Oregon Protests and Liquidating the Commons

Much ink has already been spilt concerning the armed protestors in Burns, Oregon, but we also need to look at the underlying motivations of this group. Many are rightfully outraged at the double standard where white armed protestors threatening violence are treated with more respect than unarmed Black youth protesting police brutality. Some have focused on the relationship of right-wing activism with hate groups, while others have concentrated on the particulars of the longstanding dispute precipitating this action.

One of the major points of conflict is that the private property of ranchers cannot grow because of their proximity to federal land. They want to take public land that we could call "the commons," which is not owned by any single person, and extract the natural wealth from it for their private benefit. As one organizer, Ammon Bundy said, "It is our goal to get the logger back to logging, to get the rancher back to ranching, to get the miner back to mining, the farmer back to farming -- and to jump-start this economy in Harney County."

Everything about that quote focuses on liquidating the value of soil, of trees, of the earth, and converting that into private dollars. It is little more than the logical outgrowth of hundreds of years of colonization, Manifest Destiny, and the belief that the acquisition and expansion of private property trumps all other values. The occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Preserve is a continuation of one ugly yet enduring component of America's legacy.

You may not like that. When progressives disagree with something, we often say "that's not what our country is about" or "that doesn't reflect American values." Unfortunately, there is no one American value. While there are some streams of thought and practice we rightfully lift up, there are many we should lament and repent of. Their repugnancy does not automatically conflict with their "American" roots.

In fact, much of our history was built on demonically evil structural oppressions, on white supremacy, on the myth of individualism, and on the logic of extraction. This latter logic says that we have the sovereign right to take as much as we want so long as no one else is hurt. But from this perspective, nature does not get a say on who is hurt, nor do indigenous communities. Their voices are dismissed as irrelevant.

It is an ugly truth we must confront. If we seek to help transform our world into what God intends it to be, we have to look square in the eye the legacies that shape current actions and outrages. The assumption that persons have the right to take from others without accountability is deeply embedded in our cultural DNA. It's what many people mean by "freedom," the freedom to extract and oppress others. No amount of snarky #Yalqaeda Twitter posts will correct that.


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