Debt Prison Strike
Hot and humid as a hairy armpit on a southeast afternoon, the debt prison laundry stank of detergents and hissing cotton steam. The incarcerated workers hauled sacks and trolleys of soiled linens from hospitals and hotels, growing more surly and mulish by the minute.
If that break time doesn’t come soon, Etta James grumbled silently, I’m going to snap.
The back of her green uniform sucked the sweat off the skin of her spine. Trickles ran down her sides and itched as they dried. She watched the clock. Break time came and went without a glance from the manager. A machine malfunction had delayed the day’s workload. The prisoners would be kept sweating to make up lost time.
“Is he going to keep us hopping ’til we fall dead today?” Etta muttered to her neighbor.
The other prisoner shook her head blankly, deafened by the thunder of the washers. Etta returned to her own business – unloading a cart into the empty machine by the armload, trying not to think about strangers’ semen or infectious diseases rolled up in hospital bed sheets wet with piss. Five years she’d been in here, sweating in the summer, chilled to the bones in the winter, making less money than she would doing the same job on the outside. Debt court sent her here when she fell too far behind – never mind why. Every woman had a why: kid got sick, landlord spiked the rent, lost a job just when bills came due. Debt collectors got the police to haul them in. The judge mandated time paying back what they owed by working in one of the debt prison industries.
Etta longed for the clammy cold of the meatpacking plant she’d been sent to once – though she went queasy at the sight of dangling flesh and hunks of meat. Still, it was better than some outfits. She’d heard tales. Chemical factories. Faulty equipment. Injuries. Accidents. Death.
Etta glanced at the clock again, but the heat played tricks on her eyes. She swore the hands had moved backward. She wiped her brow and fanned her neck. The manager glared at her from the observation window of his air-conditioned office. She scowled back as a flush climbed up her veins.
Hot flash. Etta swore a second time. She’d heard rumors that people outside were trying to abolish the debt prisons. Better hurry the hell up, Etta thought, or I’ll combust. There’d been talk of a debt prison strike – all hot air and bluster, not like the one organized when the Dandelion Insurrection hit DC to oust the old president. That was smart. Nobody working, not anywhere in the whole country. Guards just kept ’em in the cells as everyone followed the news.
If they don’t call a break, Etta thought furiously, I’m gonna call a strike. We shouldn’t be working for these crooks. Not while people outside are struggling for justice. We’re just putting money in rich people’s pockets so they can buy politicians and keep us locked up.
One more minute, she vowed, tugging the sweaty uniform off her stomach and puffing it to circulate some air across her flaming chest. A woman can only take so much. Enough is enough. Etta’s lips stretched across her teeth in a grimace of a smile. That’s what that woman had said, the one who led the march to DC, Zadie Byrd Gray’s momma who died: Revolutions happen when one woman says, enough!
Count to ten, Etta warned her rising temper. Don’t do anything rash. Her mind raced through all the things they’d do to her – solitary, docked pay, extra work, no meals, beatings – as her temperature shot skyward in a volcano of heat that knocked the strength out of her knees. She sank to the ground, dizzy.
“What are you doing?” her coworker hollered.
“Taking a break,” she answered, holding her head.
But the woman misheard her mumbled reply.
Starting a strike.
The other woman read the flush of frustration and frayed nerves in Etta’s red face. She turned to the next woman as she, too, slid down to sit on the floor.
“Strike!” she bellowed.
And the Debt Prison Strike began.
Igniting across the half-laid fuses of an actual plan to strike, it spread from one facility to another, setting off chaos and solidarity in its inopportune eruption. By the week’s end, hundreds of thousands of debt prisoners had quit working – and flames of alarm spread out of prisons and into industries. Hotels nationwide demanded their fresh laundry and learned – with a shock – why it was not available. Corporate managers tried to hush up the story, but bellhops’ and room maids’ tongues waggled. Whispers collided like ripples in a rainy pond, crossing and convoluting. Meat shipments were delayed, slaughterhouses ground to a slow trickle of production, and grocery stores posted out-of-stock signs. The stock market lurched, plummeted, had cardiac arrest, staggered back to its feet, and flopped over again.
The Dandelion Insurrection shoved the shoulder of its efforts behind the momentum of the strike and called for everyone to return the prisoners’ show of solidarity for the Relief Bill by taking action against the injustice of debt.
Whether we’re in prison or not, debt cages us all, Charlie wrote.
He called on everyone to strike debt and hit the financial sector where it counts.
Delay your payments, Charlie urged. For a week, a month, just hold off a little. Make them feel the pinch like a stalling morphine drip. By the time they send the third notice, the finance industry will be screaming in horror. We have their money and they can’t have it back unless they stop blocking change.
Charlie Rider was slapped by the media as a reckless gambler hurtling the nation toward economic crisis. The seething ranks of the rich rolled out thunderous accusations against the folly of the Man From the North, but the populace stood immune. Charlie was always attacked by the wealthy. The outcry against him merely validated his cause. Payments stalled and stopped. From credit cards to mortgages to student loans to medical payments, everyone held a piece of the debt industry.
The rich own us, Charlie wrote, only until the moment when we realize that by not paying our debts, we own them. We hold their capital hostage in our unpaid debts. They need us to pay this back. But do we need them? We took on these debts to afford the cost of living, and yet, our lives under the burden of massive debt are still unlivable. We must leverage our shared strength for systemic change.
Inez worked tirelessly to ignite the courage of the poor into determination for action.
“It is better to refuse to pay until this system is overhauled. Better to be sent to debt prison where you can join the work strike inside. Better to risk everything to gain something than to continue to die slowly on the nothing we have now.”
In DC, the phones rang nonstop. Pleas, demands, appeals, orders, suggestions, and rants poured in. Police chiefs called Homeland Security for back up. Bankers demanded bailouts from the Treasury Department. Business leaders insisted that the Interim Government do something to quell the unrest. The people asked for help surviving the economic wreckage of the previous regime. Millions of people, in every city, at every turn, harried the Interim Government while the fuel of the economic machine spluttered and choked.
On Wall Street, a meeting of financial behemoths was convened. Business tycoons and the ultra-wealthy gathered in a penthouse conference room brushing the clouds. Their eyes flashed in irritation. They griped over the endless annoyances caused by the Dandelion Insurrection. They swapped notes on political allegiances. They waited impatiently. Friend had been summoned. At ten o’clock sharp, he appeared.
“This is unacceptable,” they growled. “Get this situation under control.”
Friend listened quietly, waiting for his moment.
“Foreclose on them all and board up their houses,” said a man who owned three mansions.
“They’re renters, not homeowners,” a real estate tycoon answered irritably. His management companies had been unsuccessfully trying to collect rents or evict people across the country. “It’s impossible to break a rent strike when no one’s looking for an apartment – they’re all resisting!”
“Can’t evict all of them, anyway,” an heiress pointed out with a look of distaste. “Where would they go?”
A disgruntled shifting swept the table. Homeless encampments had swelled from the recent evictions. A nationwide cleanup effort had ousted the unhoused from urban back alleys and abandoned lots, dumping them into the outskirts of the cities and onto the back edges of the wealthy’s estates.
“Arrest them all, I say,” said the man next to her. “Lock them up.”
“Not while they’re all striking and refusing to work!” exclaimed the owner of the private prison industry that had taken over the government corrections program. His heart rate elevated dangerously as he testily took a gulp of imported bottled water. His margins were vanishing faster than the last remaining rhinoceros. Suppliers had cut contracts. Accounts had been cancelled. Meanwhile, he was feeding and housing hundreds of thousands of idling ingrates. He glanced at John C. Friend, but saw no hint of relief in the man’s noncommittal eyes. He needed a bailout of government funds, or a strikebreaker. Not more headaches in the form of inmates. “I’m not absorbing the cost of housing and feeding and controlling millions of people who won’t work.”
Furious bickering broke out between billionaires over who would foot the bill and absorb the cost of the political unrest. They glared at each other, refusing to shell out a penny, lobbing insults and accusations in a vicious Ping-Pong match of blame laying and haggling.
Friend cleared his throat.
“It seems, gentlemen and ladies, that those irascible dandelions have got you by the neck. You’ll simply have to give them what they want.”
“Rent control?! Debt forgiveness? Abolition of debt prison?” scoffed an heiress. “I’m not paying for that.”
“No one said you would,” Friend answered soothingly.
The bickerers fell silent. Eyes swung toward the unassuming politician. Ears pricked up.
“So, who’s paying?” the head of student financing at a major bank growled, getting straight to the point.
Friend’s smile would make the Devil cringe.