By Les P.
Jeremy got to the shop early. The sun was still shy, mingling with the remnants of the nighttime chill; the morning glow was a blue-yellow instead of white-orange. He always biked the same way, on the new greenway with the skyline somehow both near and far, silhouetted against the rising sun. This was once the interstate; it could never not blow his mind. When he got to work, he always rounded the same corner, around a particularly tall section of corn that grew in the new community farming plot along the water. And each time he rounded the corner, the warehouse seemed to leap into view against the harbor and the expansive horizon behind, as if it had just stood up to greet the world.
Jeremy was just old enough to remember when the warehouse was one of many, all painted rust-orange steel over concealed brick. They weren’t even warehouses back then; they were former warehouses, restructured to look like modern warehouses that housed luxury apartments. Now the building’s original red brick showcased the crafts cooperative’s three stripes, plus the blocky, silhouetted black hammer and the vibrant blue rose — the unifying crest that covered every workers’ building in the city since the end of the war.
He slid open the metal door situated squarely beneath the rose and walked into the cavernous building. The warehouse, while a five-story building, was completely open, like a hollowed-out building block. Sunlight filtered through what would’ve been floor-to-ceiling windows back when there were five levels, casting the equipment and the old fossil fuel cars placed evenly at stations across the shop floor in grid-like illumination.
He liked to get there early, though never at the same time — if he varied the time he left the allotment, he found, the flowers looked different on the way out. He sometimes saw his elderly comrade, John Weaver, a librarian who remembered even darker times than Jeremy, watering their shared crop of petunias. The smells of bread wafted from the bakers’ cooperatives along what used to be the freeway. It was one of the things he’d started to notice, now that he’d finally started getting used to this new city, this new world. Without all the cars, the traffic, the sirens, and, of course, without the fires, the gunshots, the feeling of a beady digital eye on your neck, he noticed different things every day.
Jeremy sat at a work table at the edge of the shop floor and drank from a clay-green thermos, eyeing one of the old hunks of consumption that lounged in front of him: off-kilter, vaguely unsettling, ready to be hitched up onto one of the hanging harnesses, and stripped of any harmful materials. He caught sight of himself in one of the mirrors and was mildly surprised to find himself looking as he expected, as he had for as long as he could remember: around five foot seven inches tall and sturdy, with thick, black hair that always looked wet and stubble perpetually flecked with hints of gray. Green eyes, a faint frown, and smile lines on his forehead and cheeks.
In the old days, Jeremy had been an ironworker, and he had driven one of these old lugs every day: to the job site, to the union hall, to the bar, to the library, everywhere. Nowadays, cars were obsolete — even if you had one that worked and met the community green standards, it was the worst way to get around compared with the train and the bike expressway. So Jeremy worked in the conversion wing of the crafts cooperative, stripping fossil fuel remnants of toxic materials and preparing functional parts for new use. For the first few years, he had been working on buildings, including this one, retrofitting those that could still be used for the new cooperatives and living spaces, and stripping down those that could no longer safely house anything. But there were more cars out there than buildings, so he switched.
Jeremy finished his coffee and got to work. It was July 9, seven years to the day that the United Northern Ironworkers first started retrofit work — a much more limited scope, back then — under the reformists’ social transformation labor partnership. Which meant soon, in just a couple weeks, it would be seven years to the day that it all started. Jeremy’s memories of that time tended to feel both crystal clear and strangely fragmented, like an old DVD with smudges distorting the playback. But that day seven years ago — that was deeper than memory. He could step back and live it to this day.
July 22 — Seven Years Earlier
Jeremy is in the teachers’ lounge of the old elementary school, his first big retrofit project, taking his lunch break. The TV, anchored to the ceiling in the corner, is on. Everyone is watching. No one is eating. Jeremy can hear the news anchor talking, but it sounds funny — it’s humming in his ears, fading in and out, vibrating, dusty. He knows other people are around him, other workers, his friends — Jackson, Ana Sofia, Joe Brown — but he can’t make his neck turn, can’t make himself look from side to side to catch their eyes. There is a ringing, but it’s not in his ears. It’s everywhere. It’s filling the room. He shakes his head and refocuses on the TV: there are police officers carrying machine guns, in formation, walking up the stairs of the Regional President’s office. The TV anchor’s voice is suddenly, sharply in focus.
“… long-standing tensions between the President and the regional police and military counsel have been expected to come to a head for some time now. Despite the self-proclaimed democratic socialist’s landslide reelection win last fall, the Police Captain refused to acknowledge the results as legitimate, backing false claims made by some in the business community about election fraud. The Captain made headlines during the President’s first term after the two clashed over the government’s ultimately successful bid to cut police funding in order to build green social housing and three more elementary schools in the Northeast, with some calling for the Captain’s resignation after surprising comments about the President’s safety during the next campaign. And now — oh my —”
The TV cuts abruptly from the entrance of the building, but not quickly enough: for half a second, police officers appear on-screen dragging several staffers wearing slacks and button-down shirts through the front doors; the bodies are limp, streaked with blood.
“It seems we are in the middle of a full-scale attack on the government.”
Jeremy sat outside the warehouse on an old stone bench, looking out over the waterfront. The sun was high in the sky now and truly beating down — each summer, the sun felt hotter and hotter — but it wasn’t humid, and there was a cool breeze skipping off the water, ruffling Jeremy’s hair as he ate a bread roll smeared with butter and raspberry jelly. He looked down at the note Sarah had left on his lap before she biked to the train station that morning. She had scribbled, just like he had for her the previous night, two jumbled lines of poetry. Her idea, “We can surprise each other every day. It doesn’t have to be a poem, it can be anything.” The note read:
“And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call us beloved, to feel us beloved on the earth.”
The lines were unfamiliar to him; he would have to ask her about them later. The note he wrote her was much more straightforward, a song that they both loved when they were kids — something they found out in the hide-out days, when they first met, after they had gotten used to the covert hustle and bustle of secret meetings and organizing, and learned what all revolutionaries eventually discover: until the match is lit, the building of the fire is torturous, tedious, and frightening. They met during the first intra-union meetings following the President’s assassination when everything was in shambles and all the last five years’ progress looked like a healthy body turning into a ghost.
Sarah was a union painter and a shop steward, and she spoke at every meeting — even as they grew from a few dozen people gathered around a barrel fire behind a warehouse not far from here, to a few hundred people twenty miles outside of the city. One night, after things had really started moving and there was a workers’ cooperative headquarters established in the old financial district, Jeremy and Sarah chanced into a shift on the Nightwatch together, which was when he found out they both loved that old song.
“You’re just too good to be true, can’t keep my eyes off of you.”
He knew she would make fun of him later that day. “Our notes are supposed to be revolutionary,” she would tease him. “What’s all this, my and you talk.”
Oh well. He was here, living in the revolution. He’d always been, and he always would be.
November 9 — Five Years, Eight Months Earlier
The cooperative leaders are getting picked off. Yesterday, Comrade Jefferson, former president of the Postal Workers and one of the most militant unionists still in an official government liaison position, was found without his head on the subway tracks. The interim government ruled it a drunken accident and installed a police lieutenant in his place; he stumbled into his track, the press release said, at exactly the right time for a Metro car to decapitate him. Jefferson’s face is the latest to be hoisted on posters in the protests happening daily in the city center. Every single one ends with tear gas and bullets.
Jeremy leans against the chipped, bright yellow paint of a column in the subway center underneath the baseball stadium. His breathing feels funny; he can feel the air whistling between his nose and his mouth on the way out, rattling around and scraping his windpipe on the way in. His pulse is thundering on either side of his head, through his temples, his ears. He looks across the hall, scanning the crowd — there are hundreds of workers here, maybe thousands, and they’re here as delegates; they represent far more. He shuts down the thought forming in his head that this could actually happen, that this could mean something. The goal is the future, so only think about the present. Across the tracks, where there are hundreds of more workers murmuring softly to one another, he sees Sarah marshaling newcomers as they arrive through the secret access points that only a worker would know. She’s not speaking tonight, but he wishes she was.
It’s been more than a year now of protests, skirmishes, and guerrilla gunfights that everyone sees and hears without seeing or hearing a peep on any of the new TV channels, only the underground papers. The police and the military and the right-wing news and the corporations expected this to be easier, that much is clear, because they didn’t and don’t seem to have a plan. They thought they had acted quickly enough in killing the President and his entire government. They thought everyone would fall back into place, to the way it was before: go to work, go home, go out. Watch TV, listen to music, visit friends. Take solace in each other, grieve — they’d afford everyone that much — silently.
But they made a mistake. They let things go on too long; they let actual change happen, even just a little bit. And so far, people aren’t ready to give up yet.
The initial reaction from the workers’ federation, following the explosion of grassroots meetings and resolutions across the Northeast, was unanimous: a strike. Of course, they were beaten and brutalized on the street, in front of the warehouses, and in front of the government building. Ana Sofia died after her legs were run over by a military jeep. Joe Brown was shot point blank by a rubber bullet and died after three months in a coma. Jeremy himself was only barely on the other side of recovery after having two ribs broken. But the strike continues.
And it culminates today. For the last year, the federation, now the workers’ cooperative, has been on strike; millions of protestors pour into the streets every night. But it isn’t enough. The police are still in power, and — as Sarah told Jeremy four nights ago — the longer they have power, the longer they have to figure out how to win. And, no matter how meager, the economy is afloat. The rich are still getting richer, just not as fast.
And so now, workers representing unions, federations, informal charters, and working groups across the region are gathered, hearing arguments for and against calling directly on every person in every city of the Northeast to strike. They have been preparing for months — developing food and health resources, deep-ending existing strike funds with targeted reallocating of existing finances, etc. — but they had prepared for strikes plenty of times without taking the plunge. So far, the head of the teachers’ union has spoken for, and two delegates from the Western councils have spoken against. There is one more speaker, then the vote. The Postal Workers’ second in command, now the president, a short woman named Juana Gutierrez, clambers up the payfare turnstile doubling as a podium.
“My friends, this won’t be a long speech. I won’t be invoking the name of my brother, my friend, and my comrade, because I believe he is standing with us, shoulder to shoulder. I feel his solidarity, his fight.
“This won’t be a long speech because it can’t be — and we cannot be long ourselves. We cannot fail in this moment. We must see that, for the first time and maybe the last time, the people have opened themselves to us, to our cause.
“Whether they know it or not, our countrymen, our colleagues, our neighbors, our families are asking for revolution. They are asking to be called to join something — something bigger than a march, something bigger than voting for our president.
“The time is now, my comrades. We need to make the call. We need to ask them to take a stand. We need a complete, total, overwhelming general strike.”
It is a moment, one that rarely, if ever, happens in anyone’s life, where, as it unfolds, Jeremy can see it in the future, too, as a memory. There is no unanimous, raucous, thunderous applause. Nor is there booing or quiet discontent. Jeremy looks around and sees the faces of people he’s come to know intimately since that day in the teachers’ lounge — not by name, necessarily, not even by face, but by a kindred spirit. He knows, in this moment, they will vote to call for the general strike, and he is scared and he is excited. He is excited because he thinks they can win. He is scared because he knows he is ready to die. He looks across the train hall again, looking for Sarah, but he cannot see her — only rows upon rows of faces.
Thirty-seven minutes later, the congress of organized workers will nearly unanimously approve a call to the general public for a complete shutdown of the economy in defiance of the military coup and in alliance with the late president’s democratic socialist principles. Structures for mutual aid and support will be kicked into gear as workers prepare to set up networks of food, health, and care. Masked militants will fan out across the city, wheatpasting posters, hanging banners, painting banks, and corporate headquarters, all with the same message: Strike!
And the people will answer.
Jeremy left work around three o’clock, satisfied with the day. He said his goodbyes to the dozen or so other comrades who filled the warehouse throughout the morning and early afternoon and walked outside to where his bike was leaning against the brick wall, basking in afternoon sunlight. He glanced at it for a moment, then decided to walk home. Jeremy shouldered his canvas rucksack and turned away from the skyline, striking out toward the greenery and warm hues of the allotments and community buildings.
Jeremy liked walking because he could see everything that made his world brand new. The highways were converted to sections of walkways, bikeways, greenways, and high-speed rail. The offshore windmills peeking through between the city’s remaining buildings, with green roofs, some of them full-fledged forests, obscuring the horizon line from view. What were once gas stations had almost all been converted into community health centers, with medications, a resident doctor, emergency medical treatments, and some with food kits. In the distance, what was once the financial sector — billboards with digital streams of revenue, red and green arrows, obsidian glass, and hidden steel beams (Jeremy knew, he had built much of it) — had now been painted in vibrant blues, reds, and greens, converted into urban growers’ and farmers’ plants, and bakery co-ops. It was an entirely new system for feeding people. If he took the long way, he could see the arts corridor, where the massive, foreboding corporate buildings that once helmed flagship TV news and venture capital groups had been remade into a theater, a cinema, a library, a museum — each with a training and educational wing.
Murals covered the city, glorious, brash illustrations of the world of the past, the world of the future: heroes, martyrs, the earth, the wondrous natural world — that which was lost and that which had been saved. There was grass and plant life everywhere, in nearly any plot of land or crack in the concrete that would host it: roses, peonies, vines, ivy, lilies, cottonwood trees, prairie grass, sunflowers, and bushes of all shapes, sizes, and varieties. The broad umbrella of the ecological cooperative took care of maintaining the city’s new wildlife, including animal families returning to the newer, more welcoming habitat they had long since left behind.
Jeremy remembered years and years ago, before the president had even started the first campaign, when he joined the union, listening to his shop steward talk about retirement — taking care of your family. What family? Jeremy had, at that point, long ago resigned himself to the fact that his world, one of corruption, one of poverty, one of rising seas and raging fires, was no world for children, especially not his own. Now he found himself thinking, when he watched the sun set outside the allotment, leaves fluttering in the evening breeze, tea steeping on the kitchen table, that this world they were building — if they could protect it — might be right for a new generation after all.
Almost without realizing it, Jeremy found himself at the allotment. He ambled through the modest squares of wildlife, each with a small home structure, a garden, a patch of yard, some with a row of trees offering shade. He turned onto the plot he shared with Sarah. Jeremy could see her knelt over the short line of tomato plants in front of their small wooden home. He remembered that she told him they were nearly ready to be picked for the community harvest. Jeremy smiled. He loved the harvest party. He looked up to the sky, as he found himself often doing, and promised himself: “I won’t take this world for granted, I won’t let it go.”
July 23 — Five Years Ago. One Day Before the Military Government Agrees to Give Up Power
It doesn’t take long for the general strike to turn into the war. Once the military government realizes that the people really are ready to completely shut down the economy — and that, unbeknownst to police surveillance, labor has created what amounts to a parallel government to provide for people’s basic needs — they opt, almost eagerly, for violence: vigilante squads are running up on anyone, from a union leader to a picketing bank teller to a grocery-shopping teenager, with baseball bats, batons, and guns. The workers’ cooperative had previously reached out to the guerilla factions based throughout the Northeast; that alliance is quickly codified, and soon workers’ and peoples’ defense battalions are stationed at former union outposts throughout the city. Gunfire emerges as the city’s new soundtrack, and small blazes erupt almost at will as far as the eye can see. Every morning, bodies from each side are pulled from the street, as more and more people opt not just to strike but to join the resistance army.
Until, cut off from a rudderless corporate finance system, betrayed by their benefactors, who in turn had been betrayed by their loyal employees, the military government will surrender: first as a dirty trick, an attempt to lure the governing workers’ council into assassination, and then, when foiled by one of the defense battalions, in earnest.
The night before the surrender is the last night Jeremy fires a gun. He and Sarah are helping one of the guerrilla squads sabotage a fleet of police rigs and are caught snipping the gas line on the last truck. They scatter throughout the city, ducking under freight rail cars and swinging through alleys as the military, on the back foot in the war but bloodthirsty in body armor and brandishing assault rifles, piles after them. Sarah pulls Jeremy around the corner of a bombed-out Irish tavern, all shattered glass and ripped upholstery. They crouch in the shadow of the doorway, hardly daring to breathe as they listen to the sound of commanders yelping at underlings and the regimented marching of heavy, steel-toed feet. Sarah looks at Jeremy and hands him a pistol.
“I want you to remember something if you feel scared or if you feel like you can’t fight anymore,” she murmurs to him, the flickering flashlight and the metallic crunch of stepping boots growing closer by the second. “I’ve been saying it to myself — I know it’s what we’ll say to each other when this is over.”
“Okay,” says Jeremy, shivering.
Sarah smiles. “Remember the revolution.”
Les P is a writer, editor, and DSA member who lives in Washington, DC.