A Review of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland

"Every time I've compromised, I've lost."

Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank, eds., Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, (AK Press, 2008)

Red State Rebels is a collection of essays about a broad cross-section of activists, malcontents, and nonconformists living in what coastal liberals too often write off as “flyover country.” As editors Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank write in their introduction, “This book offers 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.”

This resistance should inspire readers to think about how to take important stands right now, wherever they are.

St. Clair, a veteran radical journalist and the co-editor of the online and print journal Counterpunch, is represented in each of the book’s five sections on different regions of the country: “Flatlanders,” “Mountain Folk,” “Desert Rats,” “Indian Country,” and “Southlanders.” (There is also a “Coda” on secessionist movements by Kirkpatrick Sale.) A few of St. Clair’s beautifully written pieces also appear in his excellent new book Born Under a Bad Sky, with good reason, given how much overlooked or suppressed information he packs into his reportage. An early, and too often unheeded, critic of the Clinton Administration’s pro-corporate environmental record, St. Clair’s position on the mining and logging industries can perhaps best be summed up by a 1994 quote from Sierra Club co-founder (and St. Clair mentor) David Brower which begins a chapter on the Wilderness Society’s collusion with multinational timber companies in Idaho:

Every time I’ve compromised, I’ve lost. When I held firm I won. The problem with too many environmentalists today is that they are trying to write the compromise instead of letting those we pay to compromise do it. They think they get power by taking people to lunch or being taken to lunch, when in reality they are only being taken.

Frank writes about environmental struggles in Colorado and Montana, and interviews southern writer/activist Joe Bageant and indigenous provocateur/dissident academic Ward Churchill.

In addition to St. Clair and Frank, the other authors comprise a broad spectrum of voices not featured in the typical exchanges of conventional wisdom by well-to-do white men on CNN.

Like several other contributors, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (author of the compelling memoir Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie) argues against standard demographic divides popularly used to delineate conservative and liberal states. Calling herself a “recovering Southern Baptist,” Dunbar-Ortiz argues for a renewed left political focus on small farming and non-exploitative land use:

embracing the agrarian question changes our perspective on historical issues, such as our understanding of settler-colonialism as the basis of forming capitalism in the United States, as the basis for genocide.

Dunbar-Ortiz also rightly notes that “the so-called immigration issue (…) is, after all, an agrarian question.” The entry of U.S.-subsidized corn and other produce into their country via the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Bill Clinton’s gift to this continent’s largest corporations, has made it much harder for Mexico’s small farmers to survive. Not surprisingly, many come to the U.S. any way they can to do back-breaking work for sub-minimum wages. Dispatches from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border show some of the human costs of this desperate migration of workers. An Arizona public defender tells writers Eric Ruder and Justin Akers Chacon, “once in court, the ‘criminal alien’ is not a person, but a commodity,” and describes two migrant clients who were healthy when arrested but died in prison. This situation has not only created massive profits for labor-exploiting agribusinesses: Lockheed, Northrop-Grumman, and Raytheon are competing for a $2.5 billion contract to create a state of the art militarized border fence.

St. Clair is keenly aware of the ecological toll exacted by the U.S. military. He writes, “the day to day operations of the military-industrial complex itself – weapons production and testing – amount to the most toxic industry on the planet, as a trip to the poisoned wastelands of Hanford, Fallon, Nevada, or Rocky Flats will readily reveal.” The book looks at a variety of grassroots anti-war actions, from the progressive lawyer Bill Quigley’s account of nonviolent civil disobedience committed by the “Weapons of Mass Destruction Here Plowshares” group at an intercontinental nuclear missile launching facility in North Dakota to reporting on Iraq war protests less likely to draw prison time in Alabama and Kentucky.

At the San Francisco book launch for Red State Rebels, widely respected Bay Area housing rights activist James Tracy called this collection “one of the most important books of the past two years.” Tracy argued that chief among its lessons were that “the Democrats ain’t going to save us.”

Indeed, the voices in the book call out for engagement on many fronts, and to stop thinking about politics as a spectator sport which inevitably involves cheering major party candidates from the bleachers and then going home to hope for the best. The book’s account of two activists who spearheaded a campaign which eventually led the huge company Newmont Mining to abandon plans to mine for gold in Oregon is just one example of what determined people can achieve. Another is Jordan Flaherty’s chapter on New Orleans Katrina survivors sick of abandonment by the Federal Government organizing to stand up for their rights.

Tracy is right to emphasize the importance of this book, for all the voices here need to be heard. And, obviously, time is tight. Settling for equivocation and platitudes from politicians won’t cut it. Western Shoshone elder Carie Dann hits the nail on the head when she writes, in one of this volume’s most powerful essays, “I remember one time my grandmother said to me, ‘Hey, you’re not that important. It’s the future generation you have to think about. You have to think about the babies that are not here yet.’”

Ben Terrall is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Counterpunch, Lip Magazine, and other publications. He can be reached at: bterrall@igc.org. Read other articles by Ben, or visit Ben's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on November 24th, 2008 at 8:43am #

    i am not happy over noting that no protest had ever even deterred a war let alone prevented or stopped, once under way.
    and especially not wars of a powerful empire like US.
    that does not mean that a very large protest directed against media/advertising/middle class/churches or even some companies wld not bring some or much good.
    am i mistaken in saying that all+ churhes, advertisers, midclassians support all? wars.
    so, forget for now directing protests at the ruling class; instead, hurt econo-politically the low and lower classes. thnx

  2. Michael said on November 26th, 2008 at 11:07am #

    Red States Rebels is full of great essays. The Red Dirt one by Dunbar-Ortiz mentioned in the review is exceptional, as is the interview with Joe Bageant and the Carie Dann one.

    The examples of activists being effective is rather heartening given the usual conditioned failure of our movements.

    The recent election confirms the prescience of the editors.