Monday, January 4, 2016

Who are “the American People”?

Out in Oregon a bunch of armed right-wing activists have occupied some empty government buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the latest flashpoint in a struggle over ranching on Federal land that goes back at least to the 1970s. So far the government seems to be ignoring them and hoping they will get bored and go home.

The standoff grew out of a peaceful protest against the prison sentences given to Dwight L. Hammond and his son Steven D. Hammond, two ranchers who set fires on the Federally-owned land they lease and ended up charged with arson. I have to say that I was startled to hear that these men were actually given prison sentences, since the government generally handles ranchers with kid gloves. The bare facts given in the news stories don’t really explain this. Perhaps these men have long records of infractions and the Bureau of Land Management finally got tired of them, or perhaps this happened during one of those awful fire summers when firefighters were killed and millions of acres were burned, and some prosecutor vowed to throw the book at the next person setting illegal fires. Anyway, most of the protesters marched and spoke and then went home, but a hard core of activists occupied the buildings with guns drawn and vowed to stay until justice was done.

What really struck me about the story was the language used by the protesters:
In a video posted to Facebook on Saturday, Mr. Bundy called the Hammonds’ case “a symptom of a very huge, egregious problem” that he described as a battle over land and resources between the federal government and “the American people.” He said his group was occupying the federal site to take “a hard stand against this overreach.”
Here we have the mirror image of the motto we heard so often from Occupy Wall Street, “this is what democracy looks like.” When Ammon Bundy (the son of Cliven) says “the American people” he means his conservative friends from western states. And if it were up to ranchers, or to people who live in those counties, quite likely the land would be given to the people who run cattle on it and that would be that. But America is not just western ranchers; there are 320 million of us, and most of us live in big cities. Our attitude toward western ranch land is starkly different from that of the Bundy's and their friends. As far as I am concerned, that land belongs to me as much as it does to anyone who happens to be leasing it, and I demand a say in how it is run. The way democracy actually works is that we have elections and the people who win them set policies that the rest of us have to live with. Environmentalists and people friendly to them have been winning elections since the 1960s, so policy have been shaped by their view of how Federal land should be managed: fewer cows and more wildlife.

You may not like it; certainly I often don't like it. But democracy does not mean that you and your friends get to impose your idea of justice on everyone else. It means that the side with the most votes makes the rules.


G. Verloren said...

Not that any such logic is going to mean anything at all to the sort of person who holes up somewhere with a bunch of guns...

I rather like that the answer so far has been ignoring these nutjobs. Perhaps the next step should be to cut them off from the rest of the world and from any potential resupply, and let them go hungry for a while until they decide to hand over their guns quietly and go home.

Katya said...

This is probably not a useful comment, but every time I read a piece about the Oregon story, my mental reflex response is "Black lives matter."

If we can shoot Tamir Rice in two seconds and call it justified, surely we should be treating these folks "equally" and someone should go in and take them out.