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Friday, October 16, 2009

Let Freedom Ring

11 years ago this November, I began drafting a novel called The Toy Cop. It's a hostage negotiation thriller in which a former SEAL takes over a dozen hostages, including a US senator. Most of the story takes place during a nor'easter that strikes the east coast on October 16th (in an eerie example of life imitating art, it actually snowed early this morning in Massachusetts). Purely by coincidence, within the storyline October 16th is also the same day that abolitionist John Brown and a ragtag band of militiamen barricaded themselves in the federal armory at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia.

That took place exactly 150 years ago today. Nowhere to my knowledge is this important incident, surely the high point of the abolitionist movement, being commemorated. Not even neighboring Marlboro, MA, which houses the famous bell that John Brown had rung to inform Col. Robert E. Lee and the federal troops massed outside that he was still alive and kicking, has anything planned for the anniversary.

Stolen two years after the siege in 1861 by the Marlboro 13th regiment, the bell sits in dignified disuse in its fieldstone tower in downtown. It's Marlboro's one major historical artifact and it's a purloined one, at that. The city fathers covet the bell for its historical value (every year, Harper's Ferry, WV sends up a sitting or former mayor to Marlboro to ask for the bell back and every year is cheerfully rebuffed, making it more of an annual ritual like Groundhog's Day than an actual request). Yet those same city officials don't appreciate the John Brown bell's historical significance enough to commemorate the taking of the armory 150 years ago.

In a way, John Brown's last stand in the name of freedom for all African Americans was a tragic failure. Two of Brown's sons were killed and Brown himself was hung just two months later. Yet, by 1863 President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, in reality two separate Executive Orders that freed all slaves in the slave states. It would be a stretch to speculate that the fiery John Brown's last stand wasn't in the back of the 16th president's mind when he signed those historic Executive Orders.

What Can Brown Do For You?

Fast forward 150 years into the future since Harper's Ferry. African Americans are no longer officially slaves. Barring certain states and certain conditions, they have the unrestricted right to vote. Slavery, at least in the contiguous United States, has ossified into history, tens of millions of half-healed welts on the back of the nation.

Yet, in a colloquial sense, slavery is more prevalent than ever and crosses ethnic, religious and party lines. It's become more institutionalized than ever and is not confined to a dozen or so southern states but is peculiar to all 50. The plantation overseer's whips have been supplanted by majority and minority whips, party leaders, committee chairmen and the lobbyists who have virtually become official co-legislators.

We have slowly become again, with hardly anyone noticing, an antebellum plantation nation ruled by a surprisingly small knot of oligarchs who are elected not by citizens in polling places but by fellow executives in board rooms. The three branches of our government have become mere turnkeys opening the doors of the national treasury for them. Regulation so flatlined during Dubya's reign of error that even the SEC under Christopher Cox had become as effective as President Lincoln's bodyguard at Ford's Theater.

As in antebellum times, a few wealthy magnates, barons and tycoons at the top reaped the spoils of slave labor from African Americans (textile), Chinese (railroads), Latinos (agriculture) and other nonwhites. Today, there are more obscenely wealthy oligarchs but many, many more slaves.

Even after the economic collapse 13 months ago and a massive bailout, CEO's were raking in over 400 times more than what their hourly employees made. While productivity has steadily risen, worker's wages have remained stagnant. The federal minimum wage was frozen for over a decade while Republicans, with shocking meanspiritedness, opposed even modest, incremental increases. Social Security recipients will not receive a cost of living increase next year while corporations continue to lavish luxuries on themselves like latter day Aga Khans.

Available jobs have become rarer than lottery jackpots and employers no longer train but want overly-qualified applicants to hit the ground running. Starting wages have been cut to federal minimum wage or barely above. Fewer employers offer health care even when legally mandated to do so, or sick days, or vacation days. 47,000,000 of us remained uninsured and the just-ratified Baucus bill's answer is right out of Mitt Romney's playbook: Get insurance at their prices or get heavily taxed. Sign on, referral bonuses, tuition reimbursement? Wistful, nostalgic memories like pensions and 401 (k) plans.

Overdraft fees and credit card APR's have skyrocketed while dividends on even interest-bearing accounts such as savings, IRA's, CD's and money market funds have withered to mere tokens.

Near monopolies such as utility, cable and lending companies capriciously harvest hidden fees, penalties, taxes, surcharges and higher APR's and penalize even their best and most reliable customers as they force us to pay more and more of their overhead expenses. In 2005, Congress and the lenders who wrote the legislation made filing for bankruptcy a virtual impossibility while still leaving the doors of bankruptcy court wide open for recklessly greedy corporations such as Enron and Worldcom.

And two unwinnable wars that have largely benefited 1,100 CEOs and a multi trillion dollar bailout has made slaves out of not just us but, with Calvinistic certainty, our children and grandchildren.

Let Freedom Ring... Again

Even questioning political and corporate orders and decisions all too often results in armed resistance, police action and even litigation. Corporations and Congress (the latter having long since become a mere synonym of the former) have become so arrogantly convinced of their invulnerability, impunity and entitlement that they no longer hide their contempt of the rank and file except during commercial breaks and elections.

But our powerlessness, or the prevalent illusion of it, is the greatest, most massive con job since the Devil in his various incarnations convinced us that he didn't exist. Yet isolated incidents of civil disobedience have all but proven to us that public relations is still our best weapon. We have the greatest public relations tool in human history since the movable press in the internet, a massive, increasingly cohesive forum that got a dark horse candidate elected president of the United States.

So why aren't we making better use of it to help ourselves for a change instead of politicians and corporations? Time and time again, we've had demonstrated to us the efficacy and power of our sheer numbers and growing ability to expose evil. Every once in a while, we'll hear of an HMO that cruelly and capriciously denied coverage or dropped coverage of a policy holder or dependent because they simply didn't want to pay for their treatment. Every once in a while we'll see a standoff like Republic Screen Door whose workers not only lost their jobs but the money the company owed them when Bank of America shut off their line of credit.

Taking a cue from Spocko's Brain, we've gotten close to 100 sponsors to walk away from Glenn Beck and other hate-filled conspiracy theorists. We have the power. But sometimes civil disobedience isn't enough considering how uncivil corporations and our elected officials have been to us for the last several decades.

We need another John Brown, a guy who isn't afraid of being hung for disobedience. As a people, black, white, red, yellow or brown, liberal, conservative or moderate, male, female, young and old, middle class and poor, we need to rise up and show these monolithic entities who wields the true power in this democracy, in this world we share. We need another Harper's Ferry and to take a bell that we will never give back lest we forget our former indentured servitude. I nominate this bell, rung every week day by the greedy and rapacious.

"Sometimes, the best remedy is just to break everything."

Truer words were never spoken.

Update: Apparently, yours truly stepped on his own dick, again. Marlborough is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the siege at Harper's Ferry. Mrs. JP made the town its vinyl banner sign, as a matter of fact. But it doesn't diminish the city's hypocrisy in celebrating a pivotal moment in abolitionist history in which the only part it played was in outright stealing an artifact from it.
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