The New Joads in Sacramento's Tent City
The New Joads: Trying to Survive in
the Spectacle-Commodity Society
“…I’ll be around in the dark. I’ll be ever’where. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad…An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why I’ll be there.”
—Tom Joad in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath
“The world at once present and absent that the spectacle holds up to view is the world of the commodity dominating all living experience. The world of the commodity is thus shown for what it is, because its development is identical to people’s estrangement from each other and from everything they produce.”
—Thesis #37 in Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle
On Wednesday, March 18, 2009 a comrade and I drove from San Francisco to investigate the tent city in Sacramento that we had been hearing so much about in the bourgeois media. It had been covered in most daily city papers in the U.S. like the New York and Los Angeles Times, on radio by NPR and elsewhere, and on TV everywhere from local new broadcasts to a special expose for Oprah Winfrey’s show. Television crews from Germany, Switzerland and the U.K. had covered it too and many video clips can be found on YouTube (a simple internet search of “Sacramento tent city” will result in countless articles, videos, audio interviews, and other news sources).
The first thing that struck me as we drove down Sacramento’s “C” Street, a residential street paralleling railroad tracks in an area surrounded by ageing industry and rusting food processing plants, was the number of houses for sale and apartments for rent. It literally seemed like every other lot had a sign staked into the ground out front. Later at the tent city we discovered that among the people we talked with who had recently been housed, including several just foreclosed and evicted from homes they were buying, a majority had worked in the building trades. Many still go out on a regular basis to try to find these kinds of jobs, but there are simply none to be had. So those working class folks who had built the overabundance of housing in the U.S. were among the ones hardest hit by dispossession due to the crisis.
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We had already researched the demographics for the Sacramento area:
· The official unemployment rate is 10.4%.
· In 2007 and 2008 there were 33,500 foreclosures in the eight-county Sacramento metropolitan area.
· In October, 2008 Sacramento was #10 for the number of foreclosures in the U.S.
The top three cities in the country were further down Highway 99 from Sacramento in California’s Central Valley:
The demographics for the U.S. showed:
· There are 6,600 new evictions every day; one occurs every 13 seconds.
· At the end of 2008, more than 19,000,000 housing units stood vacant
· In 2007 estimates said in a single year over 3,500,000 people are homeless (1,350,000 of them being children)
· So the math is simple:
There are more than five empty homes for every homeless individual or family.
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At noon we turned right from “C” onto 20th Street and were soon climbing up an incline over the railroad tracks and faced a fork in the road, right in front of a Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) transformer station. We were not sure which fork to take when we were overtaken by a brand new all-black SUV with darkly tinted windows. It was a bizarre sight and we simply just followed it because it was so conspicuously on the wrong side of the tracks.
We were immediately driving on a narrow gravel road between the railroad tracks and the SMUD yard. As we came to a clearing, we saw the main cluster of the tents in the homeless camp. But almost as on cue in a Hollywood movie, a brand new all-black Lincoln-Continental sedan pulled up to the other side of the clearing on the gravel road from the opposite direction. After we parked and as we were walking closer to the center of the camp, several identical all-black SUVs drove up from the same direction and parked near a large dumpster; near a cantilevered railroad bridge over the American River nearby, two California Highway Patrol motorcycle cops parked their bikes and looked over the scene from the top of the levee.
At least ten well-dressed people exited all of these vehicles, including a woman in a black sleeveless formal dress, wearing high-heel shoes. It was surreal because they looked like they were dressed for a formal cocktail party or a wedding or a funeral, but were entering a camp whose tattered appearance could not have been further distant socially – as evidenced by the overflowing trash piles of empty cheap beer cans, as well as people we later met who clearly seemed to show all the outward signs of being on methamphetamines. An older white man in a light gray tieless suit along with a younger African American man in a tan blazer led the entourage of men, all of whom wore black suits and ties, along with a couple of women who were similarly dressed.
We quickly made our way to this group that was attracting the inhabitant’s eager attention. Soon, we realized why: “Governator” of California Arnold Schwarzenegger was greeting the locals along with Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. This was also completely surreal; a Hollywood action movie-star touring the meager living quarters of economic refugees side-by-side with a local-boy-made-good — former NBA basketball star Johnson.
En route, an older toothless woman came towards us after having shaken hands with these celebrity guests, but was grumbling about the mayor wanting to evict the camp and put people up in the nearby ARCO Arena (a venue for entertainment and where professional sports teams play). We reminded her of the disaster that befell refugees from Hurricane Katrina who got locked in the Superdome in New Orleans and she agreed with us and said she would never be forced to live where she did not choose.
As we crept closer to the politicians it quickly became obvious that most of their party were bodyguards, so we approached tentatively and non-threateningly. And it was amazing because there was absolutely no media with them. Soon my comrade saw an opening and stood right next to Schwarzenegger and Johnson. He began by urging them to not displace people without offering something better and said they ought to install proper toilets, sanitation and water. He defended the inhabitants of the tent city and demanded that their needs get met. Like politicians the world over, Schwarzenegger and Johnson constantly reiterated meaningless statements like “We’re looking into it,” and “It’s being taken care of” without mentioning a single concrete thing being done. They name-dropped high-profile homeless activists in Sacramento and said they were “working closely with them.”
Everything they said was complete bullshit, in their attempt to try to placate us and allow them get on their way to size up the camp. I can only speculate, but they seemed to be testing the waters to see what kind of reaction they would get to their plan to shut down the camp. This was mixed in with extremely poor camp dwellers racing over to shake Schwarzenegger hand for no other reason that they had seen his movies.
I approached Schwarzenegger myself during another lull by saying “You’re from Hollywood, so you must be aware of John Ford’s movie Grapes of Wrath, you know the Depression story of homeless refugees in California. The government funded the building of camps with running water, toilets and showers, kitchen facilities, and sanitation and the place was run democratically by the people living there. That kind of thing is what you should be building in places like this.” He reached out, shook my hand, and asked me my name. I shook it, but he said nothing else so I went on and told him that he must “put a moratorium on evictions in California and allow homeless and evicted people to reoccupy vacant housing.” He made another of his “we’re looking into it” statements and nothing more.
If I had read Grapes of Wrath more recently than high school, I would have remembered that the Weedpatch Camp in the novel was based on the actual Resettlement Administration camp at Arvin in California’s Central Valley that furnished running water, electricity, firewood, and medical care for the residents who were mostly “Okie” and “Arkie” Dust Bowl refugees. Contrasted with these camps up and down California during the Great Depression, others less fortunate were forced to live in the unhealthy squalor of ditchbank settlements which were not much different than the tent cities all over California – and the U.S. – today.
My comrade then engaged Johnson again, who promptly asked him what group he was from. Thinking quickly, he said the “Unemployed League” (in the 1930s, the group around A.J. Muste), then Johnson handed him his business card and said to contact him again. As they walked away, a woman in one of the camps ran over and said to Schwarzenegger “I saw all your movies! I saw all your movies!” and reached him and shook his hand. As he turned to leave, she repeated one of his movie clichés “I’ll be back.” He turned back to her and repeated another of his banal movie lines, in his thick Austrian accent, “Hasta la vista, baby!” Looking around at all the poverty, filth and desperation, I was sick at heart hearing this. The best this politician scum could do was recite lines from his “B” movies. Hearing patronizing crap like that would make any working person want to take the class war on the offensive.
We walked to the area near the one of the four tall electricity transmission towers near the levee and scanned the camp from a higher position. We watched the politicians and their entourage drive off after their cameo and other camp residents came to us and asked what the politicians had said. A woman came up as well and said she asked Arnie for money and he had gone into his pocket and gave her $23, which we all found paltry for such a successful movie star. About a half dozen of us were talking and a couple left us to set up a tent nearby and another middle-aged guy began explaining the camp’s logistics for us. He pointed to one of the pit toilets, with plastic tarps on three sides which was built up against the chain link fence separating SMUD property, where almost all of them were camped, from that owned by Blue Diamond Almonds, which has several food processing plants overlooking the camp from across the railroad tracks.
One can approximate the time of residency by the condition of the tents and other impromptu dwellings. Newer ones are stand-alones, mostly nylon tents, while the older ones are supplemented by blue plastic tarps and use 2 x 4s and other scavenged materials to bolster the materials used to cover the living space. There are several hundred tents and shelters and our observations confirmed that there are at least 300 people in the tent city. We did not get enough of a sense of the exact ethnic composition, but it did seem to be fairly equally divided among African Americans, Latinos and whites – and we met one Asian guy.
We walked along the levee and reached another narrow strip of land down the bank across from the river and came to another opening with half a dozen newer tents on land we were told is owned by Union Pacific. There we found one of the most bizarre tent sites in the entire camp. It could be described as suburban-style tent dwelling. It had a mailbox in front, along with an arch topped by three tiki lamps. It had a new section of fencing next to a swinging gate in from of a compound of four full-size family-style camping tents. The plot of land was paved with gravel and the perimeter was surrounded on three sides with barbed wire, which was only about two feet high.
Soon we walked back to the central cluster of the tent city to find the car of some young anarchist comrades from Modesto who announced their arrival by cell phone. We had met them last autumn when they were our guides to investigating foreclosures and squatting in their hard hit city. So we gave these three new people a tour. In the exact center of the tent city, where the politicians had been an hour before, we immediately encountered some young people in a tent and tarp compound who were not only willing to talk with us, but were eager to make clear that they were not in the tent city by choice. They wanted to distinguish themselves from the people commonly maligned in the bourgeois media as “chronically homeless” who choose to live outside, often to imbibe their substance of choice undisturbed. This category also included the mentally ill who either could find no resources to cope with their problems, or simply chose not to even try. The young people we talked with fit the demographic of the newly homeless: almost all of them had worked in the building trades until just recently. The guy who was the most receptive to our suggestions for solidarity and mutual aid to the tent city even detailed the problems of trying to “organize” the camp. He was articulate and said until the crisis he was working in construction and going to college. And he repeatedly made clear that he wanted to stop living there and get back in housing as soon as possible. My comrade from San Francisco had a proposal: we would bring building supplies that we could scrounge and get donated and with the building skills of the inhabitants of the encampment, we would help build a permanent latrine to improve sanitation. The main guy we had been talking with thought it a great idea and gave us his cell phone number for when we come back to do it.
All along, we had noticed some older people whose encampments were right on the periphery of the tent city, right adjacent to the gravel road along the railroad tracks, as well as along the base of the levee of the American River. The people living there seemed almost too eager to talk and later, when we reviewed the videos and new reports, we saw that some of them were repeatedly interviewed and there was a common theme they put forward of middle class lives ruined and their current victimhood. I could vaguely discern a distance between these people and others not so willing to splay themselves so readily before the cameras and microphones. Just as we were about to leave the young people we had just been talking with about the latrine proposal, we noticed a big new SUV creeping along the gravel road at the top of the levee with a photographer walking down the banks to take photos of tents and shelters. We asked who they were. They said they thought they were some French reporters.
We took our Modesto comrades to the opposite side of the camp where the suburban tent compound was and on the way back, walking along the levee, we encountered what turned out to be the French reporters. My San Francisco comrade, who speaks fluent French, found out they were from the weekly tabloid Paris-Match. He proceeded to berate them in French for being vultures and spectacularizing the suffering of the tent city denizens. He also tried to give them more background on the social and economic situation and they did listen, but they were just one tiny part of the media feeding frenzy that the camp attracted.
As we were returning to our car, we canvassed others at their camps about the latrine-building proposal and got near universal support. And as we were leaving, we saw another non-descript news crew moving from tent to tent with a large microphone, trying to interview people. A few people had told us of their frustration with the constant stream of reporters; early one morning a photographer had taken a picture of a man coming out of his tent, only to be punched for the intrusion. We agreed that he probably deserved it.
As we approached the main gravel road along the railroad tracks where our car was parked, up ahead we saw a van distributing pre-cooked food in plastic to-go boxes out the back. I think someone said they were a church group. Nearing the van, we saw an African American woman we had briefly talked with earlier. She appeared to be new because earlier she had not only asked if we were living there, but asked us general questions about the tent city. She referred to having only recently been laid off and then evicted and she was still wearing make-up and did not have the constantly dirty look of longtime residents. She still seemed to cling to the hope that she could get out of there and make her life better again. The image of her sweet and kind smile in that place of such despair and squalor saddens me just thinking about it again.
As we were finally leaving, she called out “Don’t forget about us.”
 The Sacramento Bee, March 18, 2009
 Center for Responsible Lending, “Foreclosures,” retrieved from: http://www.responsiblelending.org/issues/mortgage/
 National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, “2007 Annual Report,” retrieved from: http://www.nlchp.org/content/pubs/2007_Annual_Report2.pdf