Sunday, December 8, 2013

The City Where Genocide Lives

If you've ever been to a place like Greeley,  Colorado, it's something you will never forget.  It is something that will, as I wrote in the comments section of one of my colleague's Facebook posts, be forever burned in your mind . . . and your  nostrils.

If you've read Fast Food Nation, you should have an idea about what makes Greeley so memorable.  Greeley hosts the largest producer of "beef" and "pork" in the United States.  That is, Greeley is where billions of cows and pigs go to die.  The smell of feces and urine, or, more accurately, the smell of death is so overpowering, it is enough to make you gag.  It is heavy in the air.  Rolling up the car windows doesn't help, and don't even try turning on your air conditioner.

Miles of feedlots surround Greeley, Colorado
The city's history gives some interesting clues to its present-day situation.  Ironically, Greeley began as a "utopian" project built on morality, religion, and temperance. "Founded" by white "settlers" from the East Coast, Greeley began like many other American cities:  through systematic discrimination and the forced removal of indigenous populations.  Indeed, members of the Ute tribe resisted as whites moved in (what Wikipedia euphemistically referred to as "Indian troubles"). Hundreds of thousands of buffalo still lived in the area at the time, and were systematically massacred to feed several "hide" industries in the town. Immigrants from Scandanavia, Germany, Japan, and elsewhere came to the community to do the difficult agricultural work.  During World War II, the two German Prisoner-of-War camps housed in Greeley provided a source of low-cost labor as well.  In many ways, Greeley epitomizes the white project of colonization and exploitation.

Pro-gun billboard in Greeley that caught considerable criticism from the Native American community
Today, Native Americans are largely gone from the town.  Drawn to jobs in the agricultural industry, Hispanics now make up over 1/3 of the town's population.  Because slaughterhouse work the most dangerous underpaid job in the United States, poor persons, people of color, illiterate persons, non-native, and undocumented workers are far more likely to be employed there.

For that matter, the slaughterhouse, JBS Swift and Company, is Brazilian owned.  Most of the profits from the industry don't reenter the depressed community.  In fact, they leave the country.  Of course, the Brazilian poor are exploited, too, as the "meat" industry has a long history of violent land dispossession in South America.  The US aided project left millions destitute, landless, and dead as the industry pursues large tracts of land to support the astronomical amount of food, water, and energy needed to produce Nonhuman Animal products for wealthy "developed" nations.

A large percentage of "livestock" feed comes from South America, where the poor have been removed from the land and rainforests decimated to make room for soybeans and other crops.
My friend deleted my comment about Greeley, incidentally.  His post was intended to rally support and praise for the community which had been recognized as an "ideal" industrial community.  He said that my comment, which drew attention to the horrors of the industry, was a "slap in the face" to his friends and students living there.

I can understand how Facebook may not be the place to have that conversation, but I do not think "community pride" (at least as it was meant in that context) is appropriate in this situation.  In my colleague's post, he was celebrating the fact that Greeley was voted one of the best cities in the United States.  I found such an uncritical declaration to be offensive in its blatant ignorance of the massive amount of human and nonhuman suffering that literally hangs in the air.  I lived in Fort Collins, almost an hour away, and on windy days, the odor of genocide wafted across the prairie as a constant reminder.

My time in Colorado was not my only experience with systematic oppression.  I grew up and currently live in one of the poorest and smelliest places in the state of Virginia.  Appalachia also has a long history of exploitation, with rich outsiders setting up polluting and extractive industries in our area, only to destroy our health and our environment while sending accumulated wealth to outside landowners and investors.  I have some understanding of what it means to live in an area that puts dollar signs in the eyes of privileged outsiders while the community itself is destroyed and ignored.  In fact, I wrote my thesis about it.  But my solution certainly wasn't to embrace or pay deference to the great, almighty paper mill here in town.  Indeed, my thesis was concerned with the fact that so many unquestioningly praise the paper mill's impact on our economy (what economy?), and so few felt empowered enough to engage in collective action as we incurred damage after damage.  Our rivers browned and fish die.  Our air is heavy with sulfurous, noxious emissions.  Endless trains of coal trudge from the mountains.  Trucks rattle up and down the hills, carrying loads of decimated forests. Historical sites and scenic gorges have been destroyed and lost forever.  And no one stood up in protest.  Instead, we were convinced to take pride in our industry.

Home sweet home.  My mother works right across the railroad tracks and is convinced her working there while pregnant is why my brother has had a brain tumor since he was a young child.
Sorry, but I don't buy that.  We need to be talking about it.  We need to stand up against environmental destruction, environmental racism, classism, and speciesism.  We need to take a stand against the violent assault on vulnerable human populations and the unquestioned genocide on cows, pigs, chickens, and other at-risk species.  Let our community pride be a pride for our dignity and rights, and not "pride" for internalized oppression and powerlessness.