Against the backdrop of a dark Sunday morning sky in early September, on Chicago's north side, a fire blazed through a small three-bedroom, third-floor apartment. When the inferno was finally extinguished, gone were a mother and her five children that ranged in age from 3 to 14 years, including a friend's daughter, age 3. The fire also left two other children in grave condition.
According to the Chicago Fire Department, the blaze was started by a candle and spread rapidly throughout the unit of Amado Ramirez and his common-law wife, Augusta Tellez. Both were employed by a local laundry. However, from all accounts, the family had come up against hard times, which necessitated the older children taking on odd jobs to help out. Despite this, though, neighbors affirmed Ramirez and Tellez were very devoted and conscientious parents.
While there is no question this incident was a horrific tragedy, closer observation, especially of the circumstances that led to this fire, suggest it had all the earmarks of duplicity on behalf of local government, and what some might suggest, in the greater context of what's happening with domestic funding nationally, an incident that's just shy of wholesale murder.
Having had their electricity and heat disconnected four months earlier by Commonwealth Edison Power Co. in Chicago, Ramirez and Tellez resorted to using candles. Interestingly, following the fire, ComEd, which is part of Exelon, one of America's largest privately-owned utilities, which grosses on the average $15 billion annually in revenues, refused to comment on the tragedy. According to Tom Mackaman, a reporter with the World Socialist Web Site (wsws.org), "In the second fiscal quarter for 2006 -- the same period in which the Ramirez family went without power -- ComEd boasted $644 million in profit." Yet despite ComEd's consistent record of soaring revenues, local officials intimated it is common practice for working families to have their heat and electricity disconnected by the power giant, even during the winter months, when an energy bill becomes delinquent.
Another tragic fact in this story, according to the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times papers, is that the fire department established that the smoke alarms were not working. Surprisingly, Ramirez's landlord stated, "The smoke alarms are hard-wired directly to the building's main electrical system."
Despite the possibility the smoke alarms may have been inadvertently shut off along with the Ramirez's power, Raymond Orozco, of the Chicago Fire Commission, in a shocking and callous comment, laid blame on the family, commenting, "If the batteries went out in someone's remote control, how long would that last? But they won't spend a dollar on a 9-volt battery." Sadly, his observations weren't the only thoughtless and insensitive remarks. Following the tragedy, the Tribune reproached the victims, suggesting, "Using candles for light ... was a dangerous decision that proved to be deadly early Sunday." WSWS criticized the Tribune by suggesting the paper should have been more interested in why a family with two working adults was without power for four months in the first place.
Another interesting sideline to this tragedy is that Jay Johnson, a wealthy developer that owns numerous apartment units throughout Chicago, which includes the building Augusta Tellez and her children died in, has a history of contributing heavily to Democratic campaigns in the region. Following the election of those Johnson has supported, Johnson was appointed to the local planning and zoning commission.
According to Mackaman, Johnson rejected any responsibility for the Ramirez tragedy, claiming that functioning smoke alarms were in place when the family moved in and that it was the responsibility of the tenant to inform the landlord if the alarms malfunction or are missing.
However, the tragic irony of this story is still far from over. Mackaman reports that Ameren, the power giant that dominates energy distribution over a sizeable portion of Illinois, has promised residential rate hikes in the coming years, which could average out to a 30% hike per year that will coincide with ComEd's graduating increases through 2009. These hikes will pose a severe hardship on millions of struggling families, state-wide. Mackaman further states, "Politicians from both the Democratic and Republican parties have authorized this change -- ending years of state regulation on energy prices at the behest of ComEd and Ameren, which stands to reap windfall profits in the coming years."
Though the Ramirez family is beyond our help, their story alludes to a much bigger problem that speaks to America's own burgeoning third-world population. Life grows increasingly more difficult for the average American as the line between lower and middle income becomes increasingly more blurred.
According to a report issued by a Congressional Research Service (CRS) in September 2006, titled, "The Cost of Iran, Afghanistan and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11," the Global War on Terror will cost US taxpayers $549 billion by 2007. What's worse, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that an additional $371 billion may be needed to finance these wars through 2016. If approved, that would leave taxpayers with an estimated $920 billion dollar war debt 10 years from now.
What Americans need to do is redline war budget appropriations in favor of social programs here at home, which are instituted to help people like the Ramirez family and, in the process, save lives. For instance, $6.4 billion, the monthly expenditure for the failed Iraqi war, could provide 46.6 million Americans with the health-care coverage they desperately need, or provide 3.7 million homeless Americans, of which 1.35 million are children, with affordable housing.
On the other hand, $1.3 billion, the monthly cost of the Afghanistan war, could give secondary education, childcare for the working poor and Medicare a big boost.
Moreover, that $413 billion that Bush commandeered from domestic spending for 2006, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, could have shored up America's deteriorating infrastructure and addressed environmental concerns, including global warming that Bush tends to discount.
Even better, $1.3 trillion, one of many tax breaks Bush gave exclusively to the wealthy in 2006, could outfit Americans with a livable wage, shore up a seriously eroded job base, while addressing the concerns of mental health, and subsidizing poor students in their bid for a higher education.
Then again, the estimated $371 billion projected for the war on terror from 2007 through 2016 could address the lingering concerns of the Katrina victims, another tragedy that happened on Bush's watch. Or, we could divert some of this projected war funding into restoring as opposed to redesigning a seriously damage Gulf Coast region, instead of standing idly by while Halliburton grows increasingly richer.
Lastly, we might envision what $808 billion, the estimated cost of America's war of terror through 2016, could accomplish if vested in the US public's interests and a huge array of other legitimate and related concerns.
Now weigh the cost of an energy bill and the lives of seven innocent Americans, and all those that died during the scorching July 2006 heat wave throughout the western region of the US, for fear of generating high energy bills they could least afford to pay, against war appropriations now standing at $549 billion.
Regardless of how Bush ignores the polls, overlooks environmental concerns, rewrites the laws, subverts dissent or attempts to elongate the powers of the Chief Executive, the glaring fact is, with the onset of his lassoed presidency in 2001, the public debt has gone from $5.8 trillion to $8.3 trillion today. He and his cronies can no longer justify horrific tax breaks to the rich against a growing myriad of economic imbalances across the board. Nor can he distance himself from the fact Americans are dying as a result of his determination to push an agenda for the Fortune 500. That group, along with the upper ranks of government, has all the characteristics of a criminal cartel rather than a government that's responsive to the needs of the people.
Lara DeLuz is a writer in California and an activist for sustainable, progressive reforms that reflect a just democratic society. Email deluzl@Yahoo.com.
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