Tuesday, February 2, 2016

How Burns, Oregon is holding up: on conflict, kindness, and symbolic gestures

Both NPR and the New York Times have reported in the past few days on clashes between locals in Harney County, Oregon, and outsiders who have poured in to protest the killing last week, by federal officials, of LaVoy Finicum, one of those who had been occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.  (Read more here about the latter).  This excerpt from Martin Kaste's story on NPR sums up the conflict:
Now, people in Burns agree with a lot of what these groups have to say. Locals are tired of the heavy police and FBI presence since the takeover at the refuge, and most people here do think the federal government overreaches, especially when it comes to environmental rules and land use. But they're also sick of outsiders hanging around, trying to start a movement.
But another part of the story really amused me because it reminds me of a practice I associate with my own home town--the fact that every local driver waves (or, more precisely, lifts a finger above the steering wheel, in brief greeting), every other driver s/he meets.  This happens, in my experience, even when the driver doesn't actually know who s/he is waving at.  Indeed, one of my former students wrote a blog post on the topic a few years ago, here.

All of that came to mind when I read Kaste's quote of "local resident" Nancy Fine:
I don't know who to wave to anymore.  You have to kind of look and say, 'Is that a friend or is that someone who doesn't belong or doesn't live here and has come here to make trouble?'  
Fine goes on to say that "one sure way of identifying an outsider is a prominently displayed sidearm. She shoots a scornful glance at a trio of men standing in front of her, their arms crossed, their holsters hanging out."
We all have guns but none of us wear them on our hip and kind of flaunt them around. We consider that extremely rude and ungentlemanly at best.  
Kaste quotes another local woman who says "the community has been flooded in 'testosterone,'" the effects of which are likely to "linger."  One concluded:
We need the outside people to go home so we can start to heal. It's going to be a long, hard process.
Meanwhile, another group of outsiders--the journalists--are commenting on how kind and hospitable residents have been.  The headline of NYT reporter Kirk Johnson's story a few days ago sums it up, "Burns Journal:  An Unwanted Circus Descends, and an Oregon Town Strives to Stay Kind." An excerpt follows:
For the most part, Burns has not stopped being warm and welcoming to outsiders, even as that has become harder to do. If you were going to spend nearly the entire month of January in a town of about 2,000 people — isolated by distance in the high eastern Oregon desert, and often with bad weather to boot — you could do a lot worse. 
“We just decided to be kind,” said Leah Planinz, who owns Glory Days Pizza with her husband, Nick.
Pardon my obvious bias, but that, my friends, is rural America.  

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