The Old South Lives in Today’s DC: Exploitation Then and Now

All of the laborers I saw in the Rayburn House Office Building during Occupy the Congress; all of the people delivering mail through its dark, wood doors adorned with stars; all those polishing the golden balustrades and buffing the marble-trimmed floors; all those setting up a Navy banquet in cooks' jackets, were black. I wandered every hall of every floor of the building after being told I'd have to come back in two hours to see my Congressman, and I didn't see a single non-black laborer. There were non-black Congressional aides and Capitol police, sure, but the salt-of-the-earth-ers were all black, every one. It is difficult to escape America's racial legacy when protesting in Washington, DC.

A high-stakes game of red rover had erupted among occupiers earlier in the day. Protesters from occupations all over the country had assembled in Washington, DC, to bring a message to Congress – there's wealth power (plutocracy) and people power (democracy), and while the Congress has represented wealth power, the occupations all over the country have been representing people power for the last four months. A permit had been granted the occupiers for use of a certain part of the Capitol's west lawn, but protesters didn't see why the guaranteed rights to peaceable assembly and free speech should require official permission and so took a different part of the west lawn.

The two groups of nonviolent civilians stood on two lawns separated by a pathway, which was “occupied” by dozens of armed police. Partly out of defiance, partly to demonstrate the protest's innocuousness and partly for the sheer fun of it, a protester would run across occasionally. Two were arrested, but eventually the volume became great enough that the police simply had to watch. Say this for the Capitol Police: they are trained to de-escalate tension during protest (and hold doors open for elected officials) and proved much more adept in that division than the New York Police Department, which have, over the course of the last four months, shown a particular penchant for escalation. “Why can't we use the path?!” one occupier shouted. “Our tax dollars built this city!” Actually, I pointed out to him, slave labor had built this city.

It wasn't until 2010 that the Congress erected plaques commemorating that particular aspect of Washington's construction. “This original exterior wall was constructed between 1793 and 1800 of sandstone quarried by laborers, including enslaved African Americans, who were an important part of the work force that built the United States Capitol,” the plaques read. On that occasion, civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) said, “Imagine, in Washington's oppressive summer heat and humidity, to chisel and pull massive stones out of a snake- and mosquito-infested quarry. Imagine, having to fight through the bone-chilling winter in rags and sometimes without shoes. Just imagine, the United States government paying your owner, not you, but your owner $5 a month for your labor. This Capitol, the most recognizable symbol of our democracy, was not built overnight, it was not built by machines. It was built through the backbreaking work of laborers and slave laborers.”

The days of official racial subordination are not gone, I was reminded, wandering Rayburn's halls. Every member of Congress' office door is flanked by the American flag and the flag of the representative's state. But only one office has a welcome mat that reads “Hafa Adai,” (“Hello” in Chamorro), and that is the office of Madeleine Z. Bordallo, Democratic representative of Guam, a small island which the US conquered one day in 1898, over which it retains control and the native population of which remains the subject of very harsh subjugation.

Slavery and colonization are what happen when no one makes laws limiting the courses of action available to those who would amass control of resources by the exploitation of others. By and large, today's American plutocrats use different, kinder tactics to accomplish that goal. They lobby Congress for laws that facilitate their accumulation of wealth and for the repeal of laws that impede it. They work to bust unions and other non-governmental protections for workers. They make every attempt to minimize the commons and privatize the assets and enterprises that Americans collectively own. The Occupy movement is largely a response to the excesses of an American political system so fraught with this type of abuse that many have lost faith in traditional politics' ability to combat it.

Even the elected officials who profess support for the protesters are participants in the practices that have driven them to protest. I was in the Rayburn building to speak with my Rep., Charlie Rangel, in order to ask him about a 2008 meeting The New York Times reported he participated in with John Samuels, a former Treasury official who was then the head of General Electric's tax division. The largest corporation in the United State, GE “reported worldwide profits of $14.2 billion, and said $5.1 billion of the total came from its operations in the United States. Its American tax bill? None. In fact, G.E. claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion.”

Rangel became Chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee in 2006, a wave election in which many of Rangel's fellow members of the Progressive Caucus gained considerable power in the House on a promise of fundamentally changing business in Washington so that it responded to the needs of people rather than corporations. Before this meeting, the Times reported, Rangel was threatening to close the legal loopholes that allowed GE and similar corporations to get away with this sort of gaming of the tax system. After that meeting, he dropped the threat, and a month later, Rangel and GE's then-CEO Jeffrey Immelt “stood together at St. Nicholas Park in Harlem as G.E. announced that its foundation had awarded $30 million to New York City schools, including $11 million to benefit various schools in Mr. Rangel's district.”

Immelt went on to be President Obama's “Jobs Czar,” despite his history of raking in exorbitant executive compensation while laying off workers. A 2010 report by the Institute for Police Studies claimed that Immelt earned $5.58 million while laying off 3,568 workers. Also that year, Representative Rangel was censured by Congress “for soliciting donations from corporations and executives with business before his committee.” I wanted to find out how Representative Rangel would account for these and other facts.

I caught Mr. Rangel in the hall and asked if he'd be available to meet. He explained that he was busy and invited me to come back tomorrow. Three Occupy the Congress protesters called his name from the end of the hall. One raised her fist and shouted, “Occupy!” The Congressman smiled broadly and told them, “I couldn't be more proud of you.” One of them returned the glad tidings. “Keep up the great work, Congressman!” I asked the occupiers if they would comment on Mr. Rangel's record, including having taken 2008 campaign money from, among others, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Goldman Sachs and having voted for TARP, which funneled billions of taxpayer dollars into the coffers of those same mega-banks.

“TARP saved America,” one protester told me, another adding, “You must be a Ron Paul supporter.”

The day had its exciting moments: red rover, an inter-occupation general assembly affectionately referred to as Occupy Voltron, the citizen lobbying effort in the House offices, a march from the Capitol to the Supreme Court and the White House, a party on the Capitol's west lawn, a lot of inter-occupation networking and the beginning of planning for some national actions. But it also helped bring into focus how much work there is to be done, dismantling a system with a very unpleasant history and the support even of those who claim to work against it.