Translated and adapted by Laura Wagner.
This article may appear sensationalistic, because I’m compiling a series of news stories and facts generally suited to the tabloids, but which will serve to resoundingly support the following theory: the United States is an imperial power in decline, flushing itself down the drains of history, weighted down by an economic crisis, a social crisis, and a crisis of values.
I’ll begin with what hits closest to home.
Recently, one of my best friends here was driving home with his two children, aged 8 and 11, in the backseat. As he approached a yield sign, he stepped on the brakes, nearly coming to a complete stop, and the man in car behind him started to honk, holding down his horn. As they turned onto the next street, the man continued making a fuss. So far, nothing too out of the ordinary. Who among us hasn’t cursed someone’s mother or given somebody the finger? A few meters ahead, the two cars stopped next to one another at a stoplight, and my friend gestured to the man in the other car to calm down, indicating that he had two kids in the backseat. The other man – himself with a baby in a carseat – lowered his window and pointed a pistol at my friend. “Shut up or I’ll shoot you! I’m gonna shoot you, man!” My friend told him to calm down, pointing to his two terrified children. The light turned green.
A doctoral student from the US told me, over lunch, “I wouldn’t have studied in Mexico for the world.” In surprise, I asked him why. My question was unexpected, as the answer seemed to him so obvious. He said it was because of violence. I wonder if he heard the shots last week in his — our — neighborhood. It’s a pity that at that moment I didn’t counter him by arguing that there are excellent educational opportunities to be had in Mexico – that, for example, the Universidad Autónoma de México has one of the fifty best marine sciences programs in the world. His ignorant and xenophobic statement, more or less explicitly entrenched in the mind of the average gringo, is all the more surprising coming from a gay man, who himself belongs to a traditionally marginalized group, which suffers great discrimination in this state and in this country. I do not mean to say that gay people, or any other oppressed social group cannot be elitist or xenophobic, but rather to show the vastness and unquestioned nature of prejudice in this country, even among those people who ostensibly should know better.
And this is not simply ignorance. People in the US know very well that they live in a ruthlessly violent country. It’s in the news. A few recent examples:
Detroit is a city that represents the decomposition of the Empire. The former “Motor City” is now economically bankrupt, and socially bankrupt as well. A seven-year-old black girl, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, was killed by the police when they raided her home. The medical examiner said that the cause of death was “the psychopathology of growing up in Detroit. Some people are doomed from birth because their environment is so toxic.” Renisha McBride, a nineteen-year-old black woman, was in a car accident and sought help at a nearby house, which happened to be in a mostly white neighborhood. The owner of the house shot her in the head. He wasn’t even arrested, because Michigan, like Florida, has enacted a “Stand Your Ground” law, which basically says that a person has the right to defend himself if he feels any kind of danger without any requirement to flee or evade that situation. (updated: the homeowner has been charged with 2nd degree homicide). Basically it is the law of the West. If the wart on your nose, or the color of your skin, makes me feel that I am in danger, it is my right to shoot you between the eyes. And the part about skin color is important, because this rule only seems applicable when the victim is black and the aggressor is not. Marissa Alexander — a black woman — fired a couple of warning shots into the air to protect herself when her abusive partner was beating her for the umpteenth time. They sentenced her to twenty years in prison. Stand Your Ground didn’t apply to her… why? Because she’s black, and a woman?
There is more to the apartheid of this country than meets the eye. Today there are more black people in prison than were enslaved in 1850. They make up 40% of prisoners, but only 13% of the US population. The fact is that the 13th amendment, which supposedly “liberated” the slaves, included the following clause: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime. More black people are denied the right to vote today than in 1870. In New York alone, millions of “arbitrary” arrests have been carried out, based solely on the color of one’s skin. After years of these racist abuses, a judge has finally declared these so-called “stop and frisk” arrests unconstitutional. “A shocking new study by the American Civil Liberties Union has found that more than 3,200 people nationwide are serving life terms without parole for nonviolent offenses, 65% African-American”.
And I have not even mentioned the murder of Trayvon Martin.
But it is not only black people who suffer under this system of sadistic repression.
Latinos in the United States disproportionately suffer direct race-based violence, unequal treatment by the so-called “justice” system, and poverty and insidious structural violence. This summer, in the city in which I currently live, Durham, North Carolina, a Honduran immigrant named José Adan Cruz Ocampo was killed by police after being a suspect in a non-fatal altercation with another man. When police arrived on the scene, they found Ocampo holding a knife. The Raleigh News and Observer writes, “according to witnesses, Ocampo, who was from Honduras, didn’t understand the officers shouting at him in English and was offering the knife, handle side out, to the officers when he was shot” four times — in the arm, the chest, the lower abdomen, and the head. He leaves behind his family in Honduras.
Abuses of power by law enforcement are not always fatal. They can also be humiliating examples of the misguided priorities of a surveillance state.
In New Mexico, a man named David Eckert ran a stop sign as he left a Wal-Mart, and was unlucky enough to get pulled over. The police felt that Eckert was clenching his buttocks. (Who wouldn’t shit his pants out of fear when stopped by the police in this country?) So, the cop, seeing that Eckert was clenching his buttocks, came to the logical conclusion that clenched buttocks = hidden drugs, and they detained him. They got a court order to determine if he had drugs in his rectum. One doctor refused, saying it was unethical, so they took Eckert to another hospital outside of that legal jurisdiction (which is illegal), and took X-rays — nothing. They did two digital exams, two enemas, a fecal exam — nothing.
Well, this story came up, amid jokes, during one of those “happy hours” that they have at work. One of our colleagues is a doctor, and she was very surprised that the doctors agreed to sodomize a suspect. Nonetheless, many of her US-born peers cannot claim to have exactly fulfilled the Hippocratic Oath. A report by the Task Force on Preserving Medical Professionalism concluded that many doctors, under the orders of the CIA and the army, designed and participated in cruel and inhumane treatment and torture. This is a travesty.
Black, brown, and white people, women…. now children and adolescents. Here, no one is spared.
In Iowa, Tyler Comstock, age nineteen, had an argument with his father. In anger, he sped off in his father’s truck. To teach him a lesson, his father called the cops and reported it as a robbery. The police came upon him on his campus, driving in circles. When they told him to stop, he refused (damn, it’s his own father’s car), and they shot him six times, once in the head and once in the heart. He was unarmed.
And now, two stories that illustrate, again, the ways that violence and poverty shorten and constrain the lives of young Latinos.
A couple of weeks ago, in Santa Rosa, California, Andy López, age 13, was walking down the street with a standard BB gun. The police, who claimed it “looked like an assault rife,” stopped him and since he didn’t immediately hand over his toy, they shot him several times and killed him.
But children are not only killed, they are incarcerated as well. Cristián Fernández was condemned even before he was born. I quote verbatim the sad chronicle of his early life, as reported by the Colombian project Las2orillas: “Cristian Fernández was born after his adolescent mother was raped by a neighbor. When she was 14 years old, she escaped with her son from the home of her drug-addicted mother, to live on the streets of Miami, where Cristián was found filthy and naked. At the age of three, he was expelled from school after lowering his pants in front of one of his classmates and simulating a sex act. When he was eleven, his stepfather gave him a brutal beating then committed suicide in front of his eyes. Today Cristián is thirteen, and he is the youngest inmate in the United States and is about to be sentenced to life in prison for killing his two-year-old stepbrother.” He killed his brother (read his story and watch the interview here), and that is why the “Department of Justice” [sic] considers him a danger to society deserving of life imprisonment. The kid is only thirteen years old!
In what other violent ways do children die in the United States? Well, “it is estimated that minors comprise 20% of fatal accidents recorded in the agricultural sector.” According to Human Rights Watch, half a million children work in agriculture in the US. This is because the prohibition of child labor in 1938 (not all that long ago) excludes farms and agriculture. Because, as the article says, these are US-born children (generally of Latin American parentage), and they aren’t tossing corn to the family hens, but rather working for large food corporations. Meanwhile, John Kerry waxes righteous about abuses of child labor in other countries, while ignoring the child labor in his own country.
But once in a while, a ray of hope peeks through the dark clouds of moral degradation. A cruel Polish immigrant tortured a poor and defenseless pitbull puppy. The veterinarians did everything possible but they couldn’t save the dog. In the face of such injustice, unbecoming of a civilized country like “America,” 70,000 sensitive, noble, and honorable US citizens mobilized. The police arrested the bastard and set bail at a $1 million, and he faces charges that could get him 55 years in prison. What an example of justice.
But seriously. A society that can mobilize 70,000 people for a tortured animal, but which remains unmoved by an unending trickle of deaths, torture, degradation, war, and apartheid — this society is sick, and on the path to chaos and destruction.
It is true that once in a while there are glimmers of hope, such as Wal-Mart employees on strike, people fighting the Keystone Pipeline, the grassroots disaster relief group Occupy Sandy, the outcry for Trayvon Martin murder, etc. There are people in the United States who form grassroots groups and who mobilize. But thosewho do speak out can face brutal repression, and the majority of people in the US remain in a state of apathy or paralysis. They have a lot to learn. Moreover, the economic situation is terrible. While the government insists that they are getting out of the crisis, the truth is that the workforce has not been destroyed so violently since the crisis of 1978. Today, only 62.8% of US citizens work, although the official unemployment rate is 7.3%. According to the Department of Agriculture, 15% of US citizens experience food insecurity, and some 42 million people are receiving food stamps. And in January they will face yet another debt ceiling crisis — guaranteed fun for all.
Neurons and muscle cells, when they have been stimulated too much, stop responding and enter a refractory period, during which they do not react, no matter how much you stimulate them. I ask myself if this society, deluged with information, more or less aware of the storm in which they are immersed, has not entered a refractory period, incapable of reacting. The problem is that the stimulation will never cease.