Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Killing Floor - UPDATED

UPDATE 07/26/2016: The the Fort Worth Stockyards - discussed in the original post below - are being demolished. At least the part of the stockyards encompassing the stock pens and the old Swift slaughter and packing facilities. The Fort Worth Star Telegram Editorial Board gave a generally positive review of the demolition and the efforts to vitalize the area. The old stockyards had been allowed to fall into disrepair for many, many years. Nothing was really done to preserve this truly historic area - once brimming with thousands of workers and livestock. They embodied the essence of what Fort Worth prides itself to be - the earthy, authentic half of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, a sort of Cowtown Ying to the Yang of Big D glitz. For me, most disturbing is the destruction of the scale house, pictured above, where cattle were weighed after sale. Although the Swift lab building is going to be saved, the real center of the Stockyards was the scale house. Virtually every head of livestock sold would pass through there. It is a real shame it will be razed.

ORIGINAL POST: We came from very different backgrounds. Sam's* father was a union shop steward, mine a physician. We met in Huntsville, Texas where we both went to college. We somehow became friends, and he ended up getting me a job working the Saturday sale at a livestock auction barn in a town about 30 minutes away. In the fall when cow/calf operations were selling off herds to minimize feeding costs for winter, the sale could last throughout the day and most of the night.

   There was a symmetry to it all, a kind of rhythm. We would off load livestock from trailers, tagging the stock as we did, later working in all sorts of capacities: the crowding pen coming into the sale ring, the scale coming out, sorting livestock for the buyers, and finally re-loading the trailers. The same movement every Saturday, both volume and work dependent on the season. I met a cast of characters at that barn that would fill a large notebook. For Sam and me it was beer money, and we ate for free at the barn's cafe if on the clock.

   I was fascinated by the workings of the auction barn, but not so Sam. His father, a union shop steward, had worked at the Fort Worth stockyards for one of the two big meat packers, Swift and Armour during their heyday. To make his point, Sam once packed me up in his old straight six Chevy pickup and carried me to northside Forth Worth and the stockyards. There, as we stood atop the remnants of stock pens, he told me stories his father had told him. Stories about the underground tunnels leading from the stockyards to the packing plants on the hill above. Stories about the men who spent their lives pushing cattle to the killing floors.

    I read a story by Dan Berry in the New York Times this week about a intellectually disabled man named Leon Jones. Leon, you see, has worked in virtual indentured servitude at a Turkey processing plant in South Carolina for 40 years. Leon is from Texas. His experience as told by Berry is in part a cautionary tale about how we treat the least among us. It brought me back to the stories Sam told more than 30 years ago.

   Sam's father worked with and took care of several people that Sam described as "slow". His point at the time was people with limited abilities worked at the meat packing operations and his father, the union steward, protected every man, no matter how limited. It was his job, but it was probably more than that. I think Sam was the first person I ever met who had a family member who was union.Texas is a self styled "right to work"state, and union membership in some quarters was then, and still is, considered tantamount to membership in the communist party.

   I have experienced the intellectually disabled  in my own life over the intervening years. Most profoundly in the criminal justice system. Leon Jones is described as intellectually disabled. He receives disability benefits from Social Security. But he learned a trade, however brutish. He has worked consistently at that brutish trade for more than 40 years.

   If someone like Leon killed and took a dollar from his victim's pocket, that person could be charged with capital murder and potentially subject to the death penalty in Texas. The Supreme Court of the United States says we cannot punish the intellectually disabled with the death penalty. In Texas, however, we do. We do it because the criminal justice system here defines intellectually disability in a different way. A person who can show up for work, who can follow instructions, who can complete repetitive work can, and often is, found to have the functional adaptive behaviors to be defined outside what Texas criminal justice says is intellectually disabled.

   In other words, when you read about Leon and his limited functioning, remember someone like him could possibly be subject to our own kind of killing floor.

   I will have more to write about SCOTUS and Texas and intellectual disability. For now it is nice to read Dan Berry's account about how Leon was reunited with a brother despite the currents of impairment, time and space. I have not talked to Sam in years. We lost track of one another after college, victims of our own kind of impairments, time and space. Life sometimes is like that.

* Not his real name-I have not received permission from him to use it, and because we not talked in years feel like the better practice is not to use it.

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