course to build this momentum, it had taken years of rallying prior to make these more visible on the level that they were at all. Pastors spoke openly about the tragedy of the not so distant Greenwood (Tulsa, Oklahoma) in sermons and what building broad support meant to oppressed communities of color.
Several community organizations’ overlap was becoming even stronger, and our students found purpose in learning from the annual Cherokee Nation educators’ visit during the summer. They were well aware of why they were helping in a breakfast we hosted for the benefit of the local women’s shelter which various other organizations donated to so we weren’t actually paying anything at all for our supplies. Parents of students I had petitioned were open to organizing meetings and documentary screening and discussion sessions after hours at the community center. Local business people who would sometimes drop by during regular hours knew they could bend my ear in discussing the general dirty deeds still being carried by the refinery we were just across the street from and speculated on what real action against them and their profit making would look like as state and county budgets became more and more constrained.
Unfortunately the summer of 2011 was the end of the line for me with any further organizing. My director had called me into his office while we were still working after hours and presented me with a chart he had made on a sheet of bulletin board paper torn from one of the large roll dispensers at our other site, the still newly constructed central community elementary school that was built to absorb all the smaller ones that had fallen to disrepair in the last decades. While our program was a branch of a national organization, The Boys & Girls Clubs of America, we were one of a just a few unique clubs in the entire country in that any funding we weren’t provided by headquarters or grants we could obtain from them was covered by the state. This, of course, was not without struggle and hard won battles by the same leadership I mentioned earlier. However, his chart was a demonstration of how that was all about to change and what we would have to do to make up shortfalls, and they were going to be drastic.
The fascist Sam Brownback had been installed as governor that year, and my boss had been informed of the insane budget cuts our small district would be hit with in the next year before they were officially announced. The first proposal had been for about $1.3 million, nearly half of the entire district’s working budget. The magnanimous Brownshirt had brought that down to $700,000 the last I knew, but it was really too late for me. I was not quiet about any organizational intentions I had, and although my director also leaned in my direction and allowed me to have free reign with the center for such work, whispers I heard from somewhat sympathetic administrators hinted at the problems with my “radicalization”. I spent nights crying over the phone with my director when I heard rumors of my contract being easily “disappeared”, and when certain administrators would visit our sites, I would find papers of mine rifled through or misplaced if they weren’t being openly passive aggressive in knocking my things around in my presence.
Still I was ready to carry on. But my well-worn vehicle gave up during the time I was forced to commute most, and I had no way to fix it as I was taking some classes at the university and stretched to the very limit financially. I had been completely squeezed out by various circumstances, and entering into a new relationship that was long distance forced my migration to his locale as I had virtually nothing physically left to show for myself in a place I once called home, happily despite all else, for many years. A prior failed relationship and continued pushes toward destitution allowed for all my belongings to be shipped in boxes via UPS to the west coast.
But I am getting a bit ahead of myself in terms of the main thrust of my post. In the sense I have just laid out, I am a statistic, and I take no pleasure or pride or even great sorrow for my personal circumstances as there are surely many stories similar to mine during this upheaval not only in my state, but others all over the continent blindsided by the truly fascist concentration of wealth these slashed budgets signaled. And I am now in a better spot than many still hanging on in Coffeyville. The friends I have kept in touch with — the majority of which had to move beyond borders as well to secure any kind of stability — have told me of the ongoing crises since the public budgets were slashed.
Keep in mind that at the time of the flood, there were approximately 11,000 citizens. After Brownshirt had his way in ruining the work done by public servants using state dollars for the betterment of the working class, what is commonly referred to as privately owned industry started to pull out as well. John Deere laid off around 50 employees, and Amazon worked toward shutting down, completed just this last year, with 600 full time employees left without jobs and various other people utilizing the fulfillment center for temporary employment left out in the cold too. Indeed, I had considered trying to find temporary work there; my coworker’s mother was a supervisor there and was willing to help me along in that if need be. Coffeyville citizens and those they care for in all corners of the four states work to take care of their own in any way they can.
Southwire, a company that produced wire and cable, closed completely which cost the city another 200 positions. Similar to the aftermath of the flood, the locals helped each other out and set up career fairs, and their collective work and struggle paved the way for any severance to be paid by these companies. It’s unfortunate that community colleges are the butt of jokes so often; the much under-appreciated Coffeyville Community College joined in this effort as well. Southeastern Kansas has a handful of community colleges that not only provide excellent education, but the people who make them up are also active in their communities when times get tough.
Why is all this background important with regard to the supposedly historic election of Barack Obama? It’s very simple: I have given you a brief overview of a class conscious community where the people who have led the call and action for change are people of color, not only in the run-up to his moment but in the history of the founding of the city even. This is not even considering the socialist movements that existed next door not even a hundred years ago.1
Although my immediate supervisors voiced their support for Obama, being black people who had multiple degrees and in leadership positions that actually changed lives in an area wracked by corporate malfeasance aided by the state, they did not view him as necessarily opening up anything for them. They knew the hard work they had done in concert with others to make their community within the city for what is was — no one up top was sending them bonus checks or nodding their way when they won the decisive battles. Their support was nothing like what I saw online and what was easy to get sucked into, nor did it meaningfully alter the day to day operations of the things we were all trying to build on.
If anything, the smokescreen known as Obama made this economic blindsiding, this extreme class warfare, not even a blip on the news radar. We have a black president; obviously anything that is done by black communities is a result of this. That really was the facile nature of the conversations — that his “symbolic” election was to do so much “symbolically” for racism, discounting all the hard work that oppressed black communities had done themselves that required decades of organizing to make possible before Obama came along to “open up space” (for fascist destruction dressed in neoliberal rhetoric).
Coffeyville is but one example. What has happened to the black nation of the US since he became president? Between 2010 and 2013, the already gaping disparity between black and white household wealth was hit with another 9% drop in median income for black americans. The reported numbers of black employment have averaged 14%, up from 10% during the Bush years.2 He “symbolically” visited a federal penitentiary in 2015 to apparently demonstrate his commitment to drastically reducing crack and cocaine convictions, but clearly this is another promise that will never be fulfilled. And let’s not forget where Obama has “symbolically” and predictably laid the blame:
In a series of Father’s Day speeches since coming into office, and in various other public remarks, Obama has consistently put the onus for the poverty, high prison rates, poor education, and the whole oppressive situation that Black and Latino youth face on the people themselves. Like Bill Cosby, Obama claims that the problem is “personal responsibility”—absentee fathers, youth with sagging pants, too much TV, and so on. Left totally out of this is the reality: how this system has devastated communities of the oppressed; left little “choice” for millions of youth except the underground economy or the military; targeted young men with “stop and frisk” racial profiling and outright police murder; and thrown millions into prisons, many for minor drug violations.
And at the core of this message is the revival and strengthening of the patriarchal family, with the father at the head and acting as “role model.” In a sick “joke” at a 2010 White House dinner, Obama combined his reactionary push for patriarchy with the broadening war of drones. Addressing the members of the pop band Jonas Brothers who were in attendance, and referring to his two daughters, Obama said, “Sasha and Malia are huge fans but, boys, don’t get any ideas. Two words for you: Predator drones. You will never see it coming.”
As Carl Dix said in 2009 on the radio program Democracy Now! about Obama’s message: “The people are being blamed—and who better than Barack Obama, the first Black president, to blame Black youth for their plight? If George Bush does it, people would say it’s racist. But when the first Black president does it, it actually draws people into it.”
To name these aggressions Obama has made against the black nation of the US seems virtually passé to mention now. “[Long sigh and extreme eye roll] We get it, Obama lied and now we are all stuck with this. What did you expect? He is black and we had certain expectations (without reading too far past the propaganda), and we were burned.” Talk about racist. But that is exactly where people were at — a racist expectation that based on his color, he would “symbolically” represent something more than who he was as an individual and I guess all the bankers and insurance companies that paid his way.
The celebrity, the spectacular representation of a living human being, embodies this banality by embodying the image of a possible role. Being a star means specializing in the seemingly lived; the star is the object of identification with the shallow seeming life that has to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations which are actually lived. Celebrities exist to act out various styles of living and viewing society unfettered, free to express themselves globally. They embody the inaccessible result of social labor by dramatizing its by-products magically projected above it as its goal: power and vacations, decision and consumption, which are the beginning and end of an undiscussed process. In one case state power personalizes itself as a pseudo-star; in another a star of consumption gets elected as a pseudo-power over the lived. But just as the activities of the star are not really global, they are not really varied.3
In spite of all this recycling of memes and marketing that is not even a decade old, I see people my age falling for similar traps with regard to Sanders and his “opening up” for the discussion of class. As I said in my first post, this is a complete inversion of reality as conditions have so greatly declined even more for the working class. Like with the Obama phenomenon, the people this so-called movement is meant to attract are those who have not put their blood and sweat into struggle but those who can fit a brand, a stereotype, or a look. The momentum created for Obama was essentially racist, and I find that the similar kind being created for Sanders is, at its core, antisemitic with vague reports of his time on a kibbutz being weaved into dangerous themes of him being a “killer Jewish Bolshevik” meant to smear anyone with a socialist proclivity. Certainly those defined as the “progressive” sort before the 2009 inauguration were to run a useless cover when the right was encouraged to discuss his birth origins, religion, and supposedly leftist family history.
Recently I saw some very relevant tweets; I can’t recall the author, but in effect they stated that Sanders’ run is an attempt to sweep up those activated but disaffected by the Obama campaign in order to fold them into this reserve army of labor for defending a system that was never ours to begin with. There is much truth to this. Though our climate does not promote sobriety in order to make it in our daily lives, this abuse must be looked at in a sober light. The working class struggle is the reason for these reactions we see from the spectacle, from the bottom to the top. They are afraid of our power, but it is indeed up to us to make that work for ourselves and each other to not divert that toward their interests, and indeed the presidency only works in their direction.
1 See the history of Girard, Kansas: the legacies of Eugene V. Debs, Kate Richards O’Hare, and E. Haldeman-Julius are particularly instructive.
3 Of course this is extracted from Society of the Spectacle, but special thanks goes to an anonymous friend for posting it today that served as a reminder.
Sources not hyperlinked: