Individually, journalists Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco have reported from some of the world's most chaotic war zones, including Bosnia, Gaza, and Iraq. In their first book-length collaboration, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (Nation Books), Hedges's words and Sacco's pictures form a mosaic portrait of the United States at a low point of economic dysfunction.
They document the systematic exploitation of Americans both by corporations and by a government that serves corporate interests first. The authors argue that this arrangement has existed for many decades, but that the economic downturn that began in 2007 has greatly exacerbated its external symptoms.
In the first four chapters, the authors describe the living conditions in some of the country's most depressed communities: Pine Ridge, S.Dak.; Camden, N.J.; Welch, W.Va.; and Immokalee, Fla. (The final chapter discusses the Occupy Wall Street movement in Liberty Square/Zuccotti Park, New York City, in terms of its response to the conditions discussed in the preceding chapters.)
"We wanted to see a wide selection of places—agricultural, rural, and urban—that reflected the devastating impact of past and present economic policies on Americans of all races and backgrounds," Sacco says.
Hedges elaborated on some of the statistics that helped him and Sacco determine which locations they would focus on: "Camden is the poorest city per capita in the United States. [In] Pine Ridge, the average male life expectancy is 48, the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Alcoholism estimates are as high as 80%. In Florida you can fire someone for union organizing. If they try collective bargaining, they can be dismissed from their jobs."
Hedges and Sacco have known each other since 1995, when both reported from Bosnia: Hedges for the New York Times (he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his work at the Times) and Sacco for his Eisner Award–winning book of graphic journalism, Safe Area Gorazde (Fantagraphics, 2000).
Sacco recalls, "I was in a convoy of French troops going to the town of Gorazde, and the convoy was held up because it was waiting for a New York Times correspondent—who turned out to be Chris. We immediately hit it off. "
They have since collaborated on a number of articles, including one about Camden, which became the seed that grew into Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. The book took more than two years to complete, including three months on the road. Hedges and Sacco traveled together, making multiple trips to each of the book's five locations.
"Government seems to exist not for the public good but to remove obstacles in the way of moneyed interests," says Sacco. "I suppose that is some version of freedom, but it is a heartless one."
In each chapter, Hedges describes local history and living conditions, taking care to trace each area's path to poverty, as well as the personal stories of area residents. Sacco's illustrations appear throughout, but he also contributes several multipage graphic profiles that detail the individual stories of people they met during their reporting. One such story is that of Joe Balzano, a 76-year-old former general manager of the South Jersey Port Commission, who has lived in Camden his entire life.
"It was my feeling that these profiles would have more emotional punch in Joe's hands than mine," says Hedges.
Both authors say their close friendship and mutual respect resulted in an easy, flexible working relationship. Sacco says, "Chris was not the least bit proprietary, so if we were doing an interview—and Chris usually took the lead on those—and a story seemed particularly well suited for a drawn account, he'd turn to me and say, ‘You should do this one.' "
The unique collaboration—a prose journalist working side-by-side with a graphic one—has resulted in a document that is informative, emotionally engaging, and alarming. The process held surprises for the authors, too.
For Hedges, the shock was how "invisible [poverty is] in this country. So many people are living at what is rapidly becoming subsistence level. I don't think the wider culture has any sense of how severe the deprivation is, or how extensive it is."
Sacco adds, "In West Virginia both Chris and I were struck by how much the collapsed and burned-out homes reminded us of Bosnia. The only thing missing was the minarets. I realized that someone trapped by circumstances in Camden has more in common with someone trapped in Gaza than with his fellow American citizens living it up in Manhattan."
As the first part of the book's title suggests, much of it is about the wreckage—human and physical—left behind by corporate and state interests that have conspired to exploit resources and people: Pine Ridge is the last bastion of a once widespread and powerful Native American nation, the Oglala Sioux; Welch has been abandoned by the steel and mining industries that built the city; and in Immokalee, laborers are subject to debt peonage, which prevents them from advancing beyond conditions that resemble slavery.
But Hedges and Sacco also record instances of resistance to these forces of inequity. "We saw isolated pockets of resistance to corporate dominance wherever we went—usually by a few brave and lone individuals—but the Occupy Wall Street movement took us by surprise and, frankly, delighted us," says Sacco.
The book's final chapter paints a vivid picture of what, thus far, remains the zenith of the Occupy movement's popularity and cohesion, and of the nonviolent philosophy that drove it. More recently, however, Occupy has been dealt a blow by evictions and by so-called "black bloc" anarchists, whose violent tactics compromise the movement's peaceful strategy.
Sacco says, "To me the Occupy movement demonstrated a flicker of what the people, acting communally, might accomplish. Liberty Square at its best was the first time I saw democracy in operation as I imagine it might have been practiced in Athens in the fifth century B.C. People were participating and seemed to have a sense that they had something to contribute to a public debate. The lesson for me was that democracy is made by the people. It is a dangerous idea for the powers that be."
Hedges says that, despite recent setbacks, "The movement isn't going to go away. All of the issues that pushed people into the encampments are not only there but [are] getting worse. The mortgages and bank repossessions and foreclosures; the student debt, which is pretty big for a lot of people in Zuccotti, over a trillion dollars now; the jobless rate under the age of 24 is massive. As that continues, it builds greater levels of frustration and even rage. One of the reasons I invested so heavily, personally, in Occupy is because I understand what violence is, and I hate it and I fear it. Occupy is a nonviolent movement. And the response of the state to try to shut it down, to my mind, is deeply misguided. Because if they thwart nonviolent, peaceful protest, then eventually they'll get Greece."
Casey Burchby is a freelance writer in San Francisco who writes regularly on comics for PW Comics World.