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May 2006
Truth Against Trash
By Pattrice Jones

Every day I ask myself why?

I live on a dead-end rural road. Each week more litter materializes on the roadside. Fast food bags and wrappers appear and disappear, disintegrating with every rain. Waxy cups linger longer among the wild weeds. Soda bottles and beer cans move in to stay, permanently defacing the landscape.

This road is not a thoroughfare. Rush hour for us is three cars and a school bus within 30 minutes. The friendly UPS guy certainly isn’t the one dropping beer bottles into our drainage ditches. It’s not the mail carrier or the school bus driver or the farm supply truckers either. It’s got to be the people who live here.

Watching dog Dandelion snuffle a coffee cup or cat Dodici delicately step over sticky liquid, I struggle to imagine the impulse to toss trash out a car window anywhere, much less on your own street. Why would anybody want to do that? What does it feel like to do?

Could it feel like freedom to spit in the eye of the crying Indian from the Keep America Beautiful campaign? Does it feel deliciously wicked to defile Mother Nature? Or does it feel clean, like shedding something sinful, to get that garbage out of your car?

Or does it feel like nothing at all?

Disposable Bodies
Dandelion and Dodici themselves were discards. Dandy was dropped off at a shelter when she grew too big and boisterous for people who wanted a very different sort of dog. Dodici was left like litter in a carrier on the side of a highway.

We kill three or four million unwanted dogs and cats every year here in the U.S. Meanwhile, more than 200 million male chicks are trashed annually—often literally thrown into dumpsters where they suffocate or starve—by an egg industry that has no economic use for them.

Worldwide, about a million newborn babies are murdered each year by parents who have no economic use for females. According to Amnesty International, more than 60 million girls and women are “missing” from the world right now thanks to sex-selective abortion and female infanticide.

Also among the missing are the girls and women who disappear into the global sex trade every day. Here in the U.S., runaway children fleeing abuse and “throwaway” teens who have been abandoned or told to leave home are the ‘fresh blood’ upon which the prostitution and pornography industries depend.

Here and elsewhere, rape and murder are occupational hazards for workers in these flesh trades. Both perpetrators and police tend to consider sex workers to be “unrapeable”—as if their bodies are already so polluted that they cannot be defiled. Once sold, according to this logic, the body no longer truly belongs to the prostitute. She’s forever lost the right to say “no.”

Mass murders of women who were (or were mistakenly believed to be) prostitutes in British Columbia, Guatemala and Mexico have made the news in recent years. But it’s the everyday attrition everywhere that leads some experts to believe that murder is the top cause of death among prostitutes. Facile post-feminist talk about women empowering themselves through erotic dancing at high-class clubs aside, the fact is that most prostitutes have been raped at least once and everybody in the street sex trade knows at least one women who’s gone missing.

The dangers are even greater for the two million women and children trafficked into servitude in brothels every year. Raped daily by many men, these women and children endure unspeakable physical and psychic anguish that often ends only with death. Like egg factory owners tossing “spent” hens into wood chippers, the gangs that run the brothels in which women and children are enslaved do not hesitate to kill any prostitute whose upkeep is no longer profitable. Those who aren’t killed may die anyway due to untreated HIV or other sexually transmitted disease.

This is happening right now. Governments routinely launch rescue missions for even a handful of hostages. Why isn’t anybody rushing to rescue these children and women? Why haven’t we who shun sweatshop products also worked to shut down the travel agencies that ferry our fellow citizens to sex tourism destinations? Why haven’t we who free hens from battery cages also staged open rescue actions to expose the enslavement of women in brothels in our own backyards? Can it be that we too see captive prostitutes as unsalvageable human refuse?

From the Dump to the Salvage Yard
Worldwide, 250 million children live on the streets, 115 million children never have stepped inside a classroom, and a third of all children in Africa live with hunger every day.

From the ranks of such cast-off, orphaned and impoverished children come hundreds of thousands of child soldiers in dozens of countries. Captured, sold or recruited into rag-tag armies, boys and girls are forced to commit horrific acts that leave them estranged from their families and convinced of their own venality. They often become the most ruthless killers of all, deployed to commit atrocities when they are not used as cannon fodder in wars of attrition.

The same dynamics twist the psyches of abused children everywhere. Abusers commonly force or trick children into hurting others, thereby convincing them that the badness is within themselves.

They may grow up believing themselves to be poisonous or unworthy of love. They may consequently treat themselves or others like trash.

We commonly speak of the “stolen innocence” of abused or exploited children. Innocent means blameless. What might a child who has lost his or her innocence be? Guilty?

When we say that children have lost their innocence, aren’t we relegating them to the realm of trash, treating them like spoiled produce good only for the compost heap? Aren’t we using the same logic that leads us to kill rather than rehabilitate the dogs and roosters who have been tricked and twisted by fans of animal fighting?

Knowing things can change you. Abused and exploited children are marked by the things that have been done to them, the things they have done, and what this has taught them about people and the world.

Nonetheless they retain their animal innocence. Habits of belief and behavior developed defensively can be changed through a long hard process of recycling undertaken in an atmosphere of safety and empathy. The first step is seeing the salvageable goodness underneath the debris of anger and fear.

The Tao of Trash
I used to live across the street from a crack house on a block where the Neighborhood Watch was losing the war on drugs. There, the drifting plastic bags and candy wrappers seemed a natural part of the cityscape. I grew organic vegetables in the backyard and unsuccessfully sought to protect the abused children next door.

Then, as now, my house-proud neighbors thought I was crazy or lazy for not mowing my lawn.

The only white person on the block, I was acutely aware that the words “white trash” are often associated with weedy yards like mine. More than once, I allowed myself to be shamed into paying someone to waste fossil fuel trashing perfectly good plants.

Like many people, I struggle with shame. A throwaway teen myself, I had been luckier than most but had become entangled for a time in sex work, in the course of which I was sexually assaulted. Years later, as the weeds were rising and the neighbors were once again casting reproachful glances at me in my garden, I sought solace in chapter 13 of the Tao Te Ching, which talks about accepting disgrace willingly.

Crouching amidst the denigrated plantain and pokeweed, my mind drifted to the rest of that chapter, which talks about loving the world as your self so that you can be trusted to care for all things. Suddenly, I saw the flip side of the golden rule: as long as I exempted aspects of myself from compassion, I could not be trusted. Always, there would be the question: Who else is exempt? Always, there would be the risk of dumping the despised aspects of myself onto somebody else.

I now teach speech at a historically black university. One day I met a student in the library to talk about why he was missing class and not doing his work. He explained without self pity that he came from a dangerous neighborhood in a dangerous city with dangerous relatives who expected him to protect them from disrespect. Sometimes he had to go home to take care of things. His hands were scarred from fighting.

As we spoke, a dam broke and emotions rushed in. “I just want to know,” he said, stretching out those marred hands as tears streamed down his contorted face “if it’s too late for me to be forgiven for what I’ve done?” He was 19 years old.

Later, he told the class about an incident of betrayal and life-threatening injury. His classmates listened with evident empathy. When asked at the end of the term, “What’s the most important thing you learned in this class?” he said that hearing his female classmates talk about rape and homophobia awakened him to the struggles faced by African American women. Having experienced empathy, he was eager to extend it.

Refusing to be Refuse
We’re all tainted by the things that have been done to us and the things that we’ve done. Our bodies are contaminated by pollutants that poison our bloodstream and corrupt our DNA. Our minds are full of received ideas and our hearts are clogged with accumulated hurt. We spew waste into the waters and shoot junk into space.

It all goes back to treating the earth like dirt and animals (including ourselves) as if they were inert. It stops when we see the world as a quivering living thing and realize that we are a part of—not apart from—the breathing biosphere that sustains us all.
It’s time to go dumpster diving within ourselves. It’s time to refuse to be garbage, to find new uses for old feelings and recycle our energy into effective activism.

We’ve got to see and salvage the animal innocence in ourselves and each other. If former child soldiers and sex slaves can do it—and they do—we can too.

There’s no time to lose. Every year, more species of plants and animals end up in the dustbin of history. Every day, more children are thrown away. What will you pick up off the roadside today?

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