An Examination of Labor and Violence
By Sarama Keum-Sun
It was a horde of peacocks, flooding in through the four open doors of the car. They crowded into thrashing piles of flapping wings and pecking beaks—pecking at my head, my eyes, my mouth. My friend sat in the passenger’s seat wrestling them off me, but for each one she flung out of the car, another three piled in. She shouted in panicked frustration as I clawed uselessly at the wings, beaks, and talons on my face—while the fear and desperation were rising rising rising—
and then the TV turned on, blasting static at high volume.
Beckiness stirred beside me in bed. Her slight figure stumbled to the old, squat TV set whose screen buzzed gray and white in the predawn light, and jabbed at the power button. Then jabbed some more. And some more. At the power button, the channel buttons, the volume buttons, but the TV blared away.
Our dogs sleeping in the corner shifted restlessly, lifting their heads in confusion at the persistent hiss and crackle. Teddy’s majestic Scottish Terrier beard, and Titan’s slim Cattle Dog snout.
“What the fuck,” Beckiness muttered, head tipped to the side. She raised her arm bent at 90 degrees like a battering ram, and prodded her finger at the face of old-fashioned set.
I finally found my voice. “Turn it off,” I groaned.
“I’m TRYING!” Then she reached around and pulled the power cord. The TV blinked into black silence, Beckiness crawled back into bed, and the two of us went back to sleep.
This time there were no peacocks.
Beckiness and I had fled our little mountain town some 5 hours away to nourish ourselves at my friend Serena’s kitchen table—a sturdy, solid-wood, farmhouse kitchen table: an immovable, implacable marker of stability. It was the sort of table that promised, whatever else might happen, that it would always be there.
And Serena, a happy stay-at-home-mom and housewife, had promised she would always be there to share a meal with me during my times of need. All I had to do was ask—put out a may-day—and a meal and a bed would be waiting for me. There were anchors here, not only in her friendship and the warm and welcoming home that she kept, but also in the coastal region where she lived.
My life was in an uproar, but here on the coast there were trees like Methuselah, growing in the same spot where they had sprouted 100+ years before. If ever there were fairies, surely they lived in redwoods, sipping on the dew gathered on the boughs, lounging on mushroom caps, and dancing around their Maypoles under starry skies. And not too far from the redwood forest was the ocean, which was older than us all, would outlast each and every one of us, and someday might be all there is left.
It was our second (or maybe third) evening at Serena’s house. The solid kitchen table, soft rugs strewn on the floor, fanciful art, and the cool ocean air seeping in with the ivy that had grown through the kitchen window and was creeping along the inside wall. Serena grinned at us over a warm home-cooked dinner that I, for once, had not cooked myself.
“Becky,” Serena asked with a tantalizing raised eyebrow, “I know Sarama doesn’t drink, but how about you? Can I offer you some wine? Hmm?” Her hazel eyes glowed with her trademark sweet-sauciness against her light complexion.
Beckiness gave her a shrug that said she wouldn’t insist, but she wouldn’t turn it down either. “Sure!”
“Oh, babe?” Serena’s husband interjected. “Could you grab me a beer while you’re up? Please?”
Serena gave him a knowing grin. “Yes, love.”
“And hey, did you guys notice the power surge this morning?” Serena’s husband asked, suddenly remembering. He looked at me and Beckiness. “I woke up this morning and all the clocks and everything were out.”
“That’s right!” Serena said as she bustled around the kitchen. “I had to reset them all when I got [our son] up for school.”
Beckiness took the glass of wine Serena set down in front of her, reaching for it with an arm clothed in long-sleeved flannel. “Oh yeah,” she said, and went on to relay the story of the poltergeist TV, while I nodded in corroboration.
“Hmmm,” Serena mused. “Wonder what caused that to happen? What do you think?” She looked to her husband, who pondered the question before shrugging his broad shoulders.
“I dunno.” He took a drink of his beer. “I just hope that doesn’t mean our electrical system is fucked.”
“It was me,” I almost said, but didn’t, because rationally it was a silly thing to say: “It was the peacocks.”
But the explosive energy of the dream still clung to me, this feeling that significant, unalterable, positive change was coming. That my life had somehow shifted, and soon—very soon—I would be past the point of no return and my life would never again be the scary, uncertain place that it was.
Or maybe what I was feeling wasn’t impending change, but only the aftershocks leftover from the most recent implosion.
The year was 2011, and my boyfriend had kicked me out of the house. I don’t remember for what anymore—something stupid and petty, I’m sure. This time was just one of many times, and it was always a power move on his part. His way of exerting his control over me: I disagreed about something we heard said on the radio? Bam!—on the streets in the middle of the night.
Days would pass and he would call, apologize, and promise to work on his temper. And I would return home—because I had no money and couldn’t stay on my friends’ couches forever—and promise to never ever again make him only french toast, bacon, and eggs for breakfast. I would promise to take better care of his nutritional needs because I loved him, and loving someone meant taking care of them.
And, I was young then. I still hadn’t yet realized that when he said he would take care of me, as his “lover,” he really meant he would be the landlord—meaning, in this case, the name on the lease—and I would be the unpaid labor. He insisted at the beginning of the relationship that I quit my job and work at home for our household, which I thought meant a life of security and bliss, much like Serena’s. I was too naive to understand how much giving up my financial power would leave me at his mercy. And that he was not someone with much mercy at all.
I worked 7 days a week, cooking, cleaning, shopping, doing his laundry, and folding his socks, and in exchange I earned free rent and board. I had a nice house and was well-fed—I kept an immaculate house and delicious table—but if I ever stepped out of line, well, sometimes the usual screaming at me was not enough. Sometimes it took the forcible removal from my home to effectively render me fearful, hurt, and most of all, powerless—with little money, no home, and no security.
Powerless but for my friends. This time, the tough and lovely friend Beckiness had come to my rescue. She may be short and slim, but I would never describe her as petite—rather, steadfast. Tough, independent, and with a voice that can project surprisingly far from such a small body.
“Let’s get out of town,” she had said. So we loaded our dogs in her 90’s model, Toyota truck (that she proudly did all the wrenching on herself, tending to its maintenance with great dedication), and we left our little California mountain town, with its jagged hills and dusty skies, for the rolling green coast.
It was peaceful at the coast, but I was no closer to deciding what I would do with the peacocks in my life. I didn’t want to go back home. I didn’t want to go back to the way things always were. I wanted change, but I didn’t know how to get it. My boyfriend’s anger was near constant, and because he also worked from home, I was a convenient and readily available target. I had changed/modified my behavior all that I could, but I was beginning to realize that no matter what I did, I was still subject to my boyfriend’s abuse. I still believed, though, that maybe he could change.
We had been at the coast for a little over a week when Beckiness brought her phone to me with wild blue eyes.
“Check this out! [Our friend] is at the Occupy thing in Portland. It’s on the West Coast now.” Her pale cheeks were flushed with excitement. “Let’s go!”
Serena pondered as she folded the laundry fresh from the dryer. “I think I’ve heard of Occupy? It sounds like an adventure! You should go! Have fun!”
So once again, Beckiness and I packed up our bags, along with Teddy and Titan, in her truck (that Becky had named “Yola”) and left for… we didn’t really know what. An opportunity for change. The unknown—which in this instance, filled me with excitement, rather than fear.
We drove along the green, densely-treed hills of the 101, stopping now and then in quiet patches of fog to let my dog Teddy and Becky’s dog Titan potty in the forest. One of those times, my rambunctious Scottie came back with his face covered in mysterious green goo—that stank so bad his delighted little body was banished to the back of the truck. I checked on him periodically through the cab window as we traveled, basking in the delight that him and I were on this adventure together. Teddy was one thing in my life that remained steadfast.
Before us, the landscape changed from forest and fog to a cluster of beeping car horns and concrete bridges, the trees replaced by metal skyscrapers. We paid the toll and crossed the Golden Gate Bridge.
I’m not going to pose and say I was a staunch Occupyer—I was just a visitor. Beckiness and I spent a few days at Occupy San Francisco; we were there for the opening day of Occupy Oakland; after that we went south to Occupy Sacramento. At Occupy SF, we danced on the street and charged our phones in the Financial District’s Starbucks—who hated all of us. We marched; we chanted; we held signs. We demanded that our structures of power grant us our right to exist in autonomy. We slept in a squat house. We learned about civil rights from lawyers and what to do if we got arrested. We watched crowd-led, hierarchy-free governance in action. We demanded those in power change, while we, the masses took power, if over nothing else, ourselves.
It was exactly what I needed and hadn’t had for a long time.
It was thrilling. Exhilarating. I remember a young guy in glasses rushing around with stars in his eyes, gushing about how this was the best time in his life. He had never felt more alive. I could relate. It felt like finally taking control—and control was something I didn’t have in my personal life. For the first time in a long time, I was excited for the future. Our future, which also meant my future. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me, but I thought it would be okay.
While standing street-side in San Francisco’s Financial District, surrounded by glass and shining metal skyscrapers, a stretch limo pulled up and came to a stop in front of me, Beckiness, and a few other sign-holders. The very back window rolled down to reveal a man: white, middle 50s, heavier-set, in a white chef’s coat and chef’s hat over untamed silver hair. He wasn’t at all sleek and slick looking like the towering bank buildings around us. He wasn’t at all who you would expect in the back of a limo. He looked like a man who smoked cigars and drank whiskey (but probably expensive cigars and whiskey), who was probably harsh to his under-cooks in his kitchen, and probably had an armful of tattoos under his sleeves. Someone you might believe was a self-made man, who forged his status through dominance.
He said, “I just wanted to tell you I really support what you all are doing.”
He shared his story, something about how he previously had something like 10 million dollars in the bank but all the taxes and fees and government bullshit had bankrupted him to a mere 1 or 2 million. He was looking at me, but I didn’t know what to say. Judging by our shocked silence, I don’t think any of us did. And maybe all his trappings of power—the limo, the confidence in which he addressed us—intimidated everyone.
Finally, the woman next to me spoke. I don’t remember her face, but though she was small in stature, she had a tough demeanor that was also laid-back and easy-going. Short hair, medium brown skin, canvas pants, and combat boots.
“But,” she said, “you have a million dollars and a limo, while I sleep on the streets.”
I don’t remember the rest of conversation, except that when his driver drove away he was still insisting he was just like us.
This is just one story representative of all the swirling and contradictory identities and agendas of the Occupy Movement as a whole. Despite the slogan that insisted The 99% existed in a united cause, this was just not true. It was true we were all penned in together, but those of us in the confines ran and bumped into each other, knocking each other over.
When that man drove away in his limo, his tires tread on the street where the woman in combat boots slept.
We all know what happened in the end: the movement petered out and nothing really changed. The police were eventually successful in their forcible removal of protesters, using a variety of methods: arrest, confiscation of tents, pepper-spray. They made it clear that these publicly state-owned streets did not belong to us. Had they not done so, I believe the movement would have died anyways. Contrary to popular belief, living on a sidewalk is a difficult lifestyle to sustain: a consistent supply of food and warm shelter makes for a more comfortable life. Some Occupyers went home; some left to sleep on different streets. That control and rush of power we had felt was fleeting. Transient. Perhaps even illusory.
It seemed clear that the state was older than us all, would outlast each and every one of us, and someday might be all there is left.
Days later, after Occupy Sac, I went home. My boyfriend had called to apologize, and promised to never throw me out of the house again (which, spoiler alert, he did.) Maybe he did feel genuinely sorry, or maybe he just got tired of Subway sandwiches and ramen. Maybe he was sick of the floors perpetually caked with dirt because he refused to take off his muddy boots before entering the house.
Maybe he was tired of screaming at shampoo bottles who had no reaction to being knocked around.
“What will you do now?” Beckiness asked as she drove. She glanced at me over her flannel collar, obscured by the bandanna she wore wrapped around her neck, rather than around her head like Rosie the Riveter did.
I shrugged. I figured the bathrooms were probably filthy and needed to be scrubbed. Beckiness said she would need to give her truck Yola a good maintenance after all the driving. I said I dreaded to see the state of the tile and hardwood floors. Beckiness talked about how one day she wanted to go back to Europe and maybe I could go with her next time? But not until after she finished her welding degree. I pet Teddy asleep in my lap, and thought of the English degree I had interrupted and left behind in order to be with my boyfriend.
The skyscrapers were long behind us when we returned to the mountains dotted with low-lying houses and a downtown area three blocks long. Here, it was the mountain peaks that reached for sky, not the man-made buildings—and like the ocean, the mountains whispered that they were older than us all, would outlast each and every one of us, and someday might be all there is left.
“You will not change faster than us,” they said.
Becky dropped me off in my driveway.
“Are you sure you will be okay here?” she asked, again.
I assured her I would. All my stuff was there, and I had nowhere else to go.
The future I had dreamed of at Occupy went back to life as I knew it. Nothing changed. I went back to an assembly line of chores. I produced grander and grander home-cooked meals, in hopes of earning affection and appreciation. I tried to speak ever more gently in hopes that my boyfriend would never find anything I said threatening or emasculating ever again. I tried to be more efficient and finish my tasks sooner, in hopes that he would stop criticizing the time I spent in the evening, reading and writing—activities that he insisted were selfish and did nothing to contribute to our household (by which he meant his life specifically.)
Because it was no small, insignificant thing that his authority provided me a roof over my head and food to prepare and eat. I got to go on small vacations and spend days at the river. I had just enough leisure that I thought maybe this was what a happy life looked like. But in spite of everything, I didn’t stop wanting more. Autonomy. Respect. Those needs didn’t stop needing to be fulfilled.
What I needed to do, however, was stop believing I could gain that from him.
There’s a memory of mopping the floor while listening to a Utah Phillips album, where I decide to take the singer’s advice and look into the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts. In my head I have this image of a black-and-white photo of a young woman leaning on a picket sign in much the same way I leaned on the mop handle. I remember her face turned slightly away from the camera, creating an elegant silhouette of weariness.
I have not been able to find this image since—so maybe I made it up?—but I remember clearly the words on her sign:
“We Want Bread, And Roses, Too”
I saw her, and I realized I wanted the same.
In 2011, “Bread and Roses” meant something slightly different to me than they did when first uttered—in a modern context—100 years before by Helen Todd. Ms. Todd was a factory inspector and suffragette, and to her these words symbolized the fight for the right to mark the ballot and exist in livable working conditions. Her words would be repeated again a year later by Rose Schneiderman, a young Polish immigrant, in regards to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire—which killed 23 men and 123 women between the ages of 14 and 23, making it one of the deadliest industrial accidents in United States history.
“What the woman who labours wants is the right to live, not simply exist—the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”Rose Schneiderman, at the New York Metropolitan Opera House; 1911
These words gained life and momentum, and became the rallying cry of the aforementioned Bread and Roses Strike.
Due to the efforts and valor of these women, I now had the right to vote and federal regulations protecting working conditions—at least ostensibly. But in the spirit of de facto versus de jure—what the law officially declares, and what people actually do—I did not have these rights in my own home. My opinion didn’t matter. My ability and quality of work did not guarantee I would be treated with respect and love. Because my boyfriend paid for the house with his money, this made him the metaphorical “owner,” and because he paid for the food I prepared and ate, this made him the one who determined my quality of life. He, unquestionably, was the one in charge. And no matter how much and how nicely I petitioned him for a change in living and working conditions, he just simply would not grant my request.
In many ways, “Bread and Roses” meant much the same thing to me that it had to the generations of women and laborers who had come before. Except I was fighting for it on an individual level in the home.
The photo of the woman on the picket line stuck with me. It is interesting now to realize that perhaps that photo doesn’t actually exist—or maybe I just reconstructed one into an image of myself. If I could turn that woman’s face, half-hidden in silhouette, would I see my own?
That December, my boyfriend kicked me out of the house again—and also, for the last time.
This time, I took the little bit of money I was gifted by friends and family, and left. Serena answered my may-day and I fled to the coast. There I stayed in her spare room, eating meals at her solid kitchen table, until I was able to earn my own bread, speak my own thoughts, and plant my own rose garden at my own house surrounded by redwoods. Where I often imagined the fairies dancing around their Maypoles under the giant Redwood Sorrel on the forest floor.
If it weren’t for my network of loved ones, I would not be where I am now: living life on my terms. Typing these words while the dishes pile in the sink. My collective is the biggest resource I have ever had. While “Bread and Roses” means the ability for self-determination (the opportunity to earn money and pursue happiness on your own terms—free of abuse) which, in the American point of view, is a strictly individualistic prerogative, requiring the prioritization of individual freedoms at the cost of the collective—
I think this is false. I think that in order to ensure individual freedoms we must work together as a whole. We must march together, chant together, eat together, grow together. I think now, if I could turn that woman’s face to the front, I would see myself, and everyone else. I would see Beckiness—an independent woman who demands to be heard—and Serena—a proud wife and mother with a saucy smile and generous being.
I believe in the power of unity, at the same time I believe that real change will not come from those in power. I think of my ex-boyfriend, who insisted that to exist in his house, I had to exist under his terms. No matter what I did, no matter how hard I worked, or how much I marched, he refused me the roses that I needed.
For millennia there has been a push-and-pull between the powerful and the powerless. A song and dance that is older than us all, that might outlast each and every one of us, and someday might be all that there is left. I can note the concessions in the history of our nation: the undoing of Separate but Equal, the dismantling of Jim Crow, the formation of labor unions. I can note that the murder of Anna LoPizzo, a woman shot by police during the Bread and Roses Strike, was a significant rallying point for the Labor Movement—
(note for interested readers: a few days after LoPizzo’s death, a group of enraged Italian women came across a lone police officer on a bridge, stripped him of his club, badge, and gun, before slicing his suspenders, removing his pants, and dangling him over the side of the bridge—effectively dashing any hopes of the mill owners that the strike would be put to rest.)
While we are thankful for the 40 hour work week, we all know workers who are still hungry, under-insured, and exploited. These concessions illustrate the very spirit of de facto versus de jure: the law of the land guarantees us equal rights, but in practice, it is sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Which is why the people still march. Which is why, since May 4, 1886, May Day has taken a new meaning that is still relevant today. Which is why, this May 1, 2020, I opened my front door to find a package of homemade bread bundled with a rose. Now, when I think of “Bread and Roses,” I think of May Day—both the laborers who march for their rights—and of the Maypoles celebrating the rebirth of Spring. Bread for the sustenance of the people; roses for the magic every person needs to thrive.
And maybe—just maybe—in this push-and-pull between the powerful and the powerless, we are like the ocean unfurling against the shore, which cannot be forever confined by the beaches and cliffs that pen it in. Maybe the hiss and hum of our individual discontent will gather together into a roar that is older than us all, will outlast each and every one of us, and someday will be all there is left.
Happy May Day
“A few minutes after ten o’clock on the night of May 4, 1886, a storm began to blow up in Chicago. As the first drops of rain fell, a crowd in Haymarket Square, in the packing house district, began to break up. At eight o’clock there had been 3,000 persons on hand, listening to anarchists denounce the brutality of police and demand the eight-hour day, but by ten there were only a few hundred… The last speaker was finishing up his talk when a delegation of 180 policeman marched from the station a block away to break up what remained of the meeting… As a captain ordered the meeting to disperse, and the speaker cried out that it was a peaceable gathering, a bomb exploded in the police ranks. It wounded 67 policemen, of whom seven died. The police opened fire, killing several men and wounding 200, and the Haymarket Tragedy became part of U.S. History.”Time Magazine; 1938