A Tale of Two Earthquakes

A Tale of Two Earthquakes

Lew Rosenbaum

February 9, 1971 – 50 years ago – barely after 6:00 AM I awoke. For a second I thought I might be in a nightmare. In the next second I realized that the house I lived in really was shaking. My bed was shaking.  The brick and board bookcase perched on my desk swayed back and forth, threatening to spill toward me.  In the third and fourth seconds I remembered that I lived in the fourth, flimsy wooden house up the side of a hill, 86 stairs from the street. It took me about another second to calculate that before I got up and out of the house (without clothes on), the house could go tumbling down the hill; and I had no idea of what manner of peril awaited me if I even got to the door.

I then wrapped myself up in my blankets.  I told myself that if I were going to die on that day, I might as well die comfortably, or as comfortably as I could.  And, curled in that fetal position, I waited through the next five or six seconds of the 12 seconds that the earthquake lasted, the most powerful earthquake in the Los Angeles area in nearly the century preceding it. It’s remarkable how many thoughts can pass through one’s mind in 12 seconds.

That was the Sylmar earthquake or the San Fernando Valley Earthquake of 1971. It played havoc with steel structures, demolished large sections of the Olive View Hospital in Sylmar, upended large sections of major highways, and collapsed a section of the Van Norman dam, which held 3 billion gallons of drinking water for the city. The city forced evacuation of some 80,000 people for several days because of the flooding risk, until the dam was repaired. No flood took place, but after all casualties were counted, 64 died that day. I lived about 20 miles from the fault on which the earthquake erupted that day. The story of the earthquake is remembered in today’s Los Angeles Times.

The 12 seconds ended, I breathed a sigh of relief, recognized the aftershocks as they continued over the next few minutes.  Soon I realized I could not get back to sleep. Got up, got dressed, got breakfast, listened to the radio (KFWB – give us 27 minutes and we’ll give you the world) to understand what was going on, and figured I should go explore.  I was due in at work in a couple of hours, but had no idea whether L.A. County had closed the welfare office where I worked.  I don’t remember whether I worked that day.  But I do remember driving along the streets the long way round to get from Cypress Park to Pasadena, normally a 15 minute drive on the Pasadena Freeway.  I think instead I drove up along San Fernando Road, heading north to Glendale, and then approaching Pasadena from the West.  I don’t think I saw anything as bad as the twisted steel poles of Sylmar, but I did see many storefronts with broken glass windows, plenty of small and unstable structures in disarray, a lot of businesses that would not open that day. 

That was a natural disaster, a force of nature. A different earthquake is roiling society today, a specter is haunting the world. While not a force of nature, it threatens to upend the structures, which humans have built to govern the way we live. Every technological advance today encroaches upon the labor market, more and more people are thrown out of the ability to earn wages sufficient for them to survive.  A fault line has developed and widened: just in the last year as millions are de-employed while corporations rake in trillions of dollars. The political structure of our country is at least as twisted as the steel columns holding the 210 freeway in 1971. 

Today, Feb. 9 2021, begins the impeachment of Donald Trump on charges of inciting insurrection, a charge which reflects the turmoil wracking the country.  Rep. Cori Bush gave the most accurate analysis of why impeachment and conviction is necessary. This is not a question of semantics or whether or not impeachment of a former president is possible. This is not even a battle around insurrection.  This is the question: will the United States finally move beyond a government based on white supremacy as the tool to batter the working class into submission.

What is destroying society today is not the same as the earthquake as 50 years ago.

The battles around the changes at the economic base of society always take place in what is known as the superstructure, i.e. the cultural, social and the political arenas. Here the combatants wage the battle of ideas. Democrat leaders and Republican leaders alike are trying to contain the battle of ideas.  What is the main idea, which is being fought out?  On the surface, in the Congress, it’s whether Trump is guilty.  The fundamental question, which is not being debated, is: Are we going to be a society in which everyone enjoys the fruits of the abundance that is being produced?  Or will we continue to exacerbate the inequity of society and condemn the billions of worldwide poor to death by poverty?  Will corporations strengthen their dictatorship over us, will we allow them to shore up the dam to keep us at bay? Or will we breach the wall of that dam and attain the power to reconstruct society in the interests of all?

There is a specter haunting the world – a real possibility to abolish private property, corporate property.  In 1848 Marx said communism was haunting Europe.  With capitalism expanding, it’s taken almost two centuries to get to the point that capitalism is contracting.   Contraction means many are expelled from having any market relationship to capital. They cannot find work, they cannot buy the necessaries of life.  What can be done, except reorganize society? A century and a half ago abolitionists led a battle to end slavery and thus the practice of holding people as private property. Their demand, resting on the legacy of Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, and John Brown, was that Black lives matter. That war ended legal slavery; but it also elevated industrial and financial private property, a corporate structure which has continued to this day. Conditions have changed. In the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike, pickets carried signs saying “I Am A Man!” Black lives matter. In 2020 some 26 million people demonstrated against the murder of George Floyd, many carrying signs saying Black lives matter. The only thing left for this class of people who have nothing to lose but their chains of poverty and police terror, this world wide new abolitionist class, is to abolish corporate private property and distribute the goods and services of society according to the needs of the people.  That time has come and the outcome of this quake is up to today’s revolutionary class.