Small town solidarity
Collective action alive and well in Trump Country
Some of the News from the Ohio Valley
This is where I scribble a little about the last week around here.
There’s a small colony of mold growing around a heat duct in the bar’s plain drop ceiling. Our new poker machine whizzes to life and prints a ticket. Its junky speaker blasts a fast honky tonk roll with jangling pianos and slide guitars.
Tonight’s a big night. We’re having a fundraiser.
Trav yells out “We got a winner!” with a little too much enthusiasm. It’s a five-dollar slip. Regulars file in bearing gifts. The floor smells like that shit all dive bars use to nuke the spectrum of pathogens that occur in such environments. Looks like antifreeze. I simultaneously trust its cleansing power and am certain it will reduce the years in my life.
Weeks ago, an elderly couple’s house burned down up the road in Martins Ferry. Hippie, one of our long-haired regulars, hatched a plan with the ingenuity born to any true redneck, to auction off a shot at lopping off his dirty blonde ponytail in the bar. For the benefit of the family, of course.
The Great Chop sparked the larger community to action that came naturally. Small businesses dropped by with pizza and gift cards. Hair stylists volunteered to cut the rest of Hippie’s hair in the bar and a $100 trip to their shop for the raffle. Kate, the other bartender, cranked out more raffle baskets on her own dime. Her toddler watched shows on the bar TV while we assembled them.
Whisper networks lit up. Facebook posts were shared and reshared. Tags flurried. And, because this is small town rust belt Appalachia, a crock pot of Little Smokies bubbling away in runny BBQ sauce spawned to existence seemingly from nowhere at the mere mention of neighbors in trouble.
Before the bar could even assemble a Facebook event, the community rallied around its members and organized a full benefit.
It was a cross-section of the Ohio Valley working class. Long ago, folks of all races ended up here, some by their will, plenty against it, to work in the mines, potteries, and mills that fueled American economic dominance for decades. We still do. But with natural gas.
The region knows how to rally around the community. We’ve known economic trauma. The mills closed through the 70s and 80s. Cities like Youngstown and Wheeling shrunk to a third of their peak populations mid-century. When the Great Recession rocked the rest of the country in 2008, this area might as well have said “Welcome to the party. Lemme show you the crock pot of Little Smokies.”
The crowd at the fundraiser reflected this history. It wasn’t no art auction. People were loud and rowdy. There was a fight between one pair of old rivals and a hatchet buried between another. Everyone was there for someone they knew. We raised $1,400 for the family, which goes a long way where the homes can cost as much as a pickup truck… incredibly.
Whenever I catch a whiff of hope nowadays it’s often in a place that seems like a grave for hope. I don’t know what that is. There’s not much further down to look when you’re at the bottom I guess.
The values that made the fundraiser a success - community, solidarity, mutual aid - are universal. They’re also the core of leftist idealogy. They’re necessary to a working-class movement that takes power from billionaires and the ruling class. And they come naturally to rednecks. I mean, even the term “redneck” shares close association with America’s largest labor uprising, The Battle of Blair Mountain in Logan County, West Virginia.
The following essay explores how the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) and rival miners' unions appropriated both the term redneck and its literal manifestation, the red bandana, in order to build multiracial unions of white, black, and immigrant miners in the strike-ridden coalfields of northern and central Appalachia between 1912 and 1936.
It took community organizing to bring together a complicated event in a short amount of time. It took solidarity and mutual aid to raise the money. These things are the backbone of both redneck culture and leftist theory. They’re alive and well in Trump Country. Around here it looks like spaghetti dinners and dive bar benefits.
If we ever have a working-class movement in America that wrests any amount of power from the billionaire class, it will be built on the kind of multi-racial solidarity that exists here in fits and starts, from the Battle of Blair Mountain, to the 2018 Teachers’ Strike, to the crock pot of Little Smokies bubbling away at your neighborhood dive bar benefit.
And that gives me a little hope.
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Small Town Solidarity
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There are a ton of leftist values in Trump country that I see in the bar all the time.
So a few weeks ago, an elderly couple's house burned down. They were renting with no insurance and they lost everything, so we had a fundraiser for them at the bar. We put out a press release to the local news, did Facebook events, and text trees.
But before we did any of that, the community organized itself. One of our regulars named Hippie grew his hair out for 15 years, volunteered to auction off his ponytail, and invited half of the town. A bunch of other people did that, spread the word, and we had an event on our hands before we could even plan the event.
People did it themselves, for their neighbors. The other bartender, who's going to be in the comments, put up her own time and money and made a table of baskets to raffle off. And she doesn't just *have* time, she's out here raising a kid, so the kid came in the bar and helped us plan. There we are.
Local hairstylists, the Hair Hunnies around these parts, donated a salon trip and cut the rest of Hippie's hair in the bar. Then the whole town came out and got plastered as you should. It wasn't black tie or formal by any means. People were rowdy and loud, there were words that had to be broken up before they became fights, and it was the second biggest night in the bar.
We raised $1,400 for the family. You might look at that and say It's not much, but around here where homes cost as much as pickup trucks, it is a big freaking deal. This happened because those people share some core values. They might not think about them or put names to it, but it's collective action, solidarity, “an injury to one's an injury to all.”
The fundamental values that make one a leftist are the same ones that are tightly held and come naturally to rural and small-town America.
The guy whose house burned down was thanking everybody in the bar and he made this point several times that something like this would not happen in a big city. It would. But what's interesting to me is that there's so much pride that it happened here. He was proud that collective action, community organizing, and looking after your neighbors, is what we still do here. And what we've always done.
Zooming out, we need a working-class movement to take power from the ruling class. Everybody needs to be on board. We don't have the luxury of writing off entire parts of the country for that. But we don't have to, because those values are still alive here and we need to make sure that they win out over right-wing stuff like fear, division, race, you name it.