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I waited three months to eat a Krispy Kreme. I mean I waited. Every week or so, I take the train to Penn Station, quickly zigzagging through crowds. And every time I have the same internal monologue — Don’t stop at the Krispy Kreme. Don’t give yourself diabetes. Seriously, you might as well inject Elmer’s glue straight into your heart. But then I saw the store, bright and beautiful and smelling good. It’s very hard to walk past Krispy Kreme. It’s like those dreams where my legs move but I don’t go forward.

And then I begin the junkie’s debate — C’mon it’s been three months! Besides, one can’t hurt. And didn’t I help that homeless lady get her shit to the shelter last night. That was an Oprah thing to do. And doesn’t Oprah eat donuts? I was drooling before I even turned. Everyone on line had the same wild look. I feared for the servers. If they didn’t get us the donuts quickly we might have smashed the glass. When I got mine and bit into it, sugar and preservatives and trans-fat flooded my body and I lit up like a Christmas tree. It felt like Jesus descended from Heaven and kissed my brain.

Afterwards I felt dirty, guilty. At home, I googled Krispy Kreme and found a YouTube clip of comedian Chris Rock prowling the stage. “Krispy Kreme donuts are so good,” he said, “if I told you it had crack in it you’d go, ‘I knew something was up … got me knocking on the donut window at two in the morning. C’mon man open up, give me one more donut, I’ll do anything. I’ll suck your dick.’”

Rock chuckled maniacally as the audience roared. I paused the clip and let it sink in. How much of what we eat is not really food but a drug designed to addict us with a rush of sugar, salt or fat? McDonald’s, Checkers and the other fried fast-food places line the streets in Bed-Stuy. Neighbors have that addict’s scratch-the-neck gesture at bodegas where they buy sugary drinks or candy. But it wasn’t just food. How many times do I check my cell phone? I get itchy if I don’t send or get a text. How many people do I see on the street, heads down, typing away, swerving around the traffic as if by radar?

In New York, we bounce like billiard balls between ads showing actors posing with a titanium watch and rappers with liquor bottles and sand-caked, teen bodies next to perfume vials. All the time, I see people waddling out of stores with bulging shopping bags, faces bright with the joy of a new purchase. Flush faces are the tell-tale sign of a dopamine rush. We get high from buying commodities that enhance our status. In this light, we can look at corporate stores and see them as consumer crack houses. If it’s true that billions of people around the world are being addicted to our evolutionary Achille’s heel of salt, sugar, fat and status, then it’s time to ask the question. Are we capitalism junkies?

The Commodity

A commodity in classical political economy is any object that can be bought or sold in the marketplace. The market is any institution or place where we can engage in trade, be it Wall Street or the farmer’s stall at Union Square. From the market’s beginning 12,000 years ago with the Neolithic Revolution, when we first cultivated land, grew crops, and created surplus and trade to the post-industrial digital stock exchange, it has grown to dominate human life.

Today everything around us — clothing, apartments, food and technology — is a commodity. We wear commodities. We live inside commodities. We use and eat commodities. All that we need to live is filtered through the market. And if the store shelves are packed with bright colorful things, we feel safe because we have the freedom to choose.

The commodity has for centuries been the site of critique. In political economy it was an article of trade that satisfies a human need. Later it was reinterpreted by Karl Marx in Das Kapital as a fetish object concealing the exploitative relations of production. More than a century later, post-structuralist Jean Baudrillard redefined it as a sign in a larger social code.

Today, a view emerging from neuroscience understands capitalism as an immersive form of market totalitarianism. We see that advertising and commodities are designed to get us to a “bliss point,” to stoke a chemical blaze in our brains that incrementally robs us of the ability to choose. And this is the paradox; American culture is based on the ideal of freedom — freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom to choose — but its economy is increasingly based on targeting the unconscious and addicting our bodies. Corporations use science to ensnare deep evolutionary impulses. We are left with a tragic contradiction; the very act of consumption that we are taught is our freedom is also what most enslaves us.

Behold the iPhone

My cell phone was old. No touch screen. No internet. My friends would whip out smartphones and get precise, Googlemapped directions to the next bar. I took mine out, pretended to type an address and confidently offered random bullshit names like The Thirsty Wolf or Chug.

“Wait why can’t I see those?” one friend asked me. I quickly put my phone away, “Oh damn, battery just ran out. Sorry. So what did you find?” But I was content with my Flintstone-era cell phone until one day it broke. After one hour without a text or the ability to send one, I began to shake and sweat. I sprinted to the Virgin Mobile store, where the staff calmed me down, gave me water, patted my back.

In seconds, I was holding my future phone. But I saw it four different ways. The first was a symbol of the American Dream, a set of ideals that put prosperity and upward mobility at the center of our lives. Smartphone commercials make it into a tool of consumer empowerment. No one and nothing is out of reach.

Through a Marxist lens, I saw the swollen-eyed, arthritic Chinese workers at Foxconn, which if it didn’t make Virgin Mobile smartphones, made them for Apple and made them in the millions. In the Marxist tradition this human labor is eclipsed by the object’s transformation into a commodity through market exchange. We see its price tag or advertisement but not the people who made it or the fact that so many killed themselves by jumping off the roof of Foxconn that the company hung up nets.

Seen through Baurdrillard’s theory, my smartphone was a sign in a larger social code that recreated my identity. It was not simply a way to talk to friends. It was a smartphone. I now had instant access to information and was re-booted as a modern man. No asking directions or standing in line for a ticket at a cinema. Now I could do it all before I got there. Smartphone ads play on the theme of being up to date. One showed a trio of guys at a sports game: the ones with the 4G smartphones knew it was going to rain while the one with the 3G did not; he was doused when thunder broke. Today, commodities come with a story line and are the material anchors for the social roles we play.

Turning my new phone over and over in my hand, I remembered that itchy feeling when my phone ran out of energy or when it was broken. Turning it on, I googled addiction, smartphones and lo and behold, I found a painfully in-your-face article titled “Why We’re All Addicted to Texts, Twitter and Google.” It spelled out why I slept with my phone at night like a teddy bear. Written by Dr. Susan Weinschenk and based on research by Terrence Robinson and Kent Berridge, the article said our brains squirt dopamine not to make us feel pleasure (a concept still used but debated) but to make us seek it out.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter; it carries signals from neurons through synapses to other neurons or cells. Like Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, it “makes me feel good.” It lights up the brain. It gets us moving toward satisfying goals. Weinschenk writes, “Dopamine causes you to want, desire and search … From an evolutionary standpoint this is critical. Dopamine keeps you motivated to move through your world, learn and survive. It’s not just about physical needs such as food or sex, but also about abstract concepts. Dopamine makes you curious about ideas.”

In the scholarly article “Addiction,” Berridge and Robinson state that there are two systems in the brain, one that involves dopamine based on wanting and the other based on liking, the opioid system, which gives us pleasure. The former says, “Go!” The latter says, “Stop and enjoy.” But with social media, we now live in a culture where the “Go!” light is always green. In seconds we can text, Facebook, Google or call and get rewarded, which incites us to seek again, which rewards us again, causing us to seek again and be trapped in a dopamine loop.

The saddest image of the article was of dying rats. Scientists destroyed the dopamine neurons in rats and they died of starvation, even when food was right in front of them. They lost “the will to live” or the chemical base of “will power,” aka dopamine. In another test, scientists electrically stimulated the brains of lab animals to produce dopamine. Rats furiously, feverishly pressed the lever to tingle themselves more and more, faster and faster, because the dopamine system doesn’t have an off switch.

After reading this I walked around Union Square and studied the consumers flowing in and out of the stores. “Go on you rats,” I thought, “Get your cheese!” And this is what capitalism has made of us. We’re a herd of slightly evolved primates gobbling salt, sugar, fat and status. We buy objects that light up our brains with dopamine even if we throw those same things away or incur debt. Using my new Chinese-made smartphone, I punched up Jay-Z’s song “Big Pimpin” and bobbed my head, his nasal voice the soundtrack to thousands of New Yorkers shopping. “Big pimpin,” he rapped, “Spending cheese.”

The Cheeto in the Crack Pipe

Going home on the B52 bus, I saw a father feeding his infant daughter bright, yellow, puffy Cheetos. I wanted to smack it out of his hand and yell, “This is crack! Why don’t you just put the Cheetos in a pipe and have her smoke it?” But I closed my mouth and rolled my eyes instead.

The baby grabbed the Cheetos and I imagined the Yellow 6 dye that makes it day-glow food entering her blood. In laboratory tests, it caused kidney tumors and contained carcinogens. Good job, Dad! She licked her lips because the hydrogenated oil makes the Cheetos so tasty. If she grows up eating snacks like these, her heart will eventually become a wheezing accordion.

My stop came and I stepped off the bus, seeing as if for the first time the many fast-food places and bodegas lining Nostrand Avenue. They are the two major institutions in working-class urban neighborhoods. Over 200,000 fast food restaurants open their doors each morning in America. Sometimes it seems all of them are in Bed-Stuy.

Each institution has a goal and the fast food industry is designed not to nourish bodies but to make profits. What was a $6 billion industry in 1970 raked in $160 billion last year. It did this by playing on our evolutionary buttons. Salt, sugar, fat — over the course of millions of years our bodies evolved to crave these tastes because it signaled the presence of much-needed nutrients.

We are physiologically adapted to survive famine. Our primeval ancestors roaming the high grass of the ancient savannah often had to endure hunger. Some hunters did not always have the best aim with the spear. Feast and famine marked us. We inherited a craving for fat, salt or sugar, and when any of them hits our tongues, our brain’s opioid system goes off like fireworks and the dopamine begins to flow. It is our gastronomical weak spot, one that the modern food industry has targeted. Our bodies are garbage cans to dump junk into as long as it makes profit.

This February, the New York Times ran an article with a disturbing scene. Entitled “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Food,” it opened with a meeting of the 11 heads of America’s major food corporations. The vice president of Kraft told attendees that the industry had gone too far in producing foods that excite hunger and overwhelm the body’s controls on overeating. He cited statistics showing more than half of Americans were overweight and nearly one-quarter were obese. The head of General Mills, Stephen Sanger, got up and said, “Don’t talk to me about nutrition. Talk to me about taste, and if this stuff tastes better, don’t run around trying to sell stuff that doesn’t taste good.” The meeting took place in 1999. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 35.7 percent of Americans are overweight, along with one third of our children.

Walking home, I often see obese women like giant water balloons, out of breath just from walking. Children, faces swollen with fat, throw candy on the counter at the local bodega. Every day, thousands of people in my neighborhood get breakfast, lunch and dinner from fast-food places or bodegas. Eating well takes time and money. And when you have neither, you get what you can. And here food is fast. It’s cheap. It’s addictive. And it’s deadly. Not long ago, I saw an ambulance outside the adjacent building; my neighbor said his friend had died. He shook his head and said, “She was 50, only 50, and caught a heart attack.”

The Nag Factor

Capitalism — the private ownership over the means of production. It is the world of labor behind every smartphone, every Cheeto, every commodity. It is the factory and the workers inside. It is the bosses, regional managers and owners rising above the masses of workers in a vast pyramid of power.

Defenders of the system say that it raises incomes and life-spans and serves the needs of consumers. But in a dialectical reversal, we can point at clear evidence that capitalism does not serve our needs but creates consumers to serve its need of making profit. It’s a global conveyor belt where raw material is transformed into commodities, shipped to markets to be sold. But consumer are not born but made.

While waiting for my laundry to dry, I heard a kid screaming at his mother for Lucky Charms. I mean this kid was hollering like an N.F.L. coach. His veins bulged at his neck. “Ma, get me the Charms,” he shouted, “The Charms! The Lucky Charms!” She looked haggard and took him outside and when they came back he was scooping the cereal into his mouth.

The nagging scene struck a memory. Once home, I looked up a documentary called The Corporation; in it, Lucy Hughes, Vice President of Initiative Media and co-creator of the report “The Nag Factor,” said, “We asked parents to keep a diary and to record every time a child nagged them for a product. Anywhere from 20 percent to 40 percent of purchases would not have occurred unless the child nagged their parents.”

She had the smug smile of someone paid well enough to not care. Later Professor Susan Linn of Baker’s Children Center said the study was done by corporations to get children to nag for their products. Linn was sad eyed. It was like she stared at the face of a juggernaut of money and power that she could analyze but not stop. She said, “Children are not little adults. Marketers are playing into their development vulnerabilities. The advertising that children are exposed to today is honed by psychologists and enhanced by media technology.”

Later Hughes reappeared, “You can manipulate consumers into wanting and buying your products. It’s a game.” Again that smug smile, she concluded, “They are tomorrow’s adult consumer, so start talking with them now…and you got them as an adult. Someone asked me, ‘Lucy is that ethical? You’re essentially manipulating children.’ Is it ethical, I don’t know but our mission at Initiative is to move product.”

To move product — into the bodies of children even at risk to their health and by target ing their soft minds. How can one talk of freedom of choice when corporations target us before we have the ability to choose at all? The advertising bullseye hovers on us through our lives. As adults, it is our unconscious minds that are hit. Brand names are stitched on clothes, products are placed in movies. Images are slipped under our consciousness and descend into our psychic depths were they grow into decisions that we mistake for our own free will.

Capitalism — this system of private ownership of the means of production rose from the collapse of feudalism, under which armored nobility in castles and cloaked monks in monasteries ruled over ragged peasants. It spread in the artisan towns and city states of the late Middle Ages, it spread with the enclosure of land as serfs, hungry and desperate, moved to factory work in the cities, it spread overseas in the New World conquest, the slave trade and colonization, it spread around the earth in violent racist colonialism. And now it dominates human civilization and has spread into our childhoods, our dreams and seeks to determine the destiny of our species.

The Body versus Capitalism

One of the most famous scenes in recent film history was from The Matrix, when the protagonist Neo is offered a red pill by a terrorist named Morpheus. He takes it and after plunging down a surreal dream wakes up hooked to cables in a gooey pod. He looks around and sees billions of pods with people sleeping inside.

It resonated because we experience Capitalism as turning our bodies against us. It is a parasitical system that feeds on us. It takes our tongues and blinds us with taste. It floods our unconscious with logos. It takes our desire and puts a price tag on it. And dizzy with sensation and directed by commercials, we work ourselves numb to become landfills for commodities.

Is this the destiny of our species? Is this the highest we can imagine, the enslavement of millions to work making products and enslaving millions more to buy them? It seems the tragedy of our civilization is that by being walled in with commodities, we lose sight of how rare and precious we truly are.

Our ability to create, to be conscious, to imagine is a spark of beauty in the void. Humanity is the result of a series of near improbable accidents. It is a sheer accident that we exist at all, that billions of years ago, hot rock formed a planet at this distance from the sun, that ice-loaded meteors hit earth and gave it water, that in the sea microbes ignited into life and plants swept over land.

When visiting the Museum of Natural History, I imagine the T-Rex skeleton chomping up one or two visitors in a swift bite. It’s easy to feel how lucky we got with that comet impact 66 million years ago. And that’s what I mean. It’s an accident we’re here at all.

And yet here we are. The universe may teem with life but most likely it is microbes on rocks or germs in seas. Sentient life that looks up and questions is infinitely rare. Our ability to look far into space and deep into the atom, to follow the trail of elements to the origin of reality and to know its end, is incredibly precious. We, so far as we know, are the only species that is the living memory of the universe.

The human body — lulled into commodity addiction, brainwashed by advertising is itself evidence of the grand-narrative of evolution that surpasses capitalism. Over millions of years, natural selection sculpted us to fit the environment until we began to adapt the environment to fit our needs. Now we are trapped in an economic system that does not serve us but ensnares us to serve it. But the history of revolutions and art and crime show us a truth about ourselves. Our power to imagine is greater than our need to obey.


Freedom: 1. The absence of constraint on choice or action. 2. The liberation from slavery or from the power of another.

This is the land of the free and the home of the brave. Hey, buddy, it’s a free country, right? In cliché sayings, we’re reminded that freedom is our social ideal. In the iconic scenes of U.S. history we learn that our nation’s flag was planted on the moon by an astronaut, our armies can strike anywhere, anytime, and even a black man can become president of a country that once had slavery.

But the daily evidence of that freedom is on the stacked store shelves and in the advertisements that teach us about the capitalist Good Life. But what if on either side of the commodity existed millions of people who were not free at all?

What if we saw that behind the label is a world of misery? There, suicidal men and women grind their lives against a factory clock to make our low-cost clothing and technology. They see no exit but death and leap from the roof to the only freedom left to claim. There, undocumented workers pick tomatoes and staff the blood-soaked killing floors of meat factories to get us our cheap fast food.

And in front of the label is us — people whose unconscious is shaped by subliminal advertising, our need for intimacy and recognition commodified into market experiences of bought and sold emotional labor. Our bodies are given addictive products that make us crave self-destruction. We who live in a market-dominated world are not free, but are chemically enslaved by the very sophisticated science of corporate America.

A step we can take in freeing ourselves is critiquing capitalism differently. To the older frame of political economy focused on production, distribution and consumption of commodities we must add a new frame. One possibility is thinking in terms of a physiological economy, in which the body is transformed into a consuming machine and directed to the market where it’s a commodity dumping ground, regardless of the health effects on it. Putting the body at the center creates a goal of respecting human potential.

And what might help is the idea of neuro-justice as a New Millennial update on natural rights. We have as human beings a right to develop ourselves. We are inheritors of a cosmic accident that created the earth in the seething, plasma-hot, shooting gallery of space. We are inheritors of millions of years of evolution, and each of us belongs to a thing rare and precious in the universe, sentient life.

Behind our eyes, in our brains is a power greater than reality. It’s the power to imagine. A truly human civilization will move beyond capitalism, beyond addicting our consciousness to demanding space for it, play for it, love and recognition for it — it will demand justice for the imagination. In that world, we can walk home and see no corporate ads or stores with addictive foods or feel itchy for the newest technology or desperate for status. We can be free by simply being ourselves.

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IT'S THE END OF THE WORLD," they yelled and raised their hands as the music reached into their bodies, driving them with the fear and rage they felt since hearing about the storm. Muhammad saw couples grope and kiss, break apart and latch limbs with new partners. A man thrust a bottle of rum to his mouth and Muhammad gulped the liquor that hit his gut like a sunrise.

"Happy End of the World buddy," he hollered. Muhammad gave him a wobbly salute, stepped out of the dancing and picked up the scattered flyers on the ground. Walking away from the street party, he read the pamphlets that repeated the headline on every news site — SUPERSTORM TO HIT CITY. More flyers like the white footprints of a ghost, led to the far side of Tompkins Square Park, where a loud rally shook the air.

People quickly crisscrossed the park. Families pushed food-heavy shopping carts as kids aimed flashlights at each other and laughed. On the street, cars inched forward, stopped, honked at the car in front and inched ahead again. Drivers got out and argued. A glinting river of vehicles, loaded with suitcases hummed in an long line.

Muhammad watched them, knowing that the police were closing the bridges after tomorrow night and whoever could get out was getting out. But those who didn't have cars or had to stay and work, like himself, were being left to defend the city. And if the city survived these same people would come back like worms.

He swigged more rum and walked to the rally. Over the crowd, a large booming voice shot vivid images into the air. Muhammad stood on his toes and saw Loli, spokeswoman for the Free Earth Movement on stage, dressed in all black with the tell-tale green armband. "Look at them run," she shouted and pointed at the cars. Everyone turned and stared at the drivers. "The middle class and wealthy are leaving. But we who run this city, we who made this city — we stay. And you know what I say?"

The crowd yelled for her to say. Muhammad eyed them, took another swig. "They created this storm! They created this economy! They created climate chaos! They are killing the planet and they are the ones killing us," she yelled, "We have to cut them out of our lives, cut them out of history!" She crossed her arms above her head, "What time is it?"

Everyone crossed their arms above their heads as if brandishing a thousand pairs of scissors. "Time to cut, cut, cut..." they yelled. Muhammad raised his arms, crossed them and made a cutting motion and yelled with them.


The street was a like a shaken beehive. People buzzed in front of stoops, handing planks of wood to board up windows, spools of duct tape and red jugs of gasoline. Members of the Free Earth Movement fanned out across the sidewalk, walkie-talkies crackled on hip belts as they handed out directions to emergency shelters.

Muhammad felt like he was floating through an old-school 20th-century disaster movie. He had studied them in a college film class, laughing in the back with his friends at how big every actor's jaw was, from Kirk Douglass to Kurt Russell. He even wrote a paper on it, "Big Chins: American Imperialism and Cosmetic Surgery."

"I am the hero of this disaster movie," he said to the Free Earth members, "Do you see how big my chin is?" They shook their heads and went back to handing out flyers. Muhammad gulped more rum and his skull felt like a bobbing balloon. Memories of his first superstorm, Hurricane Sandy, filled his eyes. It hit the city in 2012 when he was 12 years old and the past slid in his mind like a watercolor painting. He saw again the same panicked faces, felt the same buzz in the street, the same euphoria at the edge of disaster.

After Hurricane Sandy passed, his uncle took him to see the tree that had smashed a car like a roller that hit dough. He saw rooftops peeled like cans and streets carpeted with branches and torn-down leaves. At night his family grilled food on the stoop and fed neighbors. Biting into the hot meat, he felt at home in the dark city. Everyone laughed easy, everyone wallowed in the free time.

More memory spilled and he saw again the slides a professor showed him in an ecology course, it was fall 2020 and he was learning about climate change. Muhammad gripped his chair during the lecture on global warming as on screen, a temperature-scale map of the earth turned from blue and green to yellow and red. It looked like the planet was catching fire, like it was a hot coal burning.

He remembered flipping through textbooks, diving into science, seeing the wind that blew on his face as the exhale of plants and trees, seeing it driven across the planet in a jet stream, seeing it knot into giant whirlpools in the sky that landed on earth in hurricanes that ripped apart homes. And the warmer the planet, he saw, the more violent the storms. A genealogy of disaster stretched before him — Hurricane Katrina and Sandy and then in 2020 was Hurricane Oscar, the first Category Three storm to hit New York.

The memories became vivid and more torrential, like someone was pouring them into his head. In 2020, Hurricane Oscar churned the sky; clouds like bowling balls smashed into the city; rain needled his face when he poked his head outside. After the storm he waded in the dark rivers flowing through the streets. He climbed a submerged car and sat on the roof , which was just above the water. Sitting on top he listened to birds chirping in the silence as if it was after the biblical flood. And then people emerged, shocked and weeping at their destroyed city. For weeks after the storm, hundreds of bodies were found, homeless people stranded in the street, elderly stranded in the homes and those too brave or too foolish to stay inside.

Long lines stretched around supermarkets, Muhammad remembered his mom getting into a tug-of-war with another woman over a basket of groceries. At the height of the panic, he got a text from friends — SAVE THE CITY, SAVE THE PLANET: MASS MEETING ON CAMPUS. When he arrived, he saw hundreds of people in the auditorium: activists, environmentalists, doctors, nurses, a few retired cops and firefighters. They created a command structure, broke into groups and fanned out across the city to coordinate food and gas delivery and erect cell phone charging stations, and everyone wore a green arm band.

The movement didn't have a name — just action. Muhammad remembered the beautiful joy at bringing food to people abandoned by the city, by FEMA, and the people wept when he and the others came with groceries. New York was without power for two weeks and the last night of darkness, he climbed the stairs of a tall apartment building, knocking on doors. In one he heard a soft moan, knocked louder but nothing, then another moan. He slammed the door until it broke open, went in and saw a skeletal old man on the floor, his face gaunt, eyes wide and swiveling in their sockets, pleading silently for food and water. Muhammad called 911 for help, cradled the man's head, opened a can of soup and fed it to him as the wail of an ambulance echoed in the street below.

When he went back to school, he kept wearing his green armband, not caring if people made fun of him. But at the college, it seemed like every other student wore one and had their story of helping people after the storm. When he got to class, the professor walked in, took off her jacket and she also had a green armband, and then the slides of the earth affected by global warming glowed on screen again.

After Hurricane Oscar, wearing the green armband was a status symbol; he got free drinks at bars, caressing looks from strangers, but also desperate, near panting stories from people still reeling in shock from the storm. And everyone who didn't wear one asked what was going to happen next. The first mass meeting was called in Central Park; he arrived and ran his palm on the trees stripped of bark. It was as if the hurricane was a giant Brillo pad that scraped every leaf away and left spindly trees like twisted coat hangers. It was a sad sight and everyone picked up broken branches like evidence of a crime.

Thousands of people showed up. The ground was soggy, so people climbed a hill and joked how only the rich can afford to stay dry during a flood. The joking became wild and was recorded, going viral on social media. In it a young radical named Loli laughed as she described a methodical plan to mobilize people, seize control of the city bureaucracy, even the police, until the ruling class was cornered and then cut them off. She called it Climbing the Mountain. "It's like Into Thin Air meets Freddy Krueger meets Karl Marx," she guffawed and made a cutting gesture with her fingers like a scissor.

As he leaned against a tree, a voice said, "Looks like we have our Lenin." He turned to see a woman, short with arched eyebrows. "But he won didn't he," offered Muhammad. "Sure," she cut her eyes, "And with victories like that who needs enemies?' His face twitched then broke into laughter, she giggled too and they held the smooth no-bark tree guffawing.

"I'm Ooni," she offered her hand. He took it, "Muhammad." They traded stories of the storm and she invited him to an art opening. Weeks later he went to it, an exhibit of contemporary art about post-hurricane New York. Activists with green armbands challenged Ooni about her new work, "Climbing the Mountain," a painting/photo collage that showed debris and bodies from the hurricane shaped like a mountain and slogans from the movement pouring out of it like lava. They shouted that it played into ruling-class aesthetics. She shot back, "And violent political rhetoric is the aesthetic of the future ruling class."

Muhammad grew with the movement. He remembered when it got real activists, elected to real positions of power. A tax was levied on Wall Street to fund climate change "proofing" the city. The thousands of new employees were unionized, added organizational muscle. A carbon tax was levied on industry and that money was used to green the energy grid. The more workers owed their jobs to the Free Earth Movement, the more political power it had to create more jobs. Each new election cycle more progressive policies were enacted until welfare was enhanced and renamed Basic Income, free health care was offered and drugs decriminalized.

But scientists kept saying even with CO2 capped and cut, we now lived on a wild, changing planet. Muhammad remembered how the summers got hotter and hotter and the tropical storms harder and more frequent. In July, sweat-drenched New Yorkers borrowed the language of the Free Earth Movement and blamed the ruling class for wrecking the earth. His neighbors fanned their faces on the stoop and imitated Martin Luther King Jr. saying, "I've been to the mountaintop and I've seen the Promised Land. And the wealthy own it." The other one leaned in, "Yeah and we got to push those motherfuckers off before they kill us."

Blinking the memories from his eyes, Muhammad looked at the city. It was 2037 and New York was transformed. He scuffed his shoe on the street; it was made of porous material to sponge up flood water. He looked at the subways and spotted the metal covers installed to keep the water from gushing into tunnels. At the city's edge were new wetlands and oyster bays to soften the storm waves. But what shielded the city was The Wall, the nickname for the huge nearly mile-long storm surge sea barrier that spanned from Staten Island to Brooklyn; like a giant jawbone it sat behind the Verrazano Bridge.

Tomorrow, he had to report for "Wall Duty," and like an ant crawling on a fence he would be among the crews maintaining it when the hurricane hit. Muhammad had worked for the Metropolitan Harbor Authority since he was 30, often he took his daughter on The Wall and she'd wear his hard hat and order his crew around as they drank illegal beers. A week ago, they were called into a meeting as a meteorologist showed a video of a huge foamy wheel of clouds spinning in the Atlantic.

"It's a Category Four," she said, and the words landed like a bad joke. Muhammad and the crew glanced at each other with scrunched eyebrows. What the fuck was she talking about? Isn't that impossible? "It's a Category Four," she repeated, "one week, you have one week." In the projector's light her shadow on the screen was surrounded by a giant hurricane spinning toward New York. A man in a suit took her place and instructed the workers to read and sign the release forms saying, "We expect fatalities. In the case of death as stated in the second paragraph, your families will be compensated to the amount..."


"Dad when are you coming? Love you," she asked. He pressed repeat. "Dad when are you coming," she asked again, "Love you!" He played her message over and over until her voice echoed in his head.

He told her he'd be on the first flight to Seattle after the storm passed, he sent her there to be with her mom, his ex-wife. Never said he'd be on The Wall, never said he signed a release form so that if he died, the Metropolitan Harbor Authority would give her enough money to be safe forever. In a few years, when she was of legal age, she could buy a home in a Safe Zone, the unaffordable neighborhoods sealed off from Climate Change. Muhammad read the science journals avidly, he knew it was going to get worse; the storms harder and more frequent would smash the city, the summers hotter and dryer would starve the people.

He was lost inside his own thoughts so long, it surprised him to see Seward Park and a two-story-tall art installation made by his friend Ooni. It was the gutted, stripped-down frame of a room draped in white linen that flapped back and forth; inside he saw a fire encased in a tube of glass that cast warm light against the orange walls and floor.

He read the sign — "Between the Times is an examination of the emotional map of space that goes unnoticed in any official narrative; it seeks to ask questions about the too easy answers that conceal our experience of architecture."

Someone wrote in angry graffiti: "Abstract art is elitist masturbation." Laughing at the message, Muhammad sat next to the glass tube of fire, his head ached, his legs ached; his whole body felt as if was crumbling sand.

"Hey stranger," Ooni said as she walked in with paint, he guessed to cover the graffiti. He swigged the rum again and said nothing. "Sorry," she murmured and turned away. "The fragile self," he waved his hand at the installation, "When the social context for our lives breaks down, a person feels fragile, feels like their mind is a loose as this fabric." He pointed at the torn beige muslin billowing like flashes of forgetfulness around him. He drank again. "It represents the fragile conscious of a liberal," he gestured at the flames inside the glass. "If it was the conscious of a radical that fire would be free."

"Well this is awkward," she said.

"Can we make it more awkward," he asked and they both laughed. She sat down next to him. "Good to see you again," she extended her hand. He shook it. They were about to jump into words when a wind rustled the muslin, twisting it in the firelight so it looked like a shredded rainbow. It reminded him of the flood story in the Bible.

"Bourgeois abstract escape artist," he said.

"Drunken Philistine dogmatist," she retorted. They both fell out laughing harder than before. "Well there you have it," she chortled, paused and looked at the darkening sky.

"Everything is falling apart," she said, "Including us but not the movement, no, never that. So how is our merry band of self-righteous fascists?"

"We're not fascists," he grumbled, "We're not scapegoating an ethnic group, we're not targeting people; we are trying to destroy a system."

"And the people in that system," she asked, one eyebrow raised, "What happens to them?"

Shouting rang in the street, they looked up and through the billowing cloth they saw a few hundred people marching by, arms upraised, making the scissor-like motion as they chanted, "Cut, cut, cut, cut."

A marcher jogged to the art installation, peeked in as Muhammad raised his arms and made the cutting gesture. The Free Earther smiled and left. "So tonight there is more than one storm," Ooni said and took his bottle of rum and drank the last of it.

"If Wall Street lives, the planet dies and we with ..." he began, but she cut him off, waving her hand, digging into her back pocket and pulling out a flyer. It was one they handed out at the rally he was at earlier. It had the addresses of every bank and financial institution left in the city.

"You're not worried about the police," she asked.

"Most of them are in the movement to," he chuckled.

"Climbing the Mountain, right," she prodded.

"Climbing the Mountain," he agreed.

"People aren't stones. They hurt when you step on them," she said, "unless only politically appropriate pain is recognizable?"

"People hurt when they are abandoned," he grimaced, "and that's what happened to the people by the ruling class. If it wasn't for the movement we would have been abandoned to a dying planet. At least now we have a chance, at least now we have a wall."

She eyed him, saw him struggle with an inner tension. "What's going on with you?"

He lowered his head, shook it, "I don't know. I feel so fucking numb." He palmed his chest, "I know a hell of lot more about politics than I do about myself." Muhammad quietly looked at the room and its off kilter walls. It felt like he was in a dream. "My daughter called. I heard in her voice how much she loves me but I don't reach out to her. She always wanted me to be a real dad but I didn't know how."

Ooni held his hand and asked, "What do you want to say to her?"

"That I'm sorry," Muhammad felt every weight inside snap, every unnamable force gush out, "I'm sorry for treating her mother so bad, I'm sorry for letting our family fall apart." Ooni held him as he talked then mumbled and fell asleep. He reeked of rum. His face tanned and grizzled, he was worn out. She covered him with a jacket.

When he woke, Ooni was gone. "It's okay," he said, "it will be okay." He brushed himself off, looked at "Between the Times" and hugged the tube of fire saying, "I'm an abstraction too."

Hurrying through the city, he got to the Metropolitan Harbor Authority office. "You look like shit," his boss said.

"I feel like it too," he laughed and they hugged, playfully punched each other's shoulders. A grim morbid humor flowed between them. Muhammad buckled himself into one of the seats in the tugboat as it went to The Wall. His gut bobbed up and down as the boat heaved through choppy waves. He dialed his daughter's number, hung up, dialed again and hung up again. Ahead was the Verazzano Surge Wall, rising above him like series of towers that stretched beyond his eyes to the far reaches of land on either side. It connected to a long series of smaller sea walls that wrapped around Staten Island and Brooklyn. Muhammad wondered what the future seas would be like, would they topple these walls?


People gathered on rooftops to watch the storm come. Some shot firecrackers into the air, bright sprays of color. Some just shot their guns.

The sky darkened like dirty water was poured into the clouds. Wind ruffled trees and then bent them like bows snapping after an arrow's release. Children stuck their heads out of windows to feel the soaking rain before being yanked back.

News sites showed the last cargo ships of food supplies coming through The Wall. Millions of faces leaned into millions of screens to see the long surge barrier close, its individual walls come down like giant teeth and its swinging gates snap shut. The last of the large ships passed through, already rocking on breaking waves when the lights cut out and night fell like a curtain over the city.

"What the fuck happened," they shouted back and forth on the intercom. Muhammad watched as the tugboats lit the harbor with their lights. The bright beams slipped over The Wall, which was wide open as the power failure stalled the gates. Dark hills of sea water poured in and pounded the wetlands and sprayed the buildings of lower Manhattan. In the blackout, New York looked like a series of dark cathedrals.


"Cut, cut, cut, cut," the man repeated on the radio. Ooni turned it off and leaned out of her window. Next door, a couple put their radio on the windowsill and cranked up the volume, "Cut, cut, cut." A police car shot through the street below, lights spinning, then another, then four of them a in bright stream of wailing.


Rain hammered them. Steering the tugboat through sliding hills of sea water, Muhammad yanked the controls one way, then the other. They had a dozen boats against the gate and were driving forward in unison to shut it.

The Wall, slowly, achingly moved. Muhammad stared through the rain-splattered window at the giant swells racing by the still-open gate, knowing they hit the city like a hammer. Finally, after sliding up and down the roving valleys of sea, he felt it shut. The message came in that they could back away but Muhammad saw his boss, his long-time friend, on a ladder bolted on the outside of the Wall being bludgeoned by rain and wind.

He drove his boat close, slung rope over a hook, grabbed the railing and shouted at his boss to unbuckle from it but he was tangled. Muhammad climbed rung by rung next to him. For a brief second, he looked out at the storm as a jagged bolt of lightning flashed; it was like a photograph was taken of a vast mountain range of crashing sea.

"C'mon," he shouted as he fumbled the lock and rope. His boss was shouting too but the wind ripped the words apart. Another lightning bolt struck and he saw a dark wave rising around him and for an instant it rose so high, so fast he thought he was falling into a pit.

And then darkness hit. Muhammad spun as the cold weight of water filled him. Flashing against the blackness he saw his daughter, wearing his hard hat, holding a walkie-talkie and ordering him to breathe. I can't, I can't breathe honey — he thought.


The day after the storm, Ooni watched candles waver in windows; in the shadows people passed, faces lit by flashlights as they pointed at buildings. Soggy families, dripping and cold, stumbled by asking for help.

A few came in to Between the Lines to sit near the light of the encased fire. She watched a woman rub her hands, blow into them and rub them again. Another person came in, squatted, but said nothing. The silence was a shocked numbness. She looked at them, staring at a fire that gave light but no warmth, and went back to her office, grabbed a hammer, told them to get back and smashed the glass around the flames.

A searing heat singed her face; she jumped back as it rose and spread. "Goddamn it," she said, "This is why social realism sucks."

People scooted close, thanked her as they turned their faces side to side to warm their skin. As Ooni swept up the glass shards, more silhouettes stood at the outside then stepped in, gingerly for the heat, the light and the communion in the chaos. A grill was set up, the fire used to light it and food simmered.

While Ooni ripped down a curtain of muslin to wrap around a shivering couple, a patrol of Free Earth activists walked by, barking orders into their walkie-talkies and stopped at Between the Times. They had guns on their belts and torches in their hands. Stepping inside, they searched the faces of the people and looked at Ooni, who pointed at their torches. One of them handed it over.

She dipped it into the fire, curling it as it blazed bright and handed it back. They nodded and went back into the night.

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When cleaning his room, they may see a shirt tossed over a chair and smell him, faint, on the collar. They may embrace his pants, as if carrying him to bed like when he was a child. A box may be unfolded, his things taken from an intricate web of placement — his stack of DVDs or baseball cap on the chair, his schoolwork — each object an anchor holding him to this world. Just days ago, he was alive, their son. Now he is an aching memory that pulls away their deepest joys and hurls them into emptiness.

They place his absence inside the box. Duct tape stretched across the seams. It has to be. When we love those we’ve lost that love turns us inside out and pain rises above our voice to drown us, the loss must be contained. If not, we die too.

The son’s absence is seen briefly, in candlelight. In the clutch of family, it is carefully squeezed from the body. In the politician’s speech, his absence is lifted to history. In the pastor’s sermon, it is frozen, in the love of God shining on his face in the coffin.

And with each act of containment and distance, he becomes everyone’s son. People gather outside the church and many carry an emptiness in their arms they once called brother or father, sister or mother, uncle or aunt, friend or lover. Filing past the coffin, they purify their loss with his innocence. He is everyone’s son. He is everyone’s bullet hole. He is everyone’s stop-and-frisk, everyone’s arrest, everyone’s time in jail, everyone’s envy of the rich and shame of poverty, everyone’s dying inside the shadow painted on their skin, everyone’s fear of who they will never be.

They poured their emptiness into his name and threw it at cops, threw it at windows, punched it onto a man’s face in a store and hammered it onto the shelves. They had nothing but his name and blind fury and no exit.

And wherever his name crashed, a brief light showed a world of shadows, writhing, in a city of closed eyes.

Here is a chalk outline on the sidewalk that any boy or girl can be buried in. Here is yellow police tape used to make mummies out of children. Here is a pool of blood that can be your mirror. Here the name nigger belongs to you like a four-hundred-year-old chain. Here your skin is a night of screaming. Here your lips are red from fighting your reflection. Here, prayer is a broken ladder that you will climb anyway.

I want you to know there is no point telling you his name because you will forget it.

I want you to know that another child will be killed today, most likely by a peer, because black-on-black death is a veil in front of a veil. I want you to know the police load their guns with the stars of the American flag. And secretly, many of us are grateful. We’re scared of people without faces.

And they will keep dying inside the closed eyes of the city because for them there is no exit.


It comes out of the dark. Memories like steam leave the person confused, ashamed and scared. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse won’t know for years what happened to their bodies. The hot hands of the pedophile are folded into the depths of forgetting until some jarring moment, some odd connection opens a passageway to daylight. When the pedophile’s face becomes visible in the mind, the next shock is that it’s someone they know.

And what if that face is supposed to be the face of God? It is a learned fear and respect for figures of authority that creates silent victims of abuse. Their mute suffering deepens to the degree that the sexual predator has social status, which is why for decades, pedophile priests were invisible: above them was the blinding light of God. It has only been in the past two decades that the mystique of the Catholic Church has been eroded enough for everyone to see the shifty shuffling of pedophiles from one parish to another by church leaders in Rome, including former Pope Benedict Ratzinger.

The Catholic Church, with its 1.2 billion followers, is the largest Christian denomination in the world. It’s a top-down hierarchy: standing at the summit is the Pope, an elderly man who is God’s representative on earth; next are the dioceses, which are led by a bishop; below them are the parishes, which are overseen by priests, deacons or lay ministers. Ornate Catholic churches can be seen in every country, sometimes nestled between tall modern skyscrapers, sometimes in the tangled foliage of the country. For hundreds of years, millions of people have gone through those doors in search of salvation and now we learn, many have emerged scarred with guilt and shame.

The reported numbers on child sex abuse are inevitably too low. Many victims are too ashamed to speak. Many are silenced when they do. And some kill themselves because the pain is too great to endure. Only a few victims fight back. Only 3,000 lawsuits have been filed against the church. According to, U.S. bishops received allegations of abuse directed at about 6,115 priests from 1950 to 2011, and they calculated about 16,324 victims or about three per priest. Based on a report by the Dallas Morning News, at least two-thirds of U.S. bishops kept priests accused of pedophilia serving in the ministry and moved them to new assignments.

But why this culture of sexual predation? Maybe it is because the first victim of monotheistic religion is the body itself. Clerical celibacy, the idea that one must sacrifice bodily desires to be closer to God, comes from the separation of the body and the soul that is at the core of church doctrine. The temptations of the flesh are seen as dangerous diversions. The body is a vehicle for the transmission of life, a sacred essence that comes from the Lord, and life must be valued above all. Masturbation and contraception are wrong because they waste the “seed.” Abortion is wrong because it kills life. Sex outside of marriage and not for procreation is wrong. The only right way to live one’s sexuality is to have unprotected sex within marriage.

If you intend to serve God within the church, you must renounce even sex within marriage to be absolutely dedicated to the divine messages God whispers into the world. The body is a swamp of desire that one can escape by climbing the glowing steps of prayer. And these social ideals, set in the early centuries of Christianity, are a giant anchor embedded in the past that is being stretched to snapping as history moves forward.

So here’s the picture: the Catholic Church, a global institution of 1.2 billion people, a network of churches that span the world, has been led by a cabal of chaste men who preach against bodily desires to the millions of people who pour through the pews. And yet in the dark quiet rectories, some of these men have, like cheetahs in National Geographic shows, isolated young, weak or helpless believers to prey upon and feed their hunger for sex and power. The others who are not targeted leave the church, erotically mangled as they vacillate between their desires and the ideas they are taught come from God.

Child sexual abuse is the most extreme form of the violence the church does to the erotic body. It is one pole on a spectrum that includes unwanted pregnancy, unequal power relationships between men and women, guilt at masturbation, self-destructive rebellion against those very religious rules or the “Catholic girl gone bad” stereotype and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases because of the prohibition on contraception.

The only protection the church has is people’s habitual, learned subservience to power. Once that breaks, so will its hold on human history. So let’s imagine the new Pope Francis at the Vatican. He recently held his first homily saying, “Let us protect Christ in our lives, so we can protect others.” Thousands of Catholics sat in hot sunlight and fanned their faces. The Pope paused as he shuffled his pages, so imagine in that moment, a hundred people in audience standing up and unfolding a banner that reads, “I was raped by a priest and the church protected him.” Imagine reporters rushing the barricades, aiming cameras at the protesters as burly security men plow through the seats to wrestle them down.

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I was shot six times,” he said and rolled up his sleeve. When Frankie peeled back the gauze, I saw holes in his forearm as if he had been stung by a giant metal insect. “What the hell,” I muttered, “What happened?”

“Kid from Brownsville running down the street, shooting wildly at another kid,” he looked at me. “I was in the doorway and got hit. None of the bullets struck an artery or a bone. Someone was looking out for me.”

Thoughts spun like a tornado. Just a minute ago, I was jogging down the street to catch the presidential debate at Vodou Lounge when my name was yelled. In a parked jeep, a light came on and I saw Frankie, my scruffy neighbor. He told me of being on the stoop when a boy ran up, firing his gun at any moving thing, how bullets punched his body, how he prayed for life as blood gushed from his limbs.

Frankie rolled up his pant leg and showed me a crusted hole in his calf. I grasped his hands and said, “I am so thankful you are alive.” We knew people had been shot on our block but in order to go about living, we numbed our minds to the risks. And it wasn’t hard. The young men killing each other were locked in their own world — you just had to step around it. But every once in a while, a gunman shot so wildly, so carelessly that a shell pierced the invisible walls between us and them. Studying Frankie’s face, I remembered kicking a soccer ball with him and loosening the fire hydrant so kids could splash in the water. We stared at each other as I repeated, “I am so thankful you are alive.”


Last Dec. 14, Adam Llaza stormed an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. and shot 20 children and six adults. Screams echoed in the hallways and throughout the nation as news of the killings rippled through the media. We have another mass shooting, another gunman.

But on the day before the killings in Newtown, as well as every day for the foreseeable future, nearly 85 Americans die from gun-related incidents. Of those 85 people, 53 take their own lives and 16 are homicide victims, between the ages of 15 and 24. In 2010, the annual number of Americans killed by guns hit 31,328. The rising numbers are like a heart monitor gone awry — the quotidian carnage is signified by a dark, steady pulse, while mass shootings are the visible spikes. This patient is sick, but we aren’t listening to the true diagnosis.

These mass shooting escapades break through the fog of American denial because they are performed acts of violence, designed by the killer for an audience. Sometimes the gunman (and it’s always, so far, a man) makes videos or writes a manifesto, as in the Virginia Tech massacre or Columbine. At the very least, murdering random people in public turns the blood-soaked ground into a stage for the killer to be seen. And it trains the audience to read gun violence along two scales — carnage and innocence.

The bodies carried out on stretchers stop our breath. A killer who leaves numerous dead in his wake forces us to sense the purity of his rage. He forces us to question the technology used to enact it. The carnage of mass shooting is a glimpse into how vulnerable we are to the random hate of a stranger.

And if the faces on the stretchers are budding youth or the vulnerable old, if their deaths stained red a white wedding or emptied a prom night, we feel that not just life was lost — innocence itself was desecrated. Public mourning is not just empathy but also a ritual to reaffirm our ideology. The mass shootings in the Aurora cinema and then at the Sikh Temple in suburban Milwaukee rattled us, but it was the murder of children that made it possible to finally talk about gun control. Now we are unwilling to tolerate public gun violence after accepting it for so long in marginal groups — the poor, Latinos, African-Americans, new immigrants, urban youth.

A political economy of innocence exists in our nation’s media, in which the value of groups is produced, distributed and consumed. The race, class and gender of the victims are raw material added to the specific crime and made into an implicit scale of human worth. CNN, the New York Times and Fox News showed photos of the Newtown dead, creating empathic narratives. Millions of Americans mourned with the parents who lost their children, as we must, as befits a decent human being. But beneath tragedies like Newtown are the 85 people who die every day from a bullet. Many of the victims are urban youth, mostly black or Latino, whose deaths seep under the headlines like an invisible river of sorrow.


“Imagine your child screaming when a convicted felon breaks into your home,” the gravelly voice warns as a parent sprints through halls. “And you use a firearm to defend yourself and your family,” he growls. “Unbelievably, Barack Obama voted to make you the criminal.” It was a National Rifle Association (NRA) political ad, released in October 2008.

After the confetti from election night was swept up, news outlets reported that two things happened for male Republican voters — testosterone dropped and gun sales went up. A shudder rippled through conservative America, it was the fear of a crime, fear of loss of gun rights, fear of a race war. And this fear is more than 500 years old.

When Christopher Columbus waded to the shoreline of the New World, he was met by native people of whom later he wrote, “I could conquer them with 50 men and govern as I please.” Thousands of ships filled with settlers followed in his wake. They pushed further inland, raping, mass murdering, stealing, displacing, and each act of violence solidified their role as settlers who killed savages. In the haze of musket smoke, the silhouettes of men marched over the blood of natives.

After independence, our nation began a grinding conquest of the continent. At each step the gun was at hand. Whether it was the pistol in the belt of the slave owner or the settler’s rifle aimed at a native family leaving a home in flames, the gun was the symbol of a freedom won by violence. In the painting Westward Angel we see Manifest Destiny portrayed as an angel. It’s easy to imagine her hem passing over the corpses of indigenous people.

It is the violence between the settler and the savage that has formed the political ideology of our nation. The white, Christian male and his family founded a nation in the wilderness, away from the corruption of the Old World. The price of freedom was eternal vigilance at the walls. Outside the gates the ape- like slaves, wild savages and foreigners were amassing. The gun had to be near, loaded and ready.

It is this politico-mythic narrative that guides conservatives. Each time white supremacy has been challenged, a call to arms has been issued. After the Civil War, a brief season of civil liberties for black people followed, which was then shot down by white militias like the Ku Klux Klan. In the early 1900s nearly two million black people left the South in a Great Migration and were met by white mobs shooting, lynching and bombing them in the urban North. In the civil rights era, white gunmen killed activists. After World War II, cities became racially diverse just as the business class began to shut down factories in the name of globalization. Urban neighborhoods became poor and desperate; by the 1970s, the Republican Party used code words of crime and welfare to address white racial anxiety. Suburbs grew like pale rings of fear from the dark downtown. It is in this context that the Second Amendment, “the right to bear arms,” became a justification to defend oneself against the specter of crime, a specter that itself was already a fictionalized racial terror.

Today the conservative sector of the shrinking white majority is terrified, stranded as they are in the colonial mythology of settler versus savage. They saw a rising tide of color elect the first black president and see Obama as part of a New World Order. It is believed to be a U.N.-led global cabal intent on using gun registries, background checks and bans on assault weapons to strip these Sovereign Citizens of the ability to fight and then, in turn, to enslave them.

During a recent senate hearing, Democrat Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said to NRA spokesman Wayne Lapierre, “I run into some of your NRA members and they say…we need the firepower and the ability to protect ourselves from our government.” Lapierre leaned back, then leaned in, “If you look at why our Founding Fathers put it there, they had lived under the tyranny of King George and they wanted to make sure these free people, in this new country would never have to be subjugated again.”


“I come from Bed-Stuy where niggaz either do or they gone die, gotta keep the Ratchett close by,” Lil’ Kim rapped from the car speakers. I laughed at the lyrics as my friend reached over and turned it up. After being dropped off in Bed-Stuy, I got out and looked at my street with Lil’ Kim’s voice in my head. It struck me that she, like many rappers, sells urban violence to America which then learns to see people of color in pain as normal.

An iconography of crime surrounds the blackened body, if one could peel the Hip Hop imagery of today — the Gangster, Video Vixen and Hype Man — you can see earlier versions of them in post-Civil War imagery of the Brute, the Jezebel and the Coon. It’s the visual vocabulary of the political economy of guilt, in which imagery of black criminality is produced, distributed and consumed.

The caricature most related to crime is of course the Black Brute, a hulking rapist, an enraged animal on the loose. After the Civil War, in the era of Reconstruction, new images of blacks were created by Southern whites to express their fear. And the Black Brute was the epitome of the savage. It is what George Zimmerman, a watchman for a gated community in central Florida, saw instead of Trayvon Martin, a black teen visiting his family and it is what Zimmerman aimed his gun at when he shot the young man dead.

Zimmerman had a settler mindset and a firearm, and he was shielded by a legal tradition called the Castle Doctrine, which posits that you can defend your home with deadly force. “Stand your ground” laws extend “home” to wherever one is legally allowed to stand. It was part of a network of legislation, including immunity for gun manufactures that was pushed by the NRA into law. Not surprisingly, the gun industry, which made $11 billion dollars in profit in 2011, donated at least $15 million dollars to the NRA since 2005. The bare facts are that the industry that profits from gun sales, in part funds a four million member-strong NRA which spends millions in elections on politicians who will pass laws beneficial to the gun industry. And we already have in this nation nearly 300 million guns for 310 million citizens.

In 2011 alone, gun makers churned out six million new firearms. These guns hit the market and are spread out on gun show tables, where thousands fall through the shredded net of gun control laws into the black market which transports them into black neighborhoods. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly said on The Daily Show, “It’s a concealable handgun that is killing people. Assault weapons, I think should be banned. But they are responsible for less than 2 percent of shootings in this city. Ninety percent of the guns that we confiscate here come from other states. We say the iron pipeline up I-95, Southern states for the most part.”

And I see those guns. One night I heard some neighbors fighting and then gunshots, I looked through the window and saw a man entering his building with a long pistol. Four years ago, I was at the block party when a kid with a gun fired into the air, scattering everyone behind trees and running into buildings.

Recently I saw a documentary, Bullets in the Hood: A Bed-Stuy Story, in which then 19-year-old director Terrence Fisher interviewed his friends about guns. One hauled a shotgun from under his mattress and boasted of paralyzing a “dumb-ass” man. Another held a small gun in his palm and warned, “See this .22, can’t get no better than that.” He wiped it with an American flag bandana.

Fisher asked how they felt with the weapon; one friend said, “Any man with a gun in his hand feels bigger than the world. A gun will make a man do anything.” Later Fisher remembered, “My homeboy Marley G had an incident in a club. Dude had bumped Marley G. who bumped another dude, who got offended and pulled out his gun and shot him in his chest twice.” In the stairwell, Fisher’s friend said guns weren’t good but you couldn’t get caught without one in a fight. “In the hood you gotta have one to survive,” he said and shrugged.

Three months into filming, Fisher was walking to the roof with his friend Timothy Stansbury when Stansbury opened the door and was shot dead by a scared cop. The officer was never charged with a crime and the people swallowed their grief. At the film’s end, Fisher looked into the camera and said, “I’m 19 and I know eight people who’ve been killed by guns.”

Fisher lives in the Louis Armstrong projects that ring my block. From my roof, I can see the roof where Stansbury was shot. His death, like the police killings of Sean Bell or Ramarley Graham, gave a halo of innocence to young men of color. Thousands marched in their names to salvage a guiltlessness that has long been denied. And we, the left, marched with them, because in our Rousseauian worldview the state — in this case, personified by a cop — was the enemy of the people. But the reality is that more black and Latino, poor and immigrant male youth are killed by each other than by cops.


Ever since Frederick Douglass wrote of fighting the slave breaker Covey there has existed in black male culture a tradition of seeing violence as a means of freedom. In the Ante-Bellum era, slaves rebelled 250 separate times, in incidents that ranged from skirmishes to all-out guerilla warfare. From Nat Turner to the Deacons for Defense, from Malcolm X to the Black Panthers, gun violence has been part of the black political tradition. But the goal of this violence was always the defense of the larger community against white supremacist attacks.

In the late 1970s the Black left collapsed in a cross-fire of rivalry, FBI sabotage and a changing economy. The black He-Man changed from Huey Newtown to Superfly, factories shut down, cities went bankrupt, cocaine fell on the street like a winter snow, and prisons became warehouses for an unemployed generation. The police used new tactics to round up young men en masse. They were processed like raw material through a factory of courts and jails and emerged on the other side, bleak-eyed and desperate. Street culture, always one sector among others now dominated the value system of poor young men of color.

The code of the street — the touchy need for respect, ignitable pride, the struggle for status in a world of scarcity, homophobic and sexist machismo and violence as an answer to questions — became a common language. And with each fistfight, stabbing and shooting, urban youth become more and more segregated. Inner city schools are closed, metal detectors installed in the ones still open, teachers are scared away and their future evaporates. The only thing they have left that anyone wants is the soundtrack of their self-destruction. So a minor music called Hip Hop, which began in the 1970s as block party music in the South Bronx was by the mid-1980s slowly being transformed by corporate America into the minstrel show of Gangsta Rap. The Brute and the Jezebel are reinvented and sold to a new audience. Three decades later, black, Latino and increasingly immigrant youth are measuring their racial identity by 150-year-old, post-Civil War Southern caricatures.

Oppression when internalized by its victims for too long and too deeply eventually becomes their culture. So it struck me, on the night that Frankie told me about the shooting, that as I walked up Nostrand, I heard a group of young men around an open car rapping along with 50 Cent, “We rolling, whip stolen, AK loaded, I’m down to ride tonight. We smokin’, straight locin’, locked and loaded, somebody gon’ die tonight.”

I thought to myself, with all the guns and rage and nihilism here, you just might. And I thought, we on the left don’t address crime for what it is, a violent form of street-level capitalism. On the way to the bar, I kept seeing Frankie’s bullet wounds in my mind like a giant photograph. My friend almost died. He almost died. I kept repeating it.

And who was seeing the invisible victims of violence? Who was peering beneath the tragic headlines of mass shootings to see the cities being hollowed out by the multiplying voids of our dead teenagers? Who was willing to speak about their deaths? Finally, I entered the Vodou Lounge and everyone was staring at the TV as President Obama and Mitt Romney debated. In the cross-fire of their words was a white college student named Jeremy. The candidates tripped over each other to promise him a job. Obama said, “And there are a bunch of things we can do to make sure your future is bright.”


The bar was nearly empty; I sat with a beer watching the State of the Union address. Obama tensed his mouth. “In the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun,” he said. “More than a thousand.”

The presidential election had come and gone, washing over us like a giant wave of noise. And I was relieved Obama won. I didn’t share the view that a Romney victory would galvanize people into protesting. It was to me an admission of a lack of vision on the left, by those who see having a common enemy as the only thing that can move the masses. What about a common vision?

I looked out the window and imagined a neighborhood with midnight basketball to absorb the energy of youth whose homes were falling apart. Or taxing Wall Street and creating whole new job sectors? So much of the violence in these streets is read as simple personal violence and not as the effect of the violence of capitalism. How can an economic system dominate the earth, make exchanging labor for money as the principal way to meet basic needs and then not be able to provide full global employment? It is the contradiction grinding in our world. We are surrounded by ads for a life we can’t afford and are told that no other world is possible. When can we get a federal buyback program that lets people sell their guns, while shutting down the gun factories and melting the steel into solar panels?

Obama squinted his eyes and talked of a young woman named Hadiya Peddleton. “Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.

He called for sensible reforms like a universal background check, a ban on assault weapons and laws to reduce the number of bullets in ammo cartridges. Yes, I nodded, all very sensible. He demanded the House and Senate allow for a vote as Mr. and Mrs. Peddleton stood and applauded. “They deserve a vote,” Obama lifted his voice in a rhythmic call. “They deserve a vote.”

Yes, I thought, we do deserve a vote but we need a whole lot more.


Sat Jan 12, 2013 at 11:37 PM PST

The Day After Hurricane Sandy

by Nicholas Powers

It was beautiful, the hurricane. On the website, it was a white spiral as if someone unplugged a drain in the sky and the clouds swirled down. It spun over the Caribbean, leaving a trail of dark battered islands in its wake. I watched the tally of the dead rise; in Jamaica, one dead; in Haiti, 54 dead and Cuba, 11 dead.

And yet, I didn’t take it seriously. It’ll peter out. The window-shaking wind seemed like fun. I laughed with Mom over the phone as the sky darkened and rain scraped the street like a Brillo pad. She was going to the evacuation center but had to waterproof things in her apartment first. And then her phone cut off.

New York stumbled after Hurricane Sandy like someone roughhousing with a friend and caught a surprising elbow to the eye. We flicked useless light switches, turned on dead computers and stared at trees piled in the street. Mom was on Staten Island in a basement apartment near the shore and I imagined her being carried away in the flood. Where was she? Does she have food, water? Did she get to the center in time?

And then she sent a text, “People who live behind me have died, including two children who were swept away from their mother’s arms. I watched as police boats brought out bodies from my street.”

The next day, I drove a U-Haul van down Father Capodanno Boulevard in Staten Island, eyeing the ripped telephone poles, moldy furniture piled on the street, metal gates twisted like coat hangers. And then I saw her. I parked the van, jumped out and instantly she wept as I wrapped my arms around her.

Inside the carpet squished underfoot, I was stunned at the sight of Mom’s whole life in a dark wet pile. Nothing was salvageable. “Your high school graduation photo,” she said and held up a soggy picture of me smiling in a blue robe.

“Mom,” I sighed, “Let’s say good-bye to this. Let it go.”

“Wait,” she repeated as she picked up photos that crumbled into smaller and smaller pieces. “Wait.”


She takes anti-anxiety pills. Sometimes, she wakes up in the night to watch Netflix until sleep overtakes her again. She blames herself for renting in Staten Island. She feels calm when folding clothes and putting them into my closet. “I can’t sleep anymore,” she huffs, “It’s like everything keeps shaking inside me.”

Watching Mom go through stages of loss, shock, self-blame, grief and the re-assembling of life, I see in her the people I interviewed in 2005, driven out of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. I see again the ragged homeless of Haiti I talked to, living in tents after the 2010 earthquake. Of course, it’s not the same magnitude. She’s physically fine. No broken bones, no amputations. She can stay with me. She has insurance to replace the car. But they share the same panicked face, the same worry, fear and helpless clutching at whatever or whoever is stable enough to hold.

Forty-thousand New Yorkers lost their homes. But they are in a First-World city where resources are closer at hand. Just do the simplest search on Wikipedia, enter “Environment Migrant” and you will read of 42 million people in Asia and the Pacific made homeless by storms that lashed the land, cold fronts that killed crops, rising seas that lapped tides against front doors. By 2050 the number of climate refugees could climb to 150 million people. Immense rivers of people flowing over national borders, lugging rice bags, balancing luggage on their heads, gaunt and bleak-eyed. They’ll follow their hunger, search for safety and be corralled by the military into camps where they will live in legal limbo. Each one, I can imagine waking at night, panicked and trying to find someone or something that is stable enough to hold.

And where will they go? And just as important to ask is, what of their stories? The narrative geography of our imagined community, who we “see” as our neighbor is created by a global media filtering them through an ideological screen. In the left mythos, they are the deserving poor, whose suffering reflects our own subjective position of Good Samaritans. In the right mythos they are undeserving hordes who threaten civilization. And we saw this play out in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

New Yorkers solemnly nodded when told about Gotham’s climate refugees. They were victims whose homelessness was not their fault. But beneath the sympathy were long lines of angry people at gas stations, angry apartment dwellers who ate cold food in the dark, families piled on top of each other in small rooms. The city’s nerves were frayed. When Mayor Bloomberg visited Far Rockaway, people cursed him and demanded help. He nervously repeated the litany of the legitimacy of the state. “Everyone is working as hard as they can,” Bloomberg said, “People are not always going to get as many things as they want as fast as they want them.”

They weren’t asking for what they wanted, they were asking for what they needed — water, food, medicine. Bloomberg’s condescending rhetoric repeated the sliding scale of dehumanization that is the tactic of the ruling class. First, frame the people as children who want too much, too fast. Second, if they push too hard, if they take instead of waiting, criminalize them like Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who said in 2005 as the people of New Orleans died of hunger, “I have one message for these hoodlums: These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.”

What if after Hurricane Sandy the gas lines got longer, store shelves were empty and power never came back? What if we were driven by hunger to break laws to survive? How long would it take for us to rush the stores? Who would we become?

The awful truth is the refugee and the criminal are defined by their need; they share a speculative identity, divided primarily by which side of the law they’re on. As the seas rise and deserts grow like a burn scar across nations, the means of survival will clash with the relations of ownership. The laws that bind the 7 billion people on the planet into a capitalist pyramid scheme will force the poorest across the line from citizens to refugees to criminals. And they will walk straight into the cross-hairs of the military, into the prisons, into the abyss.

Days after the hurricane, I was helping Mom up the stairs when my friend called. He was afraid of putting his car in the garage. “If I leave it there,” he said, “Some asshole is going to siphon the gas out of my tank. It’s
already been happening.”


On the night President Obama was elected, Fox host Bill O’Reilly said, “It’s not a traditional America anymore. People want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama. …The voters, many of them, feel like the economic system is stacked against them. And they want stuff.”

I thought of O’ Reilly’s whiny tone as I saw the out-of-work guys on my street, slapping hands and yelling, “Obama!” They waved to me; I waved back and yelled, “Obama!” None of us knew exactly what the other meant just that we felt a shared joy. But I also knew that in a few days they would be asking for money from whoever left the bodega. And they asked because, yes, they wanted things.

I felt a sad rage each time I shook my head at their outstretched palms. It is tragic to see them want control over their lives without first taking control of their minds. I mean they just dreamed in commercials. They talked of fancy cars they’d never drive, homes they’d never live in, jewelry they’d never wear.

They were taught to want the Good Life without being given a chance to create their own vision of it. Instead, the capitalism that O’Reilly celebrates flashes in their minds even though it has less and less need of them. It closes factories in high-wage nations and re-opens them in low-wage ones. It forces swollen-eyed women to sew clothes for dimes each hour. It designs robots that work without sleep. Capitalism needs fewer workers with more skills to produce larger amounts of commodities. The store shelves are lined with things the out-of-work guys on my street can’t afford.

Our capitalism. It churns like a hurricane across national boundaries. It freezes nature under the sign of commodity. It forces hungry peasants into the city, where it sifts them for the lowest wage for the longest hours. It lifts up a bourgeoisie, who in turn hire the media to unleash a cascade of ideology that saturates the people. But if workers organize and demand higher wages, capitalism spirals up and away to another place with hungrier people. Left in its wake are men and women who sell their bodies, beg on street corners, who dream of what they can’t have, who want things.

Climbing up the stairs, I heard my neighbor replaying President Obama’s election-night speech. “To the young boy on the south side of Chicago who sees a life beyond the nearest street corner,” Obama said as I reached my door, “who wants to become a doctor or a scientist, an engineer or an entrepreneur, a diplomat or even a president.”


“The politicians are fucking up,” a tall black woman shouted on the gas line, “If they were on their shit we wouldn’t be here.” Around her, people gruffly agreed. As I drove the U-Haul van, I eyed their red containers, sloshing with gasoline. Against my will, I imagined black streams of carbon rising from my van’s muffler, rising from the cars on the road, rising from the buildings on the street into the sky.

Beyond the horizon, I imagined each city as a chimney of carbon spewing gas that thickened the sky like Jell-O. Under the greenhouse blanket, earth’s white ice caps will vanish; land will disintegrate into desert and hurricanes slam cities. And the tall woman at the gas station will be back on this line fighting over food, gas and water as police guard the neighborhoods of the wealthy. Nature is now the battlefield for class struggle.

Blinking the imagery away, I knew it was the apocalyptic vision of the future that reverberates across the left. And it was troubling. It hung over me like a pastor. So when I parked the van and saw my apartment light was left on, it was a “green” sin. Meat in my refrigerator? A sin. My plane ticket? Another sin. And the convenience is that I don’t have to die to experience Hell. Just wait, earth will become one.

And a whole industry has arisen that — like medieval penances — lets us work off guilt by buying eco-friendly commodities. “Green” toilet paper, “green” dish soap, “green” grocery bags underneath my kitchen sink. The environmental language has even seeped into our romantic lives. Weeks ago, I caught myself saying to my lover that our relationship wasn’t “sustainable.”

But the other is the apocalyptic vision that drives us with fear. For a few of us that’s enough. Driving past wrecked homes in Staten Island as Mom sighed heavily, I was afraid of climate change. When I see her life, ruined, its debris sprawled across my apartment, I know it’s real. But it’s not enough. The change is too slow and the First World will have time to recreate itself into a global gated community, until eventually, the waves breach those walls, too. By that time, it will be too late to stop the earth from dying.

And here is the social contradiction, billions of people are unemployed. They want to be consumers but the very act of consumption drives a capitalist economy that kills the planet. And they won’t stop. Consuming is not just about need, it’s about desire. We buy new selves when we get new shoes, new clothes, new cars and new homes.

I think back to when I felt new. It was always while creating art or protesting. The activists I know also want new selves but instead of buying them, they recreate their lives in the act of recreating the world. They march, sing, drum, block traffic, wrestle each other out of a cop’s vice-like grip, get arrested and emerge from jail with a halo of heroism.

And a speculative identity exists between the consumer and the activist, both recreate themselves but where the former buys experience, the latter creates it. And that will to create seemed to be a seed-vision that was more humane, more needed than apocalypse.

Looking out the window, I imagined what it would look like if we could tax the wealthy and use their money to hire everyone on my block to green our homes. Would trees be planted on sidewalks? Would dust rise as construction crews laid down porous streets? Would the out-of-work-guys come back with hard hats after building a sea wall in Staten Island?

Is it possible to connect our vision of tomorrow with people’s hope rather than fear? My Mom yelled from the bedroom, “Hey did you hear about what they’re doing in Red Hook?”

“No,” I said.

“That Occupy group is giving supplies to people,” she said, “Reminds me of what we did in the ’60s.”


Cloud Atlas
Directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski
Warner Brothers, 2012

The audience claps in thunderous waves as she walks on stage and bows, her pink dreads like a flower on her head. A few years ago, Lana Wachowski was Larry Wachowski, a man who co-wrote and co-directed the Matrix movies. Millions of people watched the films, seeing in them a dream of revolution. None of them knew that inside the male body of the Matrix director and writer, lived a woman considering suicide.

“I began to believe the voices in my head that I was a freak, that I am broken...that I will never be lovable.” Wachowski told them of her teenage identity crisis,
“... I know the train platform will be empty at night because it always is...I try not to think of anything but jumping as the train comes...Suddenly I notice someone walking down the ramp. It is a skinny older, old man wearing large, 1970s square-style glasses that remind [me] of the ones my grandma wears. He stares at me the way animals stare at each other. I don’t know why he wouldn’t look away. All I know is that because he didn’t, I am still here.”

Being loved for one’s true self — it is the pivot in her speech for the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award. When she ends, they clap loudly because the HRC audience — gays, lesbians, transgender and bi-sexual people — like her, struggled for visibility. A great wave of gratitude could be heard in their voices. They knew that anyone who cheered for Neo in the Matrix or Somni 451 in Cloud Atlas would now realize they also indirectly cheered the transformation of Larry Wachowski into Lana.

The need to be free — it drives the plots of Wachowski movies — can now in part be seen to come from the desire to transform one’s body to fit a deep self-image. It crosses the last red line of conservatism, the belief that sex and gender identity are naturally locked. And whoever crosses that line is in danger. In 1999, a year after a transgender woman was stabbed 20 times, advocates began the Transgender Day of Remembrance to honor those killed in hate crimes. The roll call for those murdered in the United States is up to 327 and another 300 reported in other countries. Add to that the harassment, bullying and isolation flowing down on them like a cascade of psychological acid.

In this light, Cloud Atlas’ motif of the transmigration of souls through time can be read as an allegory for Lana Wachowski’s migration from a male to female body. In the film, adapted from the book of the same name, six separate stories are fused into one overarching plot. It leaps from a lawyer discovering the horror of slavery on a 19th century sea voyage, a gay male couple separated by suicide in the 1930s, a black female journalist discovering the corruption at a nuclear power plant in the 1970s, an elderly publisher escaping a prison-like retirement home, a clone slave who joins a revolutionary group in the 22nd century and finally to the far future where a tech advanced visitor to a left-behind tribe is guided to a mountaintop satellite where she zaps an SOS message to humans living on other planets.

At the Cloud Atlas press conference, Lana Wachowski said, “We all felt the book affects your brain. You read it and your brain no longer splits it up into six stories. Your brain begins making connections itself.” The directors line up the climaxes of the many stories like mountaintops in a row so that the viewer can see the same struggle for freedom over the great expanse of time. And in each era, authority figures — whether slave traders or futuristic city cops — say “There is a natural order to the world.”

And in each climax there is a hero, male or female, who knows this to be a lie. The effect on the audience in seeing such vastly different societies from the 19th century’s racial slavery to the genetic clone slavery of the 22nd century is the realization that no natural order exists. Every society is a web of power and ideology woven together that ensnares the bodies of those living in them. What is natural is the desire to embody the repressed truth and live it. The lawyer saves and in turn is saved by an escaped African slave on the ship; the gay couple frolic in bed as the hotel staff bang on the door; a journalist uncovers corporate corruption; the clone slave woman Somni 451 falls in love with the revolutionary who rescued her, even though it is forbidden by law.

And in each new story, each new scene, we see the familiar faces of the actors under new make-up, playing different lives but interconnected by the unforeseen consequences of their actions. We see the New Age fable of the transmigration of souls but learn to accept Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, James Darcy, Susan Sarandon, Keith David and Hugh Grant in different bodies. They change skin color, change sex, change personality, change morally but we see the essential quality that unites their different bodies.

And if we could see through the movie, past the author’s story lines, past the special effects and into the mind of the directors we’d see Andy Wachowski, a man who loved his brother Larry as he became a woman. If we looked further, we’d see Lana Wachowski as a woman emerging like a butterfly from the cocoon of an old body.


Sat Jan 12, 2013 at 11:26 PM PST

Jim Crow America

by Nicholas Powers

Imagine living in Jim Crow America. You are born to a single mother who is one of the ten million black people in poverty. On the television, in casual talk or music you learn by age five that black equals negative and white, positive. Subconsciously you see your skin as a weight, a burden. You go to an urban school with a daily gauntlet of metal detectors, bag searches and pat downs. You hear stories of family relatives jailed for drugs, who you never met just being released. As you grow up, you talk on the street corner but police stop and frisk you all the time. The feeling of their hands on your body linger long after they’ve left. You never feel safe. Your idols are people who look like you in videos rapping on how to kill, steal, and buy. You don’t talk like the wealthy. You know where to buy drugs.

You graduate but there are no jobs. You hang out, smoke and drink. Everything is falling apart. You try to make a drug deal, quick cash you think, nothing serious but you’re sweating. And you get busted, cop a plea and now have a record. You get busted again and again until you are living inside a cell. The walls squeeze your soul and you want to scream but instead you sleep a lot and fight, years later you get out. No one will hire you. No one can let you stay at their apartment, it’s against the rules. You beg on the train sometimes, but run in shame when you bump into a relative.

One day you’re walking with your child, who is having trouble at school. Teachers say they’re throwing tantrums in class and is going be labeled retarded. Later, you are going to a friend’s building and see your child not in school but on the corner, it’s the same corner you stood on years ago, and a strange roaring sound fills your head. You begin yelling — you want your child to run from the corner, run from this life, run from everything you’ve become.


Jim Crow — the name calls up antiquated imagery of “whites only” signs, “colored” waiting rooms and, at worst, a grinning white mob gloating over the charred body of a Black man. These images disgust and horrify us, but it also comforts us to view them as evidence of a past that has receded in the rearview mirror of history. Ahead of us, the rising sun logo of the Obama campaign welcomes us to a post-racial America.

“We’re sort of in that la-la land of believing we’re in this post-racial place. It’s not just a modern phenomenon,” anti-racism scholar Tim Wise said in a 2009 interview with the Open Society Institute. “White folks, going back 40 to 50 years, did not, even in the early ’60s, think that racism was really a big deal worth focusing very much attention on. A small minority did realize that, but the vast majority said at that time that people of color had equal opportunity with white folks.”

“Rearview racism” describes the view that bigotry is visible only as a relic of the past and not as a real, lived and present reality. This view assumes that we live in an equal nation in which radical change is not needed. It amplifies the internalized racism of the oppressed, as seen, for example, in a 2007 Pew Research Center survey in which middle-class Blacks said there was a “widening” gulf of values between themselves and poor Blacks.

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness shatters the “rearview mirror” by forcing readers to see how, with new words and methods, our nation reproduces racial caste. The book focuses on the criminal justice system — a central conduit that transforms citizens into domestic aliens. In the name of the war on drugs, she writes, police patrol, stop, frisk and arrest poor people in ghettos. This practice has left 80 percent of Black men in most major cities with criminal records. Once released from incarceration, she explains, they enter a “hidden underworld of legalized discrimination” where ex-felons can’t vote, can’t get jobs, can’t find housing and can’t escape the stigma of having a record.

People of color of every class experience some degree of discrimination, but the Black poor are the true target of the new Jim Crow. The Black poor, once a part of a cross-class alliance with the Black middle and upper classes, were abandoned after the legal victories of the civil rights movement. Left behind in the coffin of the inner cities, poor Black families have been living the continuous nightmare of Jim Crow since the end of the Reconstruction era.

The Old Jim Crow

When the smoke of civil war cleared in 1865, African-Americans staggered onto the roads and searched for those who had been sold into slavery. Names were carried by memory for miles across the war-blasted land in hopes of finding lost kin. Sometimes they were dead. But even when newly emancipated people found their parents or children alive, their joyful embraces were mixed with pain as their hands felt scars on their loved ones’ backs.

In her book Sugar of the Crop: My Journey to Find the Children of Slaves, author Sana Butler interviewed the last, dying offspring of slaves. She asked them what happened in the years after the Civil War. An elderly woman named Jenny told her, “Our parents no longer lived for themselves. Their mindset was — I no longer have a life. I am living for the future.” Jenny’s parents didn’t tell her the details of slavery because “they didn’t want me to be angry. They wanted me to come up with my own reality.”

Slowly, in the wake of war, life restarted. Five million Black people had left slavery and become citizens. They were dirt poor. They were trapped in the South. In order to provide for them, the Radical Republicans in Congress created the Federal Freedmen’s Bureau, which oversaw the labor contracts of former slaves, opened schools and distributed food and medicine. In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant vowed to protect Black people’s right to vote; two years later, Black politicians were elected to state offices across the South.

And then the terror began. White militias shot Black voters, stuffed ballot boxes and paraded in the streets. They called themselves the Ku Klux Klan, the White League and the Red Shirts — groups whose names burned fear into the mind. In the wake of the elections of 1876, conservative President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew federal soldiers from Southern capitals and abandoned Blacks to the rage of their former owners.

New laws came down like an iron curtain between Black people and freedom. Poll taxes and literacy tests were followed by the physical separation of public space. Life shrank inside paranoia. If whites were on the sidewalk, you jumped off. When whites talked, you lowered your head and voice until your whole being fit into the shuffling, smiling caricature of Jim Crow: a buffoonish “coon” image that let whites imagine Blacks as nonthreatening servants. If Blacks pushed for rights, whites projected more threatening imagery onto them, such as the rapist Black male “brute” or lascivious “Jezebel,” and then hung, raped or burned Black people alive.

Segregation deepened into a chasm. In 1890, Louisiana politicians passed the Separate Car Act dividing trains into white and “colored.” When it was challenged, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” was legal. Racists were free to force Black children into separate schools and to grow up in separate neighborhoods and work in separate jobs. Black citizens could be arrested, tried and sentenced in all-white courts. It was a cultural cycle that, like a boa constrictor, choked those trapped inside — and it continues today.

Childhood Lessons

“Show me the smart child,” the tester said to a Black girl. They were in a classroom looking at a cartoon series of identical girls whose skin went from white to brown. The Black girl pointed to the image of the white girl. When asked why, she said, “Because she’s white.” The tester asked, “Show me the dumb child.” Hesitating, the Black girl pointed to an image of the Black girl.

On April 2, CNN aired an Anderson Cooper 360 series that investigated the effect of racism on children. It recreated the “Doll Tests,” made famous by Kenneth Clark in 1940, in which he gave two identical dolls, one brown, the other white, to Black children, then asked which was prettiest. They overwhelmingly chose the white doll.

Racism pours into the minds of children and warps their self-image. Cooper described it as a “deluge” of messages from the surrounding adult culture. In the test, when asked which skin color looked worst, 70 percent of older Black children and 61 percent of the youngest picked the darkest shade.


Out of 40 million African-Americans, 10 million live in suffocating poverty — and they are being joined by the new poor. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2008 the poverty rate was around 13 percent — nearly 40 million people. Three years after the 2008 Wall Street crash, in 2011, the rate had swelled by nearly three million. These Americans once lived in the middle class but lost their jobs, lost their homes and wept in shock as their furniture was thrown on their front lawns.

Poverty recreates poverty. Looking at Jim Crow America and at the Black poor, we can see the effect of generational scarcity. Families are broken by the stress of hopelessness— they work too hard for too long, earn too little and become estranged or get caught in a downward spiral of drugs and jail. The Children’s Defense Fund, in a 2011 report entitled Portrait of Inequality: Black Children in America, found that 40 percent of Black children live in poverty, and that half of Black children live only with their mother. Black children are seven times more likely to have at least one parent (usually the father) in prison.

Failing Schools

The stress of poverty follows children into the schools. Portrait of Inequality notes that “at nine months Black babies score lower on measures of cognitive development than white babies.” At 24 months, the gap triples. By age four, Black children are on a slippery slope of worsening test scores.

The chaotic life of poverty and its toll on relationships often means that parents fight and split up. Family members come back from prison traumatized and unable to find jobs. Sickness kills relatives who don’t have healthcare, riddling the family with holes of despair. The book Black Children: Social, Educational and Parental Environments, edited by Harriet Pipes McAdoo, explores children’s coping mechanisms: when a father loses a job or a mother is sick, children alternate between self-isolation and “acting out” to demand love. In school this behavior can lead to punishment or interfere with learning. Portrait of Inequality found that a black child is “one and a half times more likely than a white child to be placed in a class for students with emotional disturbances” and twice as likely to be labeled mentally retarded.

Black youth are more likely to be suspended and expelled, forcing them to slip further backward. Nearly forty percent of Black children are trapped in “drop out factories.” Our education system works like a filter that lets few Black students into college —Black males ages 18 and up comprise only 5 percent of the U.S. college educated population, but nearly 40 percent of the prison population. And for the few who graduate from college, ready to perform the entry-level skilled work that used to be the ladder to the middle class, there is little work: such jobs account for 95 percent of the jobs destroyed by the 2008 Wall Street crash.


The prisons are filled with Black high school dropouts. In the academic journal Daedalus, sociologists Bruce Western and Betty Pettit noted that in 1980, roughly 10 percent of Black high school dropouts were in jail. Twenty-eight years later, 37 percent were imprisoned. If the trends hold, 68 percent of Black dropouts born from 1975 to 1979 will end up in jail.

And as Michelle Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow, whites and Blacks do drugs at roughly the same amount, but Blacks are arrested at much higher rates. She writes, “The U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority.” Of the 2.1 million men in prison, 42 percent are Black: nearly 900,000 men. Even when released, these men are barred from full participation in society.

One Black pastor quoted by Alexander said: “Felony is the new N-word. They don’t have to call you a nigger anymore. They just say you’re a felon. In every ghetto you see alarming numbers of young men with felony convictions. Once you have that felony stamp, your hope for employment, for any kind of integration into society, it begins to fade out. Today’s lynching is a felony charge.”


Felons can’t vote. And when voter suppression laws pass, neither can the poor. In a repeat of the poll tax, literacy tests and voter intimidation of the old Jim Crow era, today the right to vote is being re-segregated. In Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Florida and Wisconsin, Republican governors and lawmakers are enacting strict new voting laws. These range from purging voter rolls of “illegals” to demanding that voters show photo IDs, which poor people, who move often and don’t have money to get new IDs, often don’t have.

Ben Jealous, the president of the NAACP, recently said on Democracy Now!, “More states have passed more laws pushing more citizens in our country out of the ballot box in the past 12 months than in — you know, than since the rise of Jim Crow. You have to go back to the 1890s to find a year when we passed more laws pushing more voters out of the ballot box than we have seen in the past 12 months, five million people pushed out, disproportionately Black and brown.”


“I did thirteen years in prison,” Tony, my neighbor in Bed-Stuy, said as we sat on the stoop. “Even now it’s hard to get work.” We watched young men light a joint, eyeing the street for cops. Nearby, a young girl with pigtails chased a boy who was laughing so hard he hiccupped. I looked at them and wondered how long it would be before they dropped out of school and began smoking and fighting on the block. How long until their first arrests?

Here is the cycle of life in Third World New York: Black and Latino kids go to broken public schools from which nearly half don’t graduate, they enter a jobless economy, and they become racially profiled teens who are stopped and frisked and jailed, who return home unable to find work, housing or support, who become absent fathers or beleaguered mothers, who end up exhausted and old, helplessly watching from the stoop as their children go to the same broken schools to begin the cycle all over again.

And the rage twisting inside me is that they are the most vulnerable among us. They don’t have savings to pay lawyers or fines; they don’t have status to protect them or a social movement to trumpet their cause. They are the descendants of American slaves, and their lives have been cannon fodder for our schools and prisons. They and their families have lived through centuries of a racial nightmare that no one, not even our first Black president, wants to name.

Small towns in America love to post welcome signs. I wanted to walk to the end of my block and nail into the sidewalk one that reads: “Welcome to Jim Crow America.”


Corporations are people, my friend,” former Gov. Mitt Romney shouted over hecklers at a campaign event last August. They groaned and his eyebrows shot up, “Of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people.” They let loose a loud raucous barnyard laughter. He patted the air as if taming a wild animal, “People’s pockets — human beings my friend.”

They cackled as he went on. Hearing a rich man say money flows directly from businesses to people after Walls Street crashed the economy was just too much. But more than lived experience was behind the guffaws. An American counter-narrative exists that says, no, corporations are not human and neither are those who work for them.

In films, we repeatedly see Big Business as a malevolent entity that Borg-like destroys the individual. In 1973’s Soylent Green, in 1987’s RoboCop, in 2005’s The Island, in the Alien franchise and most recently in 2009’s District 9 and Avatar; the hero is transformed into food or a monster, an alien or cyborg by corporations. American cinema repeats the old Marxist idea that we are shaped by labor. And often the films end with the lesson that only when we become something other than ourselves can we destroy the system that created us.

“You going to be a bad motherfucker,” mid-level executive Bob Morton says to RoboCop, who stomps into the chaotic streets of Detroit to bring law and
order. The Detroit in that film is a Republican wet dream. It’s a city gone bankrupt, taken over by a large corporation that replaces workers with tireless machines. But the message of the film is not a simple endorsement of a corporate city-state, or even just a masculine revenge fantasy.

We can locate the truth of the film by paying attention to the traumatic “real” that wounds the protagonists. And the word “real” is key. The history that’s repressed from our social narrative returns in the form of fictionalized horror or fantasy. It is the “real” not as ontological fact but as the reality that cannot be symbolized because it contradicts our ideology. In The Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema, cultural critic Slavoj iek said, “If something gets too traumatic, too violent, even too filled with enjoyment, it shatters the coordinates of our reality we have to fictionalize it.” He went on to say, “The first key to horror films is to imagine the same story but without the horror element, this gives us the background.”

If we strip RoboCop’s fantastic elements of a cyborg cop, we get the story of a civil servant traumatized by his transformation into an alienated being in order to keep his job.

In Alien, Ripley learns that The Company, a vast interplanetary corporation, had them stop at an alien infested planet in order to get them impregnated and sneak the Xenomorphs back to their bio-research division. Again if you take away the horror element, the trauma is of workers forced to be vehicles for the production of surplus profit. Same thing in The Island, District 9 and Avatar — no one completely owns themselves.

But what if there is a second step? What if the cyborg, the alien chest-buster or the blue Navi puppet body become where workers overcome their alienation? The transformation leaves them stranded between two bodies, two lives. In this worker-turns-into-Frankenstein genre, the protagonist tries to return to their previous lives. But they can’t. The change is irreversible.

What is left is that their alienation gives them the tools to destroy the system that created them. And along the way, some corporate character that represents the whole system gets killed. RoboCop shoots a CEO out of the window before reclaiming his former name “Murphy.” Ripley in Alien: Resurrection is now a clone with Xenomorph DNA who destroys the Queen before she unleashes her hordes on earth. In Avatar, Jake Sully is transformed into a blue Navi and in his new body can defeat the Resources Development Association that is ripping apart Pandora. Again and again, the films show workers who challenge the corporation that traumatized them only after being alienated into a new self.

So when Gov. Romney said, “Corporations are people, my friend,” the crowd laughed because they knew a business is not a person. But if Hollywood is at all effective in making the trauma of capitalism into fantastic imagery, the lesson is that human beings can’t survive in the corporate world without being transformed. Sometimes, as iek pointed out when he wrote that a turn to fascism is a failed revolution, they become monsters. But sometimes, like in the Occupy movement, they become heroes.


At an October 2008 Obama rally, Peggy Joseph, a black woman, held a palm to her chest and said, “I won’t have to worry about putting gas in my car. I won’t have to worry about paying my mortgage. If I help him, he’ll help me.”

Four years later at an October 2012 town hall debate an older black man, Michael Jones, said to the president, “I voted for you but today I’m not that optimistic. Most things I need for everyday living are very expensive.” At debate’s end, Obama walked offstage; a man whose election had electrified the world, now hung by fingertips to a slight lead in the polls.

The contrast between Obama the symbol and Obama the capitalist CEO has created our political crisis. For nearly 70 million U.S. voters and the millions who danced in the global street festivals of election night, he was living a dream. Today the West is on the edge of collapse. And the return of political apathy leaves people like Peggy Joseph and Michael Jones more vulnerable than before. If former Gov. Mitt Romney wins the presidency, he’ll dismantle the New Deal. If Obama wins he’ll make a Grand Bargain with Republicans to cut Social Security and Medicare to pay down the 16 trillion dollar federal deficit. Either way, no sustained public counter force  — not even Occupy Wall Street — exists to block Republican greed or Obama’s vain need for a legacy. How did we get here?


When you were young, did you believe in Santa Claus? As an adult, did you ever kneel and pray furiously to God? Did you feel like the Lord could see right through you and take away the weight of your secrets?

Many of us have experienced belief in someone who knows us better than we know ourselves. We outgrow the childish versions of it but the need to feel lifted from our lives stays with us, as does its opposite, the nightmare of being under surveillance by someone who knows our transgressions.

In adulthood that belief returns when a patient greets a therapist and nervous hope tingles in the handshake. He or she believes the analyst can read the secret of the confused pain s/he carries. It’s that hope that begins the transference, a key of psychoanalytic treatment, in which patients talk, reenact memories, and project repressed desires onto the therapist, who plays the Subject Supposed to Know.

The need to believe in someone larger than ourselves drives our politics. In the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Senator Obama openly talked of being not a black man so much as a “blank” man on which people projected their desires. When he first appeared on TVs across America, few cared, and initially Black America was skeptical. It was only after he seemed to know how to “read” whites that they, and soon a majority of voters, transferred onto him buried wishes for equal representation.

Every ideology or theology creates its own specific Subject Supposed to Know, a mythic figure that sums up the reality of its worldview by embodying it in flesh and bone. And we need this because human knowledge is innately inter-subjective. We often believe in gossip, political ideas or theories not because we know them to be true but out of our need to be desired by those who believe in them. Maybe a mother or father, maybe a teacher or pastor, maybe a friend or lover; whoever they are, we need them. So often, it’s not the truth of an idea that gives it credibility, but the fact that it is cherished by another whom we desire. The Subject Supposed to Know in its various versions is the guarantee of the truth of a knowledge, precisely because its validity is in the end not knowable, only our passionate need to believe is.

American liberalism had a Subject Supposed to Know; it was a unifier, someone who would solve class conflict by appealing to the “better angels of our nature.” And the prophetic tradition of the black church anticipated a “Joshua” figure that could complete the work of Moses-like Martin Luther King, who brought the people to the edge of a Promised Land that he could not enter. Both of these figures were merged and projected onto Obama.

He seemed to have a guaranteed knowledge of how to bring a nation fractured by racism, sexism and class together, but that’s the trick of transference. The Subject Supposed to Know never actually does anything — it’s the belief that they do that lifts a patient’s or voter’s buried desire to the surface. So when voters blinked, they saw not Obama the symbol but Obama the corporate liberal who in policy terms is farther right than Richard Nixon.


“No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate,” Romney joked at a campaign stop in August. The audience laughed that this rich white man contrasted himself with the “secret” Kenyan, Muslim Obama. They laughed at the not-so-coded racism. And they laughed at the millions of immigrants, gays, non-Christians, poor and brown people who stood behind Obama wanting to be Americans in full.

Romney’s use of code words signals to his supporters that he reads the secret desires boiling inside them, how they want special representation as “real” Americans. But when the rally ends, white working-class Republican voters return to a grim reality. It is the stress of endless bills, broken schools, falling life expectancy, low or no pay and the shame of welfare, all of which is traumatizing when contrasted against the promise of upward mobility. Add to that the loss of the “wages of whiteness,” the privileges that sustained one’s status in the absence of a high-paying job. Add to it the Muslim, black, Latino or Asian families moving across the street, who look to the first black president as their hero.

When the white working poor look through their windows, they don’t see their real neighbor but the Subject Supposed to be Feared. It’s a term cultural critic Slavoj iek used to describe the tales of black criminality during the flood of New Orleans, accounts that were not true but served as a guarantee of one’s racist mythology. It is the nightmare figure created by Fox News and talk radio that flows in code down from the business class of the Republican Party and is translated into the crude vitriol of Red State America.

It doesn’t matter if Romney is not a real believer. Few voters think he is. And it doesn’t matter because they’ll believe for him. They just need for him to give coded signals that he sees what they see, the Subject Supposed to be Feared, the nightmare Other, climbing the gates of the City on a Hill, trying to force entry and steal the back the land.


Too often, political transference blinds. It is a theater built on top of a national puzzle of voting districts, filled with people whose emotional life is translated into the mythos of a political ideology. Many don’t see the system driving the world but only the mirrors held up by officials that reflect our dreams or nightmares. Behind the theater is a structural dynamic of a global capitalist system, whose Western epicenters are in crisis after switching from manufacturing to financial services. After trading in abstract housing debt, the West — specifically Europe — has cratered.

Here in the United Sates 12 million are unemployed, nearly 9 million are part-time and 2 million have stopped looking. It adds up to 23 million who are on the edge of poverty if they have not already fallen in. And this is what’s called the New Normal; the United States has added millions more who are sinking into social invisibility to its already permanent underclass.

They scrounge for a bed, they root through the garbage for food, they numb themselves with drink or drugs, they die in the cold and many burn with the memory that just a few years ago they had a home, a job, a life. In 2008, the U.S. poverty rate was 13 percent or about 40 million. In 2011 it spiked to 15 percent or 46 million people. And not one of our presidential candidates will say their names or even say that it’s a crisis or that people are dying.

Add to this the criminalization of the poor. A recent New York Times article reported, citing a National Law Center survey of 243 cities that “40 percent prohibited camping, 33 percent banned sitting and lying down in public places and 53 percent outlawed begging.” Other cities banned people who smell bad from going into libraries or parking shopping carts near entrances. Add to it the violence visited on the poor, the endless stop-and-frisks and brutal police beatings, of which one example is the killing of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man seen in a grainy black and white video being choked, kicked and murdered.

Our politicians are creating a conveyor belt from poverty to prison. The private prison industry hires lobbyists to pay off politicians. Last year the Associated Press reported that three major private prison industries paid $45 million in campaign donations. In exchange, politicians pass laws like Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB1070; 30 of the 36 co-sponsors received campaign donations from the private prison industry.

Undocumented workers, mostly Mexican, grip the cell bars, jangling in cuffs to the bus where they are taken across the border to hear phone calls from panicked families. The new poor, jailed for begging or sleeping in parks, are released only to become part of the New Jim Crow, stigmatized with prison time so they can get no work, no housing, no love, nothing.

Add to this that in 2050 we are projected to be at 400 million citizens. We will be grayer. Twenty percent of the United States will be 65 or older. We will be browner. Latinos alone will comprise 30 percent of the population. Collectively, people of color will breach the 50 percent mark and whites will no longer be the majority.

If the New Normal becomes just “normal,” if the job market only grows fast enough to absorb the increase in population but no more, then the role of government will become a charged question. Does it have a responsibility to create work or not? How the public answers this will depend on how mass political will is mobilized. And one aspect of that, aside from the on-the-ground organizing is: who is the Subject Supposed to Know that the people will transfer their desires onto?


Seeing the future, Republicans are trying “to shrink government down to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.” The tactic is called “Starving the Beast;” the phrase came from an 1985 article in the Wall Street Journal quoting a Reagan administration official. The tactic is to cut taxes, especially on the wealthy, and then run up the deficit. When the federal budget is squeezed they turn around and demand cuts in social programs.

No wonder Reagan’s campaigns were loaded with coded racism; he reveled in telling white working-class audiences about “welfare queens” who drove Cadillacs on their way to pick up their government checks. It is a tactic repeated by Republicans everywhere, all the time. President George  H.W. Bush did it with the infamous Willie Horton ad and recently Newt Gingrich did it by labeling Obama the “food stamp” president. By invoking the Subject Supposed to  be Feared, the black criminal, the foreign Other, they can terrify white working-class voters into viewing the government as the tool of the internal enemy, which is why the recent imagery depicting President Obama as Hitler setting up Death Panels resonates.

Democracy is the avenue through which the New American Majority, brown, young and Spanish speaking, can use the state. The conservative goal is to kill the federal government, decentralizing power to private companies until the United States is a network of near-feudal corporate city-states, protected from an impoverished people by a bloated police force and if need be, the military. And the way to enact this vision is through the politics of fear.


“We need to put 25 million people back to work,” Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein said, “through a Green new Deal.” She cites the $700 billion bailout given to banks and says an amount that size could be channeled to direct job creation. So the question is why hasn’t it?

Political will is created through transference, which itself needs a figure who can guarantee our knowledge of ourselves, as in Obama, or of the outside world, as in conservatives’ mythic black criminal. In order to mobilize the public to push for a Green Deal, a narrative frame will be needed for the victims of climate change.

One option is the Subject Supposed to be Feared, one predicted and prepared for by the Pentagon in a report on the security risks of a world destabilized by climate change. In the next 20 or 30 years, floods, shortages of food and clean water and storms could send millions of people into exile from their homes. And inside the United States, storms and droughts and soaring food prices will force the public to see once again the poor and vulnerable that have been made invisible. The question is how will they be seen? Will they be framed as dangerous, ragged hordes climbing over the walls?

The other option is the Subject Supposed to Save, figures of innocent suffering whose dilemma is not their fault. And that’s key, because the conservative frame of the poor posits that their poverty is due to
their culture.

With New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, both narratives competed, but ultimately the thousands of black homeless people were viewed as innocent and thereby eligible for our sympathy. As the planet boils, floods hit, storms ravage and land dries up, those represented by the figure of the Subject Supposed to Save will become vital in political debates. The purity of their pain will guarantee their knowledge of what is real compassion. And we who are safe but guilty for being so will see in them our secret desire for absolution answered.


We’ve all heard the saying, “Without a vision, the people perish.” As the election nears, Obama dashes around the country, offering tepid liberalism. He strains to give voters his vision of tomorrow, but real political power runs in reverse. People have to transfer their desires outside of themselves and see them materialized. And polls show that voters want universal healthcare, the end of war, legalized marijuana, clean energy and funding for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Many Americans are more radical than their leaders, they just don’t see any way out, and without a vision they stumble in the dark.


A satirical story on the irony behind this celebration of Bin Laden's death.

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Nicholas Powers imagines a history of the past two years in which the people who worked for Obama’s election went on to build their own movement for change.

This story first appeared at the at:

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