A detailed look at a secessionist movement, and Oregon’s progressive utopia
Several months ago I decided that in addition to our blog, I was going to do some freelance writing for other publications. Today, I would like to share an excerpt of an article I did for a print and online magazine called The Culture Crush. Following the excerpt, I will include links to the full article, as well as other links associated with my piece. But first, I need to provide some brief background and context.
As we all know, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 dramatically magnified the already deep divisions we have been experiencing in our country. Since moving to Oregon in 2016, I learned some things about this state that I hadn’t known previously. For one, the state has a deep and troubling history of white nationalism and militias, that date back to the founding of the State 160 years ago. This seemed to be in direct contradiction to my overall belief that the state was primarily progressive in nature, having become a reliably ‘blue’ state in most of the recent elections.
It’s this contradiction that inspired me to write the piece for The Culture Crush. Much of the focus centers around a secessionist movement that I learned about, called The State of Jefferson. I had noticed flags placed strategically throughout the rural areas and had wondered what the meaning was behind it.
I set out to get a better understanding, and pitched an idea to the magazine that would take a deeper look into the movement, and how it contradicts with the so-called liberal and progressive ideals that many associate with the state of Oregon. What you see here is my contribution to what eventually became a comprehensive project, with photos, video, and interviews. Initially, this was to be an essay only, released as part of the magazines ‘The Weekly’ edition online. However, as the weeks went on, the essay ended up taking a dramatic turn.
And here is where I’d like to recognize two people who made this possible. It was the founder and editor of the magazine, Debra Scherer, who not only decided to publish my piece, but had the vision and fortitude to make it something much bigger. Debra, who spent nearly three decades as the fashion and features editor at Vogue Magazine, started The Culture Crush in January, 2018. I’m proud to have been able to work with her on this project, and her patience and creativity never ceased to amaze me.
Finally, I’d like to also thank Josue’ Rivas, a wonderful young man and talented photojournalist, who I collaborated with to make this project come to life. The photos you see here today, are all courtesy of Josue’, and you can also see more of his outstanding work at josuerivasfoto.com.
Here is the excerpt, followed by links to the full article and entire project.
The Pacific Northwest. The bastion of progressive thought. Land of Subaru-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, dope-smoking environmentalists. A place where all are welcome regardless of race, color, or religious identification. A region where it’s all about what’s best for all of us; not just the rich, white and powerful. A sort of utopian-progressivism that our hippie friends from the 1960’s would be proud of.
Ok, maybe not.
It’s complicated. While there certainly are elements of the aforementioned progressiveness here, just like in much of America, it’s a lot more nuanced. We hear all of the time about how certain areas of the country are branded with labels: The Deep South Bible Belt, The Northeast Liberal Elitists, The Midwest Rust Belt, The Left Coast Libs, and so on. In a sense, we get a mental picture of a region, thanks in part to our media branding, because well, it’s what they do best.
But it’s kind of like eating an apple. You grab it and start eating. Eventually, you get to the core. But once you get there, you find something totally different than what you just consumed. It’s no different when you take a look at a city or a region of the country. We may think we know what it’s all about, but we really don’t. We can’t say that all people who live in the Pacific Northwest are a bunch of left-wing nut cases, just as we can’t say all people who live in the Deep South are right-wing racists. So while we make certain assumptions about that last stop towards Manifest Destiny that is one of the most beautiful places in the continental United States, its real founding story remains an ominous cloud that even the most inclusively minded hipster cafes can’t escape from.
The complexities of American society continue to confound us. We’re divided. We’re angry. We see progress on some fronts—backtracking on others. On the one hand, in 2008 we elected the first African-American to the office of President of the United States. On the other, in 2016, we elected a real-estate developer/b-list reality show star who found a way to seize upon the racial fears and anti-immigrant fervor that had been boiling over in middle-America. In the Pacific Northwest, we see both sides of the coin playing out. We do see progress. But we also see exclusion. While it’s a dichotomy that regularly plays out throughout American society, there’s something about this region that sets it apart from the rest. Once you start looking at the true history of the region, a narrative begins to develop.
Oregon for one, has a past that if you didn’t know any better, could be compared to a state from the Jim Crow Deep South. There’s a history of racism, a history of not being kind to either blacks or immigrants, mixed with a settler’s erasure of its own role in Indigenous genocide. And of course there’s also a deep mistrust and animosity towards the federal government. Militias and white supremacy groups have called this region home for generations. According to The New York Times, over 300 of these groups have operated here since the mid 1850’s.
But there’s also a progressive spirit that emanates from Portland, Oregon’s largest and most culturally diverse city in the state. It’s the hub of economic activity. While Salem is the state capital, there’s no doubt that the real power in the state resides in Portland. Most of the legislation coming out of Salem surely has the blessing of it’s large neighbor to the North. Thus, those in rural Oregon feel abandoned and kicked to the curb. It’s a clash of cultures, a clash that’s been going on as long as Oregon has been a state. Yet the hypocrisy of those progressives casts a shadow that even the most suped up VW van can’t shake.
We cannot understate something else occurring out there, as well as in other parts of the country; there’s a sense of fear; the same fear that drove many to vote for the conman in chief—that the era of white dominance over American society is fast approaching its inevitable conclusion. Eventually, the demographic experts tell us, white people will no longer be in the majority. Ironically, as it once was. In California, this is already the case. Fear of the ‘other’ people is what drives many of the red-hat wearing Trump voters. The same ones who cram auditoriums to hear the conman tell everyone that there are caravans of very bad people ‘invading’ America. It’s getting ugly. Fear breeds exclusion. It’s in America’s history. Certainly, Oregon is no different.
Some of that fear has undoubtedly fueled a current movement brewing in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a secessionist movement to create a 51st state called the State of Jefferson, in which 23 counties in Northern California would merge with 4 counties in Southern Oregon to create a state of its own. But again though, let’s not forget how Oregon and this region has embraced progressiveness either. After all, in 2012 Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana. Oregon quickly followed in 2014. Some of the same independence and individualism that has spurred exclusionary policies in the past have also fueled the movement to make weed legal.
It’s purely American isn’t it? Two steps forward, one step back. We elect the first black man as President, then we follow that up with the election of a man who spent a good portion of Barack Obama’s two terms questioning his legitimacy and citizenship. We pass the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which gave protections to African-Americans and placed scrutiny on Jim Crow Southern states, followed in 2013 with the Supreme Court decision that basically gutted the act. Progress, followed by regression. Inclusion, followed by exclusion. Our continued quest to form a more perfect union keeps falling short.
But what is the State of Jefferson movement and what do they hope to achieve? It depends on who you ask. The State of Jefferson is not a new concept. Back in the 1850’s, when California and Oregon were still territories but moving toward eventual statehood, there were efforts made to carve up parts of Oregon and California in order to form a new state. An actual bill was introduced in the California State Legislature in 1852 to do just that but it died in committee and was never acted upon. Even back then, residents felt abandoned and screwed over by the state capitals of Sacramento and Salem, and that attitude still resonates in present day rural Oregon.
Today, the State of Jefferson movement is alive and well. In 2013, Siskiyou County California resident Mark Baird, a Vietnam Veteran and airplane pilot, decided to test the waters and see how residents of the area felt about a possible new 51st state. According to its website, 21 of 23 Northern California counties have signed so-called field declarations stating the desire to secede from California and form a separate state. Four additional counties in Southern Oregon are also contemplating whether to join those California counties in the proposed new state. Now that’s not as crazy as it sounds, due to the fact that it has happened before, and led to the formation of a few states we now know and love. To quote the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page:
No State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate,” declares Article V of the Constitution, which lays out the amendment process. A Californian has only 1/65th the representation of a Wyoming resident in the upper chamber. That’s undemocratic, but there’s no way around Article V. Or is there? Article IV provides that “new States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union”—including from the territory of an existing state, if its legislature consents. Five states were created in this manner: Vermont from New York (1791), Kentucky from Virginia (1792), Tennessee from North Carolina (1796), Maine from Massachusetts (1820) and West Virginia from Virginia (1863).”
Of course there’s been some debate as to whether the State of Jefferson is anything other than a bunch of white people trying to create their own version of a Libertarian utopia. According to Baird, the primary spokesman, juris coordinator and historical researcher of the organization, that’s just not the case. In fact, when asked if his organization is Libertarian, he answered with an emphatic “No.” And when asked if his movement is associated with white nationalism, he was even more forceful.
To read the rest of this article, here is the link
There is also a very moving nearly 8 minute video that Josue’, my photojournalist friend, has produced, and Debra Scherer edited. Much of if this content was produced when Josue’ and I spent the day together traveling in my car to Yreka, CA and Cave Junction, OR. He narrates the piece, and his perspective as an indigenous person going through lands in which his ancestors were systematically slaughtered and conquered, was an eye-opening experience I will never forget. Here is that link.
Finally, here is another link that also features an essay from Josue’, who reflects on some of the same themes from my piece, as well as his perspective on living in Portland.
I hope you’ll take the time to check out the rest of my article, as well as the entire project. The subject matter, at times, is very troubling. But these are the times we live in. If we do not talk about these issues, we’re never going to move forward. The resistance to progress is always fierce. Change is hard. But America isn’t finished yet. At least I hope it isn’t.
If we can shed some light on what divides us, perhaps we can understand each other a little bit better. That was my goal when I wrote the article. I hope I at least achieved some of that. If I didn’t? It was still worth it.