The Belly of the Beast

Like the underage kid who screeches past frightened children in his father’s fancy new sports car, the United States is a country you just cannot ignore. No matter where we may live on the planet, it is the one country that we know the most about simply because it comes to us in so many guises, some benign but most not. The fangs and the claws are all too apparent, but on my first visit to the US, I was curious to experience the belly of the beast from the inside.

I visited the US with the leftwing street theatre troupe, Jana Natya Manch. Given that it is home to companies like the San Fransisco Mime Troupe, the Bread and Puppet Theatre and the El Treatro Campesino, we were surprised to find that street theatre is relatively unknown in the US. Certainly on most campuses we visited, students had never seen a street play.

When we explained that in India, we don’t usually take permission to perform a street play, audiences found that surprising. For a ‘free society’, there is a lot of policing in the US. I am not talking only about the police on the streets and elsewhere, but also the level of regulation that people have simply come to accept without question.

The University of California campus at Berkeley is famous for its history of student radicalism. Berkeley is supposed to be the birthplace of the hippie movement, and you can still see some old hippies in their 50s hanging about. We were to perform on an open square, where, towards our left was a 2-meter circle on the ground with the words engraved: “This land and all the space extending above it shall not be part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity’s jurisdiction.” Towards our right was the Free Speech Cafeteria, with photos and quotations from the protests of the halcyon 60s. When I said to the organizer that we should move across the square to the other side, because we’d be relatively protected from the very stiff breeze blowing that day, he said: “We cannot. We don’t have the permission.” There may be free land on your left and free speech on your right, but you still need permission to perform across the square!

There is virtually no student politics of the kind that we have in India. A student union, if it exists at all, is like a trade union – it bargains with the administration about the pay-scales for students who have to teach, etc. Non-teaching students are therefore not represented. Campuses are bereft of political student organizations. Our last stop was Elgin Community College, just outside Chicago, where we were met by the chairperson of the Union of Politically Aware Students. We were excited: at last a political students’ organization! We asked him how many members they have. “Two”, he said. “There used to be one more, but we had differences over tactics.”

Student activism seems to take two main forms. One is the anti-war sentiment, which is widespread. On many campuses – especially the non-elite ones – the army runs recruiting centres. In some places, we saw students organizing counter-recruiting drives. The second is the anti-sweatshop feeling, which is sharpened when students find that their own campus gear is made in the Philippines, or Mexico, or China. In the University of Southern California (LA), the week before we went students had surrounded and questioned their university President on this issue, and were facing disciplinary action.

It was nice to find that many campus cafes sell ‘fair trade’ and ‘fair exchange’ coffee. Since large corporations like Starbucks (which is truly ubiquitous!) make superprofits by bullying farmers, especially in Latin America, to sell their produce at very low prices, activist groups organize buying produce at ‘fair’ price, so that the hyperconsumerism of American buyers benefits farmers of the South directly. Several campuses have successfully resisted the entry of corporations like Starbucks and Coca Cola. More surprisingly, the City of New York has so far successfully resisted the entry of Wal-Mart!

Some of the anti-capitalist impulse is channeled into cooperatives. In Northampton, Vijay Prashad, our host, drove us to a cooperative store, where all the employees are equal partners in the enterprise. Apart from photocopies, the store also sells stationery, anti-war postcards, ‘fair exchange’ coffee, chocolate, peanut butter, and so on.

Not all cooperatives are small, local businesses. In Cambridge (Mass.) is the South End Press. This is a cooperatively-run, left-wing publishing house, with an excellent list which includes several books by Noam Chomsky. Before Janam’s US tour, I had the pleasure of interacting with them because they bought the US rights to LeftWord Books’ new title, Dispatches from Latin America, edited by Teo Ballvé and Vijay Prashad.

We went to some 20-odd campuses across the country. Some were well-to-do private colleges and universities, some were state universities, and in Chicago we went to two community colleges, financed by local taxes. What was striking was that on every campus, there were left-leaning teachers who were doing very interesting, critical work with their students.

The flip side of this is of course that after political decimation through the Cold War years, the academy seems like the last refuge of the left in the US. Though it should be said that even this relative haven is under attack now, and the post-9/11 climate encourages students to report teachers who hold preach ‘political’ views in class – the assumption of course being that conservative ideas are not ‘political views’, but simply common-sense!

In many cities, but most specifically in Washington DC, we met activists who are organizing around the issue of housing. In cities like New York and Washington DC, as real estate prices escalate, a process of ‘gentrification’ is afoot, especially downtown. Real estate speculators buy up buildings in the poorer parts of town, push the poor out, and sell to ‘developers’ who in turn sell the properties for commercial or residential needs of the rich. The process itself is similar to what we have seen in many Indian cities, even though the exact mechanism of its operation is different. In the US, this has been accompanied by a massive cutback in government expenditure on housing for the poor and low income groups.

In cities like New Orleans and Detroit, for different reasons, the housing problem has assumed catastrophic proportions. New Orleans has lost, post-Katrina, about half its population. Lou Furman, our host, drove us through the areas worst affected by the hurricane. The situation, 19 months after the hurricane, was grim. Entire neighbourhoods have been razed to the ground, empty plots facing you where once houses bustled with activity. Some very limited reconstruction is in evidence, but without the federal government committing to fully compensate the affected, people do not feel confident of coming back. With what is probably the most rabidly anti-poor administration in American history in office, who can blame them?

At the other end of the country, up north, Detroit faces a different problem. The city was home to the automobile industry, with General Motors and Ford both basing their operations there. Detroit and neighbouring Flint had a large working class population, the majority of whom were unionized and militant. GM and Ford both pulled out and shifted operations elsewhere. Driving through Detroit today is a spooky experience – block after block of empty buildings, houses as well as shops, while a large number of homeless roam the streets, looking for food in trash cans and bumming cigarettes off visitors. The filmmaker Michael Moore is from Flint, and his first film, Roger and Me, is about him chasing the CEO of GM to ask why the company is pulling out of his city, rendering thousands jobless. He never got an answer.

Exemplifying in some ways the tragedy of Detroit is the railway station, a large, beautiful building – but totally empty, boarded up, with barbed wires all around. No train comes to Detroit. Elsewhere, on Heidelberg Street, all the houses are abandoned. A local artist, with the help of children, has turned the street into a giant installation art project, using things from the abandoned houses. You have a teddy bear tree somewhere, a graveyard of vacuum cleaners elsewhere, a car with one cent coins pasted on it, and the dead eyes of discarded dolls. (I have written in more detail about Detroit: http://www.flonnet.com/stories/20070713000306600.htm.)

Poverty and homelessness stare you in the face all over the country. In the race to the White House though, the popular press and the media seemed mostly concerned about how many million dollars each candidate had raised. In a culture that swears by choice but offers in fact sameness, the lack of diversity in the political sphere is perhaps the most depressing aspect of American life, especially for a visitor from India.

Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch. A report of the troupe’s visit to the US can be found at http://pd.cpim.org/2007/0603/06102007_janam.htm. He is also editor at LeftWord Books, www.leftword.com.

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