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Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt

July 17, 2012

Hundreds of people filled the Powell’s reading room to capacity. They claimed every folding chair. When those were full, they sat on the floor, and leaned against the stacks. There were teenagers with backpacks, ninety-year-old veterans with walkers, short-skirted, iPhone-grasping, thirty-something women, and everything in between. The dreadlocked stood with the suited. Occupy supporters sat with the lawyers, the teachers, and the retirees. Electricity and anticipation buzzed through the air. All had come to hear journalist, Chris Hedges, and graphic artist and journalist, Joe Sacco, read from their new collaborative book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.

Hedges and Sacco joined forces to write a powerful book about corporate greed and the toll it has taken on America. They focused on four areas they call “Sacrifice Zones,” the worst of the worst of what happens to a country that lets “profit, progress, and technological advancement” be the excuse for exploitation.

Hedges talked about the genesis of the book saying,

“Once the liberal institutions don’t function anymore, and I believe they do not function, then–it’s interesting, you know, Dostoevsky was obsessed with this, with the breakdown of liberalism, that’s what Demons is about, Notes From Underground is about–and in Dostoevsky’s words, you enter an age of moral nihilism. That’s where we are. We have undergone a corporate coup d’etat and it’s over, we’ve lost. They’ve won. There are no impediments left to corporate capitalism.”

He said he wanted to go into “absolutely the worst pockets of poverty in this country.” Those places that were sacrificed first. The places where human beings, communities, political systems, economic systems, education systems were “sacrificed for the marketplace.” Hedges said, “This is an absurd utopian belief that structuring human society around the dictates of the marketplace can somehow foster the common good, which has been shoved down our throat by third-rate economists like Milton Friedman, and third-rate novelists like Ayn Rand.”

Hedges first met Sacco in 1995 in Bosnia, when Sacco was working on Safe Area Gorazde, and Hedges was covering the Bosnian war and its aftermath for The New York Times. He said, “I wasn’t particularly literate in terms of graphic novels, but I certainly knew a first-rate journalist when I saw one. I watched him work in Gorazde, and realized that he’s certainly one of the greatest journalists in the country. What he does is not simply report, of course, but he draws it out. It gives a kind of punch, especially when you’re trying to portray the living conditions of a place like Gaza or in Welsh, West Virginia, or in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.”

Hedges and Sacco searched for the poorest pockets of the United States starting with Pine Ridge, South Dakota, where the average life expectancy for a male is 48, the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Then, Camden, New Jersey which is, per capita, the poorest city in the United States. The third zone was Southern West Virginia where coal companies are blasting the tops off of mountains, poisoning streams, drinking water, and the land. Hedges said, “We flew over it, and it’s just staggering and heartbreaking.” Finally, they visited the produce fields of Immokalee, Florida. Hedges said, “We could have gone to California, but the labor laws are actually worse in Florida. For instance, collective bargaining is legal, but if you actually attempt to organize you can be fired by your employer, and you have no redress within the court.”

Hedges said when they began the project two years ago, the title of the book was Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, but the revolt was “conjecture. Then, on September 17th, as we were getting into the final months of this book, Zuccotti Park and Occupy Wall Street arose. We added that last chapter. The last chapter is Days of Revolt. It is about that first massive effort on the part of the citizenry across the country, to rise up and challenge corporate power and corporate greed. For that reason, the book ended on a note of hope.”

Sacco gave a slide show of his powerful and moving drawings beginning with Camden, New Jersey. He said, “What you see in Camden, in certain neighborhoods is abandoned houses; I think there are 1,500 abandoned homes in Camden. It used to be an industrial town. RCA was there, Campbell Soup Company actually made soup there, and it was the biggest shipbuilding yard in the United States. But, no longer. A legitimate industry that’s actually working and making money is scrapyards. People are stripping houses of their fixtures, and taking them to scrapyards.”

He talked about the people they met while traveling to the sacrifice zones. They are “big-hearted people who had worked hard and loved their cities and jobs before both disappeared.” In Immokalee, Florida, he saw immigrants performing backbreaking work in the fields.  Sacco said the soil is not fertile, so they use chemicals and pesticides to make it artificially fertile. Laborers working in this stuff experience a high incidence of birth defects, rashes and “all sorts of things.” They live with a dozen other people in trailers that are infested with roaches and rats. Hedges added,  “What has happened for a couple of centuries in Florida, since the end of slavery, is that the agricultural growers replicate the conditions of slavery.”

Sacco said of Zuccotti Park, “It was a real privilege to go there. Chris and I were wondering when any mass movement would start in the United States that actually confronted power. We saw individuals who did. Everywhere we went  we found one or two individuals who were willing to make a stand. But Zuccotti Park and the Occupy Movement is a mass movement, and one of the things I’ll say about it is it’s probably the first time I’ve seen Democracy. It must have been what it was like in Athens in 350 B.C. People were talking, people were engaged, everyone seemed to be involved. Everyone who had something to say, said it, without fear. It was sort of a beautiful moment. I’m glad I got to see this.”

Hedges ended the event by reading the statement he made at the People’s Hearing on Goldman Sachs, which he chaired with Cornel West. His voice was filled with emotion, choking up at points; I thought he would cry. LISTEN HERE.

It was a somber crowd that filed out after the reading; questions without answers hung in the air.

Perseus Books/Nation, 2012

Chris Hedges is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute, and spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He was part of the New York Times team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for the paper’s coverage of global terrorism. He writes a weekly column for Truthdig, and has written for Harper’s, the New Statesman, the New York Review of Books, the Nation, Adbusters, Granta, Foreign Affairs, and other publications. He is the author of the bestsellers Death of the Liberal Class, Empire of Illusion, and War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, among others.

Joe Sacco is hailed as the creator of war-reportage comics. He is the author of the American Book Award-winning Palestine, Footnotes in Gaza, which received the Ridenhour Book Prize, and Safe Area Gorazde, which won the Eisner Award and was named a New York Times Notable Book and Time magazine’s best comic book of 2000. His new book, Journalism, was released in June, 2012

Occupy Photos by Bob Prokop

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7 Comments
  1. This report must have been a challenge for Diane Prokop because so many of her views are similar to those of the author. It is to her credit, she reported what the author wrote with honesty, and clarity, but never stepped away from her responsibility as a reviewer. There is no part of her review in which she allowed her own political views to alter her usual integrity.
    Diane the reviewer met the challenge of “telling it like the author says it is”– yet managed to keep a necessary intellectual distance from the author and his views and her obligation to those who look forward to her next review.
    In my opinion this was one of her most challenging reviews, and one of her best.
    Jim Dunne

    • Jim, I am honored by your compliments. You are so generous. From you, more than anyone, I learned that kindness and generosity are part of what makes our world a better place. Thank you.

  2. Jon Lauderbaugh permalink

    I was there that night sitting in near proximity with Diane and I have to say this was one of the most moving and emotional readings I have ever experienced at Powell’s—if not ever. Further, I wholeheartedly agree that this reading raised far more questions than it answered; nonetheless, the writer and artist were thought provoking and this particular evening will stay with me for the rest of my life. I believe that Diane conveyed all of that well herein and I concur with Jim Dunne that this is a quality review. Nice work, Diane.

    • Thank you, Jon. I agree, this was a reading I won’t forget. It moved me both emotionally and intellectually. I thank you so much for alerting me to this event.

  3. Very powerful writing, Diane. I’m sorry I missed the event but you seemed to capture its essence.

  4. cathd80 permalink

    Very powerful writing, Diane. I’m sorry I missed the event but you seem to have captured its essence.

  5. Betsy permalink

    Hello Diane-

    Thank you for the thoughtful review of very complex, scary and sad issues of our times. You really went that extra mile. I appreciate the energy. Take care and keep writing. Please tell Bob that his photographs captured the mood of the movement very well!

    Betsy

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