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Jewish World Review April 4, 2001 / 11 Nissan, 5761

Paul Campos

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The screams that go unheard

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- Gary, Ind., is famous for having once been the home of two industries, both of which have long since fled: Big Steel and the Jackson Five. Driving along the Indiana turnpike, one can still see the gigantic remnants of the old steel works, the mills lying abandoned by the shores of Lake Michigan, like prehistoric whales that beached themselves in some sort of suicidal tribute to the dawn of the information economy.

Gary is in some ways an archetypal example of a Rust Belt city, still reeling from economic changes that wrecked the old American social contract -- the one with the clause that said it was acceptable for some working class people to be paid middle class salaries, if their work was hard and their unions were tough.

Chicago labor lawyer Tom Geoghegan wrote a great book about all this called Which Side Are You On? The book chronicles some of the terrible things that went on in Gary, among other places, back in the 1980s, when the corporations that owned the mills were looking for ways to get out of a dying industry without paying their workers what they -- legally and, far more important, morally -- were owed.

My favorite story from the book takes place a few miles up the lakeshore, in Kenosha, where 5,000 workers lost their jobs permanently when Chrysler shut down an old plant: "The wildest, most dangerous moment of a plant closing is the moment when people realize that not only will they lose their jobs but they are about to leave the union forever. It is their last five minutes in organized labor. Then they will be nonunion: they will be in the rest of America, the other 84 percent. It is their one last chance to be mad.

"Just before that happened, the union called a rally. They stood outside the plant, and not knowing what else to do, they decided to scream. It was a scream so loud it could be heard in the Loop, 60 miles away. It was a scream Edvard Munch could have painted. It was a scream which one day they will commemorate with a plaque, and people will walk past it and remember. And they will think: This was the last scream they screamed before they left organized labor."

I thought of that scream last Saturday when my wife pointed out a small news story to me, which had been buried in the back of the news sections of both Denver papers. It was a brief Associated Press report about how on Friday morning a high school student was shot to death by a recent dropout in the parking lot of their school, just before the start of classes that day.

The high school was in Gary, and this was the third shooting incident to take place at this school in the past four years.

When two students were shot to death at a high school in Santee, Calif., last month, the two Denver papers covered this incident as one of the year's major news events. When another shooting took place in neighboring El Cajon a few days later, this too was considered front-page news, although none of the victims in the second incident suffered serious injuries.

The median price of a house in Gary is $35,000. In Santee it is close to 10 times that. The majority of people in Santee are white. Most of Gary's population is African-American. These facts might have something to do with why one high school shooting is treated as part of an ongoing national crisis, while another barely makes the news.

If a whole town screamed and no one reported it, would it still make a sound?

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2001, Paul Campos