This essay is excerpted from the introduction to Red State State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland (AK Press).
We are not supposed to exist.
According to the political Steinberg map of the nation, we come from no man’s land, fly-over country, the unredeemable middle, where political progressives are as rare as a Hooters in Provo, Utah.
We are children of the wasteland. The rural outback. Where folks carry guns and use them. Where fenced compounds and utopian communes exist side-by-side with a cyanide heap-leach gold mine. Out here cell phones don’t work. Not yet, anyway. And some of us would like to keep it that way.
Frank grew up on the wheated plains of eastern Montana. St. Clair hails from the humid cornfields of central Indiana. These states span the glaciated heart of the continent, a region carved and ground-smooth by the weight of ice. From a distance, the terrain of the Great Plains appears homogenous.
From a distance so do its politics and demographics. You must look closer to discover the diversity, the radical nuances.
Even the Republicanism of Indiana, sired as it was by the rigid Lutheranism of German immigrants, is wildly different from the libertarian, anti-government Republicanism of Montana and the Rocky Mountain Front. They are not one. Except on the two-color map of American politics, or Barack Obama’s electoral playbook, which writes off this vast region almost completely.
Neither of us fit in the geo-ideological matrix contrived by the mainstream political establishment. Neither do thousands of others, left, right and anarcho-libertarians, who reside in the forgotten midsection of the nation.
And not all of us are children of Ken Kesey and Ed Abbey. Some follow in the footsteps of David Koresh, Reies Tijerina, Randy Weaver, Elvira Arellano or Mary Dann.
A Red States rebellion is breaking out. It’s been going on for some time. Since Reconstruction in the South and even longer in the West. The true West of Wyoming and Utah, Idaho and Arizona. Where the stakes are high and the odds are long. And the battles are waged over the essentials of life: water, food, wilderness, human liberty.
Take abortion. Largely cast as an urban issue by the flyover press, the real crisis and militant resistance is happening in Utah, South Dakota, Mississippi and Idaho-states where unwanted pregnancy rates are high and abortion clinics are sparse and marked for extermination.
Consigned to death row, the loneliest and most forbidding place in America? Fighting for your life against the conveyor-belt execution industry of Texas is qualitatively different from the struggle in Illinois or California where activists and Ivy-league trained litigators are lined up to give aid. In the grim chambers of the row of interior America you can’t expect to enjoy the right to a competent lawyer, a fair judge or crusading journalism students. It’s just you against the death machine.
Or try being an environmentalist in the toxic towns of Libby, Montana or Tonopah, Nevada, where cancer rates are soaring, the death threats don’t stop at prank calls and the cops are more likely to kick your ass than rush to your defense. It’s a lonely and dangerous struggle. But people are doing it. Thousands of them. Fighting as if their lives depended on it-which, of course, they do.
Out here there are no fixed blueprints for resistance. No organizational flow charts for how to plot a rebellion. No focus groups or pulse polls or field-tested PR strategies or genteel formalities for grant applications. Marx would be confused. The human spirit is the best guide. When Peabody Coal announces its intention to evict your grandmother, dynamite her hogan and strip-mine the family sheep pasture, you don’t have time to consult Weiden and Kennedy for how to spin it to your advantage or wait around for a year on the infinitesimal chance that Pew Charitable Trusts might drop you a few bucks. You must act. As a group if you can, unilaterally if necessary. Militantly if you must.
While the Forest Service sparks a chainsaw in the outback of Wyoming no progressive from Vermont is going to stop them from ravaging the countryside. That job is left to the people who inhabit the places that are under assault day in and day out.
When the ATF or FBI come busting through your kitchen door, rousting you at gunpoint from your bed, roughing up your children, accusing you of being a rightwing crazy, an illegal immigrant or an animal liberation terrorist, the ACLU isn’t likely to speed to Wallace, Idaho to bail you out of jail and make your case a cause celebre for constitutional rights.
In fact, the FBI could burn down your house, incinerate dozens of women and children, and good liberals in New York and San Francisco will say you had it coming. They already have. See Waco and Ruby Ridge; Cove-Mallard and Wounded Knee.
This is the game plan the Feds have used since the inception of our so-called constitutional republic, and there have always been bloody consequences. Smoke out the non-conformists, or better yet, murder them. Of course there is a silver lining for the rest of us, and that’s that these brave rebels are the true heart of the nation. The people who bring about real change. They are the freedom fighters. They are the sons and daughters of César Chávez and Leonard Peltier. Without them, the government’s assault on its citizens and the environment would largely go unchecked.
Voting on Election Day, seen as one of the only ways to democratically vent our collective disgust, doesn’t always do much good. In fact most of the dissidents in Red America don’t vote at all. And for good reason. They know the system is rigged. Besides, they don’t trust the government or its policies anyway. They see what it has done for their families and loved ones, and that’s not much. They recognize they didn’t enjoy the benefits of those federal tax cuts. They know their hardware shop went under because Wal-Mart moved to town. They see that their Grandpa lost the family homestead because industrialized farms began receiving huge subsidies from Washington. And they sure as hell don’t trust the so-called liberal establishment. Why should they? Life under Hillary’s husband wasn’t any better than it has been under Bush.
The resistance isn’t always about revolution; it’s about maintaining a semblance of dignity in a world where such a thing is in short supply.
That’s why there has been a resurgence of organic farming in the Red River Valley of North Dakota where farmers like Todd Leake are fighting Monsanto and supporting their families through farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture. If you want to learn about the negative effects of genetically modified crops, you don’t need to consult a study by a scientist from Berkeley, just talk to the Nelson family of Amenia, North Dakota who stood up to Monsanto after the company sued them for patent infringement.
Or take a trip down to Colorado where feisty environmentalists are fighting the moneyed interests of billionaire Red McCombs who is trying to build yet another sprawling ski resort in the heart of the Rockies. These radical greens are fighting McCombs in the courts and may soon plant their bodies on Forest Service roads to block his bulldozers. Since we’re here, may as well take a trip due west to the outback of Escalante, Utah, where Tori Woodard and Patrick Diehl routinely receive death threats for their environmental activism. A few years back, a band of local yahoos vandalized their home, threw bottles of beer through their front windows, kicked in the front door, trashed the garden, and cut the phone line to their house. It takes real guts to stand up in the distant belly of the beast, where defending the Earth usually results in a face-to-face confrontation with a bulldozer, a taser or a shotgun.
Down in Texas, not far from where the government burned the Branch Davidians alive, anti-death penalty advocates spared the life of Kenneth Foster, who was to be put to death for a murder he didn’t commit. Or traverse Interstate 10 to New Orleans where passionate groups of local citizens, without much help from the Federal government are slowly rebuilding their forgotten neighborhoods. Many lost everything in the devastating, preventable Katrina floods of 2005. But they refuse to give up. Since we are in Louisiana, why not roll on over to the tiny town of Jena where protests rage on over the racist incarceration of six black youths who were unfairly imprisoned for beating a white kid.
This book offers a just a few snapshots of the grassroots resistance taking place in the forgotten heartland of America. These are tales of rebellion and courage. Out here activism isn’t for the faint of heart. Be thankful someone is willing to do the dirty work.
Nope, we’re not supposed to exist. But here we are, in the flesh, with mud on our boots and green fire in our souls—living examples of what Greil Marcus calls the Invisible Republic.
Deal with it.
Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is just out from AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out! (Common Courage Press) and the co-editor, with Jeffrey St. Clair, of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland (AK Press). Visit the new Red State Rebels website at www.RedStateRebels.org.