By Chris Hedges
I met Ernest Logan Bell, a 25-year-old Marine Corps veteran, as he walked along Route 12 in upstate New York with a large American flag strapped to the side of his green backpack. There was a light drizzle and he was wearing a green Army poncho. Bell was on a six-day, 90-mile-long self-styled “Liberty Walk” from Binghamton to Utica in a quixotic campaign to challenge Democratic incumbent Rep. Michael Arcuri in the 24th Congressional District. He camped out along the road for three nights and stayed in cheap motels the other nights and was accompanied by Kevin Barlow, an unemployed welder. Bell opposes the health care law, calls for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, advocates the abolishment of the Federal Reserve, is against the bailouts for Wall Street and wants to see immediate government relief for workers trapped in prolonged unemployment, including his own. He carried a handwritten sign: “End the Fed.” In his backpack he had a copy of “The U.S. Constitution for Dummies” and a book on the Federal Reserve by Ron Paul that he planned to deliver to Arcuri’s office in Utica.
Bell, who lives in Lansing, N.Y., is the new face of resistance. He is young, at home in the culture of the military, deeply suspicious of the federal government, disgusted by the liberal elite, unable to find work and angry. He swings between right-wing and left-wing populism, expressing admiration for Reps. Paul and Dennis Kucinich and the tea party movement. He started out as a supporter of John McCain in the last presidential election but soured on the Arizona senator and the Republican Party’s ties to Wall Street. He did not vote in that election. He has raised about $1,000 from neighbors and friends for his own campaign. He is adept at martial arts and made it to the semifinals of the 2010 Army National Guard Combative Championship at Fort Benning in Georgia, in which, in his last bout, he suffered a broken nose, bruised his opponent’s ribs and thighs and lost in a split decision.
Bell grew up in Oakwood, Texas, a small town in East Texas between Dallas and Houston. His father was an alcoholic, and his parents frequently separated and reunited. They divorced when he was 13. His mother raised Bell, his younger brother, who is currently in the Army’s 82nd Airborne, and his younger sister in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. There was little money, and his mother worked off and on at odd jobs. There were 18 people in his high school graduating class and, with no real jobs in Oakwood, Bell, along with a few of his classmates, joined the military.
“You couldn’t stay in Oakwood, Texas, and have a job,” he said flatly.
“I got out of the Marine Corps and went back to Texas for 10 months and was involved in the John McCain campaign,” he said. “I really got disillusioned with the neoconservatism. I had never been involved in politics. The idea that we needed all these troops all around the world defending freedom, as they called it, when we were actually engaged in nation-building and supporting special interests that drive these wars, was something I began to understand. As far as foreign and economic policy, I could see there was no difference between the two main political parties. There is a false left-right paradigm which diverts the working class from the real reasons for their hardships.”
“I just walked through the town of Norwich,” he told me as a car passed and the driver honked his support for Bell, “and there is a strong tea party movement there. The tea party movement, for the most part, is just a bunch of disgruntled Americans. They know something is wrong and they are ready to be engaged. A lot of the people in my area who are in the tea party are Democrats. People are confused. They are shellshocked. They don’t know what to think. But acting like these problems started Jan. 20 [the date of the presidential inauguration] is absurd. To single out the current president and not the presidents before him is not productive for trying to figure out what is going on.”
Bell’s own employment struggle mirrors that of many of his neighbors. He moved to upstate New York two years ago after leaving the Marine Corps to be near Shianne, his 3-year-old daughter. He and the girl’s mother are separated. Bell found work as a carpenter with a traveling construction crew. He earned $14.50 an hour and could sometimes make as much as $800 a week. Then the financial meltdown knocked the wind out of the local economy.
“Everybody in my apartment building has had their hours cut, are unemployed or have taken minimum-wage jobs,” he said. “I was laid off last year. I try to find work as an independent carpenter. I don’t have health insurance.”
The dearth of work, which left him attempting to survive at times on $600 a month, saw him enlist last year in the New York National Guard, even though it means almost certain deployment to Afghanistan. The enticement of a $20,000 signing bonus was too lucrative to pass up. The National Guard unit he joined recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan.
“We are training to go back to Afghanistan,” he said. “The fact that they are still using Army National Guard, state-level troops, to police the streets of Afghanistan is not good. These units are really overstretched. We do not get the benefits. We don’t get health insurance like active-duty military. But the guard gets deployed just as much. Some of these guys have been on three and four tours.”
“The winters [in New York state] are really hard,” Bell said. “There are less jobs and the heating costs are high. I pay about $200 a month for electric and gas. I live really cheaply. I don’t have cable. I don’t go out or spend money that is not necessary. It is a struggle. But at least I have not had to devote 40 hours a week to a minimum-wage job that does not pay me a living wage. People here are really hurting. The real underemployment rate must be at least 20 percent. A lot of people are working part-time jobs when they want full-time jobs. There are many people like me, independent contractors and small business owners, who can’t file for unemployment insurance. Unemployment [coverage] is not available to me because I worked as a ‘1099,’ a self-employed contractor, even when I worked for the construction company.”
“People are scared,” he said. “They want to live their lives, raise their children and be happy. This is not possible. They don’t know if they can make their next mortgage payment. They see their standard of living going down.”
Bell said that he and those around him were being pushed off the edge. He said he feared that the social and political repercussions would be unpleasant.
“I hope there is a populist revolution,” he said. “We have to take the corporate bailouts and the money we are sending overseas and use that money in our communities. If this does not happen there will be more anger and eventually violence. When people lose everything they start to ‘lose it.’ When you can’t find a job, even though you look repeatedly, it leads to things like random shootings and suicides. We will see acts of domestic terrorism. The state will erode more of our civil liberties to control mass protests. We are seeing some student protests, but we will see these on a wider scale. I hope the protests will be constructive. I hope people will not resort to extreme measures. But people will do what they have to do to survive. This may mean things like food riots. The political establishment better work very fast to take the pressure off.”