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Showdown in Bunkerville

The Language of Land Grabbing


What did we learn from the Bundy standoff? Reactions are mixed, but certainly, the rhetoric of land grabbing has flown fast and loose.

According to one journalist, “We learned that the government will do anything to private citizens in order to grab land and private property.” Others have suggested that Bundy is a land grabber who takes over public lands with destructive cattle grazing.

An eye to the headlines turns up some more spectacular claims. Occupy Corporatism promises to bring us “The REAL Truth Behind Bundy Ranch Land-Grab in Nevada.” Alex Jones assures us, “Sen. Harry Reid Behind BLM Land Grab of Bundy Ranch.” That’s to say nothing of Fox News.

You have to hand it to them; the alliteration is catchy—throw in the fact that the town is actually called “Bunkerville,’ and you’ve got the headline gilders in thralldom. The seductive urge to throw in a “bungle” to jaunt the prose must be mindboggling (eg: “Harry Reid Behind Bungling BLM Land Grab at Bundy’s Bunkerville Ranch”).

Even as the land grab story moved from Nevada, the topic picked up again in Texas. Fox News has us contemplating “Bundy Effect: Why Texas ranchers worry about a land grab.” Usage of “Bundy Effect” would be more adequate to the facts were it read something more to the effect of, “Bundy Effect: Wealthy Racist Distorts Meaning of Ambiguous Term.”

In the past day or two, we have been informed that “Republicans warn BLM eyeing land grab along Texas-Oklahoma border,” and “TX Gov. Rick Perry Hits Back at Feds Over Potential Land Grab.” For his part, Rick Perry asked the ever-present question, “[Is] the federal gonna come back in and say you know what, Mexico used to own the state of Texas so let’s have a conversation about who are the rightful [owners] of this? Are we going to re-litigate every piece of private property that we got in this country ‘cause we have a federal government that’s out of control?”

There is so much nonsense in today’s media that it’s tempting to present another hypothetical headline: “Blunderbusses Drawn over Bullshit Definitions.”

There is a twitter hash tag for #landgrab, which has been used by activists tracking land grabs around the world. This hashtag, which has seen relatively little activity in the past few years, has risen around twenty times over in the past three days—nine out of ten tweets bearing #landgrab were about Nevada and Texas.

While it is commendable that federal land grabs are being talked about openly, it is telling that the first time that the discourse of “land grabbing” broke through into the mainstream US as a result of a wealthy rancher who refused to pay his taxes. There was relatively little uproar from the right wing over the vast takeovers of property by banks during the onset of the foreclosure crisis, nor as a result of corporate takeovers of public infrastructure and lands for industrial enterprises. In fact, people like Bundy maintained that houses were foreclosed on, because their owners couldn’t make the rent—not because of predatory lending and outright fraud. When Tim DeChristopher pulled a prank on an oil and gas auction held by the BLM, people like Bundy and his media and Tea Party cohorts were the first ones calling for a lengthy prison sentence.

Since at least the Sagebrush Rebellion, the language of land grabbing has been boilerplate stuff amongst the miasmatic think tanks and newsrooms of the right wing. Just a day or two ago, an article on appeared, harkening back to the Sagebrush Rebellion as resistance to “one of the biggest land grabs in American history”—the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. At the same time, academics and pundits have questioned the drive to pull public lands into the state sphere, and ultimately partitioned into private property, as a land grab in itself. From another perspective, either side’s critique could have held water, as the Reagan and Watts combo clearcut their way through public lands as fast, if not faster, than states through their lands.

And that’s the point. Either way—be it federal land management or renegade private property adherents—winds up insufficient. The hysteria surrounding land grabs in the US right now is striking for two reasons: (1) its militancy, (2) its unique, reactionary historical narrative, which is imbedded in the Western expansion and its inwardly colonizing heroes, like ranchers, miners, and wolf hunters. According to one of the most vocal progenitors of land grabs using #landgrab, the federal government is attempting a nation-wide land grab by forcing the forest service and BLM to convert public lands into wildlife sanctuaries. According to other theories, the BLM was taking over the land in Nevada for a Chinese solar power system and a rare earths mine—before being stopped by the ferocious defense of freedom.

What makes more sense is that the radical right wing, fully supported by the Koch Brothers and ALEC, along with all their media stooges, staged a second Sagebrush Rebellion, and have been waiting to do so for quite some time. People like Bundy are not defending land from foreign investment, infrastructure, extraction, or even federal tyranny; they are simply acting like an auxiliary, paramilitary branch of the official right wing—after all, they have been tacitly supported throughout, at least, the Reagan and both Bush administrations. It is time to get real about what land grabs actually are. They do not look like Bunkerville, they look like the rust belt, tar sands and mountaintop removal mining, and rainforest destruction—all of which are forwarded by Bundy’s tea party cadre.

Alexander Reid Ross is a co-moderator of the Earth First! Newswire and the editor of the anthology Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab.