From Occupy Wall Street to occupied Palestine, our economic problem is our war problem.
Ed. Note: On October 8, 2013, Blunderbuss Magazine held a reading centered on the legacy of Occupy Wall Street. Anna Lekas Miller read the following piece to a packed bar, and her insight and dynamic presentation brought the house down. Anna was gracious enough to allow us to run the piece here.
It’s Friday and it’s raining teargas in Nil’in, Palestine.
Nil’in is one of several villages engaged in the popular struggle—weekly demonstrations in protest of the infamous Israeli “Separation Barrier”—a 14-foot concrete wall that snakes its way down the Green Line, the alleged border between Israel and the West Bank.
In Nil’in, the Wall has cut off one third of the village’s land.
In the early days of the Wall—during the 2000s, after the Intifada as the Wall was being built—Palestinian protesters would lay their bodies down in front of each slab of concrete, until they were forcibly removed by the Israeli army. Now, protesters march from the village to the Wall, chanting, waving flags and throwing rocks, only to be greeted with rounds of teargas being fired.
At first, the gas is strangely beautiful. Iridescent blue ribbons of a smoke-like texture expand and crisscross across the sky. Then they land and explode. A toxic cloud of thick gas envelopes the hillside and sends protesters running, choking and gasping for air as tears stream down their faces and a putrid mixture of chemicals fills the air. As the smoke subsides, young boys—no more than 12 or 13 years old, barely phased by the fumes of noxious gas—are placing rocks in slingshots and swinging them, gathering momentum before launching them towards the Israeli soldiers waiting behind the wall, hoping to hit a soldier or at least send a message. At the slightest provocation, the Israeli army responds with another generous round of teargas and stun grenades until the last Palestinian child has scattered and gone home.
After the protest, empty teargas canisters and stun grenades are sprinkled amongst the wild flowers on the hillside. I don’t need to pick one up to know that its label proudly states, “Made in the U.S.A.”
Teargas is categorized as a non-lethal chemical weapon, but that labeling conveniently ignores the number of people who have been shot with high-velocity canisters or suffocated on its fumes. Even those who do not participate in the protests are affected by the abundance of teargas in their community. Most of the women in Nil’in—and villages like Nil’in—have miscarried multiple times due to the shock and stress of constant shootings, and the noxious gas that streams into the windows of their homes. One of my closest friends from a nearby village suffers from stomach problems so severe that he can only drink water and tea, and his muscles periodically stop working due to the amount of gas he has inhaled. He is twenty-five years old.
And this is just the teargas.
The United States gives $3.1 billion per year to Israel, exclusively in foreign military aid—this is more than is given to all of Sub-Saharan Africa combined, where people are actually starving. In addition to purchasing teargas and other forms of crowd control such as rubber bullets, stun grenades and skunk juice—a powerful chemical concoction that, when used is so potent that anyone unfortunate enough to be sprayed needs to shave their head and throw out their clothes—the US government also provides the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) with militarized bulldozers that regularly destroy Palestinian homes and farmland.
It is no coincidence that most of my friends are living without health insurance while saddled with enormous student loan payments. As cliché as it sounds, we are the last ones hired and the first ones fired—and we live in economic precariousness with little to no social safety net.
According to the US Campaign to End the Occupation, if the same $3.1 billion that was spent annually on US aid to Israel were spent at home, it would give 350,000 families affordable housing vouchers, 900,000 at-risk children early reading programs, or insure 24 million people lacking health insurance with basic care. Instead it is killing and terrorizing my friends on the other side of the world while denying my friends at home basic rights.
And this is just Israel.
It is two years since Occupy Wall Street, five years since the collapse of the financial markets and a little bit less than five years since the first inauguration of Barack Obama, the man who was supposed to pull us out of the worst recession since the Great Depression and two of the most expensive and destructive wars in US history. Seems he has done the opposite. It is ten years since the invasion of Iraq, and, as of yesterday, twelve years since the invasion of Afghanistan. For anyone my age or younger, our country has been at war for more than half of our lives. Bombings, invasions, military occupations, drone strikes and targeted killings have become routine for one side of the world. While the war in Iraq is allegedly over according to White House public relations, mothers in Fallujah with babies born with birth defects from the presence of US weapons might have something different to say.
Although our problems in the United States pale in comparison to the problems of those living in countries we invade, or under occupations we finance, in that half lifetime the quality of life in the United States has deteriorated. Carrying an American passport—something that, for a recent-enough immigrant family like mine, is a point of pride—symbolizes privilege, freedom of movement and a comfortable, western life. However, in practice, it is starting to stand for chronic unemployment and living without health insurance for those who have it good, and home foreclosures and homelessness, chronic hunger and inescapable poverty for those who do not.
I am sorry that I haven’t particularly mentioned Occupy Wall Street, a successful social movement or anything remotely empowering. However, that is because—in addition to my passion for ranting and being a downer—instead of discussing social movements or glimmers of hope of the past, I’d rather put forward what I would like to see for the future. I want to live in a country where the government doesn’t shut down over whether or not healthcare should be affordable and accessible—and where food stamps aren’t on the chopping block while expensive bombing raids on Syria are seriously considered. I want to live in a country where—when I visit the part of the world that my family is from—I don’t need to hang my head in shame and make excuses about Obama being constricted by Congress when he is the leader of the free fucking world and we should expect and demand better.
I’m sort of bad at ending things, particularly rants, so I suppose under the miraculous assumption that I haven’t been cut off at this point, I will leave it at this: I strongly believe that our economic problem is our war problem, and anyone who argues against this is in a massive state of denial. I hope that the next major social movement is soon, and addresses this, in addition to the big banks and the corporate elite.
So go revolt now.
Photo of teargas canisters over Nil’in, Palestine from ActiveStills.