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Congress’ recent agreement to give us $600 means-tested stimulus checks after nine months of nothing prompted comedy writer Matt Oswalt to recall a scene from the Dan Aykroyd/Eddie Murphy classic Trading Places. In the scene, two wealthy investors are boasting about making millions on trading frozen orange juice futures when a butler brings them a glass of milk.
Upon seeing the butler, one of the investors says he’s “right on time” and says “I bet you thought I forgot your Christmas bonus” as he hands him a $5 bill. The other investor adds, “half of it is from me.”
“Maybe I’ll go to the movies,” the butler says. “By myself.”
Earlier this month The Washington Post reported on how shoplifting is on the rise across America. But people aren’t shoplifting TVs and video games and jewelry. You know what they’re stealing? Diapers. Shampoo. Laundry detergent. Hand sanitizer. Bread. (emphasis mine)
The coronavirus recession has been a relentless churn of high unemployment and economic uncertainty. The government stimulus that kept millions of Americans from falling into poverty earlier in the pandemic is long gone, and new aid is still a dot on the horizon after months of congressional inaction. Hunger is chronic, at levels not seen in decades.
The result is a growing subset of Americans who are stealing food to survive.
Shoplifting is up markedly since the pandemic began in the spring and at higher levels than in past economic downturns, according to interviews with more than a dozen retailers, security experts and police departments across the country. But what’s distinctive about this trend, experts say, is what’s being taken — more staples like bread, pasta and baby formula.
According to the Post, roughly 12 million renters owe an average of nearly $6,000 in back rent and utilities, due to the fact that a bunch of us have been unemployed since March through no fault of our own. Last month, Bloomberg reported that nearly six million Americans expect to be evicted within the next 60 days due to lack of payment on rent, and roughly 18 million more are behind on rent and mortgage payments.
Former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson recently urged the incoming Biden administration to understand the urgency of the moment and work quickly to address the dire situation faced by millions of Americans.
To be clear, Pelosi and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed the $3 trillion Heroes Act in May, which included another round of (still insignificant) $1,200 checks along with aid for cash-strapped state and local governments and an extension of the $600/week unemployment assistance through January of 2021. The Heroes Act never got a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate because Senate Republicans called the bill “dead on arrival.”
(House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Licensed photo: Susan Walsh/AP)
Even a bipartisan measure cosponsored by Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) to send $1,200 checks to everyone never got a vote thanks to objection by Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) over concerns about the federal deficit. Johnson, who has almost $40 million in personal wealth, showed no such concern when voting for $1.5 trillion in tax cuts for the rich in 2017. According to The Daily Poster, Johnson fought for the “pass-through” tax break in the bill, which netted him an additional $205,000 in personal income (also, deficits don’t actually matter in countries with monetary sovereignty like the US, more on that in another post).
And of course, there was almost no hand-wringing about the deficit from Senate Republicans when they voted overwhelmingly in favor of another $740 billion for the Pentagon this month. Aside from seven “nay” votes (Braun, Cotton, Cruz, Hawley, Kennedy, Lee, Paul), the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) had no Republican opposition. The 83 votes in favor of the bill would be more than enough to override any potential veto from President Trump.
While we all decide whether or not we send our $600 fuck-you checks to the outstanding balances we have with Navient for our student loan debt, or to the electric company to get the lights turned back on, or the gas company to pay for heating costs, or our car title loan company to keep them from repossessing our vehicles, or our landlords to keep them from kicking us out of our homes, or our banks for overdraft fees, here are a few highlights of the 2021 defense spending bill:
$40 million for Space Force
$1.87 billion for 98 new F-35 fighter jets (20 more jets than what Trump requested)
$1.375 billion for Trump’s border wall
And according to Stars and Stripes, there’s no funding allocated in the 2021 NDAA for bringing troops home from Afghanistan, meaning the longest-lasting war in US history will almost certainly stretch on for at least another year.
So what should our response be to all of this? Here’s how the rest of the world protests their governments.
In France, the Gilets Jaunes (yellow vest) movement sprung up in November of 2018, in response to a proposed increase in the gas tax. According to The Guardian, almost 300,000 people took to the streets clad in the yellow vests the government requires cab drivers to wear. In response to repression from riot cops, some French firefighters aligned with protesters lit their gear on fire and charged at riot cops.
Matty B | BLM @_MatthiatoYa’ll know that French firefighters fight the police regularly and one way they do that is lighting their gear on fire while wearing it and charging at the police. Come on Seattle Fire. 😂
One specific tactic of Yellow Vesters was to physically destroy symbols of capitalist opulence, like the luxury boutique stores lining Paris’ Champs-Elysees avenue. Even after Macron scrapped the gas tax proposal, the Yellow Vest movement endured, moving the goal posts from the gas tax to other kitchen-table concerns like stagnant wages, rising costs of living, and persistent unemployment. Some French people even praised the radical tactics of Yellow Vesters.
“I’m glad there are the thugs, because without them our movement wouldn’t get any attention. We need the violence so we can be heard,” said Marie, a mother of two from Seine-et-Marne who wouldn’t give the Los Angeles Times her last name.
Last month, in Guatemala, protesters stormed their capitol building and set it ablaze in response to a government budget that made steep cuts to education and healthcare spending. This budget vote came right after Guatemalans devastated by back-to-back hurricanes (Eta and Iota) were clamoring for relief.
In October, protesters in Kyrgyzstan stormed parliament and the presidential residence and even broke their former president out of jail in response to claims that the incumbent had rigged the election in his favor. Protesters were reportedly so numerous that the police didn’t do anything to stop them.
Americans do know how to protest like this. But American culture lacks class awareness and class solidarity (by design). And because American corporate media cares more about broken windows than Black life, protesters who set police precincts ablaze and destroyed corporate property were bullied by fellow protesters into less militant measures that are non-threatening to the state in order for protests to be praised by the media.
It’s also important to note that protesters are routinely targeted for violence by not just police, but by domestic terrorists, with vehicular attacks (a literal ISIS tactic) being among the more common methods. As Twitter user @molotics put it, one main reason the American working class doesn’t engage in militant protest is because of the “startling amount of people cool with shooting us down like animals.”
Obviously we shouldn’t allow our fear of reprisal from police and domestic terrorists to discourage us from taking direct action. But it’s hard to see how anything will convince Congress of our desperation without action that is at least as militant as we are desperate.