Race and Occupation in the Land of the One Percent
Rural land use in the US has followed the pipeline of the American Dream. Since the Great Depression, farm ownership has fallen by two thirds. Today, half of farm sales come from 2% of farms. Meanwhile, timber companies increasingly exploit low wage labor, by-passing the unions at saw mills, and selling their product overseas. Mountaintop removal is yet another way corporations have found to destroy the environment while hiring fewer workers. The accumulation of land and etiolation of the work force has led to an economic and ecological tipping point that coincides with the crisis of capitalism. The product is a friction and energy that forms an unrecognized centrifuge of the Occupy movement.
Rural areas paint a picture of worsening economic conditions, shifts in climate, droughts and floods, farmer paralysis and ensuing chain reactions throughout the country. Their narratives unravel a context of rising prisons, persecution in the cities, and rampant dispossession and repression at home. In an important step, a site called OccupyRural.org has cropped up online, and is generating a sound cloud of these narratives for all to hear. In some ways, they have already formed part of the bedrock of the Occupy movement. The eco-rural “Occupy the Gorge” in Mount Hood, Oregon, which is currently under threat of a Nestle bottling plant, is just one of a swarm of rural occupations throughout the country, including Occupy Nettie in West Virginia coal country, and Occupy Cañon City, Colorado, the site of a 500-gallon uranium spill in August 2010. These occupations epitomize place-based ethics as well as new ways of land use, such as bioremediation and ecoforestry. But there is much more to do.
Rural United States is a land of terrible demographic as well as economic inequalities—particularly between hispanics and whites. The housing market fiasco has had a widespread impact on dispossession and exploitation of people of color. When the crisis hit, banks foreclosures hit hispanic homes 68% more than other homes. Most of these homes were inthe outer ring, or “ring of death,” of suburban US, or areas comprised of rural farmland, such as the California Central Coast’s Monterey County.
The dichotomy between white and hispanic, rich and poor, plays out along lines most easily illustrated through the interplay of Monterey and the county seat, Salinas. Twenty miles apart, these two cities might as well be on different planets. If Monterey is a leading hub of international tourism, Salinas is a leading hub of dispossession. Monterey is over 75% white, Salinas is 75% hispanic or latino of any race. Monterey has become a fortress of the rich. Salinas is turning into a war-zone. The challenges for activists are made more difficult by the mounting repression.
What will be useful are the experiences of radicals who have been working together in the struggles against police brutality and exploitation for years. While the rural presence in Occupy seems to be mostly white, and the hispanic presence seems to be mostly urban, the mingling of these two crucial voices will remind us that we must cooperate to survive. The inclusion of rural hispanic voices, along with the critique of the prison industry complex as well as patriarchy are all emerging within the Occupy movement. As important occupations have come together in Salinas and Monterey, an occupation has also occurred in the small town of Gonzales south of Salinas on Highway 101, where hispanics or latinos of any race outnumber whites 2-to-1.
It will be interesting to see how Occupy Rural forms bridges to ameliorate the segregated and inequitable problems faced by communities of color in rural US. While all of these struggles come together, a rigorous ethic of antioppression is making it possible to continue the movement by an ever-expanding, fractal-like opening of new spaces and times. While this intricate web developing is only a tenuous start, it is growing more solid by the day. Understanding the problem is the first step.