The Hanged Census Worker: Why Appalachia Hates Feds

On September 12, a federal census-taker, Bill Sparkman, was found nude, dead and tied by his neck to a tree in someone else's family cemetery in the Appalachian foothills of southeastern Kentucky, with his empty truck nearby. Binding him with duct tape and gagging him, a person or persons had taped his federal census ID to his head and shoulder and with a felt tip pen had scrawled FED on his chest. Network reporters, arriving in the area of the Daniel Boone National Forest, have expressed shock that the fresh-faced outdoorsy people in the area so outspokenly hate the federal government. Small wonder. The U.S. government began its life back in 1791 by shafting the Appalachian area. People have not forgotten it, perhaps because it has yet to stop happening.

That is one part of the story needing exploration. Other aspects of this go far beyond Kentucky.

Citizens across the nation are waking up to how constitutionally powerful they are, and there is magic and danger in that. The Kentucky Constitution -- echoing the Declaration of Independence and other state constitutions -- expresses the situation this way, "All power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their peace, safety, happiness and the protection of property. For the advancement of these ends, they have at all times an inalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may deem proper."

That power can bring enormous social transformation, largely non-violently. The people refers to the majority; inalienable means that the power is there even if it has not been used in centuries, and indefeasible means that it remains intact no matter what legal dodge is used to deny it. A hundred years ago, citizens were confronted by U.S. government which was massively corrupt at every level and corporate monopolies with armies, in a ravaged environment where even deer were nearly extinct. In what they called the "Second American Revolution," they organized by the millions, using freedom of press and assembly to create civic, labor, consumer, stockholder, women's, civil rights, public health, occupational safety, food safety and environmental movements, grabbing guns only when shot at, and sticking with it through five wars and three major depressions. Combined with corporate dynamism, the result by the 1970s was the world's most prosperous nation, with the largest, best educated, most politically active middle class that the planet had ever seen.

Such inherent clout plus building anger at the federal government however could also lead to political violence, especially when demagogues try to gin it up. Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi [D-CA] says that the potential is increasing, and some believe that the Sparkman killing may be the first blow. If so, in Appalachian at least, long overdue moral justice may be as important as criminal justice in defusing it. ....

Kentucky was a Mohawk word for "meadow" referring to a vast central tableland of long grasses with tiny, exquisitely-fragrant, blue buds, fed by mountain streams filtered through limestone, with its long northern edge cut by the sinuous Ohio River Valley. At Pittsburgh to the northeast, two smaller rivers came together to produce the Ohio which flowed 1000 miles southwest to the mammoth Mississippi, where Kentucky tapered to a tip. Pioneers called the area the Bluegrass Plateau, and animals including eastern buffalo thrived on it and the forested plains to the west and south. Few Native nations had ever put homes there, but most loved the hunting, using it as a communal refrigerator. Pittsburgh had held settlers for a century by the time the country began. Pioneers like Daniel Boone though were just coming from the east coast into Kentucky, pushing up over the spine of the heavily forested eastern mountains, building forts and cabins.

They were trailblazers, yet the new U.S. Congress taxed all these small farmers at a 50% higher rate than it levied on plantation owners like George Washington, and in 1791 it also taxed their whiskey, charging small producers much more per gallon than large producers like Washington. Whiskey was a storage device. In the Appalachian mountain and river valley mists, drying a corn crop or distilling it was imperative; otherwise it rotted. Living in a barter system, pioneers had little money, so when the U.S. federal tax collectors demanded cash, many settlers were forced to sell their farms. Since the U.S. Constitution allowed only white men with property to vote, pioneers who were taxed off their farms also lost their rights. When those in Pittsburgh backed by Kentucky pioneers rose up in armed rebellion, President Washington himself led 13,000 men against them--as large an army as the one that he had thrown against the British.

However coincidentally, in Kentucky, some pioneer families banded into villages in inaccessible mountains and did not contact outsiders for another 100 years.

The rest of Kentucky and other nearby pioneer areas meanwhile picked up the ball of the incomplete revolution and ran with it. The U.S. Constitution allowed slavery, but Ohio, Indiana and Illinois constitutionally prohibited slavery in their areas--nearly half a century before the Civil War. The Constitution had not mentioned corporations or political parties. The Indiana Constitution like others not only forbid political contributions by corporations and limited their lifespans but outlawed for-profit banks. The framers of the Constitution had feared direct democracy. In pioneer areas, white men without property won the right to vote, and for the country's first eighty years, citizens ran their towns through self-organizing volunteer groups and took turns representing each other. Convinced that an educated electorate was crucial to democracy, Indiana legislated the first public school system.

Life for those self-isolated in the farthest mountains went on with a kind of timelessness, as the resourceful people built cabins, hunted the towering forests, made quilts, had clog dances and sang the ballads of Shakespeare's time. Near Tennessee, there was a waterfall with one of only two moonbows in the world. Eighty years after the Revolution, though, catastrophe struck. The eastern half of the country exploded in the Civil War, either "to hold the union together" or "to pull away from a dictatorial federal government"--either way, Kentucky stayed neutral as 600,000 people killed each other--and New York City was hit by a tsunami of Irish immigration.

In the upheaval, NYC Democratic Party "Boss" William Tweed began selling all the city's elected and appointed offices and government contracts to the highest bidder, getting a kickback from each deal, while his gangs beat up or burned out those who did not pay; and the starving immigrants whom he fed voted early and often. He made a fortune before he died in jail. Carried by Irish immigrants, the boss system next helped Big Coal and the railroads take over Appalachian governments. The central part of the mountains, extending from Pennsylvania to the edge of the deep south, were irich in high quality coal, the main fuel of the industrial revolution worldwide. Corporations defrauded families of their farms, reducing them to workers in dangerous mines.

Sucking all the profits, while getting whopping subsidies and not paying taxes, Big Coal kept the people in dire poverty. The federal government did nothing to protect them, but when the Prohibition of alcohol was passed, federal agents suddenly appeared with guns in remote parts of the mountains in order to murder folks in front of their families for the new crime of making whiskey.

Democracy and capitalism thrived on public infrastructure, as the federal government dredged the great waterways and made canals and locks to allow boats to travel freely and for free; backed private transcontinental railroads in the late 1800s, created the federal aircraft control system, federally-funded the privately-built interstate highways, and built the then spontaneously-developed Internet. Community and commerce burst into life on them, and Kentucky cities like Louisville, Lexington and Newport thrived. Little of this however reached Appalachian Kentucky except rural electrification, waterworks and welfare.

The government meanwhile repealed Prohibition, only to outlaw marijuana. Kentucky farmers had been producing hemp for twine and rope, a mainstay of the U.S. Navy in WWII, and peacefully smoking its buds since the area was settled. Pushed underground, the skilled farmers still made a billion dollars on an untaxed crop in 1980 alone. Instead of leaving it legal, thus getting much-needed revenue for Kentucky, and letting Kentucky farmers compete the Latin American cartels out of business however, the government made it a felony. The prisons have long since overflowed, backing up into the jails, which are overflowing too.

There is too little work. Coal mine jobs have dried up because huge machines have come in, removing whole mountain ranges, dumping them into streams, in order to reach the coal that America still craves. What jobs there are shatter bodies. In an area with too few doctors, unregulated "pain clinics" thrive, addicting people to prescription drugs like Oxycontin, and some folks slip out into the forest, growing pot and making lethal meth to sell. Quietly religious, in touch with family members long since flung far and wide into other states, the reflexively polite majority welcome strangers. Yet the press makes cartoon characters of them, the Beverly Hillbillies shooting at revenooers. There is nothing funny about it. Reporters who come into the area say it's "lawless." More exactly, people have a learned contempt for laws that criminalize previously legal activities and legalize corruption.

Teacher Bill Sparkman was from here, moonlighting as a federal census taker in order to pay the bills, his heart set on empowering area children. The Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI] has been investigating, but the Sparkman death was not announced until almost two weeks after Sparkman's body was found, indicating conflicting trails.

What do you think? Who did it and why?

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