Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

Oh Shit! I’m Poor!

Posted in class divide, poverty by allisonkilkenny on January 3, 2008

Oh Shit! I’m Poor!

For about twenty three days – just shy of a month – three concepts kept flipping through my brain like a juggler’s lacquered bowling pins: Homes, Military, Railroads.

I got nauseous every time the three words clumped together and something white and hot flashed before my eyes. Short-circuit. Then I usually refreshed my Yahoo mailbox to see if that little asshole editor forwarded me my pay yet. No, he hadn’t.

A few weeks ago, when I snuck into an investors’ meeting in Manhattan and witnessed the biggest rats in the Game talk about “interesting opportunities” arising from poor people losing their homes because of unscrupulous banks offering them loans with outrageous interest rates, it happened again. “Homes” broke the levy and “Military” and “Railroads” came tumbling forth.

I thought about little boxes on the hillside (as Malvina Reynolds would say). I thought about neat grids and high walls – “sound barriers” – separating poor from rich. I saw the sons and daughters of poor farmers, waitresses, truckers, marching in unison again in perfect, little lines.

As so frequently happens during my nightmares, Howard Zinn’s face would then fill my wide, horrified gaze. It used to be Kurt Vonnegut, but lately Kurt’s been very chill in my dreams. He’s always drinking a Brandy Alexander and wearing a big, straw hat. Not Howard, though. Lately, Howard looks possessed, his big bushy eyebrows twitching on his forehead like live caterpillars. He keeps angrily spitting in my face as he shouts: “GUNS ARE POWERLESS IF SOLDIERS REFUSE TO USE THEM!”

It had to mean something, but I didn’t have time to think about it. I had to get to a meeting in New York. It was crowded on the N train and the whole car rocked on the way into Manhattan. Pressed between the arms of strangers, we all together plummeted through the ocean’s tunnel. Over the tracks. Railroads. Homes, military, railroads…

When a short, fat Latina elbowed me in the tit (totally fucking unapologetically, I might add,) everything clicked into place. At first chance, I ran back to my apartment and grabbed A People’s History of the United States and turned to the chapter named The Other Civil War. Page 244 if you’re a stickler for details.

Zinn was quoting the German socialists in Chicago, but he was using their manifesto to illustrate a larger point:

“The present system has enabled capitalists to make laws in their own interests to the injury and oppression of the workers. It has made the name Democracy, for which our forefathers fought and died, a mockery and a shadow, by giving to property an unproportionate amount of representation and control over Legislation.”

A People’s History is a remarkable book because it is a perfect mirror for our present society. History IS the future, and just like then, workers were bottom feeders. Just like now, they had to fight for survival.

Any society is a complete JOKE if WORKING people REMAIN POOR. And yet we see that today in America. Hard-working people can barely feed their families and keep their homes, and those that CAN pay rent CAN’T pay for health insurance, which also makes them poor. They’re one accident away from having to declare bankruptcy.

The most brilliant trick the rich ever pulled over the poor was when they reinforced fractures between the serving class. The rich have always encouraged the poor to think of themselves tribally. Irish, Italian, Black, Blue-Collar, White-Collar, Asian, Indian, Arab, Christian, Muslim, Man, Woman, Child, Elderly, Northerner, Southerner, West Coast, East Coast. After all, when the poor squabble among themselves, they can’t really unite and…ya’ know…set fire to the plantation.

Yet, we all have something in common. We’re poor. Yes, even you, Ms. Well-I’m-Doing-Okay-Right-Now-Though-I-May-Get-A-Second-Job-Just-For-A-Few-Months. We’re all workers, anchored beneath the caste of generationally transfixed wealth. We’re not Rockefellers. We’re not Astors. We’re not wealthy.

However, our ancestors were the ones who built the railroads and picked the crops that built this nation, and their sacrificed wages (dollars an hour whilst tycoons accumulated millions) and hours of toil made the bankers, oilmen, and railroad barons of this country rich. Their wages established the banks and insurance companies. Your great, great, great, great Aunt Agnes paid J.P Morgan’s salary, and that old coot never so much as thanked her! “They control the people through the people’s own money” (Louis Brandeis, Other People’s Money).

As it was, so it is. The poor are sick, hungry, and in danger of losing their homes. Our poor young men and women serve in a military that guards the very system that keeps the poor repressed.

In 1877, a series of railroad strikes brought the country to a halt. Not only did railroad workers refuse to work, but citizens rallied around the workers and began tearing up tracks and setting fire to railroad cars.

The National Guard was called in, but at least on one occasion, the guards refused to fire into the crowd. The crowd disarmed the soldiers, and the two groups talked until the mob peacefully dispersed. What did the crowd say to the soldiers? Perhaps one of the soldiers saw a relative in the crowd and convinced his comrades to lower their weapons. Perhaps they saw more commonality with those poor workers than the rich fat cats who summoned them in the first place.

I wonder how much longer our military, comprised of mainly poor men and women, will continue to repress the Iraqis, other poor people who are caught in the cogs of the Game. I wonder how long Blackwater employees will volunteer to contribute to Erik Prince’s ever expanding militia that may one day act to repress America’s poor disenfranchised.

I wonder how much longer we – the poor – will remain dormant in our tribes, separated by artificial barriers when the only real inequality exists between the classes. And how much longer will we allow our presidential candidates to ignore this essential issue? The only candidate addressing class division seriously is John Edwards, and I applaud him for it.

Until then, it’s up to us to remind these candidates that they are surrounded by (and living upon) generations of suffering. Make no mistake, the rich will always inherit the Earth. That is, of course, until the poor take it back.

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