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Friday, May 16, 2014

Journals of a lumpen-Proletariat—The American dream (illusion) and jail

This is a continuation of the series from my years as a lumpen-proletariate. The idea is to relate real working class experiences for the benefit of Marxists and Maoists who are studying the theories, but may not be familiar with the actual people these theories were intended to improve the lives of.

I was still living in Lawrence Kansas, in my 20s, when I got put in jail for petty theft. Actually it was originally supposed to be a burglary charge, but it got reduced.


I had been going to Kansas University (KU) starting when I was 23 years old. I had been married when I first got there and I was a full-time student. But my wife and I divorced and that left me on my own to fend for myself. That meant getting a full-time job and going to school only part-time. Some semesters I didn’t go at all. As time went on I usually just took one or two classes a semester.
As for school, I barely made the minimum grades I needed to be in good standings of the university. I didn’t know until I was 40 that I had Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). I spent a lot of time being disappointed at how hard I had to work for the lousy grades I got. It got a lot better when I only had one or two classes to focus on. The school was competitive and I soon felt like I was a round peg in a square hole.
I worked at a variety of crappy minimum wage jobs. I washed pots and dishes at the KU Student Union, their recreation hall for the student’s off hours. There was the grounds keeping job—which was TEMPORARY! Meaning the whole time I worked there I stressed out over where I would work next. I later worked for as a janitor for the university.

The American Dream

I noticed that rich people had all the best things available to them and all the advantages of life in these United States. They had a lot more access to things than us working “chumps.” Howard Hughes was able to shoot up narcotics, protected by his $ billion dollar fortress. He was beyond touch. Rich and famous people were welcome at Hugh Hefner’s mansion to hang out with him and pork the playboy bunnies, if they wanted.
I wanted the American Dream. I wanted to be a wealthy and successful writer of some type—a rich type that is.
As time went on, a legitimate writing job that was forged out of hard work and school work began to look more and more like a mirage. The corporate world where I tried to find meaningful work also seemed like another square hole for me to fill. So I began to look in a different direction. My next dream was based on what I saw in the movie Easy Rider, 1969. It was “the big drug deal.” In the movie Wyatt and Billy make a huge cocaine deal.[1] They make enough money that they plan a trip to Mardi Gras in New Orleans and then off to Florida to retire. I thought if I could spend enough time selling drugs, maybe I could also find a big drug deal and make a huge cash hall and slack off for a few years as the characters in Easy Rider wanted to do. I thought: “I deserve a few things of the good life without all those years and hard work.”
And let’s not forget the barrage of newspaper and magazine articles warning the public how drug dealers could make buckets of money and some media moguls even argued that the risks were small. Consider this Reader’s Digest article:

It was no secret. No business that makes $20,000 a day could be a secret. But so brazen were the drug dealers that nothing, not event police raids, slowed them down. If arrested, they had the money—from the sales of heroin, cocaine, PCP and LSD—to post bail and return the corner.[2]

I couldn’t wait to make all that money. The only problem with this wonderful dream is that it turned out to be another illusion. I made tiny amounts of money compared with what I imagined. I did get drugs cheaper or free, and that was the only real advantage. I had to keep working at crappy jobs until I made the big deal. Actually I would have needed a job even after the big deal to keep the tax people off my back. Spending money without having a visible means of support is a way of tipping off the narks (narcotics police).

The caper

Then I got a job at Van Camp’s Pork and Beans factory. That money was pretty good, but six months later we had a strike.[3] During the strike I refused to cross the picket line. After the strike the company refused to hire me...and... I was able to get unemployment. So now I spent most of my time trying to sell drugs. But mostly I spent most of my days hanging out with other quasi criminals in bars. A friend of mine, Johnny, came up with a scheme to pick a bunch of marijuana and sell it for a whole lot of money in the fall. Johnny was a hard core street dealer who actually made good money at it. He was a short man in his 40s, with real long black hair. Another friend from my days at Van Camp’s, Boz[4], was staying with me at Johnny’s house until we could finish picking the pot and selling it. 
There was one problem. Boz and I ran out of both food and money. It was only a few days before our unemployment checks came. So we decided to steal some food from our former employer, Van Camp. We still had our blue hard hats and we wore them so we would just look like some workers if we were spotted in the plant.
We pulled into the drive way of a closed factory building next to the Van Camp plant, after midnight. There was a chain like fence with barbed wire on top of it. The barbs stuck over the front of the fence making it nearly impossible to get in. But getting out was not so hard. We found a tree in the corner we could climb and then drop down in. Then we headed to the ware house to shop for some canned beans and vegetables. When we had a few boxes we headed to the fence. We through the goods over then climbed out ourselves. It was after we loaded up and were headed out that we noticed a cop care driving around. When we tried to leave he pulled us over. When the cop saw the cans of beans in our car he yelled: “out of the car and down on the ground…NOW!” He hand cuffed us and immediately arrested us. Neither of us gave a statement as to what we were doing. We were then whisked to the station.

In the slammer

I was worried, but not enough. I had read all those articles about criminals getting a slap on the wrist and being let go. I had the impression I would not any time because this was my first offence. That’s what a lot of people told me and the right-wing magazine articles said the same thing. Consider this from Reader’s Digest:

Laws aren’t enforced. Serious crimes are too frequently plea- bargained away. Crime pays. Criminals rule our streets. We have to fight back by locking up the criminals.[5]

It would seem that pundits at that time period felt a need to pump the US public full of fear and paranoia over crime. The idea that courts and prisons were just a revolving door so that criminals would just go to court and get out a few days later—or the assertion many pundits had made saying that most murderers spend only an average of one year in prison—that our prisons are just plush hotels with free cable, education and health care (while others go without)—all helped this nation’s hucksters sell record numbers of guns and record numbers of alarm systems. Politicians passed draconian laws that gave us the largest prison population in the entire world. Did they just want to create more of a police state?
I saw firsthand what a bull-shit-bold face lie it all was. After I was processed I was put in the county jail. The door slammed after me and I was there for a few days. No one came to see me and I had not met with a lawyer. In that time I met a cell mate named Tom. He was black and about as tall as I.
“What are you in for,” Tom asked.
“I’m accused of burglary,” I told him.
“Me too. They got me coming out of the house.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Almost three months. My lawyer said I will probably have to spend about six months in jail after I go to court.”
So I thought to myself: “Three months before court….sixth months after…IN JAIL! YEOWWW! I don’t want to spend all that time here in jail!”
As Tom explained it, he was in for the same thing as I was. And he was not getting out of a revolving door with just a slap on his wrist. I began to really freak. I couldn’t imagine spending that much time in the slammer. Reader’s Digest LIED to me!
But what I didn’t realize was that Tom was black and that seemed to affect how much time he spent in jail. By the time I left the jail, after 10 days, I would have noticed that about half the jail population was black or minorities, such as Native American Indian. The population of Lawrence was about the same as in most places. So why was the population of black people so much higher in jail than us whites? If I had a choice I didn’t want to be a minority spending so much time in jail—but I also didn’t think it was fair. As it turned out I would find over the years that prison rates for black people were/ and are way out of proportion. Since my stint in jail, it has even gone up. The Pew Research Center reports:

Black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated in federal and state prisons, and local jails in 2010, the last year complete data are available, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. That is an increase from 1960, when black men were five times as likely as whites to be incarcerated.
In 2010, the incarceration rate for white men under local, state and federal jurisdiction was 678 inmates per 100,000 white U.S. residents; for black men, it was 4,347. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, black men were more than six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated in 2010.
In 1960, the white male incarceration rate was 262 per 100,000 white U.S. residents, and the black male rate was 1,313, meaning that black men were five times as likely as white men to be incarcerated.

First I got a piss-poor attorney who just wanted to cop a plea and get it over with. He came to me and offered a deal where I would plead guilty to a felony offence, time served and probation. There was no guarantee the judge would accept that, but my lawyer believed he probably would. I didn’t want a felony but I also didn’t want to spend a lot of time in jail if I went to court and lost.
Boz had a much better attorney. His attorney wanted to fight the charge and he believed he could win. Boz asked me not to plead guilty before he went to trial. I reluctantly agreed with him. And I was extremely lucky that I put off accepting a plea and Boz and his lawyer took the case to court. Boz got convicted of a much lesser charge of attempted petty theft, a misdemeanor.
When I went to court the second time I was offered a plea bargain to what Boz had gotten; attempted petty theft, a misdemeanor.
Another difference for us poor folk is that we get stuck with the lawyers we get appointed to us. Boz got lucky. If we were wealthier we could afford the better lawyers, as mobsters do, and we would not have to worry about getting convicted.


I left Lawrence right after my last court date. I went to Wichita determined not to commit any more crime and not to sell any drugs for any reason. I was through with petty criminality. A boy I interviewed in a half-way house, years later, told me that one person incarcerated may be scared straight the first few days—while another might not be straightened out after five years. Ten days was all I needed.
So after all of this my new American dream is to work for a better world with a Marxist (preferably Maoist) revolution and the complete destruction of the US political and economical system. Our capitalist-phony democracy didn’t work for me and it didn’t work for a lot of other people. I don’t deny I did wrong trying to steal, but I did my time and now I can per sue a better ambition than the dig drug deal. I can per sue a better and fair society.
- សតិវ អតុ

[1] Steve Otto, Can You Pass the Acid Test?, (Publish America, Baltimore) 2007, pp. 49, 50.
[2] “Crime And (Non) Punishment, U.S.A.”, Reader’s Digest, Nov. 1981, vol. 119, no. 715, pp. 132-137.

[3] See- Journals of a lumpen-proletariat—The Stokely-Van Camp Strike of 1980,

[4] Ibid.
[5] Reader’s Digest-Ibid.

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