Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Ranchers and Riots

After a nice holiday break and some oversleeping this morning, we're back to the regular Tuesday morning post.

Over the holidays there's been a lot of talk about the ranchers in Oregon occupying a vacant federal building as a protest. This is an ongoing saga now 22 years old. The federal government owns a good chunk of land west of the Rockies - more than 80% of Nevada, half of Oregon, and lots in other western states as well. When taking over the rugged territory the government thought it best to keep land back to avoid speculation. That's been fine for most people, since the gov't rents land to miners and ranchers at a deep discount (upwards of 90% less than market rates).

However, as the government (and humanity in general) has become more aware of the effect cattle have on their environment, some of those leases have been revoked to protect endangered species and habitat. In 1993, the federal gov't removed Cliven Bundy's right to graze in certain parts of Nevada his family had leases for generations, to protect the habitat of an endangered desert tortoise. Bundy, being a shrewd observer of government practice, just kept doing it, ignoring warnings and fines, knowing that the Bureau of Land Management was pretty low in the totem pole of enforcement priorities.

The main argument is simply that possession is 9/10ths of the law - Bundy and his fellow local ranchers don't believe the federal gov't has right to own land or determine how it's used when there have been generations of locals using it. This particular protest is over arson convictions for a couple of ranchers who started fires on federal land as a means of clearing invasive crops for their cows. It's all about land rights and usage - things that certainly are debatable in a system of democratic capitalism.

There's been lots of talk about how we treat a group like this - armed and threatening violence if the government interferes. There have been comparisons to ISIS and urban race riots. The group is currently called a militia, as opposed to a terrorist group or a mob. In some way, each of those terms has appropriateness and I'm sure those discussions will be ongoing. In fact, I'm simply proud that our society seems, on its own, to be asking such questions in the mainstream, a conversation I don't think would've taken place 15 or 20 years ago. We're learning how to think and talk with each other on a public level, and that's good.

What struck my interest, though, was how this highly visible story intersects with another, less visible story from Mississippi, where a city councilman, angry about police presence and violence in his neighborhood made admittedly unwise comments about the locals using "rocks, bricks, and bottles" to confront police from others jurisdictions who chase low-level suspects into their area.

As you know, I don't condone violence of any kind, so I oppose the threats made by people in both circumstances. Those are wrong, even, as I suspect, if they're made out of frustration and exhaustion. The Bundy boys have been dealing with this conflict their entire lives. Councilman Stokes has seen armed police from three towns over chasing shoplifting suspects through his streets. Those are not ideal, regardless of whether you think they're valid concerns. It's enough to try some patience.

What strikes me as interesting are the processes we go through to justify potential violence.

At the heart of gun debates in the US is the notion that, at some point, a government might potentially rise up to oppress its citizenry, thus requiring armed response. This is the justification the NRA gives for opposing gun bans of any kind. Yes, the arguments start with self-defense, but they general end with revolution. American colonists in the 1770's used the hunting rifles and army issues above their mantles to ward off the King's troops and secure a new nation. That tradition continues.

Some people are terrified a government will attempt to seize dictatorial control in the same way. People will argue about the likelihood of such an event (in history, when a government does take such control it doesn't come from forcibly oppressing the citizenry, it comes from co-opting the majority and usually happens with little to no violence), but it brings to bear the way we view violence in regards to power.

The ranchers believe that the government is abusing its authority, it is essentially an oppressive occupying force violating the rights of ranchers. By the patriot code, this is something to be opposed, violently, if necessary. Many people in the US see things this way because it's been part of our public education - this is the American story. Whether we think this particular issue is worth fighting over might be debatable, but we're prone to understanding why it's happening.

When it comes to Mississippi, we're less prone to give sympathy - because that very same narrative which praises citizen self-defense, tells us the police are good people, who catch criminals and protect the "good guys." The whole ongoing debate about police brutality and militarization, the one that questions policing tactics and the disparity of treatment by race rubs against our natural instincts because it pushes back on the narrative we've been taught.

In reality, the position that calls for violent response to police is no different than what the ranchers in Oregon are doing. Many urban citizens, especially in oft-neglected neighborhoods, view the police as an oppressive occupying force, one endangering the lives and livelihood of themselves and their loved ones.

Much of our response to these issues depends on our perspective. We identify and understand one scenario, we see ourselves potentially within it and make them heroes of liberty and justice, while vilifying the other because it seems foreign and dangerous to us. Really, though, it's the same thing.

Perhaps what we need to confess is that our own perspectives are shaped by an overly simplistic narrative. Of course not all cops are evil, power-mad people. That's silly, but neither are they the bastions of peace and civility our narrative makes them out to be. The reality is messy. It's not 1774 anymore. We don't have a mad king across the ocean with an army at his disposal. The whole point of a democracy is that lots of checks and balances and protections exist by which people of differing opinions can work out their differences in peaceful means. Does the system work perfectly? Of course not. We like to quote Churchill in saying democracy is the worst form of government besides all the others as a means of justifying out system; we should quote it as a means of countering our historic narrative of justice and liberty. Real life is messy.

This is part of the reason I condemn all violence. In the end it is only a fear reaction and a means of control. There might be "right" and "wrong" in a given agreement, but they're rarely, if ever, delineated by the line between two sides. Life is messy and so is disagreement. We can only properly address real and genuine conflict, like those presented in Oregon and Mississippi by asking "in what ways could 'they' be right, and in what ways might 'we' be wrong?" We've also got to be aware of what forces and narratives have shaped us, exploring why we make assumptions and how our opinions have been formed.

As a Christian, I tend to cross uncomfortable boundaries - at least I try to make it my habit to identify with the 'other.' When someone seems like the villain, I work to put myself in their shoes. I think those ranchers are pretty deluded - in both their understanding of history and their perspective on reality. They've had a pretty good deal for generations and it's getting more difficult. That stinks. They have to realize change is coming and it will be painful. At the same time, the government has to be sure to err on the side of compassion. Perhaps the ranchers are indeed intractable. Perhaps the government really has reached out with opportunities to help them transition to a different model of life and business and they've just refused to cooperate - at the same time, I think we all know the government doesn't have a great track record with this. We need to make sure even the most unstable, gun-toting rancher feels safe enough to trust that someone else has their future in mind. That's how conflicts are resolved.

When it comes to policing - there is a lot of personal responsibility that's gone by the wayside in urban areas. That's caused problems. At the same time, we, as a larger society, have to recognize the part we've played in creating the conditions that exist in pockets of poverty throughout our nation. Many of these communities lack the resources and abilities to change culture on a dime. It took generations for poverty to take hold of these communities and it will take generations to resolve (not to mention sacrifice). At the same time, we have to recognize that our government response has been jail over justice, intimidation over assistance and we've been complicit in this because it doesn't affect our daily lives. As in Oregon, it is our responsibility to make sure even the most unstable, gun-toting urbanite feels safe enough to trust that someone has their future in mind.

We don't encounter the front lines of violence and justice in our society because our reaction has been, largely, to just keep them at a sage distance. So long as the majority of us don't have to deal with questions of violence on a daily basis, we're happy to let whatever happens happen. We talk about violence in unlikely esoteric events - what to do if an armed intruder enters your home or a terrorist shows up at work. We have plans for a band of jackbooted thugs going door to door taking guns, but we give very little thought to the real conflicts happening on the periphery of our world - whether it be rural ranches or the urban core.

We can't know if the stories we teach our children about how the world works really pan out in reality if we're not involved enough to witness them first hand. I have to reconcile the reality that 95% of cops I've met off-duty and responsible and rational, while 95% of the cops I've met on duty are the opposite. Those are two competing American narratives, narratives that often divide us into camps of absolute believers who yell and scream across a chasm at each other.

We're not going to solve anything by vilifying and threatening each other in a desperate attempt to convince ourselves we're right. That's the real challenge - not that our narrative needs defending from others, but that it needs defending in our own minds. We tend to scream and yell the loudest when we're trying to silence our own doubts, when the holes in our narratives are unceremoniously exposed. Instead of doubling down, perhaps we should acknowledge that our emperor, sometimes, has no clothes. The only other alternative is violence - maybe not today or tomorrow, but surely down the road. And despite our most favored and comfortable narratives, violence has never, ever solved anything long term.


Mark said...

Well laid out Ryan... I have been struck at how many people that were critical of the race riots have rushed to defend the rights of these folks in Oregon and how many people that were defensive of the race riots have come out wildly criticizing this group (not surprisingly I guess it is seems pretty closely tied to political affiliation). It seems to me that there is more in common with these events than there are differences. This isn't a race thing, rather it is a response to feeling abused and marginalized by a powerful group without feeling like normal recourse can or will work. I don't agree with the actions of either group, but I understand the frustrations of both groups. I hope more people can try to put their feet in the shoes of the Bundy group AND the protesters of Michael Brown's case and see that there is legitimacy to the feelings, but there is also a responsibility for the actions taken.

Ryan said...

From my perspective its also a condemnation of violence itself. The whole myth of effective violence is that there's some point where it's justified. Ultimately, though, most any violence we undertake after thought will seem justified to us and unjustified to others. The real question seems to be whether we believe its possible to live without violence in the world or whether its inevitable. I tend to say violence is sometimes the best we can do, but it's never the right thing to do. That at least leaves us with a conversation rather than a confrontation.