From the ’90s to now: who speaks for rural Oregon?‏

May 26, 2016

Dear ROPnetters,

By popular demand, we are proud to share the talk long-time human dignity group leader and ROP volunteer Mike Edera gave at ROP’s Rural Caucus & Strategy Session on May 14th. In it Mike connects the dots between the politics of the ’90s and today, while also naming Oregon’s decades-long rural recession and how that economic insecurity has been harnessed politically.

As our community-driven work takes us to the counties struggling on the frontlines of the militia movement, many folks who have been at ROP since its foundation 25 years ago are feeling a sickening nostalgia. The politics of fear and division are rising again along with the literal and figurative temperatures in our communities. Threats of violence and acts of intimidation are becoming all too common instead of disagreeing without being disagreeable.

As Mike’s talk illustrates, we stand on the shoulders of giants doing this work. ROP formed and organized in an atmosphere of severe and violent backlash in the ’90s. Bold, creative, and awe-inspiring organizing continued because thousands of rural and small town Oregonians were committed to their vision of safe, healthy, vibrant, and welcoming communities rooted in the values of justice and human dignity.

Caucus attendees named this talk as one of their favorite moments. Read Mike’s talk below. And keep an eye out for more next steps coming out of the Caucus in the next couple weeks!


ROP staff asked me to talk a bit about the similarities between the militia movement that we are currently experiencing and conditions in the early 1990’s, when the Rural Organizing Project was formed, and when I became involved.

Most of you know that the ROP developed as a response to statewide organizing by a political arm of Christian fundamentalism called the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA).

In 1992, the OCA sponsored a state ballot initiative to add anti-LGBT provisions to the Oregon constitution – I won’t go into the specifics since they were too stupid and annoying to waste air on. The initiative came within a few percentage points of winning. It was marketed as a defense of family. In 1993, they regrouped with a localized strategy to pass anti-gay resolutions in small towns across rural Oregon. Everywhere these measures gathered signatures to get on the local ballot, groups of outraged people tried to oppose them. Marcy Westerling, with great help from her friends Suzanne Pharr, Scott Nakagawa, Eric Ward, Tarso Ramos, Kathleen Sadaat and others, followed along behind the OCA, organizing the opposition into what became the Rural Organizing Project, like Dorothy following the yellow brick road.

Those are the basic facts, but what they don’t describe is the shock, the confusion, and the fear that this seemingly sudden emergence of a sophisticated, powerful reactionary movement sowed among Oregon progressives. This was Oregon, with an undeserved reputation for progressive politics, environmentalism, liberalism. The last time the ballot measure – a tool developed by an earlier generation of progressives – had been used was to stop the spread of nuclear power. That the OCA came so close to victory in 1992, and later in 1993, that it succeeded in passing numerous local resolutions that had to be overturned in court, was profoundly disruptive. Urban progressives were seemingly clueless, and responded with characteristic snarkiness. Those of us who lived in small-town, rural, and frontier communities, however, did not have the luxury to be sarcastic.

Rural anti-OCA organizers received a wave of threatening phone calls and messages. People had confederate flags delivered to their front doors. Allied churches that provided such necessary support were vandalized. What was perhaps the most frightening development, from a small-town aspect, was the support that the anti-gay measures garnered from various elected officials and from many local newspapers. In communities where there were few local media sources, and where town government commanded general respect, the overt support for intolerance from respected figures had a profoundly isolating effect on the pro-LGBT movement.

As the general atmosphere soured and became more and more tense, unstable elements came to the surface. On September 26, 1992, skinheads firebombed a basement apartment in Salem where a community of multi-racial LGBT activists lived. Hattie May Cohens and Brian H. Mock lost their lives.

In December 1995, Roxanne Ellis and Michelle Abdill were kidnapped and murdered by a psychopath in Medford. Roxanne and Michelle had been very visibly involved in fighting Measure 9 in ‘92, and then the local anti-gay ballot measure in ’93, and the last statewide anti-gay ballot Measure 13 in ’94. Their killer later admitted that that he selected his victims because of their high profiles as lesbians in the community. These murders were cited by then-US Senator Gordon Smith, a Republican, in a successful drive to add sexual orientation to Federal Hate Crimes legislation.

It’s very important to understand how the atmosphere of hatred was successfully countered in this period. Instead of reacting to intimidation with silence, every instance of intolerance was countered by very vocal protest. It took great courage for local activists to stand up at town council meetings and county boards to call out local officials who were misusing their public offices to further hate. Likewise, confronting editors with dozens of letters of protest meant taking public steps beyond the protection of anonymity. The importance of PFLAG – Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays – cannot be overstated. By publicly coming out in support of gay family and friends, PFLAG allowed the greater community to realize that LGBT folks were neighbors.

There was a 1992 March Against Hate, from Eugene to Portland, where queer activists and supporters were publicly greeted by Oregon’s farmworker union PCUN, and hosted at their Woodburn headquarters, an immensely brave act by PCUN that went far to destroy the wedge the OCA was trying to drive between the LGBT community and the Latino community.

After the murder of Roxanne Ellis and Michelle Abdill, the ROP organized a dozen Not In Our Town events across the state, attended by thousands of people. We showed the movie Not In Our Town, about a small town in Montana that countered the fear-based tactics of neo-nazis trying set up shop with a campaign that featured education, protest, and the public display of hundreds of Not In Our Town posters in store and home windows.

At the ROP’s Not In Our Town events, we used the movie to draw parallels between what had happened in Montana and the atmosphere of hate in Oregon. These local events greatly increased the support for local human dignity groups.

ROP also worked with the Anne Frank Center to help local Human Dignity Groups to sponsor the Anne Frank exhibit. Telling the story of the Holocaust, through the diary of Dutch teenager Anne Frank, the exhibit provided an opportunity for public discussion about the dangers of designating any segment of the community as “the other”.

There was no victory parade to signal the final defeat of bigotry in the 1990’s. However, by going public in organized ways, consistently, whenever threats emerged, and regardless of whether we won or lost at the ballot box, we eventually did turn the tide on anti-LGBT politics. By forcing people who supported anti-gay laws to publicly defend themselves, while demonstrating that the LGBT community and allies were members of the community who were not going to sit back and take it, I believe that a change of heart occurred – maybe not with everyone, but with enough people that this particular issue lost some of its volatile power. However, given the ongoing crisis atmosphere, we were never able to get to the root causes that generated the upsurge in reactionary anti-gay politics, and importantly, continue to generate the anger that has led to the current militia activity that burst into public view during the Malheur occupation.

You cannot understand 1992, or 2016, without understanding 1982. That’s when the great post-WWII middle-class US economic system T-boned into a wall in the worst recession in 50 years. What brought that on? The combination of massive military spending on the Vietnam War, two huge oil shocks as OPEC nations shut off oil exports to the US in protest of our Israel policy, and our support for the Shah of Iran resulted in unprecedented inflation in the late 1970’s. To reign in inflation, Fed Chairman Paul Volker, with approval of the new Reagan administration, raised interest rates massively. By 1982, interest rates were almost 20%. All construction, everywhere, came to a crashing halt. Oregon’s timber industry was decimated. Widespread unemployment devastated families, but it did bring inflation down. The national economy slowly recovered. A new stock market/housing/tech bubble developed, fueled by easy financing. But the timber industry, like the greater American manufacturing sector, was never the same. Mergers and hostile takeovers continued to shrink the timber industry, along with new technology that allowed corporations like Georgia Pacific, Louisiana Pacific, and others to move production to the un-unionized American South.

Towards the end of the ‘80s some environmentalists won a federal court decision to protect the last stands of old growth timber. While the generalized destruction of Oregon timber was never explained to the victims – neither by government, Democrat or Republican, or by the ridiculous thing we call the media – the so-called “Spotted Owl” decision was jumped on with both feet, even though the real damage had been done by the corporations, speculators, and the economic policies of political enablers.

By the beginning of the 1990’s there was intense cultural hate in rural Oregon against what was perceived as urban, elite environmentalists. And urban Oregon was booming again as the tech bubble grew. Meanwhile, our small timber-dependent towns had already endured over a decade of recession. Keep in mind that the Great Depression only lasted about a decade. But there was no Franklin Roosevelt for rural Oregon now. People were advised to open coffee shops and tourist facilities, or move out. Families were coming under significant stress, as documented by the alarming rise of domestic violence, drug abuse, and the dropout rate. Under these social conditions, it was no surprise that the so-called “pro-family” OCA could get a hearing with their analysis: that families were breaking down because of the rise of feminism and the “Gay Agenda” which destroyed traditional family values.

Behind the fundamentalist “moral” politics, and in tandem with it, a right-wing anti-tax movement attacked the progressive property tax structure. Initiatives for property tax cuts were successful, especially with hard-pressed working class homeowners. But they were classic bait and switch – where the largest property owners in the state, corporations, saw their tax bills slashed, while homeowners barely kept even – and suddenly there was a crisis in social services and school funding for already hard-pressed towns and counties to cope with. In Christian Voter guides of the period, which were distributed by the tens of thousands, so-called “moral” values and anti-tax policies were lumped together as “pro-family”.

So that’s the story of the Nineties. I leave it to you to decide if a great awakening occurred that helped to revive rural culture, initiate a green economy, reign-in the speculation that lays more and more debt on communities and individuals, rebuild the social safety nets, schools, and libraries, build affordable housing, provide medical care for all. Oh wait – that didn’t happen.

The anti-gay pogrom has sort of run out of steam, but in its place we have an even more alarming movement, one that plays with guns instead of ballot measures.

Finally, what I just described is not unprecedented. It is the pattern for our state, and for the USA. The first economic shock began in 1804 with the violent expropriation of native people and their lands to create a whites-only State. After that, the great-grandchildren of the expropriators and the European immigrants who followed were themselves expropriated as the economy self-destructed in the Great Depression. This time, banks and debt replaced bayonets and bullets, but the rural economy was destroyed just the same. The New Deal recovery significantly left farm workers out of its protections, as a political sop to segregationist Southern politicians and western growers. As white workers climbed into the middle class after WWII, farm workers remained in the Great Depression. Native people remained in the Great Dispossession. And now the rural white working class has entered its own dispossession, after what is almost 30 years of recession.

So who speaks for rural Oregon? Is it a white man in a cowboy hat at an occupied wildlife refuge, speaking about restoring a fairy-tale version of history?

Is it the agitators who try to pit low-wage US citizen workers against low-wage immigrant workers, like crabs in a bucket?

The rise of the militia and anti-immigrant movements proves that the victims of economic disruption still don’t understand the root causes. We need to take a page from the organizing in the ‘90’s and finally raise economic consciousness, like we did social consciousness. We need to publicly challenge the idea that giving some big ranchers federal land will solve the problem of people losing their homes to foreclosure and rent hikes. We need to show why people working for minimum wage, living in their cars, going to Pay Day Loan joints to make it through the month, those are not just natural facts of life, or personal failings, but the end result of policies that support an economy where a few folks enjoy boom times while more and more of us fall through the cracks.

If not now, when? If not us, who?

Mike Edera, long-time human dignity group leader and rockstar ROP volunteer
Rural Organizing Project – Rural Caucus & Strategy Session Keynote
Saturday, May 14, 2016

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