[Marxism] Michael Yates's travel notes

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 5 19:56:08 MDT 2004


(Michael Yates is an MR editor who retired from a college teaching job a 
couple of years ago.)

On the Road with Michael and Karen

As some of you know, my wife and I retired from the world of regular
wage labor in the Spring of 2001. Since then we have lived in many
places, the last being Portland, Oregon. We spent fourteen months in
Portland, along with our twin sons. We were attracted to this city
because we wanted to see the Northwest and because of the publicity it
has received as an environmentally conscious urban area with a very
liberal politics. While the city is surrounded by a green belt of parks,
great for hiking, and while great trees and beautiful flowers abound,
Portland’s reputation for liberal politics is mostly myth. Unemployment
is very high, wages are low, and workers are treated like shit. One of
my sons, a talented chef, was paid a wage much less than half of what he
had earned in Pittsburgh and is now earning in Washington, DC. He seldom
worked full-time, and the manager of his last employer routinely went on
the company computer and stole hours from workers, a practice which I
have come to learn is commonplace in the United States. Working people
are almost never mentioned in the local newspapers or discussed by
leading politicians. A valiant struggle by unionized workers at the
famous Powell’s bookstore empire got no publicity at all.

And worse than this, Portland is, without question, the most racist city
in which I have ever lived. Portland is overwhelmingly white, the "last
bastion of Caucasian culture in the United States," as one local author
put it. It is remarkable to observe that almost every homeless person
and panhandler (there is a panhandler at almost every major highway
exit) is white. Oregon legally prohibited interracial marriages until
the late 1960s when the Supreme Court ruled such laws unconstitutional.
A small community of Black people came to Portland to work in the
shipyards during the Second World War and were promptly housed in
substandard buildings on a flood plain near the Columbia River. When the
inevitable flood came, many were killed and the entire community was
forced to relocate–to an area later eradicated by a highway.

Today, Blacks are more or less completely marginalized politically and
culturally. Yet the police are waging war against them. Police
constantly harass young black men, and in the six months before we left,
police shot and killed a black woman and a black man. The woman and her
male companion were stopped by police. The man, a suspected drug dealer,
was taken from the car and confronted by the cops. The woman moved from
the back seat to the front and got behind the steering wheel. She
started the car and was probably about to flee. She was unarmed, and the
police knew who she was and where she lived. One of the policemen tried
to prevent her from leaving. He claimed that, as he put his arm in the
window, he felt that his life was threatened. So, he simply pulled out
his gun and shot the woman dead, leaving her kids without a mother. A
few months later, two cops, including one who is clearly a psychopath
(though presented later as a super Christian by the minister of his
fundamentalist church), stopped a Black man for failure to use his turn
signal when pulling in to a strip mall. The man was apparently high on
cocaine, but he was unarmed and did not resist the officers. Within
twenty-four seconds from the time he was motioned over by the cops, he
was shot dead.

There is a growing Hispanic community in both Portland and the rest of
Oregon. But this community is largely invisible, unless you are
observant enough to see that nearly all the motel and hotel cleaners,
yard care workers, nannies, and lower-level kitchen staff in restaurants
have brown faces. There are also Indians in Portland and Oregon, and
they have suffered abuse and discrimination longer than any other group.

Despite the relatively small size and as yet political insignificance of
minority groups in Portland, the right-wing talk shows and their large
white and Christian audiences are obsessed with people of color. The
shooting of the two Black persons elicited racist rants for several
weeks from the odious local and now national talk show host, Lars
Larson, and hundreds of callers. According to them, anyone who doesn’t
do what police tell them to do can expect to be killed. Larson said that
the police had done society a favor by killing the man since he was
allegedly a drug dealer. Larson sponsored a contest for listeners to
submit a new state slogan. Among his favorites were: "Welcome to
Mexico," and "Oregon: Habla Espanol?" Remarkably, most people we talked
to seemed oblivious to the problem of nearly complete racial homogeneity
and thought that having a variety of white ethnicities in town was
sufficient diversity for the city.

[A note in passing: It is interesting to observe how close to the
surface racism is in the United States. About six weeks after we left
Portland, we found ourselves in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In addition to
being the state capitol, Santa Fe is a city in which there is very great
wealth, and as is increasingly the case, a growing divide between rich
and poor. Santa Fe trails only New York City in art sales in the United
States. There are more than 100 upscale galleries in town, and matching
the richness of the art market, there are many beautiful adobe-style
homes of several thousand square feet, sitting on the surrounding hills,
and selling for several million dollars. On the other hand, there is
plenty of poverty, hidden in outlying small villages, Indian
reservations and pueblos, and in housing developments behind the many
strip malls on Cerillos Road, the main highway leading into town from
the south. The city has contracted out its jail facilities to a private
company, which has become notorious for prisoner neglect, rape of women
prisoners by guards and male prisoners, suicides, and the other niceties
of imprisonment in this country. The city has already lost several
prisoner lawsuits and faces many more. Almost all of the prisoners are
minorities. On our next to last day in town, I got a haircut. My wife
remarked to the white woman cutting my hair that she hadn’t quite
figured Santa Fe out yet. She was talking about the physical layout and
the economic makeup of the city. The woman responded immediately that
there was a lot of discrimination against whites in Santa Fe!]

The one really good thing about Portland and the Northwest is the
physical grandeur which is close by. During our fourteen months there,
we took full advantage of this. In case you are ever visiting the
region, here are some, but by no means all, of the places most worth a trip:

—Crater Lake: This is a National Park in southern Oregon about three
hours inland from the coast. The result of an enormous volcanic
eruption, Crater Lake is 2,000 feet deep and as beautifully blue as you
will ever see. To local Indians it was a sacred site, and the Indians
kept its existence secret from the white settlers (for fifty years,
after which whites discovered it by accident). The Lake is especially
stunning when the rims are snow-covered, which can be well into summer.

—Mt. St. Helen’s: Twenty-four years after the mountain blew its top, the
marks of utter devastation are everywhere. You can take some nice hikes
around the mountain, always imbued with both a sense of doom, from the
bleakness of the landscape (burned trees can be seen seventeen miles
from the eruption, and a stream, much altered from its original course,
flows through volcanic waste), and of hope, as you see elk grazing in
the valley and wildflowers and some small trees growing once again.

—Mt. Ranier: This is another National Park, but in Washington State,
only three hours from Portland.. Mt. Ranier stands some 14,000 feet
tall, completed covered by glaciers, almost glowing, most spectacularly
in the light of a full moon. Near the fine lodge at Paradise, you can
walk in summer among perhaps the most beautiful array of wildflowers in
the country. In the fall, the groundcover turns into a quilt of reds,
browns, and yellows, rivaling the turning of New England’s autumn leaves.

—Olympic National Park: This park in northwestern Washington has it all:
snow-covered mountains along Hurricane Ridge, near the town of Port
Angeles; a true rain forest on the western side of the Park; and miles
of unspoiled coastline, with gigantic haystack rocks and tide pools
filled with star fish of many colors. Our favorite beach, one on which
you can camp, is Shi Shi beach, which can be reached by going through
the reservation of the Makah Indians. Also on the Makah reservation is
Cape Flattery, the northwesternmost point in the continental United
States. The waters around this cape are rough and the land is undermined
by water caves. As we stood on the platform the Makahs have built and
looked out toward Vancouver Island, we could imagine the Indians hunting
for whales, standing in their wooden boats. Today the impoverished tribe
has reinstated its hunt (which, given that their production has always
been for use and attuned to the rhythms of the natural world, has never
threatened the existence of the whales), in part as a way to inculcate
its culture in the young. This has caused an outcry among some (white)
environmentalists, most of whom have shed precious few tears for the
devastation of Indian society and culture by their white ancestors.

—The Columbia River Gorge: although the Columbia is much dammed and not
the wild river it used to be, the great gorge through which it flows is
full of side canyons with streams and more waterfalls than anywhere else
in the United States. We especially like the trail at Eagle Creek, very
close to the Bonneville dam.

—The Lodge at Mt. Hood: Mt. Hood overlooks the city of Portland,
although it is often hidden behind the area’s infamous cloudy skies. The
lodge at the mountain’s ski area was built by the Civilian Conservation
Corps (CCC) during the Great Depression. The builders were trained in
the wide variety of crafts needed to make such a fine structure. All
throughout the West, CCC works abound (roads, trails, buildings,
bridges, etc.), and their fine craftsmanship shows what could be done
still today through public initiative if only the will were there.

—The Oregon coast: Highway 101 traverses the entire Oregon coast, from
Astoria (where we saw a Finnish workers’ club) to Brookings in the
south. The coast is dotted with accessible and well-maintained state
parks, and it is possible to hike along the rocky coast as well as on
the mountains which often come right down to the shoreline. One of our
favorite areas is the sand dunes, which stretch for fifty miles,
beginning at the town of Florence on the central Oregon coast. Some of
the dunes are over 500 feet tall, and the coast in front of the dunes is
a great place to hike for miles without seeing another person.

We left Portland on April 30. We packed our car with a few IKEA bags
(large sturdy plastic bags you can buy at IKEA stores) of clothes and
personal supplies, several laundry baskets full of food staples (most
purchased at the city’s numerous natural food and farmers’ markets),
lots of good beer (Portland is a beer lovers’ paradise), a cooler,
kitchen utensils, and a two-burner hotplate. Our goal was to travel
around the southwest and west for four months, staying in cheap hotels,
hiking as much as possible, observing the social situation, and cooking
as many meals as possible on our hotplate. We determined not to eat bad
food, and I determined not to gain weight.

To be continued . . . Michael Yates

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