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James Johnson

Muscle and Blood by Rachel Scott E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc.; $8.95, 306 pp.

By Richard Turner

NO ONE KNEW who James Johnson Jr. was until he did what he did, which was in the hot summer of 1970. Then, in auto shops and in tenements across Detroit, he was a folk hero. How this came to be is a long story, and you may have heard it before. But it's got to be roughed out here to talk about this book and a few other things.

James Johnson was the son of a Mississippi sharecropper who came north to Michigan to look for work in one of the big factories. He looked for two years, and finally landed a job at Chrysler's Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle Plant, where three thousand people work every day. He was assigned to the No. 2 oven.

At the oven Johnson and another man unloaded fiery-hot brake shoes as they came down the conveyor belt. It was one of the worst jobs in the plant. The men worked amid screeching ear-splitting noise where there was no air-conditioning and poor ventilation and where the temperature reached 120 degrees. The lighting was dim, the floors were oily, and a thick blue mist of evaporated coolant made it impossible to see from wall to wall. The men were issued specially lined gloves to handle the hot iron but the grease and the work wore them down in a day. Soon Johnson lost one finger and lacerated another. He had back, stomach, chest and head pains; he often felt nauseous.

But Johnson didn't complain. He was netting 86 dollars a week--78 after union dues--and that was more money than he'd ever made in his life. He wanted to hang onto his job. He punched in early and punched out late. He didn't miss work. He didn't drink or use drugs. After eight months (which seemed like a long time to him) he got transferred to a slightly better job at the same pay and the same hours.

He worked this way, silently, for two years. Then he began to notice some things around the factory. In May 1970, a Vietnam veteran named Gary Thompson was crushed to death by a machine in the Eldon Avenue plant, a machine that had been kept in bad repair. Accidents were so common at the plant that there was one serious injury per employee every year. The day after Gary Thompson was crushed, the Eldon workers walked out--their third wildcat strike in two months. The UAW local didn't support the walkout, though dissident groups inside the plant--like the all-black Eldon Avenue Revolutionary Union Movement--did. Johnson saw all this, and joined it to his own experience: the injuries, the conditions, the bullying foremen who called him "nigger" and "boy." In May he hurt himself in a car accident and his doctor told him to stay home and recover, but in a week Chrysler told him to return to work or be fired. He went back, but soon Chrysler sent him a letter saying he was fired anyway. It turned out to be a bureaucratic error, so Johnson kept working.

One day he had had enough. His foreman ordered him to go back and work the ovens for a while. He refused and called for his steward. Since all the union stewards had been fired during the wildcat, except those who signed a pledge promising no more walkouts, Johnson had no one to help him. By the time a substitute steward got there the foreman in charge had already started writing out the order to fire him, without the required informal UAW conference. They scolded him and told him he was fired. Later that day Johnson came back with an M-1 carbine and shot the foreman who had fired him. Then he shot another foreman and a fellow worker. Three people killed. He did not resist arrest.

Psychologists called Johnson a schizoid personality, but people around Detroit didn't know about that. They understood the frustration and anger that went into what he did, though, that his rage was only born out of trying to get along. Right before Johnson was tried for first degree murder, committed to an insane asylum and recommended for permanent incarceration by the judge, a reporter visited him in his cell and showed him things people had written calling him a hero. "I'm no hero," he said.

I never wanted to be a hero. All I wanted to do was go to work, come home, and get my paycheck once a week.

PEOPLE COULD identify with the logic of the Johnson murders because they faced the same day-to-day fear and humiliation. When there are a thousand ways to lash out against the systematized caprice of a workplace like that, moral absolutes like "you don't shoot your boss" are turned to mush. There's a special bond between James Johnson and the countless other Rachel Scott describes as people and cites as numbers in her extended piece of journalism about industrial accidents and diseases. A special bond that calls for special terms, like James Johnson's terms, and the terms Racial Scott uses in the best parts of her book. We can't share in the bond, though: we read Scott's book and get mad, and see how the people in Detroit and Buffalo and the San Joaquin valley get mad, but we can't get mad like they get mad. Scott can--she spent enough time researching her book to feel it, only she can't set it down with the kind of urgency that James Johnson Jr. set down what he did.

We can't get mad for the reasons that Karleton Armstrong was not made a folk hero. The Wisconsin graduate student who blew up a war-research building at the university in Madison and killed an unrelated occupant had a few radical intellectuals to help him out at his trial, but the liberals and students who shared his point of view about the Indochina War couldn't make the leap to understanding his action. They felt the horror of the war, but for them fighting it was not a way of life for people to join in together. For Armstrong, reacting to the war was a personal act, born out of a personal tension. Everyone else had to try to relate to the abstract idea, and it was too much. They couldn't pierce the moral universe they'd inherited because the real struggle was across the sea and the struggle with the ideas was condemned to be fought in the imaginations of individuals. Destruction of property, murder, tearing down the citadel of knowledge, terrorism--it was too heavy.

What the liberals and the students lacked was the day-to-dayness that breeds the tension which makes Johnson shoot or a peoples revolt. It's also what makes a working man kick his wife around or punch his fellow with the vengeance of one who's punched every day from eight to five. When it's 120 degrees on the floor, there's always the potential for "look what he is doing to me" and "what am I allowed to do to him" to churn together and wrestle and emerge as a "dammit I'll just do." Because it's you that's being killed--not morally shocked, or intellectually offended, or emotionally moved--but killed, threatened to the very last inch of your life.

Scott's book is about "industrial accidents" and "industrial hygiene." But to Scott when a worker is put out of commission for life with a compensation which won't feed a family, it's no "accident," but the consistent policy of institutions that see men and women as machines, and profits as too precious to trade, even when it's not the workers' happiness but their survival that's on the market. Sociological constructs of "alienation" and "job stimulation" mean little next to blatant threats of injury, sickness and death. Scott's book is less about "industrial hygiene" than it is about industrial murder. Massacre, she calls it. Slaughter. Carnage.

IS MURDER too strong a word? I remember when radical newspapers would get outraged letters during the Black Panther repression a few years back, letters complaining that the word "genocide" was hyperbolic. It was easy to ignore these letters when they were only patronizing scoffs, but harder when they would say, "Genocide means concentration camps and the extermination of a people--it doesn't mean a couple of two-bit shootouts in Chicago."

But to the Panthers dictionary meanings only served those who wanted to use them in a certain way, those who denied that what was happening in America was a systematic campaign to destroy a band of like-minded people who shared the same history, endured the same conditions and were trying to win their freedom. Genocide. Or whatever you want to call it, because for the Panthers, who had the special bond, the words were only meaningless symbols, symbols that belonged to the enemy. For a group representing a people without a voice in society, a group standing outside of society, using their words only gets yourself lost. Because they can use the words any way they want.

They say it's a good working definition of a liberal intellectual that he can justify any position he chooses. He can argue it successfully and take his stand later. Lawyers are always like this, and they are in Muscle and Blood. But in the bureaucratic territory of the large corporation, the governmental agency and the academic institute the technique is the same. A company doctor can diagnose a chemical-related disease as "nervousness" ("go back to work") or "heart disease" ("go away"). A university scientist (serving, say, an "impartial" research foundation financed by corporations) can curiously come up with studies proving that a substance is harmless, even though a quarter of the workers at the factory making the stuff are dying of the same "mysterious" disease.

Or a state occupational health director: "You're dealing with a very powerful issue, with the right to make a profit. You're dealing with the guts of life, you're dealing with business. What we've tried to do is take a balanced view."

As soon as Scott starts dealing with the way these people talk, she loses the special bond with the people she's really writing about, like the liberals rejecting Armstrong. One minute the reporter in her is comparing statistics with an executive, the next she's talking to a human victim and the numbers don't matter anymore. Statistics--as the bureaucrats so aptly demonstrate in this book--can prove anything. And besides, we have statistics: Heilbroner on the food shortage, Ehrlich on population, Commoner on ecology. With so many books to read, with figures dwarfing anything Scott's talking about (anything imaginable), it's chaos to lose the bond of shared experience for too long. When the New York Times can ignore an industrial explosion that killed 29 workers in 1971 (the Thiokol Chemical Corp. plant in Woodbine, Ga.), it's essential that Scott's subject either stay humanized or be numbered and forgotten.

But for this task the writers need an appropriate language, and a grounding in the day-to-day experience of the people with a special bond. Muscle and Blood is best when Rachel Scott is mad, and I get mad, too, when I think not only of the slaughter but of the suicides, of James Johnson who was massacred. He murdered himself, just like the terminal alcoholics in Hamtramck and the junkies on the line in Lordstown and the men who drive like hellfire out of company parking lots and snuff themselves out on their way home from work. These figurative suicides are as important as the murders, and have to be dealt with first. Otherwise things are never clear except in bright flashes of truth, when James Johnson moves in with his M-1.

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