News from the Front #53:
Preparing the Way for Mass Action in the Klamath Basin
". . . this is not a method for cowards; it does resist. The nonviolent resister is just as strongly opposed to the evil against which he protests as is the person who uses violence. His method is passive or nonaggressive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive toward his opponent. But his mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade the opponent that he is mistaken. This method is passive physically but strongly active spiritually; it is nonaggressive physically but dynamically aggressive spiritually."
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. Christian Century (1957)
The people of the Klamath Basin are fed up with the federal government's vile lies and slanders. They know that the endgame is the destruction of their culture, their community, and their livelihoods. The high priests of the new State religion, whose testament is blind faith in the inhuman ideals of radical environmentalism, preach their destruction: "The basin as it exists today is unsustainable", says The Oregonian. "Even in a year of abundant rain and snow, the water cannot fulfill so many promises and so many water rights. Those thirsty farms, 4,000 feet up and far from the market, are the most unsustainable of all." (Emphasis added.) Communities throughout the rural West watch the Klamath Basin because they too stand at the mercy of an urban elite increasingly disposed to issue fraudulent declarations of unsustainability.
The people of the Klamath Basin are rising to counter these fraudulent declarations, and the only question now is whether the people will rise in a careful and orderly way, or rise in angry outbursts that some fear could turn violent. The answer lies in the hands of the local leadership. None are beyond redemption, but many have fears and doubts about civil disobedience that are paralyzing them. This issue of News from the Front is dedicated to easing those fears and doubts.
Fear #1: It will make the community look bad
Last week's opening of the headgates was a success. Once again, the plight of the Klamath farmers has penetrated the indifferent masses. Out-of-town reporters and stringers have flocked to the community, and they cannot help, even if inadvertently, from reporting the real hardship that is spreading rapidly. Even The Oregonian was moved to editorialize that: "The Klamath community is right. The region does need a better balance between the environment and the local economy."
It is true that many, including The Oregonian, have used the word "vandalism" to describe the protests. And so did some within the Klamath community, including Klamath County Commissioner John Elliott. The Herald and News called the protest "a bit ugly", and all but called for the arrest of the protesters: "the hands-off treatment by law enforcement cannot continue if things keep escalating."
Luckily, the Klamath Community is blessed with two law enforcement leaders, Sheriff Evinger and District Attorney Caleb, who appear committed to not cooperating with evil perpetuated by the federal government. Because of this, they will come under increasing attack from the Klamath community's enemies in the press, including the Herald and even this morning's New York Times. Sheriff Evinger and District Attorney Caleb are local heroes, and each and every member of the Klamath community should affirm support for their stance.
Ignorant outsiders may be unwilling or unable to distinguish between vandalism and what one local reporter called "democracy in action", but the mass of the people in Klamath County are squarely behind the protestors. As one local official observed, "everyone was smiling at the Falcon's game when they learned the water was back on." The mass of the people I talk to in the Portland area, even armchair liberals, are on the side of the protestors. It is only the leaders that have yet to figure out how to get to the front of this parade. Eventually, even the media will begin to report things more favorably.
That will happen faster if the likes of Commissioner Elliott and the Herald and News get on the right side, so that the community can present a solid front to the outside world. Then it will be more difficult for outside media to lie about the nature of the protests. Of course the lies will continue, but in this context, there is almost no such thing as bad publicity, which one exception: the next fear.
Fear #2: It could get out of hand and turn violent
This is a legitimate fear, and one that I share. It is hard for people defending their lives to let federal agents drag them off peacefully. Frankly, they need to be trained. The more "responsible" Leftist groups emphasize the importance of having protest participants attend such training, and claim that "historically, nonviolence training was used extensively during the civil rights movement, in Ghandi's campaigns in India against the British, and in recent years" in many protest movement in the United States.
The idea is simple: leaders need to explain the spiritual and philosophical underpinnings of genuine nonviolent civil disobedience. Again, are there no leaders in the churches who can step forward to fill this role? A presentation starting with Dr. King's article hyperlinked above is a good start. There is a good deal of learning about nonviolence on Leftist websites (1, 2, 3), though people in Klamath County will have to hold their noses at some of the ideology.
The most critical part of the training is actual roleplaying sessions. Citizens need to physically play the role of federal marshals, and lay their hands on fellow citizens, who can practice going limp, throttling their instinctive response to strike back. Local law enforcement officials can be relied upon to remove those who show up at the headgates with guns, just as they did during the Bucket Brigade. Guns have no place at the headgates. As author Claire Wolfe puts it, "It's too late to work within the system, but too early to shoot the bastards." More importantly, if guns are at the headgates, all the stories will be about the guns, not about the water.
Last Thursday, I asked the County Commissioners to support the Klamath protesters, and, in the words of Commissioner Switzer, they "weren't there yet". Their continuing indecision is no asset to the community. The County has ample resources to provide nonviolence training, and could, for example, even contact the Florida Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute for Nonviolence, which provides nonviolence training to public workers such as prison guards. It is even possible to get grants for nonviolence training, though I doubt the Leftists will fund the Klamath farmers.
With proper training, the federal government will be the only party showing violence at any Klamath protest. If the protest is properly organized, there will be a constant crowd at the headgates, placing their bodies on the line against retaking the headgates even in the dark of night. And the community is small enough that with good intelligence, there will be no element of surprise for the feds. Once the way is prepared, the federal government will have to drag off hundreds, if not thousands, of people off into buses to retake the headgates. The federal government may well back down rather than resort to such action. Early accounts suggest that even federal law enforcement officers are personally on the side of the protestors -- so long as they stay within the framework of nonviolent protest.
Fear #3: Protests will alienate the Bush Administration
President Franklin D. Roosevelt once listened to a reform delegation that came to visit, and dismissed them as follows: "O.K., you've convinced me. Now go on out and bring pressure on me." President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Interior Secretary Norton are all on the side of the Klamath community. But under the rules of the larger political games they play, they can't or won't act until enough pressure is placed on them. The more national attention is placed upon the injustices suffered by the Klamath farmers, the more cover they will have to do the right thing.
In addition, power is at the root of all politics. Last Thursday, the Klamath County Commissioners stressed how hard they have been negotiating with the Administration and the Governor for relief. But they are negotiating without power, and they have got to realize that the protesters will give them additional power.
They can also exercise their own powers under Oregon state law (ORS 203.035): "all powers over matters of county concern that it is possible for them to have under the Constitutions and laws of the United States and of this state." No one has ever tested the police powers of counties in court in an emergency such as that which now pervades Klamath County. Federal courts may strike down the exercise of county powers, but there comes a point where that possibility is no excuse for inaction. If an elderly resident of Klamath County trying to live without well water dies, it will be well past the time for such action.
Fear #4: Civil disobedience won't work
Supporting those who seize the headgates cannot fail to work. Either the water continues to flow, or the federal government comes in and seizes the gates, provoking yet another round of national attention to the injustices in the Klamath Basin. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s sixth basic principle of nonviolent protest is that it succeed because its adherents believe that God is on the side of justice. The community has faith in its future, and faith that civil disobedience is a righteous response to outrageous injustice.
The leadership needs to catch that faith, and lead the way to organize a small army to support the few individuals who actually will take the serious risks involved with direct action upon the headgates. The leaders can make it clear to the more radical elements in the community that they are preparing the way, and to be patient until the community is organized. The community will be patient when they see leaders preparing the way for water; the community is impatient because they know that more government meetings are not going to bring any water in any reasonable amount of time.
Beyond the question of nonviolence training, there are many practical and logistical concerns that must be addressed to make the protest effective. Are telephone trees in place to mobilize larger crowds on short notice? Is there a squad of people organized to provide food, water, and sanitary services to a crowd occupying the headgates? Is there a squad of people armed with video cameras constantly vigilant to document the federal response to any occupation? The Elian Gonzalez experience teaches that a very high priority of the federal government will be to minimize any media coverage when and if it decides to turn the water off; those with cameras may get roughed up and pepper-sprayed. Leadership and organization is required to overcome all these practical and logistical obstacles.
The existing leadership can also get organized to make sure any water that is released goes where it can do some good. Shouldn't the Klamath Irrigation District have contingency plans to be ready for a release of water, including a squad of people mobilized to plug "ratholes" in the dikes and prevent flooding? The last thing the community needs is to cause damage to the very people it is trying to protect, and the cooperation of the Irrigation Districts is essential to avoid such losses. Some will counsel that the irrigation districts may be held to have conspired with those opening the headgates, so it is important to craft resolutions and orders to make it clear that the districts are merely preparing for a contingency. For them to stand aside and do nothing now would be as irresponsible as standing aside while a torrential storm is coming that threatens to flood the community.
With appropriate direction from the County Commissioners, the resources of the County, including County counsel, volunteer attorneys, and even the D.A.'s office could be mobilized to provide legal help for any citizens arrested in protests. Declaring that such help is available will encourage more to step forward. Fundraising efforts can gather war chests to support protesters, such as by posting bail for them.
Many hope and pray that the leadership in Klamath Falls will get behind the people, and get to work to make mass action effective. There are literally thousands of people who will be willing to help out. An immediate proclamation of support by the leaders of the Klamath Community will inspire those who actually open the headgates to be patient and wait for everyone else to catch up with them. And it will mean that the community's leadership will be treated with greater respect in Salem, Sacramento, and Washington, D.C.
© James Buchal, July 9, 2001
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