Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Fires of Class


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine. All rights reserved.

I had a weird experience during the wildfires that swept the northernmost and southernmost parts of San Diego County late last October. Virtually nothing happened to me at all. The local TV stations aired wall-to-wall coverage of the fires, complete with ample footage of the actual burning — which had a strange, savage beauty all too obviously at odds with the real harm these fires were doing to life and property — and yet I felt strangely alienated because, living in North Park, the fires weren’t coming anywhere near me. Reports on the national news made it seem as if “all San Diego county” was burning, and my roommate, my partner and I all got phone calls from our families desperately seeking reassurance that we were all right — which we were.

It took me a while to realize what was going on, but it finally dawned on me that the reason the mainstream media were reporting that “all San Diego county” was burning was that most of the fires were centered in Rancho Bernardo and other similarly affluent areas. Maybe the entire county wasn’t burning, but the parts of it that matter were — just as the coverage of the fires in L.A. County similarly fixated on the threat to the Hollywood colony at Malibu. It was an odd window into just how class-conscious a society the U.S. has become — how over time we’ve accentuated and intensified the barriers between classes even as the European countries on whom we modeled our civilization have slowly broken many of theirs down — and how, despite our much-vaunted commitment to egalitarianism and “equality of opportunity,” we’ve become a society where some people “matter” and the vast majority don’t.

The fires of class can be seen quite brightly when the media response to the San Diego disaster is compared to the way Hurricane Katrina was covered two years ago. Though Katrina was by all objective measure a far worse disaster than the San Diego fires — the loss of life, the destruction of property and the displacement of people from Katrina were about a hundred times worse than in San Diego — it was seen very differently by the wealthy, (mostly) white people who run things in the U.S. and the media that report the world their way. San Diego’s fires were gripping tragedy, covered in personal terms that encouraged our emotional identification with our supposed “betters” and their losses, while the victims of Katrina — especially the African-Americans in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward — were presented as a faceless mass. While few people went as far in public as Congressmember Richard Baker (R-La.), who actually said, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans; we couldn’t do it, but God did,” a lot of the Katrina coverage had the patronizing implication that good would come out of the disaster because all those annoying poor people would be either dead or moved and the city fathers could rebuild it as a lucrative tourist trap, a theme park for Cajun food and traditional jazz.

The contrast between San Diego in 2007 and New Orleans in 2005 has become a major cautionary tale for the propagandists of the Right. Even while much of New Orleans was still underwater from Katrina’s floodwaters, Right-wing radio talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh were portraying it as a message from above that God will punish your city if you dare to elect Democrats. Today, the Right is portraying San Diego’s white Republican establishment as having shown the wogs the proper way to respond to a disaster, in contrast to the alleged failings of Louisiana’s Democratic establishment in general and its African-American mayor in particular. Local talk-show host Roger Hedgecock said in so many words that the white victims of the San Diego fire showed individualism and self-reliance in getting out of town when the reverse 911 calls told them to, while the African-Americans of New Orleans showed the corrosive effects of decades on the public dole and waited around for the government to help them.

Nonsense. The biggest single factor determining whether you got out of either New Orleans or San Diego in time was whether or not you could afford your own car. Neither city had any clue how to get people out who couldn’t load up their cars and drive themselves. The death toll was lighter in San Diego partly because the disaster was centered in less populated areas — rich people tend to live higher up than poor people, which gives them a leg up in floods (because water flows down) but puts them in the crosshairs of wildfire (because fire and the air currents that drive it often move up) — and partly because the rich people had their own transportation. The not-so-rich people in the paths of the San Diego fire — the undocumented immigrants who were roasted alive trying to cross the border and hide out from La Migra in the Harris fire and the North County farmworkers (also largely undocumented Latinos) who were forced to keep working in the fields despite the dangers of fire and smoke inhalation — were as likely to die, or nearly so, as the not-so-rich people in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward.

What’s more, just as Republican politicians in Louisiana and Mississippi saw Katrina in part as an opportunity to “cleanse” their states of poor (especially poor African-American) people, so some civic leaders in San Diego saw the fires as an opportunity to cleanse the county of undocumented immigrants. The San Diego County sheriff’s office set up checkpoints both on the evacuation routes in North County and in and out of the evacuation center at Qualcomm Stadium, detained people who couldn’t show proper ID and turned them over to the Border Patrol for possible deportation. Not all people who couldn’t show proper ID were detained, of course; just … well, in the words of Firestorm, a report prepared on the response to the fires by the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium (IRC), Justice Overcoming Boundaries and the San Diego/Imperial Counties ACLU, “In no instance did any witness report that a Caucasian evacuee was detained, interrogated, inspected, surrounded, intimidated or accused of looting.”

A few African-Americans at the evacuation centers were hassled by authorities — notably a mother of three who was accused of stealing supplies by two San Diego police officers after she was seen taking more stuff than they thought appropriate — but the people on whom the hammers came down hardest were mostly Latinos. Ironically, the heroic and overstressed firefighters of San Diego County got help from at least 60 Mexican firefighters who crossed the border and joined in the efforts to stop the blazes, while Latinos at the evacuation centers were being awakened in the middle of the night, ordered to show documents, and thrown out if they couldn’t provide the right ones.

Needless to say, the Right-wing propaganda machine took over big-time to “spin” these stories. Roger Hedgecock went on the air in mock indignation at the accusations that certain people without documents or proof of residence, including homeless people who’d been camping in fire-vulnerable areas, were thrown out of Qualcomm or not admitted in the first place. “We set up these centers for people who had lost their homes!” Hedgecock said (I’m quoting from memory), denouncing the homeless, migrant and undocumented people who had sought shelter there as interlopers trying to crash the North County homeowners’ private party.

While San Diego was still burning, thousands of miles away in Pellston, Michigan a retired brigadier general named Richard W. Mills was touting a new service being offered by his current employer, an 18-month-old company called Sovereign Deed. Started by a founder of Triple Canopy — one of the leading competitors of the far more famous Blackwater in supplying mercenaries (so-called “private security contractors”) to the U.S. in Iraq — Sovereign Deed offers, for a fee, to protect your home in case of a natural disaster (or a terrorist attack) while leaving your non-paying neighbors to go hang. The service isn’t cheap; Mills described it as a “country club-type membership fee” and quoted a price for “basic service” of a one-time $50,000 initiation fee plus $15,000 per year.

As reported by Eartha Jane Melzer in the October 25 Michigan Messenger, Mills said his service was needed because the government does not have the tax base to provide services to everyone in the event of a major catastrophe. “The reality of FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which performed so spectacularly badly in New Orleans and held a fake ‘press conference’ in San Diego on how well they were supposedly doing] is that it has no infrastructure, and a lot of our National Guard is elsewhere fighting the war [in Iraq and Afghanistan]” Mills said. “You never know what could happen. A hurricane, a terrorist attack, a nuclear power plant going bad — it doesn’t matter, you make concentric circles, you get a plan.”

Mills’ speech attracted protesters, organized as a group called “Do We Need Sovereign Deed?” Spokesperson Carolyn Belknap said the plan for privatized disaster response for paying customers only “flies in the face of democracy” and added that she was particularly suspicious that Mills claimed his company will have access to advance intelligence on terrorist threats. Belknap said she was troubled by the close relationship between the private security industry and the political system — exemplified by the ties between Erik Prince, founder and CEO of Blackwater, and the Bush administration and the Christian Right — and told Melzer, “I think that when we dig deeper we are going to find that they are all connected. We’ve got to follow the money.”

Belknap told Melzer that her group is working with the residents of Potrero, the small unincorporated community that was the epicenter of the Harris fire, in their struggle to keep Blackwater from building an enormous “training center” in their backyard. Meanwhile, Blackwater seized the opportunity to build good will in Potrero — and possibly influence the outcome of the recall election against the local planning board members who approved their project — by bringing in huge quantities of food and other relief supplies and setting up a tent to house evacuees.

The San Diego fires — both the fires on the ground and the fires of class that have followed them — have shown just how far away the U.S. has moved from any notion that we’re all in this together, that every man’s death diminishes me, that (as the founder of the religion George W. Bush and Erik Prince supposedly believe in said) as you do to the least of thee, you do to me. As a society, we have ceased to believe that “all men are created equal.” Instead, we now regard the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as conditional on how much money you have and how much financial value you contribute to the capitalist economy.

It’s the old fallacy of aristocracy, given a thin veneer of respectability by pseudo-intellectuals like Herbert Spencer in the 19th century and Ayn Rand in the 20th: the idea that — as one Navy officer told CNN in the middle of the San Diego fires — “we have different classes of people,” and some people are simply “worth” more than others and therefore are entitled to more rights. The fires of class are burning away the egalitarian pretensions under which this country was born (and yes, I know a lot of our founding documents, including the one I quoted above, were written by people who owned slaves) and revealing just how class-bound and upwardly immobile a society we’ve become.