In 1985, local newspaper the Corcoran Journal told a tale of two Césars and two Caesars.
At the time Gilmore wrote, Corcoran was a small city inside of Kings County with a population just above 110,000 people, predominantly Latinos. Whether it is a rich or poor place depends rather on how you answer that question. Measured by the income of those who live there, it is impoverished: In the past quarter century, it has also consistently ranked near or at the bottom among the state’s fifty eight counties in per capita income, with child poverty rates well above 30 percent. But measured by capital investment and value of product, it was quite wealthy: ranking consistently among the six wealthiest agricultural counties in the United States.
The explanation of the poverty is best explained by the tale of two Césars: the story on page 4 of the fateful 1985 issue of the Corcoran Journal. This story recounted a meeting where well known activist César Chavez and a lesser known local activist, César Arviszu spoke to agricultural workers. Representing the United Farm Workers of America, they were engaged in deep and strategic conversation with the resident workers of Corcoran about whether or not to unionize. The Salyer Land Corporation - California's state’s second-largest cotton grower - had recently defaulted on a loan from the Bank of America, and was in financial dire straits. They responded to this financial risk as corporations under racial capitalism tends to do: by passing the pain down the employment hierarchy. The corporation offered to slash the workers' pay from $6.35 to $4.75 an hour, an offer preceded by firing the workers as direct employees and re-hiring them through a contractor - an increasingly recognizable pattern as the gig economy rose in prominence, propelling companies like Uber and Lyft to international prominence and wealth.
Their story dovetailed with the two Caesars: the front page story reporting that the Kings County Board of Supervisors had voted to ask the California Department of Corrections to build a new prison in the town. The supervisors sold the prison as an opportunity to bring jobs and prosperity back to where it had left - a "prison fix" to unemployment and poverty, inspiring the title of the chapter. But what was the problem the prisons were supposed to fix? That brings us to the Caesars.
tell them which way wages go Caesar
Salyer was the name of the corporation that had fired the workers the Césars were trying to organize. But it was also the name of one of the major families of the area. The Salyers had risen from "family farm" to major industrial agribusiness by mixing their private power with political power: using their influence on state legislators to outlaw strains of cotton produced by economic rivals and developing complicated legal machinery to evade state regulations on water use.
But they were not the only cotton family in town. The strongest cotton capitalist cabal was the one begun in 1924 by Colonel J. G. Boswell, a cotton merchant whose family had made their money via slave-labor fueled plantations in Georgia. By the time the calamitous droughts hit the region in the 1970s - the middle of this decade saw sixty uninterrupted months of drought - the Boswells had built a national and modern economic powerhouse. To keep up with the Boswells, the Salyer Land Corporation borrowed and invested in the wrong physical capital, and didn't have the cash reserves to maintain operations as the drought punished their yields as the Boswells did. This forced them to borrow more and more, until they couldn't - the default to the Bank of America that led to the meeting held by Arviszu and Chávez.
in their defense, Bank of America was pretty rude about cutting off their credit
The state of play between Césars and Caesars was set by the history of violence and law that led up to 1985. The farmworkers of Kings County had spent decades and generations organizing against long odds. Over the 20th century, it had been home to waves of people from places with active and radical labor movements: workers from revolutionary and post-revolutionary Mexico, Filipinos who had been active under US colonial domination. Gilmore says that Mexican, white "Okies" who became economic refugees after the Great Depression and African(-American, I take it? Gilmore doesn't say here) workers allied to contest poor wages, living conditions, and to be allowed to set up permanent residence via several strike campaigns in the 1930s.
Several developments conspired against the prospects of labor organizing. One big one: The New Deal. New Deal legislation like the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair and Labor Standards Act made notable exceptions for domestic workers and farm workers - at the time, sectors of the labor market predominately held by Black workers, especially in the US South (for more on this: if you don't have time to read Ira Katznelson's Fear Itself, read this article about it). In particular was legal recognition of their right to organize, which would have been a political resource to draw on. In the absence of this recognition, farmworkers were brutally attacked by county, state, and vigilante forces operating on behalf of farmer elites.
A second big one: the US' entry into the second World War in the 1940s, the white "Anglo" workers were largely drawn into wartime industries or the military itself. To replace them, agribusiness pushed for the infamous Bracero program to bring in Mexicans as "guest workers" without the rights or protections either of permanent residents or, of course, of US citizens. And, of course, for lower wages. During this same period of time, the "International Harvester" was invented, a machine that increased the mechanization of cotton production and made it more difficult for workers to shut down cotton fields at harvest time - thus decreasing their strategic leverage against the Salyers and Boswells of the world.
But the third big one exploiting the context created by the previous two was the prison system. By the 1980s, Corcoran was faced with chronic unemployment and child poverty rates above 30%. Prison construction promised short term benefits (construction jobs and use of state purchasing power in local businesses for signs, auto parts, and other goods) and longer term economic security: incarceration, unlike the cotton industry, was recession-proof. This didn't go without opposition: About 20 percent of the town formed an antiprison coalition centered around a few of the smaller area farmers: they held meetings at one another’s homes, attended council meetings, and spoke out in local newspapers like the Corcoran Journal. The pro and anti-sides exchanged angry words in the streets and at various town meetings - many of which were held at the Kate G. Boswell Senior Center.
Not everything surfaced in these confrontations. Gilmore explains: "The confrontations between factions were structured by already existing relations, although not all of the town’s hierarchies were spotlighted as a result of the controversy. While small farmers came under some critical scrutiny, the powerful cotton clans did not; while poverty and joblessness were constant subjects of discussion, race and class were not."
But structure was on the side of the prison proponents. In 1985, In 1985, the CDC bought a parcel of 1,920 of Boswell's worst, idle land - for ten times what the sale price as farmland would have been. While Boswell made out like a bandit, the results for Corcoran were much more modest: the California Department of Corrections CDC held several job fairs at the Kate G. Boswell Senior Center. At the largest fair, 823 people filled out preliminary applications, but locals got only 178 of the jobs - fewer than 10 percent of the jobs created by the prison. Prison employees new to the area mostly bought housing in nearby towns rather than in Corcoran.
The city tried to wring economic gains back: by forcing the new prison to buy water from Corcoran's treatment facility and using "donated" prison labor to complete public works projects aimed to make the city a more attractive residential destination for prison employees. Some of these efforts were spearheaded by a new generation of political figures whose families had participated in the strikes of the 30s and 40s, and who had been educated after federal and state programs had mandatory antiracist admissions policies and funding generous student aid programs. Daniel Léon, for instance, the first non-white member of the Corcoran city council, had studied at UCLA and Fresno State - both places where the Brown Power and Black Power movements had influenced ideology and politics.
This new elite waged racial battles against the city, alleging discriminatory policing and insufficient representation of Mexican Americans in elected positions - but did not train their sights on cotton elites like the Salyers and Boswells, and did not ask questions about state decisions to expand prison capacity. After more than a year of negotiations between the school board and Anglo and Chicano council members, the city manager came up with a solution to one of the fights against local racism: installing a plain clothes policeman in the city high school to help students learn to talk to police respectfully.
What happened in Corcoran was not inevitable. Gilmore contrasts it with Farmersville, California, about an hour's drive from Corcoran. There, in 1999, family ranchers and farmworker families united under the same United Fruit Workers flag waived by the Césars—worked together to prevent the new problems they feared would come along with prisons: endangering water quality, exacerbating race and class inequalities, and adding occupations that lead to or select for higher rates of domestic violence (military, police, and prison guard) to their community. They banished it from the city council agenda.
Gilmore concludes with a lesson (emphases mine): "In lieu of technocratic expertise that “shows” how a prison might blend into a community, activists opposed to such a solution to political and economic crisis propose alternate planning criteria that must precede any industrial location decision. If industries do create places, then so does planning; and indeed, one of the rarely unacknowledged bitter ironies of the past twenty-five years is that, while planning—in California, at any rate—fell from its constitutionally mandated place on governmental agendas, the corporate and banking forces’ determining the movement of capital across the land feature central planning as a fundamental activity of their institutions and organizations."