Erased Peoples, Excised Histories: On My Train Ride, the Tracks Form a Wake of Blood, Sweat and Tears

Railroad tracks(Photo: Steve took it) After discovering during a recent train trip that Sabra hummus, a boycott target of the Palestine solidarity movement, was served on Amtrak, I wrote this essay to tackle what the Sabra brand’s presence on the train evoked for me, the child of a railroad worker: the grim intersections of oppression at home and abroad. Presented in five vignettes, the following thoughts are shaped by the Asian-American experience and by the state of urgency that is anti-racism in the era of Trayvon Martin. I wrote this piece with my fellow people in mind – that is, those people who are compelled to change the world and are trying to figure out how to do it effectively.

I. Privilege

Longer than the span of my life, my stepfather worked for the railroad. He is now a dozen years retired, with two hip replacements down and two knee replacements to go. Since the day he lied on his job application to upgrade his age, 17, to the required 18, every day he worked, my stepfather stepped up and down every car that made up every train that ran through Rose Lake rail yard.

He retired from Conrail, a company formed by the government in 1976 out of six nearly bankrupt rail lines with $7 billion in taxpayer dollars. Less than a decade later, it was sold back to private investors for less than $2 billion in stock options. Gloating over this epic scam, Elizabeth Dole, then secretary of transportation, chirped that the Reagan administration had “succeeded in the largest privatization in US history,” imagining “this success should break ground for more privatizations to come.”

Politicians the world over, of all parties, have since privatized even the rain. But democracy was reawoken in the process, and it seems that, even in America, the chickens are coming home to occupy the roost.

Today, we are still living in a limbo, negotiating our way between this world and wanting something new. And I am just a kid on the phone with my mom, worried. She is hurriedly catching up with me while checking on generic options for her and my stepfather’s various medicines; she says the cost was getting difficult. I’m worried, although in truth, my parents are the picture of good luck for the 99 percent in America. The railroad is one of the last strongholds of pensions, and though their check is not enough to live on, to pay for health care on, or to plan for anything enjoyable in life, they hang on to the remnants of what many more in America once had: a working-class, no-big money-in-the-bank retirement. In the meantime, they’ve never made enough money to consider moving out of their cramped house. It is where I grew up; it is where they live today. Long paid off, the house is free of a predatory mortgage. For that I am grateful. I am also seething with rage. There is no light, no air. It is broken everywhere, and characterless, slowly settling in to the coalmines below it. All I have ever seen my mother and stepfather do is work, hard, for very little, and through physical pain. This will likely be the end of their story. This is what passes as good luck for the working class in America today.

II. Blood on the Tracks

The last time I saw my parents we watched “Hell on Wheels,” an epic drama depicting the building of the railroads in America. It is estimated that 12,000 Chinese immigrants built the Central Pacific railroad running across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It is estimated that for every two miles of track laid, three Chinese laborers died. They died from explosive accidents and exhaustion. They died from snow slides while forced to work in winter. As the first immigrant group of color to arrive to the continent by choice, the Chinese American story warrants our close attention. Their future was written in that of the African slaves and American Indians before them, and their experience would foretell that of all immigrant groups to follow.

Yet much like American History class, “Hell on Wheels” features not one Chinese character. The producers say Chinese workers were, in their words, simply “excised” from the story. It is an interesting word choice. In 1882, just over a decade after the transcontinental railroad was finished, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. With support from politicians and labor leaders across the political spectrum, the Act denied citizenship to the Chinese present in America and barred the entry of any to come. Among those who supported its numerous renewals was Congressman Leland Stanford, the multimillionaire who endowed Stanford University and made his fortune as president of the Central Pacific Railroad.

In an era of mass European immigration, the Chinese were a mere .002 percent of the population. In an era of railroad strikes and Haymarket riots, they were the racial scapegoat picked to alleviate the antagonisms between white labor and white capital. Xenophobia then marked a new era, one of deadly violence and ethnic cleansing, known as “The Driving Out.” Across the west, mobs stormed through Chinatowns, burning homes and businesses to the ground. Chinese people were lynched, burned alive, scalped and crucified. They were herded on to railcars and never seen again. Sacramento’s Chinatown was burned repeatedly. In one instance, the fire department did not allow residents running out of buildings ablaze to go to the hospital. They prevented the fire’s spread to the rest of the city while letting the ethnic enclave burn to the ground. Beneath Sacramento’s rail yard today, the rubble remains.

III. “It’s Not Fair”

A century later, Vincent Chin, the descendant of railroad workers, made national news. His mother Lily’s great-grandfather was an early railroad builder who was driven out of the United States and back to China. Despite his tales of racial persecution, Lily, too, later immigrated to the United States, where she married David Chin, a World War II veteran with whom she later adopted her only child, Vincent.

Vincent Chin was an auto draftsman by day and a waiter by night, working two jobs to marry his fiancé Vicki, for whom he often wrote poetry. Chin also planned to purchase a new home for the young couple and his widowed mother to share.

At 27, Chin was brutally murdered and his killers freed. His crime was looking akin to Japanese in Detroit in the midst of deindustrialization. The crime of the Japanese was being the scapegoat for a dramatically declining American auto industry.

It was June of 1982. Michigan Rep. John Dingell, a Democrat now in his 29th term, blamed “the little yellow men” for the failings of the auto industry in a speech to Congress earlier in the year. He was one of many politicians and labor leaders to do so.

It was one week before he was to be married, and Chin was celebrating his last bachelor night out at a strip club, where two white men, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, took issue with the attention dancers paid to the “Chink … Nip … Fucker,” saying “It’s because of you motherfuckers that we’re out of work.” Being a self-respecting city kid, Vincent replied to their taunts, and a fight ensued. Everyone was ejected from the club. Ebens, a plant supervisor, and Nitz, a laid-off autoworker and Ebens’ stepson, were unsatisfied, however, and paid a neighborhood resident $20 to help them find “the Chinese.” In the parking lot of a McDonald’s, they snuck up from behind Chin. Nitz held the groom-to-be, and Ebens, like he was, “going for a home run,” took a baseball bat repeatedly to Chin’s brain, bludgeoning him to death. Chin’s last words, whispered to a friend as he slipped into a coma in the McDonald’s parking lot, were simply, “It’s not fair.”

Ebens and Nitz received three years probation and a fine of $3,780 each, despite their guilty plea. They never served any time. The presiding Judge Charles Kaufman asserted, “These aren’t the kind of men you send to jail.” Activist pressure led to intervention by the Department of Justice, but in the subsequent federal prosecution, an all-white jury again set Chin’s killers free. Driven out by a different horror than her great-grandfather before her, Lily Chin moved back to China. “Something is wrong with this country,” she said.

When your people and your history are excised, you can be, too. Your story is unknown, so no one is taught to care about it – or you. Demented people are free to invent their own version and turn your wedding into your funeral.

IV. We Contain Multitudes

The morning of his wedding, in 2006, unarmed 23-year-old Sean Bell, a father of two, was riddled with 50 bullets. The officer who began the barrage, long cleared of charges, was fired only weeks ago. Black America is always forced to know how little life is worth in this country.

Anyone who is queer and undocumented and ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time know it too. In 2008, newly engaged Luis Ramirez, a 25-year-old father of two, was walking his future sister-in-law home through their depressed Pennsylvania coal-mining town when a group of drunken white teenagers took issue with the interracial pair. Amidst ethnic slurs, Luis was beaten to death; his attackers are now free men.

For the children of the brown diasporas, a target is drawn for every economic recession and driven to distraction from Washington. Your community may sit out a song or two, but the dance is never over. You can be a foreigner again, a sacrificial scapegoat, a targeted people, at any moment in America. Never mind if you are Chinese-American who built the country. Never mind if you are a Latina and you maintain the country. Never mind you are just a kid buying candy, or a father, or mother, or lover, or worshiper. You are any shade of brown, and you are not rich.

And if, in one way or another, you are deemed as somehow not a man, you could be a Matthew Shepard, a hate crime victim, a rape survivor. You are, as it is said, “asking for it.”

Which is to say, it is 30 years after the murder of Vincent Chin and there is still something wrong with this country. How much longer that has to be the case depends on how many of us are willing to respond to Trayvon Martin’s last words – his cries for help. It depends on solidarity, a word that sometimes seems unreal, a slogan splashed across red banners. We know the word only having seen glimpses of its ability to inspire mass action.

But we have all already occupied the same intimate spaces. Across time and across the planet, our bodies have been warred on, legislated against, murdered in cold blood, for being guilty of believing in the American Dream, guilty of not complying with our own genocide, guilty of being pulled to the United States from a homeland devastated by the United States. Our stories overlap, repeat, lie segregated.

My own story is a Hapa story: an Asian, white working-class, woman’s story. There is no part of it I can choose, or assess academically and rank, or feel is taken care of because of simplified anecdotes on race or class or gender. I am not anything first or second or third, but mixed, down to my DNA. I carry these legacies simultaneously. In another life, my stepfather could have been swinging the bat at my father; in this life, both of their bodies were broken, slowly, by a different horror.

Solidarity means we are responsible to all of humanity. Solidarity means acting on your own behalf is acting on behalf of others. Solidarity means acting on behalf of all the bodies broken. Solidarity means someday there can be no more bodies broken.

Solidarity means you do not gloss over racism or the many steep disparities it produces, or explain how you suffer too, even though you are (fill in the blank). Solidarity means the need to say that is not why you are here.

Solidarity means there is more than identity and nationalism, politics that have no place and no answers for anyone mixed in DNA or allegiances. Solidarity means you can’t choose one aspect of yourself, so you won’t. Solidarity means you never judge based on what only your eyes see; you give anyone who is thinking critically and acting the benefit of the doubt.

Solidarity means we have to do something, now. We haven’t known exactly what to do yet and with whom. But now is the time, and there is only us. The Democrats, the sectarians and the old guard have run out of dead ends with which to distract us. We have no choice but to forge something new. We desperately want to make this turning point real. So, we have to listen. We have to speak up. Be it Occupy or not, we have to find one another, and act. There is much to do, because solidarity does not end at the US borders. Something is wrong with this world.

V. Sabra on Amtrak

Today, I am traveling across the Midwest, on Amtrak, returning from seeing my parents. As I think on these things, traveling here with me quietly are generations lost, generations decaying, public monies stolen, blood, sweat and tears, the tracks a sort of wake: carnage of American history and empire.

Traveling here with me quietly is an active symbol of celebration that a people have been dispossessed, pushed to near oblivion, strafe bombed and targeted for dehumanization, daily, since 1948. Sabra hummus is served on Amtrak.

We are always taught to look away. It is just hummus on a train car.

But Sabra is owned by the Strauss Group, which proudly supports the Golani and Givati brigades, elite units of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) with severe histories of human rights abuses and war crimes – from the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 through Operation Cast Lead 60 years later. As the Strauss Group explained in its corporate responsibility statement, “Our connection with soldiers goes as far back as the country … We see a mission and need to continue to provide our soldiers with support.” The Strauss Group’s support of the Golani and Givati brigades is an endorsement of their actions, actions in direct contravention to international and human rights law. This endorsement is bought and sold on Amtrak. It is bought and sold everywhere: Sabra sales represent approximately 40 percent of the $312 million market for dips and spreads in the United States.

The two brigades have taken part in many major Israeli incursions, all bearing the hallmark of indiscriminate killing of civilians, and they have become notorious for their extreme abuse of Palestinians. A brief history:

In 1948, when Israel was no more a land without a people than the United States was when it began to claim the land of Native Americans, both brigades helped carry out the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. A mass expulsion of the indigenous population, entailing massacres and rape, led to the destruction of 531 villages, 11 cities and the forced displacement of approximately 800,000 people, many of whom ended up as refugees.

In 1982, days before the murder of Vincent Chin, both brigades began Operation Peace in Galilee, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. The Golani brigade took part in the destruction of Ain al Hilweh refugee camp, the largest in Lebanon. Reports put the number of casualties anywhere from 1,500 to 8,000. The brigade also took part in the Seige of Beirut, in which the IDF attacked ambulances and refused to let Red Cross vehicles bring medical supplies to wounded civilians. Most notoriously, the invasion included the Sabra and Shatila massacre, condemned as an act of genocide by the UN. The IDF facilitated the massacre, preventing escape, lending bulldozers and firing illuminating flares over the camps as a Lebanese militia slaughtered approximately 1,700 people 50 yards away.

In 1988, in one week alone, four Palestinians died after being beaten by soldiers. Thirteen soldiers from the Golani and Givati brigades were put on trial for three such incidents, of which the beating death of Iyad Akal was one. Seventeen years old – the same age as Trayvon Martin – Iyad was taken from his cousin in his home in the Bureij refugee camp, handcuffed and beaten by multiple soldiers. He died hours later.

In 2002, in the Jenin refugee camp, home to14,000 Palestinians, an incursion took place in which the Golani brigade played a central role, aiming to capture and kill Palestinian militants. Although international human rights law requires all feasible precautions be taken to avoid harm to civilians, at least 22 civilian deaths occurred, some amounting to summary executions, a war crime. Just one of those stories is that of 33-year-old father of three Jamal al-Sabbagh, shot dead in Israeli custody while obeying Israeli orders. A few hours earlier, he and his family had escaped heavy fighting near their home and watched it burn after being struck by a missile. Jamal’s wife Nadia then watched as her husband voluntarily obeyed Israeli orders for all men to come to the street. He was asked to strip, which he did. He was then taken to a square and asked to strip again, which he was doing when he was shot dead next to his 16-year-old neighbor, who heard his last words, a prayer.

In 2006, the Givati brigade led Operation Summer Rains: the collective punishment of the 1.5 million people in Gaza. The destruction of Gaza’s only electricity station, its waterways, bridges and roads thrust the population into a major humanitarian crisis, considered a war crime by Amnesty International.

In 2008 came Operation Cast Lead, the three-week bombardment of Gaza, which led to 1,440 civilian deaths, 431 of them children. It was described as an act of genocide by UN General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann. The Givati brigade commander authorized the use of white phosphorous in bombing a UN compound housing 700 displaced civilians, as well as, the same day, a nearby hospital. Both brigades used Palestinian children as human shields, and it later surfaced that Givati brigade snipers sported a T-shirt featuring a target over a pregnant Palestinian woman with the words “1 shot 2 kills.” Mother and daughter Raya and Majda Abu Hajjaj were two of the many casualties. They were shot and killed as they waved white flags.

In America, we are taught to consider this conflict as an issue separate from our own. Yet the United States has given Israel $115 billion in military and economic aid, to date – the cost of tending to a watchdog in the destroyed Middle East. Our tax dollars and our government aid and abet a murderous apartheid system abroad while they prop up a new Jim Crow at home, fostering a deadly situation for the Trayvon Martins and immigrants across the country. So, we do not recognize US borders, borders drawn on stolen land, an apartheid wall to our south. We will not do what we are taught. We will not look away, from anything, from now on.

Instead, we will look only to ourselves and to those who came before. We look to the abolitionists, to the railroad builders who went on strike against the odds, the Pullman porters who refused to been seen and not heard, the rare union leaders opposed to racism, the anti-racist pioneers of Yellow Power and Black Power and Chicano Power and socialism. We look to the 14 million Americans who did something as simple as buy different grapes in support of the United Farm Workers grape boycott and told others to do the same. We look to the movement that ended South African apartheid, and the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement struggling to win justice for the people Israel seeks to excise today. We will look to the heroes and heroines unnamed in history books who started picketing and protesting; the ones who took it upon themselves to form new organizations to express and fight for the dreams of their day, the ones who wouldn’t look away, who stood for their own lives and stood in solidarity, the ones who tried to change the world.