By Ben Barker / Deep Green Resistance Wisconsin
“There is a problem. It’s a big problem. It’s not just the kids in the inner city. It’s the average middle-class family dealing with this and suffering huge losses.” The problem is heroin. The voice quoted here belongs to a local parent who just lost two sons after they overdosed on the drug.
I live in a relatively small, mostly white, and definitely conservative Midwestern city where this just keeps happening: kids are dying. Heroin has been seeping into my community for years now. Combined with an already existing culture of heavy drinking, and the addiction, poverty, and violence that almost always accompanies substance use and abuse, the result should be obvious: a new twenty-something-year-old face in the obituaries every week. They didn’t die because they were simply irresponsible or reckless; this crisis is built in to the dominant culture, and nothing will get better until this culture is changed.
We live in a society that values money above all else. Money comes before education, before healthcare, before children, before community. Decisions affecting all of us are made according to profit motive rather than human need. On every level, capitalism systematically exploits and destroys healthy communities.
The backdrop to this local heroin crisis is a repressive city that does little to serve young people or anyone besides the rich elites who run it. Social programs and initiatives are relatively nonexistent. Cafes, music venues, and other social spaces are denied funding so that they usually have an expiration date of less than a year. We’re left with only a few options: get a job, get high, or plan to move away. The gate-keepers of this community enforce a terrible double-standard: they won’t talk about their kids who are shooting up and dying, but they also won’t provide (or allow) an alternative.
Speaking of no alternatives, about one-third of this country’s population is living below the poverty line or near it. The rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer. The places hit first and hardest are what Chris Hedges calls “sacrifice zones.” These are the colonies of empire—the ghettos, the barrios, and the reservations. Like the grieving parent alluded, it’s not uncommon that “kids in the inner city” die young, because those communities were gutted—flooded with alcohol, gentrified, and stripped of social services—long ago. But now, the pillaging has come around full circle to take even the children of the “average middle class family,” the children of the elites.
The story is the same everywhere: when there’s nothing to live for, there’s no reason to care about living. Hopelessness is universal.
Last night I had a conversation with one of my peers who quickly moved from this town as soon as she was of age. In just one year, 12 of her hometown friends have died from heroin or drunk driving.
My childhood best friend, 20 years old, overdosed on heroin. A year later, his friend, also 20 years old, overdosed on heroin. A person I had a crush on in the 8th grade recently died after driving drunk. A person I used to go skateboarding with in high school recently died after driving drunk and smashing his car into a brick wall. I wish I couldn’t, but I could go on and on.
My heart breaks a little more every time a young person’s life is so needlessly taken because of the sad, sorry culture built by generations before us. From Palestinian and Pakistani children bombed to death, to the guns fired by gang kids, to the unheard cries of suicidal victims of bullying, to the cities mourning too many heroin-related deaths to count—the young did not design this cruelty, nor do we have much of a say in changing it.
We have only two choices: adapt or die.
Some people can’t adapt. They were born into a body that simply doesn’t allow it—one that is female, one that is not white. Even if members of historically oppressed classes want to adapt to this culture, they are always denied the status of full human beings. But the choice was never meaningful for any of us; you can only adapt to drinking poison for so long before it kills you as sure as it does anyone else.
Adapt or die. Deep in our hearts, young people understand the profound sickness we are being socialized into. There’s little to make us feel alive in this routine of school, work, die. Save suicide, how do you cope with that? Welcome to addiction. It can be drugs, alcohol, money, sex, or anything that will numb the pain of being trapped in desperation. We’re floating in a sea of despair, struggling just to keep our heads above the water of self-destruction, but all the while sinking into a pit of hopelessness and forgetting what it means to feel alive. Eventually, as was true for my friends no longer living, a person just gives up.
Before fizzling out, many will grasp for control by abusing whoever is nearby. But perpetuating cruelty will not save you from emptiness. Breaking boundaries is a habit that can only end in overdoses, alcohol poisoning, bullet wounds, and a short life devoid of anything resembling love.
Adapt or die. The only way out of a double-bind is to tear it down and start over. Conformity will not get us anywhere. There’s no shortcut to a life of meaning and integrity. And to get there, we have to choose not to adapt, not to die, but instead to resist. We need take back the humanity we’ve been denied.
Capitalism requires obedience. It needs good workers, good consumers, and good citizens, who have submitted our own wills and desires for the sake of “the way things are.” Sure, we might get a little rowdy once in a while, but as long as we don’t fundamentally challenge the system in which we’re trapped, nothing changes. Dead kids are of no consequence as long as they remain powerless to the very end.
Many from generations before us have chosen to resist this corrupt arrangement. But far too many more have not; they accepted the system as their personal savior, always willing to defend their conditions and never raise a finger or mutter a word in defiance. The result is a world of expanding sacrifice zones, which have now become so large as to subsume the youth of everywhere.
When asked why she was protesting the liquor barons preying on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Lakota activist Olowan Martinez said, “Today I defend the minds of our relatives. Alcohol is a plague; it’s a disease; it’s an infection that causes our young people to kill themselves, to harm each other, to harm their own. We need to stop it before it’s too late. We came here to save the minds and mentality of our own nation.”
Young people today have no real chance of a future with good education, decent housing, and enough food or water. Moreover, we have no real chance of becoming who we are and who we truly want to be, no real chance of claiming the desires and dreams that are our birthright as sentient beings. The planet is burning, human societies are collapsing, and those in power are profiting from it all. It is our generation and those to come after that inherit this mess. We are living out an endgame and everything is at stake: life and all that makes life worth living.
Getting high will not make the horrors disappear. But until the horrors disappear, we can be sure that kids will keep getting high.
The youth have the most to lose, but we also have the most potential to turn things around. We can stop giving up our souls and, ultimately, our bodies, to this culture of despair. We can join with young people everywhere—from Palestine to Chicago, from Newtown to Pine Ridge—to let the powerful know that we will not be sacrificed for their profit. We will put down the drugs and put up our clenched fists. We will say enough is enough. We will not adapt and we will not die.
Beautiful Justice is a monthly column by Ben Barker, a writer and community organizer from West Bend, Wisconsin. Ben is a member of Deep Green Resistance and is currently writing a book about toxic qualities of radical subcultures and the need to build a vibrant culture of resistance.