Revolution #149, November 30, 2008
An American Eviction Story
The Desperate Hours of
On October 1, 2008, a sheriff and his deputy knocked on the door of a small white house in Akron, Ohio. Addie Polk, the 90-year-old Black woman who lived there, went to her dresser and looked at the foreclosure notice that had been duct-taped to her door a month earlier. She pulled out her life insurance policy. She put it next to her keys.
And then she opened the drawer where the pistol was kept.
Addie Polk was born in 1918. It was the year World War 1 ended. That war—between England, France, Russia and the U.S. on one side, and Germany on the other—was fought over which imperialist powers would control the colonies of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The war brought carnage on an unprecedented scale—five million lives thrown onto the altar by the “great powers” to determine the outcome. The war also brought huge changes, all over the world.
In the United States, the war provided a chance to make big profits. But the American capitalists needed workers to make those profits, and their preferred source of workers—the impoverished immigrants from Europe—were cut off by the war.
So the capitalists cast their gaze to the South, where the masses of Black people were still chained to the land. The South, where Black people were forced to grow and pick the cotton, from can’t see in the morning to can’t see at night, only to end up deeper in debt at year’s end—while the landlords grew richer. The South, where Black people had to step off the sidewalk when a white man walked down it, and turn their eyes to the ground when they talked to a white man. Where they couldn’t drink out of fountains reserved for whites, or go to school with whites. And where those who didn’t go along were jailed and made into a new kind of slave on the road gangs and in the mines of the South...or were beaten...or were lynched.
So when the northern capitalists put out the word that they would, for the first time, hire Black people in large numbers, the people responded. They fled the horrors of the South for the “promised land” of the North in massive numbers, and half a million found jobs in the big northern industries. Sometimes, especially in the early days of the migration, the Black people heading North would even break into cheers and song when the train passed over the Mason-Dixon line—the dividing line between North and South.
Akron—where Addie Polk was to make her home—boomed in the war as well. It became the “rubber capital” of the world, churning out tires. Its population went from 69,000 in 1910 to nearly 210,000 in 1920. And Akron, where a lynch mob had once run wild for two days in 1900, saw a Black community begin to take root.
But when the war ended, the boom ended. Capital could no longer profitably employ many Black people who had come North. It didn’t need them.
And besides—the social order was becoming unglued. In Russia, the Bolsheviks had led the masses to make a revolution. This revolution was led by the formerly bitterly-exploited working class and it had, as a central point, freedom and equality for the oppressed nationalities of the Russian empire. The revolution, and the communist ideology that led it, were gaining worldwide influence. And the Black men who had been drafted in World War I had been trained and sent to Europe to fight for the U.S.—where they were in some cases treated as equals by European whites. The men of property and power decreed that traditional social relations—the hierarchy—must be forcibly hammered back into place.
And so in 1919, when Addie Polk was one year old, the cheers on the train turned to dust in the people’s mouths. White workers (along with small businessmen, shopkeepers, etc.) were, once again, mobilized as white people—to protect “their” jobs and “their” neighborhoods. Scores of cities, North as well as South, witnessed barbaric white rampages against African-Americans. Chicago was the worst, with at least 38 Black people killed. Norfolk, Virginia was in a way the most bitterly and bloodily ironic, as a white mob broke up a reception for Black troops returning from World War I and murdered six. Hundreds fell to the violence of white mobs—with at least eight Black people being publicly burned.
But there was also something new afoot. W.E.B. Du Bois, a great Black intellectual and leader of the time, put it this way: “Today we raise the terrible weapon of self-defense. When the murderer comes, he shall no longer strike us in the back. When the armed lynchers gather, we too must gather armed. When the mob moves, we propose to meet it with bricks and clubs and guns.”
The riots finally ended. But the majority of Black people who had come north had been cast and hammered into a subordinate position within the working class. They were to be the last hired and first fired, and when they did work they were to be confined to the very worst, dirtiest and most dangerous jobs. They were segregated into housing that was almost as expensive as it was dilapidated, and cast into broken-down schools that barely deserved the name; and they were dogged at every turn by brutalizing and murdering police. Northern capital inserted Black workers into its system—and in such a way that their labor would turn super‑profits for the system.
This was the world in which Addie Polk took her first steps; the world in which she learned her ABCs; the world in which she grew to womanhood.
Addie Polk looked at the pistol. She heard again the knock at the door, and the voices of law enforcement. She felt the blood pounding in her chest, and pounding in her brain. She picked up the pistol and walked, stiffly, over to her bed.
When World War 2 came in the 1940s, capital once again had need of Black labor—and this time on a far greater scale than before. Now millions more Black people came North. Black men like Robert Polk—Addie Polk’s husband—could find work at Goodrich Tire. The dirtiest, the hardest, and the most dangerous work—but work.
America came out of World War 2 on top. U.S. capital called the tune for the whole world—except for the Soviet Union and the new revolutionary socialist state in China. Facing off against the challenge of the socialist world, and riding atop the imperialist heap, the capitalist rulers of America felt they could—and they felt they had to—pay higher wages to the workers within the U.S., to pacify them and turn them away from any radical movement.
These capitalists also felt that they could—and that they had to—begin to make some concessions to Black people. On the one hand, the big changes of the “Great Migration” and of the upheaval of the war itself contributed to a more militant mood among Black people from all strata, and to growing grassroots resistance. On the other hand, it didn’t go down well internationally for the United States to pose as the supposed great upholder of freedom, when millions of its own people were legally forced to endure segregation, to live without political or social rights, and to face lynch-mob violence at any time.
But those concessions were not enough to stop Black people from rising up, first in the civil rights movement and then in the Black liberation struggle. Over 250 American cities erupted in rebellion during the 1960s. A spirit of defiance took hold and a revolutionary movement began to develop, in the streets and on the campuses and more broadly beside—including the factories where Black workers labored. The ruling class was forced to grant concessions far beyond what they had ever envisioned, and this included opening up jobs that were formerly reserved for whites.
Meanwhile, Robert Polk worked in one of those factories. He punched in each morning and when he did he turned over all his life force to the greater good—and profit—of Goodrich Tire. He punched out each night and went home dead tired. And on payday, he would open the envelope to find just enough to provide the necessities that would bring him back again to the time clock early Monday morning.
It was the “equal exchange” that, multiplied a billion times, keeps capitalism running—the exchange of one person’s life force and labor power, which produces those profits, for the means of subsistence. The “equal exchange” that results in the most profound inequality in wealth, in power, and in life-chances. The “equal exchange” on which all the so-called financial instruments are built. The “equal exchange” that masks a relation of exploitation: the exchange of labor power for wages.
In 1970, Robert and Addie Polk bought a small white wood-frame house in a Black neighborhood of Akron for $10,000. Or to put it another way, he exchanged years of labor on the Goodrich assembly line for a place to live.
Addie Polk lay down on her bed, pistol in her hand. Still the voices, still the occasional knock. She put the pistol to her chest. She began to squeeze the trigger with the 90-year-old fingers that were so achy, and finally so tired.
Capitalism came into the world unique—the only economic system in which innovation was a necessity. No capitalist knows how much “the market will bear”—they don’t know in advance if they can sell all that they produce. But if they do not sell, they go under. So they must constantly figure out ways to produce more goods more cheaply. They invest in new, more productive machinery and they constantly search for ways to more thoroughly exploit the workers they already employ...or else they shift operations altogether.
The U.S. stood atop the heap after World War 2. But European capital innovated. The tire companies of Akron “lost market share” in the ‘70s and early ‘80s to new kinds of tires produced first in Europe, and then in the factories of the “third world.” Soon the factories shut down. Akron, once dubbed the “rubber capital” of the world, found a new title as the city decayed: the “meth capital” of Ohio. Akron, now nearly 30% African-American, saw crack invade its Black community and the streets and schools fall further into disrepair. On Addie Polk’s street, the roadbed comes right up through the concrete, and nearly every other house lies empty, or is up for sale.
Robert Polk died in 1995. But capital was not done with Addie Polk yet. There was blood yet left to suck. Just as meth and crack rampaged through Akron, stoking people up to make it through one more day of hell, new “instruments” of credit gave the capitalist economy a shot of new energy. Politicians and financial commentators on TV talked as high and as giddy about this as a cranked-out meth freak yammering in a bar. But these new “credit instruments” now turn out to have victims. They have victims all over the world on a horrendous scale—and they have victims within the U.S. as well.
Addie Polk’s house had been hers, bought and paid for, “free and clear.” But in a society where the basic necessities of health care, for instance, constantly climb out of reach ...in a situation where no one even pretends that the social security and the pittance of a pension for industrial workers are enough to survive on...Addie Polk needed money. The sharks came—not the street-corner ones, but the “legitimate” ones. And they offered her deals—mortgage your house again and get the money you need, up front. And then mortgage it once more, to pay off your earlier deal and to get more money. It was all part of what they now call “the real estate bubble.”
And like so many others, when the real hidden terms kicked in, Addie Polk fell behind. The notices began to come. Knocks on the door, followed by the frightening papers that said NOTICE in big red letters and threatened eviction. The lending company foreclosed. And on October 1, 2008, three men with guns stood downstairs, preparing to move Addie Polk and the few cherished possessions of 90 years, into the streets.
Addie Polk held the gun to her chest, and pulled the trigger. Did she cry out in despair when the first shot missed, and hit her shoulder? We don’t know. But if she had second thoughts, they carried no force—for she marshaled the strength to pull the trigger yet again.
Addie Polk, somehow, did not die. Her neighbor, Robert Dillon, had climbed into her window to check on her and found her stretched out, unconscious, on the bed. She was rushed to the hospital, where she remains today. The mortgage holder, stung by the bad publicity, promises, for now, to let her remain in her home—when and if she gets out of the hospital.
Last week, it was announced that another 765,000 houses entered into the foreclosure process, or were actually being auctioned in the last three months alone.
The end is not in sight.
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