May 4, 2009

Racism and Railroads--The US Experience and Israel's

It's difficult to track the crimes of the Israeli state and Zionism against the Palestinian people. I don't mean hard to keep count of, true though that may be, but painful. It hurts to keep focusing on them, because they are so unrelenting--another olive grove bulldozed, another protester shot in the head with a tear gas canister, another bombing raid on Gaza, another house demolished.

Sometimes, though, a small outrage jumps out at me and I feel I have to do something, even if it's just share my anger.

The trigger for this piece is a new policy initiated by Israel Railways. In March, 2009, management moved to lay off 150 Israeli Arabs who worked as guards, monitoring and maintaining railroad crossings. A new policy was put in place--only those with permits to carry weapons could hold the job.

And only veterans of the Israeli Defense Forces, in which few Arabs serve. get these permits. In fact, management stated explicitly that the program is designed to give employment to young veterans in Israel's shaky economy. The workers have a case before the Labor Board there, but Israel Railways has already started hiring for their positions.

I realized immediately why I grew so angry. This is a direct parallel to what happened to Black railroad workers again and again in the years from the civil war to the victory of the modern civil rights movement.

The issue was the fireman's job, the backbreaking and filthy job of shoveling coal into the engines of old steam locomotives. Think of Blind Willie McTell, “Statesboro Blues”:

Big Eighty left Savannah, Lord, and did not stop
You ought to saw that colored fireman when he got that boiler hot.
Or the old country tune "Wreck of the Old 97”:
So he turned and he said to his Black greasy fireman
"Shovel on a little more coal..."
But when the economy got real bad, suddenly the “Black man's jobs” started looking pretty good to Southern whites. In 1911, for instance, 10 Black railroad workers were shot on the New Orleans & Texas Pacific line because the railroad gave them equal seniority with whites. Climbing on the locomotives to pull the spout down from the water tower and position it to refill the boiler, they were sitting ducks for snipers.

In the Great Depression of the '30s, the same thing happened again. A deadly one-sided war took place, with the all-white unions of the Railroad Brotherhoods complicit in the terror when they weren't actually organizing it. On the Mississippi division of the Illinois Central from 1932 to 1933, Frank Kincaid, Ed Cole, Aaron Williams, Wilburn Anderson, Frank Johnson and Will Harvey were shotgunned to death. Elsewhere, mob action by “concerned citizens” living along the railroad lines stopped trains and savaged Black firemen and the few white railroad workers who took their backs. The companies filled these sudden “vacancies” with white workers.

Israel's crimes draw a lot of comparisons. We talk about the “apartheid wall.” David Rovics, in an essay reprinted here at FotM, drew a very careful but pointed set of connections with the Nazi regime in Germany. Well, by me, these folks are today's segregationists, white supremacists, KKK, and they should be understood and dealt with as such.

1 comment:

libhom said...

Another parallel involves the consolidation of territorial expansion against the indigenous peoples.