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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Cleveland - Le malaise américain

by Bruno Odent

Cleveland — the American Malaise

Translated Tuesday 9 November 2010, by Henry Crapo and reviewed by Isabelle Métral

Cleveland, Ohio, by special envoy

On the shores of Lake Eire, a goodly number of inhabitants of the former capital of metallurgy, ruined by unemployment, by real estate seizure, and the depression, allow themselves to be carried away by the demagogy of the Republicans and the far right. But others have chosen the fight, and solidarity against what they have identified as responsible for their problems: Wall Street.

"I worked for nine years as local head of a client service of the ATT [1]. In 2009, they fired me. There were a hundred of us in the cart to be laid off." Mark, an afro-american in his fifties, tells his story. He is joined by several of his friends and neighbors "convened" to meet the journalist from l’Humanité in his little bungalow at number 3545, on the east side of 76th Street in Cleveland.

His story resembles that of thousands of others. He loses his job. He rapidly finds it exceedingly difficult to pay his installments on the subprime mortgage when the interest rates climb. The local branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank, one of the mastadons of Wall Street, threatens to seize his home. But Mark decides to face up to the situation, to maintain solidarity with his friends and neighbors, to join the association they have created, the association that receives us this day. With this group, he will attack the banks in court. "Everywhere around me", he explains rapidly, so I will understand the extent of the disaster, "I saw plenty of people, ex-colleagues who had fallen, with no hope of finding work, carried off by depression, obliged to live in trailers or even in their car, having lost all their belongings."

Cleveland, "the epicenter of the subprimes", according to Dennis Kucinich, elected in a polling district of the city, a stalwart of the left wing of the Democratic party (see our article yesterday), is also one of those cities most hurt by unemployment. The immense malaise that today affects the United States society and turns into big drops of sweat. The way it marked the ballot on Tuesday.

"This mid-term election is about jobs, and nothing else," Frank Lawson, one of the local leaders of the CIO-AFL union, tells us categorically, explaining how the failure of the Obama administration on that front permitted "all the Republican demagogy" to take hold. In order to better come to grips with the disillusionment, you have to travel to the west side of the city, to the peripheral neighborhoods with their interminable rows of rather pretty little houses. There where the middle classes live, where one encounters mostly whites, as opposed to here in the popular neighborhoods of the east, to which we shall return shortly, communities where the Spanish- and Afro-Americans are in the majority.

There also, even if there are not so many, the "for sale" or "foreclosure" signs pop up regularly, planted in the lawns in front of the houses. There also, unemployment and the anxiety of loss of position in society haunt the spirit. "In this neighborhood there is a hallucinating number of persons depending on food stamps in order to survive." Tim Brown, a young carpenter, can’t believe it. He who ran the little company left to him by his father, in Lakewood, was not too affected by the crisis, "even if the orders are fewer in number". In his group of friends, it’s another matter: "many can’t manage, and in order to eat they have no choice but to use these tickets. When I realized that, I told myself this is crazy: it’s as if we were watching history running backwards, toward the days of the breadline." In order to obtain these food tickets, one has to earn less than 1174 dollars a month (about 850 euros). In the state of Ohio some 1.5 million people are eligible, according to the supplementary nutritional assistance program (SNAP), the federal organism charged with distributing the food tickets. On a national level, one adult in eight and one child in four are involved.

"It’s incredible to live such a thing in the richest country on the planet." The voice of Debblie Kline is trembling with indignation. She who has devoted herself specifically to fight against a more and more implacable and unjust society, directs the association Jobs with Justice, a non-governmental organization close to the unions. Massive unemployment reinforces precarity and badly paid jobs without social coverage. "It is no longer rare", explains Debbie, "that even people with work are constrained to procure food tickets in order to survive."

In the region, the wages are dropping, and work contracts are invariably renegotiated to lower levels. With cuts in the pay check, together with a drastic revision in the quality of social services, when and if the companies do provide such for their workers. "These days, everyone talks about the threat of a depression. In New York and in other more dynamic parts of the country, they are perhaps more prepared for this. But in Cleveland, I can tell you that the depression is already here," emphasizes the economist Gordon Powell, who works for the AFL-CIO.

I myself can tell you how it works in practice," joins in Debbie Kline, with a smile. Just a few days before she lived this in real time, with a brutal reduction in salary. The international organization Hugo Boss, which has in Cleveland a clothing fabrication workshop employing 350 people, announced job cuts. Jobs with Justice, Debbie’s association, mobilizes on the side of the workers.
Demonstrations in front of the company headquarters multiply. Not without success, because management accepted, after all, to preserve the jobs. But at the same time it combined this "concession" with a blackmail: "Either we relocate all the production", they let it be known, "or we remain, but the wages of the workers are reduced from 13 to 8 dollars." Debbie shakes her head, as if to balance the contradictory feelings that rush through her. "We continued to fight alongside the workers. We were able to negotiate to keep the same level of social security, but we finally had to agree to accept an hourly wage reduced to 10 dollars (7.8 euros)."

The social malaise is even stronger because the promises of change announced two years ago by President Obama have not been fulfilled. And not everyone feels they have the same standing in face of the crisis. The Wall Street groups, the banks saved from the icy waters by gigantic funds for reinflation by the government, or even General Motors, which, having been nationalized in order to escape bankruptcy, closed plants and laid off thousands of workers in the region, all these outfits have announced their return to super-profits. There is reason there for a terrible popular resentment. Ever so propitious for a massive abstention at the polls, and for the demagogues of the Republican party or the Tea Party, who surf on the rejection of the establishment, of the traditional politicians in Washington. In Cleveland, however, not everyone reacts by slurping up this right wing talk, or decrying the migrant workers, the classical scapegoats. They don’t go along with the twisting of common sense that is intended to spare those really responsible for the crisis, promoting a flight forward, masked as change, against the "providential state", against income taxes, all these being measures that are sure to let loose even greater social suffering.

No, in Cleveland, there are those who do not misdirect their anger, for the good reason that they have decided to fight, and their fight has led them precisely to identify the origin of their problems.

Return to 3435 east, 76th Street. "We are combattants, not victims," Barbara Anderson had said in introduction, while welcoming us to their home, where we had the meeting with the inhabitants of the neighborhood. Tereena Marks, a young woman of 31 years of age, municipal employee, early to join the movement, explained, "Empty homes, dilapidated, are like an abcess that spreads though a community, along with insecurity and hazards to health. We have wanted to find solidarity, to face up to this together."

It is this ever growing movement that has led to an action in the courts. It opposes the City of Cleveland, which has decided to make common cause with the inhabitants of the quarter, against 21 banks that practice massive property seizures. The responsible party is clearly identified: Wall Street. The affair attracted the attention of the Swiss film director Jean-Stéphane Bron, author of a magnificent fiction-documentary on the subject, who asked the "neighbors" to transform themselves into actors, to retell the story of their combat and the tragedy that is their own history [2]. The real trial is still in the wings, while the lawyers for the banks multiply their efforts to bury the affair under a mountain of procedural questions. The main charge, against the tricksters’ methods used to market the most subprime mortgages possible, the predators’ mechanics aimed at stealing from the "little people". For example, once they seized the houses in a neighborhood, the banks systematically left them abandoned. "The reason is simple," explains Tereena, "they reason that to keep them in repair costs too much, given the price at which they can resell them." They thus prefer to let them fall into ruin, hoping that the municipality will end up tearing them down at great cost. It is from this that a veritable wartime landscape takes shape on the east side of Cleveland, with houses smashed, and large square sections of levelled surface.

No question, we quickly understood, of giving in to despair, or of blaming Barack Obama, who is still very popular in the African-American community. Even if, nevertheless, the popular anger sometimes seems to miss its true target. In principle, open to all, the association welcomes all points of view. For a long time already, it has brought in some rare partisans of the Republican Party. But even, quite recently, someone, himself an African-American, stormed in claiming he was for the ... Tea Party. "We’re careful not to cast any stones. The sheep has gone astray. The people are cast down with all the hardships they endure", says Barbara Anderson with a smile. And as if to cut it short, and to find confidence herself, she says; "We know anyway that in order to win, it’s on our own forces that we have to count."

[1The telecommunication company, American Telephone and Telegraph

[2An accompanying article on Barbara Anderson in l’Humanité tells this story


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