Last week, a group of armed activists began to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon. Their stated purpose is two-fold.
First, they seek to protest and bring awareness to the prosecution and (dubious) re-sentencing of Dwight and Steven Hammond, ranchers who were convicted of destroying government property by fire, an offense under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.
The conviction stemmed from their setting fires that spread to government land, allegedly to defend their property from invasive plants and uncontrolled wildfires. No one was harmed in the incidents.
Upon their release, government prosecutors took the rare and controversial step of appealing the sentence, arguing the Hammonds ought to serve the full five-year mandatory minimum sentence under the law. The courts ruled, and the Hammonds will be returning to prison.
The second purpose of the occupation pertains more generally to the federal government’s appropriation and regulation of what amounts to the overwhelming majority of the Western United States, a policy that supersedes the authority of state and local governments. The opposition arises from a concern that federal control has undermined the livelihoods of rural Westerners, presenting further obstacles to folks who are already disenfranchised from the financial, technological, and service sectors, which make up the bulk of the economy.
So, in short, you have a sizable population of the rural white poor or working class, who are rising up against a perceived threat to their increasingly tenuous and impoverished living conditions. And much like the Tea Party, these folks have been largely ignored by the so-called political left, despite their obvious points of common interest, except when a few go off the deep end.
When this happens, a virulent strain of “left” elitism and classism emerges, where the rural and largely white poor are caricatured as unsophisticated, backwoods racists. The unstated corollary being that those living on either coast have a monopoly on intelligence and moral correctness, always demonstrating their benevolence to minorities, their concern for the environment, dignified behavior, and so on.
It’s a story of heroes and villains, who upon closer inspection bear significant similarities in both their positive and negative respects. And if we’re to secure any significant and lasting justice, we must rise above the caricatures, acknowledging that our energies are better spent in locating our common interests with others, and in developing a moral awareness of our own actions.
I have no trouble in finding empathy for the militants in Oregon, and groups like the Tea Party, while also having serious reservations about their methods and their proposed cures for the problems we all face. But this does not subtract from our common interests, and if we allow it to divide us outright, we will be leaving them to far less scrupulous groups.
If xenophobic and far-right factions are the only ones who don’t ignore or ridicule them, who acknowledge their grievances, and who offer them solutions (no matter how absurd), we will all lose doubly.
It is high time for the left to engage these folks, and for us to treat them with respect, as we suggest a more accurate picture of the problems we all face and their possible solutions.
Solidarity is not a matter of forming alliances with friends. That’s intrinsic to the concept of friendship. Solidarity is finding our common ground with one another, even those with whom we may differ, as we work to advance our common causes and negotiate our differences.
We can all still learn from one another.