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Dont Tread On me

Don’t Tread On Me

written by Jeff Marzick
photographs by Josué Rivas

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.

Josué Rivas

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 nutcases, 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.

Josué Rivas

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.

Josué Rivas

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:

Josué Rivas

‘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. 

“That always comes up in these conversations. And when these articles come out, it’s always about the ‘largely white rural North.’ Look, when people lie they have their own reasons and purposes. Personally, I’ve spent the last 30 years flying all over the world, to pretty much every continent and every country. I have friends and acquaintances in all of them and they have more colors than the rainbow has. Listen, I don’t think that way and I’ve never thought that way. In fact, I don’t know anyone who feels that way. We are trying to secure liberty for everybody no matter who you are or what you believe.”

But what the State of Jefferson really is about, according to Baird, is a lack of representation from the state capital. “At what point do the people say that representation is inadequate? Is it right that one legislator should represent one million people? If it is, what about one legislator for five million, or even ten million? I mean, the population is growing. Or, do we do what Thomas Paine said, which was if the colony grows in size, so too should the representation. So that all colonies are represented and legislators don’t form agendas different from those who elected them. And that’s exactly what were asking the courts to decide, as well as the people.”

Josué Rivas

Indeed, there is a lawsuit working its way through the courts. It was filed by the Citizens for Fair Representation against the State of California for lack of representation and dilution of votes. Baird hopes that eventually the suit makes it to the Supreme Court because “in our view, they are the least corrupted court in the country.”

To get an even better sense of what the SOJ movement is all about, there’s no place better than Yreka, Ca. In 1941, there was a rebellion by a group of young men brandishing hunting rifles just south of Yreka in which they handed out copies of a Proclamation of Independence, stating that the SOJ was in “patriotic rebellion against the States of California and Oregon.” It was in this original proposal that Yreka was named the provisional capital of the proposed 51st state.

So Yreka is a place where SOJ blood runs deep. Sitting approximately 15 miles south of the Oregon border, the views from Interstate 5 are breathtaking. The snow-capped Siskiyou Mountains are lurking above, with rolling fields of open land lingering below. Soon though, you get a sense of what the area is all about when a couple of signs sitting on a hilltop hit you like a ton of bricks: DEFUND PLANNED PARENTHOOD, and NO MONUMENT.

Well, the first sign is pretty straight forward. But NO MONUMENT? Maybe John Lisle, the owner and operator of The Palace Barber Shop on Miner Street in Downtown Yreka can shed some light. Downtown Yreka is a throwback to a different time. In many ways it’s not much different to what you may have seen on the old Gunsmoke television series;  a historic quintessential Western town with old brick buildings and trees lining Miner Street, along with the mountains as a scenic backdrop. John’s barbershop sits downstairs below the Franco American Hotel—with the old fashioned barber pole attached to the front of the building.

Entering the shop, besides the stuffed elk and deer heads surrounding the interior, you can’t help but notice the SOJ memorabilia and pro firearms signage hanging on the wall. There are brochures and maps on display, free to anyone who might be interested. John’s an affable guy with a welcoming smile. Sitting in his chair after sweeping up the clippings from the previous customer, John expresses his allegiance to the SOJ movement. And, echoing what Mark Baird had said, it’s all about the representation, or lack thereof. Sacramento isn’t listening. They want and need to be heard. He hopes the current case making its way through the system is successful for the SOJ. “Hope springs eternal,” he says.

Josué Rivas

But while Sacramento certainly has his wrath, there’s an overwhelming sense that the federal government is equally to blame. When asked about the NO MOUNUMENT sign along the freeway, John explained that the MONUMENT refers to efforts by the federal government to expand thousands of acres of protection to the lands surrounding Yreka and parts of Oregon. He feels this is an intrusion and overreach by the government, severely restricting land owners from buying and selling property, access to drilling and mining resources, as well as limiting fishing and hunting opportunities.  In other words, this land is your land, but really, this land is my land. And these disputes are nothing new for the people of rural America, especially in the rugged Western portion of the country. They just don’t like the government, state or federal. While John clearly stated that he loves the United States of America, and wants no part of seceding from it, the 51st state would be to him, an act wholeheartedly in accordance and compliance with the U.S. Constitution.

So the town of Yreka is squarely behind the SOJ movement. You can’t escape it. Even the museum on Main Street has joined the party. Upon entering, the first the thing you see is an actual gold plated pan stamped with the SOJ seal, a pan that pays homage to the days of prospecting back in the day. Also, there’s a small gift shop where you can buy your favorite SOJ t-shirt, sweatshirt—or coffee mug. But with such widespread acceptance of SOJ here, is it all really about lack of representation, or is there something else going on?

Josué Rivas

While Mark Baird and John the barber seem genuine in their desire for more representation, once you dig deeper into SOJ, some of the very reasons of its existence become less clear. And troubling. A quick check at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website does not show SOJ as a hate group. However, it’s not that simple. According to SPLC, there are members within SOJ who adhere to an anti-government philosophy. And, there are other anti-government groups that have endorsed SOJ in the past; groups such as the Three Percent, and the closely related Oath Keepers – a group comprised primarily of military veterans, law enforcement, and emergency first responders.

The SPLC also flags a gentleman by the name of Jim Mark, who proclaims himself to be the Jefferson State Militia leader. Indeed, a website affiliated with the group aims to organize citizens, who “promise to defend and observe the Constitutional liberties embodied in the Bill of Rights for all American citizens by example, persuasion, and force of arms if necessary.” It goes on to implore those who join the militia to “never willfully betray the Militia’s principles, members, or tactics.” Near the middle of the page, the yellow and gold seal of The Great Seal of State of Jefferson is displayed, the same seal displayed on SOJ’s website, as well as throughout many rural Oregon and Northern California communities.

Baird himself denies knowing of the Jefferson State Militia, but as the SPLC points out, his organization lists “state militia” as one of its formation groups. Regardless, it’s pretty clear that many of the so-called white nationalist groups, as well as right-wing militia movements around the country feel that the SOJ’s goals and aspirations are in alignment with their own.

Josué Rivas

But funny enough, the SOJ is not alone in trying to create a 51st state. Another Pacific Northwest state, Washington, has it’s own movement going on. Spearheaded by conspiracy theorist and Washington State Representative Matt Shea, the movement aims to split Washington in two, to set apart Republican red from Democrat blue. Shea’s proposed new state would be called Liberty. The thing about Shea is that he doesn’t beat around the bush as to why he wants the new state: “We want to divide Eastern Washington from Western Washington for a multitude of reasons; political differences, economic differences, and some even say a bit of differences in faith.” And sure enough, Shea is also on the radar of SPLC for his outspoken support for an anti-Muslim hate group called ACT, in which he organized a chapter to be based in Spokane, “Liberty.” The fact Shea has a platform as an elected legislator in the State House of Representatives makes his racist declarations all the more frightening.

Once again, we can’t label all the people in these movements as simply hate-mongering racists, can we? No, there are some, like Mark Baird and others who do believe lack of representation from their governments is both unfair and illegal. We can’t get inside their hearts to know otherwise. But, the reality is that the rise of hate groups can’t be minimized either. Obama’s election in 2008 saw a precipitous rise in these type of groups, with 1,018 being the high-water mark, reached in 2011. After a noticeable decline over the next few years, the rise in those groups has been on a troubling uptick since Donald Trump started running for president in 2015.

Here we go again.

But hey, all is not lost. Out of darkness comes light. Yes, even with the proverbial shit hitting the fan on a daily basis, America remains resilient. We move forward. It’s still hard to believe that in 2019 we now have 10 states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use. In total, 33 states and Washington, D.C have either legal recreational weed and/or weed for medicinal purposes.

Historically, Western states have led the charge when it comes to progressive thinking as it relates to marijuana. For example, Oregon became the first state, in 1973, to decriminalize marijuana. The Oregon Decriminalization Bill of 1973 abolished criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. And they did this at a time when only a few years earlier, Richard Nixon had declared a war on drugs and Nancy Reagan unleashed her silly “just say no” campaign not long after that. And now, 45 years later, recreational marijuana is legal in Oregon. Those of us who were alive back in those days would have been committed to the insane asylum if we were to suggest that one day we’d able to go into a store, show your ID and purchase safe and regulated marijuana. The idea was as far away into the distance as Pluto is to the earth. Yet, here we are. Is it any wonder that two Western states were the first to legalize recreational use? 

In 2012, Washington and Colorado were the first to pass ballot initiatives. Not long after, Oregon followed suit. But Oregon was also one of the first states to legalize weed for medicinal purposes in 1998, following California passing it’s initiative in 1996. Other states in 1998 that passed initiatives for medical marijuana were Washington, Nevada, Alaska, and Washington, D.C. Again, Western states led the charge.

In essence, legal weed seems to be working out okay here. You never see any protests in front of the dispensaries. Oh sure, an occasional editorial from a disgruntled resident may show up in the local newspaper, but other than that, there’s just not much opposition. While some may object to it due to morality concerns, they certainly aren’t too vocal about it.

To be sure, not everyone is on board with legal weed. You still have naysayers. And, it’s only been a few years now where recreational weed has been legal. We don’t have a comprehensive study as of yet that has analyzed the effects, either pro or con on legal weed. But, anecdotally we do have some idea. While we used to hear about how the world would come to an end if weed ever became legal, there’s just not much evidence to suggest such mayhem. It’s being implemented … and people are making money. According to Arcview, a California-based firm that tracks the legal marijuana industry, legal marijuana is expected to become a $23 billion industry by 2022. In our capitalistic society, even staunch conservatives can get on board with that. The bottom line though is that the weed train has left the station. When there’s billions of dollars to be made, at some point Congress will have to act. It seems like it’s not a matter of if, but when. If you live in America, and you keep hoping for progress, patience is a necessity. As with much of democracy itself … it’s messy.

Josué Rivas

So, let’s be honest. America is clearly divided. Not just along political lines, but culturally, demographically and on so many other issues. But even out here on the so-called Left-Coast, we can find commonality. Who would have thought that a reliably conservative rural Oregon could embrace a progressive movement such as marijuana legalization … the same reliably conservative area that currently has four counties trying to join 23 counties in Northern California in a bid to create it’s own state? Really, it’s not as surprising as you would think.

In Cave Junction, Oregon, a small town of less than 2,000 people in Josephine County, the divisions are certainly here. But while there are certainly those in this town who identify positively with the SOJ movement, they live alongside those who do not. How is this possible? Entering the town heading South on the Redwood Highway 199, there’s nothing that really jumps out at you, except of course the overwhelming aroma of cannabis you encounter just a few miles north and south of town. The fact is, Cave Junction is surrounded by growers—weed growers, and they’re distinguished by large wooden fences, which are required by law so as not to be able to see the growing operation.

It’s a quaint town with only 4 stoplights. Blink your eyes a couple of times and your out of the town in less than two minutes. There’s a Subway here, a Grocery Outlet chain store, and a Shop Smart grocery store as well. A few restaurants, coffee shops, pizza places and two dispensaries which dot both sides of the road. One of the most popular restaurants in town is Taylor’s Sausage. This is always a place where the people come to eat, people watch, and kick back with a beer and a home-made sausage sandwich. Taylor’s is a place where you really get a sense of the free-spirit that defines Cave Junction.

Josué Rivas

Cassandra, a twenty something hippie type with a Humboldt County, Ca sweatshirt is here. She says she’s passing through and has been in Cave Junction for about a week. Sometimes she comes to the town to make some money trimming cannabis plants. This time it’s not clear why she’s here. But when asked if she’s had any issues with any SOJ or MAGA wearing hat people in town, she said they don’t bother her, and she doesn’t have a problem with them. “People here just seem to go with the flow and let people do what they want. It’s a pretty welcoming town really. I see the pick-up trucks with Trump stickers and stuff, but they come in here to eat and whatever, so it’s just not really an issue.” Cassandra recommended a health food store across the street as a real cool place where many of the local stoners like to hang out and participate in open mic nights.

The Diggin’ Livin’ Natural Foods and Farm Store was exactly how Cassandra had described it. In fact, if you didn’t know any better, you’d think that you had traveled back in time to the Haight-Ashbury District in San Francisco during the Summer of Love in 1967. Outside, a group of hippies were gathered around smoking weed, drinking beer, and bantering about some of the current crop. Inside, there was a guy playing bongos and singing. At the check-out counter was the owner and operator of the store, Joy Mcewan.

If you want to meet someone who is passionate about her work, Joy would be first on the list. She and her husband are beekeepers and the honey they produce is proudly displayed throughout the store. She’s proud of the honey they produce and her blue eyes sparkle with delight when talking about it’s medicinal benefits.

But what really sets Joy apart even more is her desire to bring people together through her store and the natural foods she sells, most of which are grown locally in the area. In her store, she sees all types of people, including those who back the SOJ movement and Trump supporters. To her, it doesn’t matter. It’s all about the food and her honey. According to Joy, we’re all human beings and food especially, is the one thing that can bring us altogether. Until it can’t.

Josué Rivas

And, to further emphasize the fault lines that exist in Oregon and elsewhere in rural America, Joy brought up the fact that Congress recently added thousands of acres of protection to the Illinois River Valley area, that pesky NO MONUMENT issue, which includes Cave Junction. But, contrary to how John from Yreka felt, she fully embraced the additional protections. In her eyes, why would we not want to protect the pristine water, clean air, and fragile ecosystem for future generations? To Joy, it’s a slam-dunk. To John from Yreka, it’s an intrusion and overreach into their lives by an out of control federal government. Is it any wonder why we’re so divided?

While we can’t ignore the racist tendencies of the past, those same tendencies that has at times allowed certain hate groups and militias to flourish here, we also cannot ignore the trail-blazing progressiveness exemplified by its residents in voting to legalize recreational weed. And when you couple that with the fact that Oregon became the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide through a ballot initiative in 1994, you can see that people here aren’t afraid to tackle issues that other Americans can’t always agree on. Though issues like homelessness, police brutality, gentrification, violence against marginalized groups and people of color are easy to overlook when the weed is legal and the honey is so sweet. 

The movements to secede out here are troubling. We know what their grievances are. Many of them feel a sense of betrayal from those in power. People in the SOJ movement have their reasons. Some, like spokesmen Mark Baird feel that the lack of representation is an affront to our (his) Constitution. Perhaps the courts will weigh in at some point. But clearly, others just don’t like what’s happening to their version of America. The melting pot is boiling over for them, and creating their own little utopian state, with like-minded and like-colored people, is paramount to letting them live in an America they once knew and loved, though it probably never existed in the first place.

Josué Rivas

It’s a shame really. People died trying to get voting rights and civil rights. Blood was spilled in the streets. Yet, we still have a resistance to progress. We still have people who love the past and yearn for it. Sometimes America disappoints. Sometimes despondency and despair takes hold. But just when you think all is for naught, we see progress.

And the great Pacific Northwest embodies much of what is good and bad about America. People here are independent and proud. People here will buck the trend and do the right thing when warranted. But, the regressive and racist past is tough to let go of as well. Tribalism is alive and well out here. But that melting pot, that inclusiveness, is alive also. The Perfect Union isn’t here yet. We’ve got a long way to go.

But in typical American style, states have said enough is enough when it comes to the failed war on drugs, specifically as it relates to marijuana. Spearheaded by movements out here on the rugged Western frontier, weed is now legal. And, at least there are people like Joy from Cave Junction who believe we’re on this earth to make things better and protect that which we have inherited. She sees things through a different lens than either John from Yreka or Mark Baird from SOJ. Perhaps if we can start to see things from the perspective of others, that more perfect union will start to come into view.


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