Sunday, January 31, 2016

The challenge of rural poverty in the "Least Developed Countries" (LDCs)

"World's Poorest Nations Battle Rising Rural Poverty" is the headline for this November story by Thalif Deen for Interpress News Service, which just came to my attention.  Here are the first few paragraphs:  
The world’s 48 least developed countries (LDCs), described as the poorest of the poor, are fighting a relentless battle against rising rural poverty.

More than two thirds of the population of LDCs live in rural areas, and 60 per cent work in agriculture. 
As a result, there is an urgent need for structural changes focused on the fight against poverty, says a new report released November 25 by the Geneva-based UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). 
“This means developing the synergies between agricultural modernisation and diversification of the rural economy.” 
Currently, the total population of the 48 LDCs is estimated at over 932 million people.
UNCTAD’s Least Developed Countries Report 2015, subtitled “Transforming Rural Economies”, presents a road map to address rural poverty, lack of progress in rural transformation and the root causes of migration within and from LDCs. 
The migration of poor people from the countryside into cities fuels excessive rates of urbanisation in many of the 48 LDCs, while many international migrants come from rural areas, says the report.
My own writing about rural women, migration and development is here, here and here.  

Thursday, January 28, 2016

How important are rural voters in the Iowa caucuses?

This story in today's New York Times suggests rural voters in Iowa really matter.   "Rural Voters can Swing the Iowa Caucuses.  Meet Five of Them" is the headline.  Here's the lede:
There is a surprising diversity in the physical as well as the political landscape of Iowa’s rural areas, which make up more than three-quarters of the state’s 99 counties and are home to 40 percent of its population.

It’s not all flat farmland. The “driftless area” in the northeastern part of the state, which avoided advancing glaciers thousands of years ago, boasts deep river valleys and towering, tree-covered bluffs.

And it’s not all conservative.
There is a lot of texture to this story, and it is well worth a read in its entirety (some great photos, too!)  Here are some key quotes that shed light on the realities of rurality in relation to the political process (and otherwise):
And rural Iowans, who may caucus with just a handful of their neighbors on Feb. 1, take their responsibility just as seriously.
Rural Iowans can swing the state. 
In the 2012 Republican race, half of Iowa’s counties had fewer than 600 voters caucus, with some caucus sites hosting as few as three people. 
And it was the margins in those counties’ tiny precincts that ultimately delivered the victory to Rick Santorum over Mitt Romney.
* * * 
Party leaders in rural areas are well aware of the power they hold, whether they vote as a bloc to tip the result in one direction or provide just enough support to cut into a candidate’s margins from the bigger cities.
* * * 
Caucusing, especially in rural areas, requires a higher level of commitment.  
And a few more great blurbs and headlines about the relevance of rurality to the Iowa caucuses and to the political process more generally:
Rural politics are uniquely personal.

Party leaders will tell you that political organizing in rural areas isn’t the same as in the cities. It’s a much more personal experience to share your political beliefs with the people you see at the grocery store or at church every week. 
The caucuses themselves are not designed for anonymity.
And here is a quote from 30-year-old Ryan Frederick, chairman of the Adair County Republicans:
I think as far as farmers are concerned and rural small-business people, we’re tuned in to an extent because we know how involved the government’s become in our business. It’s important to recognize that regulations almost always hurt the little guy. And in rural areas, that’s all there is, is little guys.
Whether rural voters matter not just in Iowa, but over the long haul of the presidential election, remains to be seen.  I'm not convinced that they do ...  though I do agree that not all rural Americans are conservative and we need to stop assuming they are.  For more on the politics of the rural vote and national assumptions about it, don't miss my 2011 law review article here.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Photo essay on "Faith, Family and the American Farmer" in the Atlantic:

Here is Emily Ann Epstein's introduction to Elliot Ross's photo essay:  
For the past year, Elliot Ross has been photographing the world of farmer Jim Mertens. Inspired by the empathetic imagery of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans for the Farm Security Administration, Ross created an essay that examines the relationship between the farmer and the land, giving both characters equal focus in “The Reckoning Days.” The grains of wheat and the cracked palms of laborers are given the same attention, depicted in a mesmerizing palette of blues and yellows. This is how bread, the most basic staple of our diet, is made. “Society is generally removed from the processes in which bread and hundreds of other products reach our baskets,” Ross said. "We must protect, nurture, and celebrate the salt of the earth.”
Don't miss these gorgeous photos which, for me, were very moving, poignant.    

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Income inequality--ski resort style

The New York Times reports today on how workers in ski resorts in Colorado cannot afford to live there.  This is, of course, not really "news" (as we have addressed it here and here), but Jack Healy suggests the problem has gotten worse recently.  It's not just a function of rural gentrification--but of the widening inequality gap in our nation.  Here's an excerpt.
These days, soaring home prices and a shift toward weekend vacation rentals have created a housing crisis in ski country, one that has people piling into apartments, camping in the woods and living out of their trailers and pickup trucks.
* * *  
Some are sleeping in their bosses’ spare bedrooms. The 2,300-person town of Telluride in southwest Colorado toyed with building tiny houses as a stop gap. In Steamboat Springs, Colo., where the vacancy rate for multifamily rental units was zero at the end of last year, bus drivers and hotel housekeepers have been living out of two motels converted to de facto dormitories.
The story quotes the mayor of Jackson Hole, where the median price of a single family home rose to $1.2 million last year, up nearly 25%.
When I go to the grocery store, I see the people who are sleeping in shifts. We see the gap continuing to widen between the uppermost levels of income earners and the rest.
While many ski towns have long built affordable housing, officials now indicate that the demand far exceeds the supply.  Breckenridge, county seat of Summit County, is now building 45 small apartments, with hundreds more in development.  The county is also checking to ensure that that those getting the benefit of employee housing are not subletting to "vacationing snowbirds."  Elisabeth Lawrence of the Breckenridge Town Council explains:
It’s so important that Breckenridge retain this identity of having locals live here.  ... Real town, real people.
Great idea.  Sounds like Breckenridge is doing more than most to keep things "real."

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Our "empty" country

The Washington Post's Wonkblog published yesterday this piece on "the jaw-dropping emptiness of America." Christopher Ingraham presents a map depicting the 462 least populated counts in the country, none of which has a population density greater than 7.4 persons per square mile.  And in 65 counties the density is less than one person per square mile.  He then notes that all of the folks who live in these 462 counties add up to fewer than New York's Bronx and Queens Counties, a fact depicted in another map.  Worth a look.  Anyway, Ingraham closes with these lines:
Geographically speaking, we are a nation of mountains, forests and farmland surrounding tiny islands of urbanity. These maps help put some of that in perspective.
Fair enough, but as the U.S. Supreme Court has said regarding politics and representation, our members of congress represent people, not trees and cows.  Hence the interests of rural America remains quite underrepresented--at least in my opinion--in spite of the fact that states like Montana and Wyoming each have two U.S. Senators (and just one member of Congress).

Heroin and opioid overdoses on the rise everywhere, but especially in rural places

Haeyoun Park and Matthew Bloch reported yesterday in the New York Times on the rise in drug overdoses in the United States, mapping the overdoses per capita at the county level for each year from 2003 up through 2014.  Among other facts, they note:
Some of the largest concentrations of overdose deaths were in Appalachia and the Southwest, according to new county-level estimates released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 
The number of these deaths reached a new peak in 2014: 47,055 people, or the equivalent of about 125 Americans every day. 
* * * 
Drug overdoses cut across rural-urban boundaries. In fact, death rates from overdoses in rural areas now outpace the rate in large metropolitan areas, which historically had higher rates.
Sadly, I see that the death rate in my home county, Newton County, Arkansas, is in the highest range, 20 per 100,000, up from much lower levels in 2003. 

New Hampshire, Appalachia, and New Mexico are three states/regions that receive particular attention in the story, New Hampshire because the drug epidemic there has become a top campaign issue.  A 2008 story about heroin and opioid addiction, across multiple generations within New Mexico families, is here.  A 2011 blog post about Oxycontin addiction in Appalachia is here.   

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Rural economies tanking across the nation ... from Maine to Oregon, Kentucky to Wyoming

I've written about the situations in Wyoming and Kentucky here, both linked to lack of demand for and government regulation of coal production and burning.  But regulation and slowing of other extraction industry economies are also to blame in Oregon and Maine.  Of course, the Oregon situation has been very high profile for a few weeks now (read more here and here), and the New York Times ran this story about Maine a few days ago.  But I want to revisit in more detail what is being reported in these latter two locations because there is new information, new angles being covered.   

First, regarding the less captivating and less controversial situation in Maine, reported by Jess Bidgood in the NYT, the dateline is Cary Plantation in Aroostook County, population 69,447.   Bidgood quotes Diane Cassidy, a former nursing assistant who is leading the effort to dissolve the local government.    
What do you do, what does the town do, when they can’t pay their bills? Do we go bankrupt? Do we lose our homes?  There was no answer, other than deorganization.
Bidgood continues:
Ms. Cassidy is leading an effort to dissolve the local government here and join the Unorganized Territory, a vast swath of forest and townships in north, central and eastern Maine run by a partnership between the state and the counties. Last month, residents here voted 64 to 0 to continue the process. 
At a time of rising municipal costs, local governments around the country are looking for ways to rein in tax bills, pursuing privatization, the consolidation of services, mergers and even bankruptcy.
For more on local government bankruptcy and the challenges facing municipalities, read the work of Michelle Wilde Anderson.  Here's more from Bidgood's story:
But in northern Maine, as operating costs increased, the economy stagnated and the population aged and dwindled, a handful of struggling towns have pursued the unusual process of eliminating local government entirely. 
Bidgood quotes University of Maine professor of political science, Mark Brewer:
Just the price tag to keep their local governments up and running is more or less untenable.  It’s the final step in this long, drawn-out process which really starts with population decline.
Meanwhile, in the West, the struggle is to constrain local government power, although the local government in Harney County are not stepping forward to fill a void the Bundys would like to see created.  Indeed, the current elected officials in Harney County seem to be quite opposed to the Bundys and their tactics.

I have already written a great deal about the Bundy militia takeover of the wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon, but a few pieces worthy of note have been published since my last post.  Like the reports about Maine, Wyoming, and Kentucky, important messages about these rural economies emerge.  Here's the latest from the New York Times, by Kirk Johnson, which I think provides incisive views of what's behind events in Harney County.  The headline says so much, "Rural Oregon's Lost Prosperity Gives Standoff a Distressed Backdrop":
Times were once very good out here on the high desert of east-central Oregon, and a place like Burns — remote and obscure until a group of armed protesters took over a nearby federal wildlife sanctuary this month — was full of civic pride and bustle. In their heyday, Harney County and its largest town, Burns, were economically important in a way that now seems unthinkable in the rural West.
There is so much to Johnson's story, which really does justice to the decades-long (downward) trajectory (or should I say "spiral"?) of the rural west.  After describing how metro centric and urbanormative (my words, not his) even Oregon has become (half of the state's jobs are in the three counties in and around Portland), Johnson closes with this quote from a 73-year-old who formerly worked in Burns's sawmills:
People in western Oregon don’t even know where Burns is.
And that is lent further perspective by this quote from state representative Cliff Bentz, a Republican whose district includes Harney County:
People feel powerless.  ... As the rural areas grow more and more poor and urban areas grow more and more wealthy, there’s a shift in power.
Johnson does a fabulous job of providing heaps of economic context, including how rural poverty has changed from its early associations with Appalachia and the South, when the face of poverty was often children and elderly.  Now, many of those living in rural poverty are working age, and the jobs are just not there for them, leaving entire families in poverty.

And this, shocking and nonsensical as it is for urban folks, is what is behind the State of Jefferson movement, as well as the move behind succession of counties in northern Colorado.  Read more here and here.

But don't forget the economic angle.  Here's a quote from Ammon Bundy last week:
Government controls the land and resources ... [which] has put people in duress and put them in poverty.
(For a good rebuttal of this point, see this New Yorker piece).

Again, lest we assume this all boils down to local-federal tension, don't forget the state--let alone the tension within so-called local levels of government.  Johnson writes:  
Some residents and local officials say they believe the history and relationship between the people and the government is being distorted by the protesters, and that cooperation across lines has worked well, to the benefit of the community. For instance, an arrangement with private landowners to protect a threatened bird species, the sage grouse — and to prevent even more restrictive government protections — was a model of how cooperation can work, they said.
An earlier NYT story echoes this tension among locals.  Read more here ("Fervor in Oregon Compound Fear Outside It") and here.  Johnson also quotes Steven E. Grasty, Harney County judge, who is chair of the county commissioners:  
Those are things that Mr. Bundy doesn’t know about or care about it.  ... We can keep building on those things if he would get out of the way.
And this perspective, as much as anything, gives me hope for Harney County and the rest of the rural west.  Pragmatism and a stance of collaboration--not to mention a little empathy--are critical starting points to resolving not only the standoff, but ensuring some future for the ranchers.  

Monday, January 18, 2016

Coal in the news this week, from Appalachia to the Rockies

Here and here are two stories, both focusing on Wyoming, about the Obama administration's moratorium on new coal mining on public lands.  The latter, from NPR this morning, focuses on the consequences for state and local government budgets.  Stephanie Joyce, reporting for Wyoming Public Radio, includes this quote from Wyoming State Senator Michael Von Flatern, who represents Gillette, a in the middle of the state's coal region:  
MICHAEL VON FLATERN: Well, I think the first thing the state government will have to do if they truly believe this is going to be our future is to consider what the state will look like with 100,000 less people in it. 
JOYCE: That's maybe a little dramatic. But if the industry does stop expanding, it will have a big impact locally, and people are scared. You know, until recently, Wyoming has been relatively insulated from the coal industry's downturn, which has mostly affected those higher cost mines in Appalachia. And now that appears to be changing. Let's hear from Travis Deti with the Wyoming Mining Association. 
TRAVIS DETI: When the markets look at this and when the utilities look at this, it sends that signal that, hey, that coal's going to stay in the ground. You know, the administration has ravaged the industry back east, too, so this is just our little piece of the pie.
But the "other" coal country was also in the news recently, including this story out of Kentucky, with Steve Inskeep reporting under the headline, "In Kentucky, the Coal Habit is Hard to Break."  Inskeep reports from Webster County, Kentucky, population 13,226.  Here's an excerpt highlighting how well-paying coal mining jobs have been--often $100K or better annually, depending on overtime.
When we toured a Webster County mine that is still open — the Dotiki mine, operational since 1967 and owned by Alliance Coal — our producer Ashley Westerman had a surprise. Westerman, who is from Webster County, discovered one of her elementary school classmates working underground as a foreman. 
She went off to an East Coast university; he ended up in the mine. Depending on his overtime in a given year, it's likely that he is the one who is paid more.
Of course, with mines closing, those well-paying blue-collar jobs are drying up, as are local economies.  As Inskeep notes, Arch Coal, the county's second largest coal producer, filed for bankruptcy protection this week, as "companies are squeezed between fierce competition and efforts to fight climate change."

U.S. government sues FLDS to end religious discrimination

Here's the report from yesterday's Salt Lake Tribune, by Nate Carlisle, "A Century in the Making, the Federal Government Goes to Trial Against Two Polygamous Towns."   Here's the lede: 
The U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit against Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., goes to trial Tuesday in Phoenix, and there are some specific things that Colorado City resident Margaret Cooke wants out of it. 
For one thing, she wants a judge to order Colorado City to allow parcels to subdivide the way other towns do.

The other thing Cooke wants goes to the heart of the lawsuit: She wants Hildale and Colorado City, collectively known as Short Creek, to hire municipal employees and police officers who are not members of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

"We then get our freedom from the bondage of the FLDS religion," Cooke said. "Basically, the whole government is FLDS and they want to keep us from living here peacefully." 
No one denies that the Short Creek municipal governments are filled with FLDS followers. The issue at the trial is what people have complained and argued about for a century: whether those municipal governments discriminate against people who do not follow the church and its imprisoned leader, FLDS President Warren Jeffs.

Neither Jeffs nor the church is a party in the case. Yet the trial will put the towns up against the one group that consistently defeats anything FLDS — juries.
 Prior blog posts about Short Creek and the FLDS are here, here and here.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

What makes us care (or not) about rural America? One lawyer's story

This is a question I often ponder in this era when the world's population is quickly urbanizing, at a time when the United States' population continues its metropolitan trajectory, rural populations dwindling.

In 2006, I published Rural Rhetoric, and in it I quoted demographer and rural sociologist Dan Lichter in saying that most people now “come to know rural America only through stereotypical media portrayals, through exposure to rural vacation spots . . . or by traversing the rural countryside from city to city by automobile.”  I have often also thought (and perhaps I read this somewhere but don't recall the source)  that some of us know rural America from visiting grandparents there.  I think this is one of the reasons that states like Arkansas have what might be thought of as a a rural frame of mind or perspective or mentality, even when they are no longer dominantly rural in terms of where the majority of the people live.
  
All of that came to mind when I read the New York Times Magazine cover story from last week, "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare." It is largely the story of Rob Bilott, a Cincinnati lawyer who agreed to represent an Appalachian cattle farmer named Wilbur Tennant in a suit against DuPont, which according to the story was dumping near the farmer's land, outside Parkersburg, West Virginia, a chemical it knew to be highly toxic.  

This passage, from the first and second paragraphs of the very long article, really grabbed me, as it describes the farmer's initial call to Bilott--and what kept the lawyer from hanging up:  
The farmer was angry and spoke in a heavy Appalachian accent. Bilott struggled to make sense of everything he was saying. He might have hung up had Tennant not blurted out the name of Bilott’s grandmother, Alma Holland White. 
White had lived in Vienna, a northern suburb of Parkersburg, and as a child, Bilott often visited her in the summers. In 1973 she brought him to the cattle farm belonging to the Tennants’ neighbors, the Grahams, with whom White was friendly. Bilott spent the weekend riding horses, milking cows and watching Secretariat win the Triple Crown on TV. He was 7 years old. The visit to the Grahams’ farm was one of his happiest childhood memories.
And so Bilott did not hang up the phone, and he ultimately agreed to represent the farmer.  That sentimentality about visits to rural grandparents reminds me of my own regarding my maternal grandparents, who were only slightly more rural than I was, but also my 11-year-old son's sentimentality around visiting my mother in rural Arkansas.  He absolutely loves being there, and I'm sure some of his deepest memories and connections are being formed in those trips, just as happened with Bilott.  

Back to the story:  Interestingly, though not surprisingly given rural social dynamics and the high density of acquaintanceship, Tennant, the aggrieved farmer,  had been "spurned not only by Parkersburg’s lawyers but also by its politicians, journalists, doctors and veterinarians." He was thus pressed to look for an outside lawyer.  Thankfully, he found Bilott.

Of course, the broader story is also one of a corporation taking advantage of low-SES, working class, rural folks (who happen to be white, I might add).  The piece, by Nathaniel Rich, is well worth a read in its entirety, a real David-vs.-Goliath tale.  

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

On rural public education, in of all places, "The [uber urban] Atlantic"

Rachel Martin reported from Fentress County, Tennessee, last week under the headline "Salvaging Education in Rural America."  The headline is an appropriate one as she takes up the many struggles facing K-12 public schools in rural America, especially those plagued by concentrated poverty.
When teachers, theorists, and pundits analyze America’s educational system, they usually focus on urban centers, but rural school systems make up more than half of the nation’s operating school districts, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Like many of their urban peers, children there fight to overcome scant funding, generational poverty, rampant malnutrition, and limited job prospects. 
* * *
Compared to students in urban or suburban schools, students in rural areas and small towns are less likely to attend college. Part of this is because of financial concerns. In Fentress County, close to 40 percent of children live in poverty.
The further details about Fentress County's economic and educational landscape are similarly sobering:
Another reason for their low college-attendance rates is that rural students come from places where higher education traditionally hasn’t been of much use. Previous generations could find good jobs in factories or agriculture, which is part of the reason why in Fentress County only 58 percent of adults have a high-school diploma. Just 8 percent have a bachelor’s degree—by some estimates, remove teachers from that calculation, and only 1 percent of adults have graduated college.
More demographic and economic information about Fentress County, population 17,855 and 98% white, is available here.  

Even if urban folks are aware of the depth of rural poverty, especially in persistent poverty places like Fentress County (and in my experience very few are, at least not in my corner of the ivory tower), I find they rarely consider the other implications of rurality, like material spatiality.  Martin explains:  
Rural students in Fentress County and elsewhere also have limited opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities (another factor that boosts a kid’s chances of graduating from high school and attending college); many of them simply live too far away to stay after school for practice or club meetings. One bus from York drives over an hour-and-a-half and then drops off a handful of kids at a car, which takes them the rest of the way home.
A friend of mine when I was growing up in rural Arkansas was in a similar situation.  Before and after a long bus ride to or from school, her mother transported a station wagon full of kids up a mountain to their homes.  This was always very memorable for me when I spent the night with her.  I had the luxury of living just outside the county seat and so my regular journey to and from school was just a few miles each way.  (See posts about the struggles of rural schools, including this one).   I have also written (here and here) about the impact on college admissions of the limited extracurricular opportunities available to rural kids.

I'm happy to see The Atlantic giving this issue attention.  It also reminds me of earlier posts, including this one about Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior, in which she describes the ethos at a rural Tennessee school.  

I also found this description of a young man's daily commute from his home to the University of Tennessee, from a New York Times story about how corporate America's incursion into higher education services, including dining halls, is increasing the price of tertiary education.  Here's the lede from that story:
Before his 35-mile commute through Appalachian hills to classes here at the University of Tennessee, Michael Miceli eats a gigantic breakfast. It is his way of getting through the day without spending money on a campus lunch. 
Food deprivation is merely one trick Mr. Miceli uses to minimize his college debt, now creeping past $22,000. So the $300 bill he got from the university this semester — for food — sent him into a tailspin. 
“I was in near panic at the thought of having to borrow more money,” said Mr. Miceli, 23, a linguistics major.
And so the obstacles to higher education add up.

And that brings me back to The Atlantic story, which focuses on one public school in Fentress County:  Alvin C. York Agricultural Institute.  It's a novel institution in rural America in that it partners with a community college to offer a wider than usual (for rural schools) array of classes to "tiers" of students with different abilities.  The story is well worth a read to learn more about York Institute and the challenges associated with rural education.  Here's just a bit of history on the place:
The World War I hero Alvin C. York—who only had nine months of schooling—funded and built the institute because he wanted to prove Tennessee’s rural youth could accomplish anything given a proper education. In 1937, he donated the building, along with almost 400 acres, to the state. Its students have become politicians, business leaders, and educators. The astronaut Roger Crouch went there.
More recently, however, the state has turned it over to Fentress County to fund.

Monday, January 11, 2016

More on the rural Oregon standoff, from California and national perspectives

Here's a piece from the Sunday Sacamento Bee on what some northern California ranchers think, with a few highlights below.  The headline is " Rural Californians sympathize with protestors' goals in Oregon standoff," and in it the journalists report from Modoc County in northeastern California, with a population of less than 10,000, on the literal and cultural fringe of a very metropolitan, very populous state of nearly 39 million.  Among those interviewed is rancher Jerry Kresge:
Like the activists in Oregon, Kresge says the federal government’s grip on vast stretches of land in the West has become a stranglehold. Kresge, 56, is even thinking of driving to Burns, about 200 miles from his Modoc County ranching operation, as a show of solidarity – not so much with the activists occupying the building, but with the two imprisoned ranchers whose criminal case sparked the Jan. 2 takeover.
* * *  
Kresge is like many others in rural California who contend they are being smothered by the federal government and its land-management practices. He watched the federal government close forests to logging in the 1990s to protect endangered spotted owls, crippling the Modoc County economy. More recently, he said, the feds have allowed Modoc’s forests to grow out of control, leading to destructive wildfires. Kresge’s cattle compete for grass against herds of feral horses that he says federal officials will not relocate.

Federal agencies own 73 percent of the land in Modoc County, and Kresge said that makes it hard for the county’s 9,400 residents to earn a decent living.
The story quotes Kresge:
I am getting fed up, just about to my eyebrows. ... We either have to quit and go do something else, or we need to fight it.  I think most folks I know are to the point where they’ll fight. 
Nearly half of California land is federally controlled, either by the Bureau of Land Management, the the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Department of Defense, or some other agency. Alpine County has the most federally controlled land--a whopping 96%.  Inyo and Mono are next, at 95% and 94%, respectively.  Seventy-three percent of Modoc County is federally controlled, 10% of it by the BLM.  The story features a cool map showing all of this.

Meanwhile, U.S. Senate candidate Kamala Harris called those who are holding the Malhuer Wildlife Reserve "crazy" and "obnoxious," which seems to me very unhelpful--and crushingly metro centric.  I don't think Harris's relationship with the BLM influences whether or not she can feed her family.  An effort at some tiny degree of empathy--and less inflammatory language--seems desirable from a public official.      

Here's a January 6 NYT piece about Harney County, Oregon, which notes, among other things, that the county is about twice the size of Connecticut, with a population of 7,100 people and about 100,000 cattle.  The focus is on Burns and Harney County as places, and the impact the wildlife refuge takeover is having there (schools were closed for the first week following the takeover).  It also features lots of gorgeous winter photos of the high desert.

Here's an opinion piece titled, "Bird-Watching, Patriotism, and the Oregon Standoff" from Sunday's New York Times, by Peter Cashwell.   It leads with this interesting historical anecdote involving Johnny Cash:
In 1965, at the height of his substance abuse, Johnny Cash was called in to make a deposition, but not about possessing drugs. Instead, the singer was in trouble for leaving a burning truck at the side of a road in Los Padres National Forest in California. The flames had started a forest fire that jeopardized not only the refuge itself, but the lives of nearly 50 critically endangered California condors, which at that time made up a sizable portion of the global population. Facing the prospect of a lawsuit, and filled with “amphetamines and arrogance,” as his autobiography put it, Cash defiantly told his government questioners, “I don’t give a damn about your yellow buzzards.”
Cashwell's essential point is that the Malheur Refuge is "shared, set-aside space" and should be valued as such.  Obviously, if the land becomes private again, those who enjoy it for purposes of birdwatching would be denied that opportunity.  They would become trespassers.
Perhaps in the wide-open spaces of eastern Oregon, the idea that land should be equally shared among the members of the public makes less sense, but to those of us who live on top of one another elsewhere in the United States, there is no question that some property just can’t be private.
Finally, this NPR story takes up the issue of what the Bundys and their buddies should be called:  terrorists, troublemakers, militia, patriots ....

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The potent intersection of whiteness, low-income, and rurality in "Making A Murderer"

The Netflix Series "Making A Murderer" has been all over conventional and social media for weeks now.  Just a few stories are here, here, here, here and here.  Heather Schwedel summarizes the docuseries and key events it depicts for Slate:
It focuses on Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who spent 18 years in prison before DNA evidence helped him clear his name—only to be accused of another crime soon after his release, this time murder.  ... 
Let’s start at the beginning. How did Steven Avery get into this mess? 
In 1985, when he was 23 years old and raising several young kids with his new wife Lori, Avery went to prison for raping a local woman, Penny Ann Beernsten. In 2003, after he had served 18 years of his sentence, DNA evidence exonerated him of the crime. It turned out that DNA pointed to another man, who may have been a suspect when the rape initially was being investigated but who police didn’t fully pursue. The Wisconsin Innocence Project, which had helped Avery turn over his case, trumpeted its success, and Avery prepared a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Manitowoc County, Wisconsin.
The real action begins a few years later, when Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, are charged with rape and murder.  What the documentary filmmakers suggest is that the charges are a set up—that Avery is framed by local law enforcement and prosecutors, presumably in retaliation for the pending lawsuit against the county, and that the cops essentially use Dassey as an unintelligent pawn against Avery.

I've yet to see any of the episodes, let alone binge watch all ten hours, but a friend who has seen the series from start to finish gave me a heads up about some key aspects of the show that have largely escaped media scrutiny or commentary.  Essentially, she mentioned the "white trash" angle on the whole matter.  By that, I mean the fact that Steven Avery is white, low socioeconomic status (low-SES) and rural, which is sorta' the perfect white trash trifecta.

Then today, finally, Kate Tuttle takes up the whiteness factor in this piece in Salon.  She writes of "Making a Murderer":
It’s also one of the whitest things to appear on television lately. Whiter than a Woody Allen movie. Whiter than all the episodes of “Friends” that didn’t costar Aisha Tylor. Whiter than the snow that flurries around Avery, his family and the lawyers in all those scenes set in a brutal Wisconsin winter.
 And this, my friends, makes the docuseries about race.  After all, white folks have race, too, and white skin is not a magic bullet.  It does not protect them being low-income and low-status, and it does not protect them from police harassment and misconduct.  Indeed, the particular combination of whiteness with low-SES status can evoke some particularly virulent treatment because these "low rent" whites are seen as defiling whiteness.  

Tuttle continues.
As historian Nell Irvin Painter wrote in her 2010 book, “A History of White People,” while much of our nation’s historical interest in race has centered on black and white, there has always been a debate about the terms of whiteness itself. “Rather than a single, enduring definition of whiteness,” Painter writes, “we find multiple enlargements occurring against a backdrop of black/white dichotomy.” These “enlargements” include the gradual, often contested, inclusion of Irish, Italian and other non-Anglo Saxon Europeans into the fold of white America. 
A century had passed since so-called race scientists had argued that people of different races actually belonged to distinct species. But as the late 19th century ended and the 20th century began, the categorizing of human beings was anything but fading – with the burgeoning of the eugenics movement, scientific racism moved from theory to practice. No longer satisfied with simply studying the differences among people – using calipers to measure head size and shape, assigning labels to skin color and hair texture – now the race scientists turned toward identifying families marred by “defective heredity” and preventing their ranks from reproducing through coerced or forced sterilization.
* * *
As Painter notes, many successful whites saw such flawed heredity as “a threat to the welfare of the race.” How can white supremacy stand when some whites are so clearly inferior?
What did all of this mean for Avery and Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, where these events occurred?  Reesa Evans, Avery's public defender in the initial rape case against Avery, helps us understand the social status of Avery and his family in that place and time:
Manitowoc County is working class farmers. And the Avery family, they weren’t that.  They dealt in junk. … They didn’t dress like everybody else. They didn’t have education like other people. They weren’t involved in all the community activities. I don’t think it ever crossed their mind that they should try to fit into the community. They fit into the community that they had built.
That "community that they had built" was essentially  a compound where the extended family lived, amidst the junk yard.  

In addition to the low-income white issue, the series depicts a big dose of the "usual suspects" phenomenon, which I have argued is especially potent in rural communities, which are marked by a lack of anonymity.  Manitowoc County, where these events took place, is nonmetropolitan, with a population of about 80,000.  The City of Manitowoc has a population of 34,000.

Given the inherent conflicts, the case was prosecuted by Ken Kratz of neighboring Calumet County. Kratz has since commented here that he regrets the involvement of the Manitowoc County police department in investigating the crime.  Kratz says he took every step to keep them out of it, which was especially critical given that two officers of that department were defendants in Avery's suit against the County.  

Rurality is not necessarily a component of the "white trash" trope, but it was a century and a half ago and still arguably remains the proverbial icing on the cake when it comes to what constitutes white trash.  Read more here and here.  

Meanwhile, I will close with this quote from Michael O'Kelly, an investigator who worked for Brendan Dassey's first defense attorney:   
I am learning the Avery family history and about each member of the Avery family. ... These are criminals. There are members engaged in sexual activity with nieces, nephews, cousins, in-laws. … These people are pure evil. A friend of mine suggested, ‘This is a one-branch family tree. Cut this tree down. We need to end the gene pool here.'
Shockingly close, in some regards, to what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in Buck v. Bell, the 1927 Supreme Court case that upheld the practice of eugenics:
Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

More balanced reporting on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge takeover?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not condoning what the Bundy brothers and others are doing at Malheur National Wildlife Reserve in rural southeast Oregon.  In that regard, I'm apparently in the same camp as some locals.  Read more here, here, herehere, and here.  Some reporting, including on NPR featuring a columnist for The Oregonian who lives in Burns, have emphasized that many locals are agitated about the BLM but that they do not support the tactics of the militias who have taken over the Malheur refuge.

I do, however, think it is important not to be too metrocentric about these events--as I have already suggested on this blog and on Twitter.  I don't think rolling our eyes at the Bundys and their buddies helps anyone.  After all, I am not reliant on the BLM to feed my family, but these ranchers are, and so they have very strong feelings. Why are we so dismissive of that?

Indeed, I am reminded by what President Obama said about rural folks during his first election campaign, in what became known as "Bittergate."
You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for twenty years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.  And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
Note the similarities between Obama's comments and what Senator Ron Wyden said a few days ago about those who have taken over Malheur, as reported in the Los Angeles Times:
There’s enormous frustration about the economy and a very powerful sense in rural communities that nobody listens to them, that they don’t have any power, that their voices don’t matter. But the next step isn’t to be led by some outsiders into doing something that doesn’t help anybody.
This evening, Amanda Peacher of Oregon Public Broadcasting filed a story in which she quotes a rancher whose last name is Johnson.  The full transcript of that story is not yet up, but some telling comments --telling of disdain for the rural--are.  Mrs. Johnson told of taking her five children out to meet those who are occupying Malheur, so that they would not be afraid and so that they would have a better understanding of what is happening.  Because of my struggle with formatting, I am providing my own commentary on the reader comment BEFORE I provide the reader comment

My comment:

I don't think liberals would say something that pejorative about nonwhites who have five children. So why are they saying it about whites who happen to work a ranch in rural Oregon, a ranch with which they are presumably feeding themselves and their five children, presumably working hard every day to make it all work. Is this the sort of activity we want to discourage? (the ranching, not the armed takeover, that is?)

 Here is the reader comment to which I respond:

Avatar







FIVE kids? Her opinion immediately invalidated.
Move on.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Very thoughtful piece on the Oregon situation, linking Hammonds and Bundys

NPR has posted "Of Ranchers and Rancor:  The Roots of the Armed Occupation in Oregon," which is probably the most balanced and intelligent piece I have read so far on the situation at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.  Colin Dwyer, an NPR producer, is the author.  Kudos to him.  He takes it back to the Homestead Act and explains that many who homesteaded this far out west could not be profitable with the standard 160 acres.  They needed more in this harsh ecological climate and so became beholden to the federal government for access to more land, which they leased.

Dwyer quotes Paul Starrs, a geography professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, who was interviewed for a 2014 story about these same issues.  The quote is about the situation—really a pickle—that this put ranchers in:
When you are using somebody else's land for your livelihood, that puts you in a very dependent relationship.  And livestock ranchers are, in my experience, pretty savvy people. And they don't like that uncertainty. Nobody really likes uncertainty. 
The situation in Nevada, in particular, is aggravated by the fact that more than 81% of Nevada's territory was owned by the United States in 2010. In Oregon, the figure is about 53%—or 30 million acres administered by the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service. 

Some news agencies have depicted the Hammonds as, well, innocent, in relation to what the Bundys have initiated at Malheur.  Here is a relevant excerpt from Dwyer's story:
The Hammonds' attorney has previously stated the militiamen showing up in Burns do not represent the ranchers.  …  Many locals in Burns have also received the out-of-towners warily — with several "Militia Go Home" fliers posted throughout the town.
Don't miss one of those photos in the slide show here.  

Dwyer, however, provides some information that counters that separation or distancing the Hammonds now want to achieve:
The animus harbored by the two Hammond men for federal land agencies dates back decades. Both reportedly were arrested for obstructing federal officials in 1994 — in protest of which "nearly 500 incensed ranchers showed up at a rally in Burns,"according to High Country News. But even before that, the Hammonds bristled at the authority of managers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. 
"[Dwight] Hammond allegedly made death threats against previous managers in 1986 and 1988 and against [Forrest] Cameron, the current manager, in 1991 and again this year," High Country News reported in 1994. 
The seeds of the current situation were sown in 2001 and 2006. In both those years, the U.S. government said the Hammonds set fires that spread onto land managed by the BLM.  
The 2001 blaze burned 139 acres of public land, according to court documents; the 2006 fire — for which only Steven was convicted — burned an additional acre of public land.
Arson convictions for both father and son were handed down in 2012.
No one denies that the Hammonds showed up in California today, on the appointed day and at the appointed place, so that they can begin to serve the remainder of their sentences after a federal appellate court said the initial sentences imposed by the trial court did not comport with federal sentencing guidelines. 

But something was afoot for weeks before today's compliance by the Hammonds—and before what happened Saturday night:
The long-running debate over federal control of public land that has fueled political conflict for generations has come to a new standoff in the rolling ranch lands of southeastern Oregon. The new activists began trickling into town in December, hanging on at the fringes, brandishing rifles and handguns, proselytizing from the beds of pickups against federal land ownership until, without warning, they struck.
Hmm.  What next?  in the court of public opinion?  on social media?  and actually at Malheur National Wildlife Reserve?

Poking fun, on social media, at those who took over the federal buildings in central Oregon

The Los Angeles Times reports today these Twitter hashtags for the week-end's happenings in central Oregon—namely the seizure by anti-government activists of some buildings associated with the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

#OregonUnderAttack
#YallQaeda and 
#YokelHaram

I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry, though I will admit that my initial headline for yesterday's post about these events used the phrase "domestic terrorism."  

Meanwhile, Kirk Johnson and Jack Healy report in today's New York Times on how this all started: 
The protesters arrived in this old lumber town to support a 73-year-old rancher and his son who had been sentenced to prison for setting fires on federal lands. It was billed as a peaceful demonstration, but after “Amazing Grace” was sung and hugs were exchanged, a small, armed contingent declared outside a supermarket that it was taking a stand and asked who wanted to join it. 
So began the latest armed flare-up in a decades-long struggle between federal officials and local landowners and ranchers over how to manage the Western range.
Johnson and Healy quote Ryan Payne, an Army veteran involved in the siege:
We will be here for as long as it takes.  People have talked about returning land to the people for a long time. Finally, someone is making an effort in that direction.
Finally, while such events are often depicted as reflecting the antipathy to the federal government, this latest New York Times story quotes the Harney County Sheriff, David M. Ward, who suggests that it is also about the local government:
These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers, when in reality these men had alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.
It will be interesting to learn in coming hours and days the source of the Sheriff's information in this regard.

By the way, the LA Times coverage of the events is the best I've seen to date in terms of putting it in context of prior events, including the Cliven Bundy events in Nevada last year, as well as references to Ruby Ridge, Idaho.  Most significantly, however, the LA Times provides the perspective of U.S. Senator from Oregon Ron Wyden:
Wyden compared the frustrations of the activists to those of all rural Oregonians, who face a troubled economy yet to fully recover from the decline of the timber industry and dwindling federal dollars to replace lost timber income. 
“There’s enormous frustration about the economy and a very powerful sense in rural communities that nobody listens to them, that they don’t have any power, that their voices don’t matter,” Wyden said. “But the next step isn’t to be led by some outsiders into doing something that doesn’t help anybody.”
As for the sense that nobody listens to these folks, I refer you to earlier posts about the State of Jefferson, including this very recent one by a student in my law and rural livelihoods class.

I do not condone what these people are doing, but I can try in some small way to empathize with them. After all, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) may seem innocuous to me, but I don't have to interface with the BLM and it has nothing to do with how or whether I am able to to feed my family. 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Anti-fed seizure of federal wildlife refuge one of today's big headlines, dateline: Burns, Oregon

I awakened this morning to a story, dateline Burns, Oregon, population 2,806, on nytimes.com. By his afternoon it had become the top story—at least among domestic news.  The headline for Kirk Johnson and Julie Turkewitz's report this evening is "Armed Group Vows to Hold Federal Wildlife Office in Oregon 'For Years.'"  The lede follows:
An armed antigovernment group vowed Sunday to continue to occupy a federal wildlife refuge building in rural Oregon indefinitely, in protest of the government’s treatment of two local ranchers. 
Federal officials said that they were monitoring the takeover, but there did not appear to be an imminent plan to confront the protesters.
Burns is one of two population centers in sparsely populated Harney County, in the eastern part of the state.  Oregon law enforcement officials said today:
These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers, when in reality these men had alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.
Ammon Bundy, a Montana rancher, appeared to be the leader of the group.  Bundy's father is Cliven Bundy, who "became a symbol of antigovernment sentiment in 2014" when he "inspired a standoff between local militias and federal officials seeking to confiscate cattle grazing illegally on federal land for more than a decade."  A statement captured on video today showed Mr. Bundy stating that the group was prepared to be out here for as long as need be” and would leave only when the people of Harney County “can use these lands as free men.
We’re out here because the people have been abused long enough really. Their lands and their resources have been taken from them to the point where it’s putting them literally in poverty, and this facility has been a tool in doing that. It is the people’s facility, owned by the people.
In a separate statement posted on Facebook, Bundy said:
We’re out here because the people have been abused long enough.
Bundy called the prosecution of the Hammonds, the two Oregon ranchers convicted of arson, “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.”
The people cannot survive without their land.  We cannot have the government restricting the use of that to the point that it puts us in poverty.
Mr. Bundy described the federal building as “the people’s facility, owned by the people” and said his group was occupying it to take “a hard stand against this overreach, this taking of the people’s land and resources.”
We pose no threat to anybody.  There is no person that is physically harmed by what we are doing. 
Bundy added that if law enforcement officials “bring physical harm to us, they will be doing it only for a facility or a building.”
 
Harney County's population is 7,126, with a poverty rate of 18%.  It's 88% non-Hispanic white population and its population density is 0.7 per square mile.  In terms of land area, Harney County is one of the 10 largest counties in the nation and the largest in Oregon.  

Here is a just-posted follow up piece in the NYTimes on what we know. 

Remembering Dale Bumpers, "the best lawyer in a one-lawyer town"

Dale Bumpers, the former U.S. Senator from Arkansas, died on New Years Day, and reading his obituaries has made me nostalgic.  You see, Bumpers was one of Arkansas's senators since about the time I was old enough to know what that meant until well after I became a lawyer—indeed, through many of my own early periods of contemplating a career in politics.  As I read his obituaries yesterday (NPR's is here, including a link to a 2003 interview, and the New York Times one is here), I was inspired and humbled.  Following are some highlights.

Bumpers was born and raised in Charleston, Arkansas, population 2,965 (as of 2013).  After a stint in the military during World War II, he graduated from the University of Arkansas and Northwestern University's Law School.  He then returned to Charleston to hang out the proverbial shingle, while also running his father's hardware store.  His parents had been killed in an automobile accident while he was in law school.  This period was recounted in his 2003 Memoir, The Best Lawyer in a One-Lawyer Town.  Charleston, in Franklin County, had a population of just 968 at that time.  

Bumpers also invoked that period when he gave the closing argument on behalf of President Bill Clinton, during the latter's 1999 impeachment trial.
Mr. Bumpers said that what Mr. Clinton had done, lying about sex, was typical in 80 percent of the hundreds of divorce cases he had tried. It was not, he insisted, what the Constitution’s framers had in mind when they cited “high crimes and misdemeanors” as cause for a president’s removal. 
"There is a very big difference in perjury about a marital infidelity in a divorce case and perjury about whether I bought the murder weapon or whether I concealed the murder weapon or not. And to charge somebody with the first and punish them as though it were the second stands justice, our sense of justice, on its head. There’s a total lack of proportionality, a total lack of balance, in this thing. The charge and the punishment are totally out of sync."
The NYT obituary by Adam Clymer suggests that it was this closing argument, "by turns folksy and self-deprecating, intense and scornful," for which Bumpers will be best remembered, and it quotes Francis X. Clines' coverage of the impeachment trial:
For all his country lawyer’s eloquence, the triumph in Dale Bumpers’s extraordinary return to the Senate today was most evident after he finished addressing the chamber he loves so well. For it was then that a remarkably bipartisan crowd of senators — of the very judges and jurors of the impeached President Clinton — hurried to his side in the well of the chamber to shake his hand, to hug him, to congratulate him for a defense lawyer’s job well done.
As for Bumpers, in his 2003 memoir, he indicated that advising the Charleston School Board to integrate in the months following the May, 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education was "probably the most important thing I did in my whole life, not just my political career."

According to the New York Times, Charleston, Arkansas became the first school in the former confederacy to integrate, with Fayetteville, Arkansas following a few weeks later and Little Rock doing so, of course, only after federal troops were sent in to compel it in 1957.  Bumpers was just 28 years old at the time.