‘Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt' looks at downtrodden U.S. communities

Writer Chris Hedges, right, and illustrator Joe Sacco tell human stories from downtrodden places and advocate an overhaul of the nation's capitalist economic system. DON J. USNER
Writer Chris Hedges, right, and illustrator Joe Sacco tell human stories from downtrodden places and advocate an overhaul of the nation's capitalist economic system. DON J. USNER
Posted: July 01, 2012

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt By Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco Nation Books. 302 pp. $28

Reviewed by Larry Eichel

This book combines three elements rarely seen in a single package: journalistic reporting about the despair in America's most downtrodden communities; serious, cartoon-style depictions of human stories from those places; and superheated rhetoric calling for the end of the current economic system.

At times, the shift from one element to another is abrupt, with the anticapitalist rhetoric coming out of nowhere. But author Chris Hedges makes his message clear at the outset.

"Corporate capitalism will, quite literally, kill us," he writes in the introduction, "as it has killed Native Americans, African Americans trapped in our internal colonies in the inner cities, those left behind in devastated coalfields, and those who live as serfs in our produce fields."

If you don't have at least some sympathy for that viewpoint, you're probably going to have a tough time with this book.

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is the work of Hedges, a reporter who had a long career at the New York Times, and Joe Sacco, who made his reputation as the creator of war-reportage comics. It is meant as both a call to action and a prediction of what lies ahead.

Although the book closes with a hosanna to Occupy Wall Street (the days of revolt), the bulk of it is given over to grim depictions of life in four American locales labeled "sacrifice zones": the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota (days of theft); the city of Camden, N.J. (days of siege); the strip-mined mountains of West Virginia (days of devastation); and the migrant-worker camps of southwest Florida (days of slavery). Those, collectively, are the days of destruction.

The portraits of those places are powerful, and Sacco's graphic artistry is compelling, especially in fleshing out Camden. One 10-page cartoon tells the story of the city's fall through the eyes of Joe Balzano, the former executive director of the South Jersey Port Corp. who died last year at 77 and had been part of the Camden waterfront for six decades. Another six-page cartoon is devoted to Lolly Davis, a selfless and optimistic survivor of the community's travails.

While a lot of Americans may not like thinking much about a place like Camden, the authors argue that millions of us will be living there soon enough, metaphorically speaking.

"Camden is the poster child for postindustrial America," Hedges writes. "It is a window into the dead end that will come to more and more Americans as corporations ‘harvest' what is left of the nation for short-term profit and leave behind wreckage and environmental disaster."

In some ways, the reliance on the "sacrifice zones" is curious. The tales of their situations are familiar — poverty in the coal fields of Appalachia was a revelation in the 1960s — and were just as powerful, if not more so, when told in times of national prosperity. The argument that the economic system is on the brink of collapse (and deserves to be) might have been stronger had it gone beyond these pockets of woe.

But if you share the authors' outrage about all of this, what are you to do? Hedges offers several options. One is to obstruct the system through civil disobedience. Another is to create what he calls "monastic enclaves" designed to build the "mechanisms of self-sufficiency" that will allow people of good faith to survive.

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt has several connections to The Inquirer that should be mentioned. The most notable is the verbal depiction of George Norcross, one of the owners of Interstate General Media, parent company of The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and philly.com. Norcross, a Democratic power in South Jersey, is depicted as one of those "who profit most" from Camden's poverty. That portrayal and much of the Camden chapter rely in part on Inquirer reporting about the city and its problems. In addition, John Timpane, a longtime Inquirer staffer, is credited with editing the manuscript.

Larry Eichel is a former Inquirer editor and staff writer.

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