Friday, July 16, 2010

Our buried veins

I went to visit the Ludlow Massacre Monument today, in southeast Colorado. On my way down I-25 on Monday, I must have either missed the signs or been in too much of a hurry to stop.

The Massacre occurred in 1914, and the United Mine Workers of America raised the monument in 1918, but the story is rarely told in standard history books, and when it is, it is usually buried in a sidebar and isolated from its political context.

The miners of southeast Colorado came from Mexico and from all parts of Europe and spoke 24 different languages between them. They suffered injuries and eaths in the mines at a rate ten times that of their contemporaries in the East. As with so many organizing efforts, differences between the workers was the greatest obstacle to getting justice from the boss, but they succeeded, and in September 1913 they all went out on strike, together.

Their unity terrified the bosses, and provoked a barbaric response. Workers and their families were evicted from their homes (which were on company land), not even being allowed to take their possessions with them. The National Guard and state militias funded by the companies were sent in to suppress them, but they held strong. The union leased land and they built tent cities, in Ludlow and elsewhere, in which they braved the bitterest Colorado winter in recent memory.

After seven months on strike, and the day after celebrating Greek Orthodox Easter, the state militia provoked the Massacre — opening fire on strikers and their families, and burning down the tent city in Ludlow. Two women and ten children perished in the blaze, and five men and one more child were killed by gunfire.

They didn't win the strike — or, indeed, win union recognition until 1935 — but the violence did not break the strike in April. They held out until December, when the union ran out of funds and workers decided to return to work.

Though kind of out in the middle of nowhere, and unattended, the monument does have a guest book, kept in a box. The current book was full of names from the past two months, most accompanied by comments, many of them quite moving. This was my favorite:

("God bless the working people of the world, and teach big capital the generosity & compassion that the working class lives & loves by everyday. We are all connected")

* * *

The city of Trinidad was the economic center of the coal mining industry in southeast Colorado. While most of the mines have shut in recent decades, Trinidad seems to be hanging on better than many de-industrialized areas, and it has an attractive downtown with a mix of coffeehouses and art galleries, blue-collar bars and auto-body shops. Most of the buildings, and many of the streets and sidewalks, are made of brick.

It also has two monuments, erected by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Southeast Colorado, both monuments to the dangers of mining. The first honors and memorializes the miners who died in the mines, the second the canaries who served (and often died) as organic carbon monoxide detectors in the days before electronics:

My guess is that the "regular" (i.e., white) Chamber of Commerce would never have honored Max B. Foster and Archie Struthers and Ivan Zorich; it's good that they have the likes of Jose Canuto Barron and Reuben Nunez and Epifanio Martinez to look out for their memory.

* * *

Before World War I, German-Americans were the country's largest ethnic minority — and they were an ethnic minority, with their own churches, bars and restaurants, in which they spoke German, ate foods unfamiliar to most "Americans" and raised the suspicions of many a "patriot" — especially as German-American workers were frequently at the center of labor struggles. They were neither "legal" nor "illegal," documented nor undocumented, because the U.S. had passed no laws whatsoever regulating immigration from Europe (prior to the Immigration Act of 1924, the only immigration regulations were prohibitions on specific nationalities, such as the Chinese Exclusion Law).

The U.S. entry into World War I unleashed an intense wave of suspicion of German-Americans, and an intense campaign to suppress Germanness, especially in the upper midwest where German immigrants were a particularly high percentage of the population. Towns named "Berlin" by German settlers were renamed. German churches which didn't convert to English (most did) were vandalized, their ministers paraded around town by "patriotic" mobs. When this is discussed in history books — if it is at all — it is mostly characterized by the somewhat comical attempts to rename saurkraut "Liberty Cabbage" (the ancestor of this century's "Freedom Fries").

The vast majority of German-Americans responded to this by trying to become good (white) Americans, but it didn't give them all a free pass. When I visited the Los Alamos History Museum yesterday, there was a temporary exhibit about the internment of German-Americans during World War II. Over ten thousand German-American citizens and German residents of the U.S., as well as over four thousand German nationals residing in Latin American and Carribean countries were rounded up by the U.S. government and placed in internment camps, despite no evidence of espionage, much like the more well-known example of internment of Japanese-Americans. Some of them, including some who were Jewish, had fled Germany to escape the Nazis. Some were forced, by the U.S. government, to return to Germany during the war, where they were generally treated as American spies.

I think sometimes we on the Left underestimate the amount of violence and coercion that went into making white people "white" — it wasn't just the carrot of white privilege, there was also the stick of "Americanization." Of course, it pales by comparison to the genocide of native peoples and the enslavement of Africans that are at the heart of white supremacy — I'm not trying to make the kind of "my people suffered too" argument that many of the Right make to obscure the reality of racism. But I think that maintaining the historical memory of things like the forced Americanization of German immigrants helps us grasp that white supremacy is at its heart a system of violence and coercion, not merely prejudice.

* * *

After lunch at the Ludlow Memorial, I drove up Route 12, the "Highway of Legends," a two-lane road that follows the Purgatoire River (or "River of the Souls in Purgatory") up west into the mountains from Trinidad. It was advertised as a "scenic byway," but most of the scenes were of coal and coal extraction.

Just past the Army Corps of Engineers lake at the foot of the mountains lies Cokedale. It's a former mining town (the mine closed in 1947) which still has about a hundred folks living in it, just outside the Romanesque ruins of the old coke furnace.

Across the road from Cokedale is a massive slag heap; it's been there since the 40s (and before). According to the historical marker sign, on hot days the slag heap becomes hot enough to generate steam of its own accord.

Driving up Route 12 is much like driving up any other small road following a river valley up the mountains — except that the exposed layers of rock are clearly rich and black with carbon. Apparently the coal mining industry in the area and revived somewhat in recent years with the use of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" (that's the same process they're using to get oil out of the tar sands in Alberta).

I don't know whether the apparent instability of the rock faces alongside the road (there are almost constant "Falling Rock" signs) is due to the fracking, or the old coal mines, or just the instablility of the rock, but it has apparently inspired some desperate measures. Several miles west of Cokedale, and just past the big operations of "Pioneer Natural Resources," they tried to hold back the rock face with a layer of concrete (which is now cracking) — a sad and failing attempt to paper over the open veins of our energy-hungry society, of the consequences of our past.

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