This essay comes from material excluded from a more general piece on land privatization on Everyday Feminism – please read that one here!
Seizure, Ownership and Bias
At the beginning of 2016 – which now feels so very long ago – a tiny, unspectacular, but beloved corner of our home state erupted into global fame. A crew of neo-con cowboys from Nevada strutted up to the federal buildings of the Malheur Wildlife refuge – a wetland sanctuary in a remote desert that protects and shelters thousands of birds along the Pacific flyway – cocked their rifles, hoisted up their belt loops, and stomped inside. They thus began a forty-day armed occupation that captivated public interest and inflamed debates over rural land practices in western states. The saga evoked warped fantasies of an old west golden age where white men claimed power with the clarity of steel, and it simultaneously consumed many Oregonians with visceral rage.
On Tuesday, Judge Anna Brown found four participants the occupation guilty of a range of misdemeanor offenses, such as trespassing, tampering with vehicles, and damaging government property. The ruling followed a widely-publicized case last fall, in which a jury acquitted the leaders of the movement – brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy – of conspiracy to impede government employees from doing their jobs.
Many questioned the strategic wisdom of prosecutors attempting the high legal bar of conspiracy charges, as opposed to, say, the much more accessible charge of trespassing. Many others voiced shock and outrage that dozens of white men decrying the authority of the state and openly inciting armed rebellion managed to hold their ground, unthreatened or impeded by law enforcement for forty days, and escape – save one (in the final standoff/highway chase between officers and militia, state troopers shot and killed LaVoy Finicum) – with their lives, with no criminal convictions, and no threat of retribution.
During those chaotic months, the Bundy family and their conspirators wrested the communities and conflicts of Harney county from their relative obscurity into an unending world-wide news cycle. As appalling as the actions of these self-congratulating ranchers were, it was also disturbing, as a child of Oregon's political land struggles, to see Buzzfeed essays with insultingly glib titles like, “The Top Ten things you Need to Know to Understand the Malheur Refuge Occupation,” and to hear cattle grazing fees discussed on the SavageLove podcast.
It felt invasive to have one of my treasured pieces of hallowed desert and granite and lava tubes and Mesozoic lake beds and blood memory suddenly laid barren for urban pundits of the Atlantic seaboard to unpack, even though I know quite well that my feeling of connection to the area is nothing of particular righteousness. Those feelings prompted more essential questions of who has rights to land, what do those rights mean, and why are they, or are they not, respected? (Those ideas are more essentially questioned in this piece)
I fear that the bungled trial and resulting lack of charges for the Bundy leaders might embolden other violent white men to take up arms in park offices across the nation. However, these events, now coinciding with our current national crisis, highlight how the systemic and institutional inequality in our nation rests on the defining battle of western America: the questions and tensions of private and public land. These divisions and definitions are not only integral to the struggles of conservation and climate change playing out slowly in the vast west of craggy overhangs and stalking mountain lions and jagged ridge lines and careful slot canyons. These tensions display an underlying narrative of the imperialism, intricately crafted racist institutions and power imbalances that our democracy tenderly hinges on.
The History of Federal Land
Not long after the signing of the Declaration of Independence and before the end of the Revolutionary War, the Second Continental Congress began encouraging the existing states to cede their territory to the federal government. A few years later, the Land Ordinances of 1784 and 1785, and then the creation of the General Land Office, capitalized on that super swell idea and said, basically, “HEY LOOKIT THERE’S A LOT OF SPACE OUT THERE. LET’S JUST KEEP WALKING TOWARD THE OTHER OCEAN AND LIKE, TAKE IT?? WE WILL BE VERY POWERFUL AND GRAND YES OK EUROPE WILL NEVER MAKE FUN OF US AGAIN!” Or, as you learned in US History class “Tales of the Dark Side” edition, the feds sought to encourage “westward expansion” by opening-up the world west of the Appalachians to migration, travel, and homesteading, and started annexing land as new states and territories. People moved west and occupied more land, the Federal Government continued making more purchases and wars and treaties and coin tosses, and probably strip poker bets, and eventually, we ended up with about 450 billion acres of federal public land in the country – with the vast majority of that in the 17 western states.
And here’s a good place to point out how deeply flawed and biased our narratives of “westward expansion” are. That’s pretty much the narrative I learned as a kid in an Oregon public school. But do you notice how the actual violence, seizure, theft, occupation, and war that settler colonialism enacted on indigenous peoples gets happily coded as “westward expansion?” How the story of “American land” always seems to start in Philadelphia, in 1775, and move steadfastly westward with the trumpeting chorus of an army of white-faced angels?
The echoes of the divine proclamation of euro-centric manifest destiny still reverberate in our garbled and skewed national memory, and in the tracts of the public school system that is often FUNDED by those very same stolen lands. Let’s always keep that in mind whenever we rehash the history of lands and America and people and space and questions of who gets to be where.
By the early 1800s, lots of folks realized that ranching was a pretty stellar way to make a living in the new west – grazing cattle and sheep on public lands all summer, and bringing them back closer to a home ranch for winter. This went on as the amount of cattle and sheep quadrupled into the tens of millions by the end of the 19th century, and soon, people started complaining about the abrupt degradation of grasslands and habitat. In the past 100 years, there have been a series of acts and shifts in public opinion that have limited and changed the number of ranchers and the amount of herds that can wander around foraging on federally owned lands all growing season. People started realizing that the mass production of cattle on high desert prairies is devastating to ecosystems and causes irreparable damage to riparian systems, as well as rather unrepentently violent. They also began to push back against the use of public funds for the profit driven interests of a few. It’s more complicated than this, of course, but other resource extraction based industries - like mining and logging – have similar patterns in their (rather short) history.
In the 1970s and 80s, a movement called the Sagebrush Rebellion argued for the transfer of federal land holdings to individual state management. That’s a refrain that probably sounds familiar, because in general, it’s a trend that’s in line with Republican party standards – boo to federal government, yay to state control. But critics retorted that this would only serve to hurt citizens even more, by pushing the burden of expensive land management onto states with even smaller budgets to try and make up for it. With no clear plan as to how states might manage, many critics of the movement decried it as a scheme for land privatization – in which the government would eventually end up selling tracts of land off to private interests, who could manage them “better” than big old unwieldy bureaucratic governments, and do what “private” interests are ultimately supposed to do best in our glorious free market – make a profit.
Today, ranchers like those who participated in the armed seizure of the Malheur refuge are also vying for private control of federally owned lands. And while some of their concerns might seem like something compassionate activists might be sympathetic to, the push to transfer lands from federal government to private ownership is not something that is in the best interest for people who are interested in a free and equitable society. Remember, that when we say “federal lands,” it doesn’t mean authoritarian ownership and control. Don’t think fascism. Think Woody Guthrie (the version with all the lyrics).
This land, in theory, belongs to the public – you – and it’s simply held in trust for you to be managed by governmental agencies, because you don’t have time for that. Is it perfect? No. Is this land we’re on already the result of a vast and horrifying centuries long illegal occupation? Yeah. But is it better to take a stake in responsibility as one of the people to decide how this land should be brutalized, scavenged, gutted, scoured, trammeled, or treasured, trod, travelled and lovingly utilized, than, say, Wells Fargo, Halliburton, or Ammon Bundy and his punk kids? I think so, because I think therein lies our opportunity to move toward a different world.
Environmental Struggle must be the Workers’ Struggle
It is essential for anti-racist activists, feminists, and environmentalists to factor in how conceptualizations of property and land are knotted up in our oppressive institutions, and to seriously consider the threat of land privatization as a fundamental threat to a free society. And if that’s the case, we must realize that the private investment in resource extraction and land ownership for profit is essential to the machinations of an oppressive world.
There is no way to unwind the oppressive cycles of race and gender without understanding them as completely wrapped up in a capitalist conceptualization of property ownership and the history of land. And in that, we must register that our coalition for a free world must be based on the bonds of struggle between the earth and all oppressed people. Our struggle against pipelines is our struggle against violence and imperialism but it is also our struggle against the adulation of profit for few from the work of many.
This is why I fear the inappropriate position the Malheur conspirators occupy for many rural workers who struggle. They see men like the Bundy’s claim to represent the desires and best interests of working men in rural places. But men like the Bundy’s lie. They are not there for the people – they are there for themselves and for their own profit, just as cattle ranchers are not there for the good of the people or their heritage or the land as they claim but to continue building their own wealth at the sake of all else til they die.
When land-owning, well-connected, wealthy white men adopt renegade, vigilante rhetoric and reference civil disobedience and civil rights, they commandeer the narrative of actual history and make their acts of violence invisible or sympathetic. In this fashion, the Malheur refuge occupiers repeatedly referred to the regulations of government on public land as acts of “terrorism” against men like themselves. But the contradiction of being anti-government and anti-establishment, while invoking the supreme righteousness of the range-land property owner above all others, is rather extraordinary.
And as much hope as I try to salvage in the power of federal land ownership, the powers of the state are, overall, on the side of the white-supremacist history of European-American property management. The institutions of the United states are, when it comes down to it, not only singly invested in supporting the needs and desires of this very tiny, specific class of people, the state was designed for it. Thus, ranchers, miners, timber industry barons and wildlife-refuge occupiers must carefully balance the irony of being the historic and present establishment, while propagating their power via anti-establishment positions. When we allow the privileged to co-opt the language, position, and struggle of the oppressed, they silence actual oppressed people, they stomp down on their stories and pain and grind it into the dirt.
Provocateurs like this invent a false narrative that drives divisions between native people, white rural Oregonians (et al), workers in the cities and the valleys, farmworkers, and environmentalists. We must not allow misconceptions and poorly told myths to make enemies of those who should be our comrades, and discolor the reality of the world in which we live.