November 1, 2021

Review: 'Gunfight, My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America'

[Cross-posted from The Daily Yonder]

By Lisa Pruitt

On the 20th anniversary of 9/11 in September, J.D. Vance tweeted a photo of himself holding his young son amidst a table of guns.  He captioned it, “Took the toddler to a gun show this morning.  Saw some amazing historical weapons, some going back to the Civil War.” 

Vance is, of course, the author of the best-selling memoir Hillbilly Elegy, now running as Republican for the U.S. Senate from Ohio. 

I found the tweet curious.  After all, Vance has told us an awful lot about himself in all that he’s written, and he’s never held himself out as an outdoorsman, hunter, or gun collector. In his memoir, Vance did mention his Papaw giving him a BB gun.  And we know Vance did a stint in the Marine Corps, but his was a desk job, in “public affairs.”    

So what gives with the kid at the gun show? 

I suspect the answer lies in what Vance wished to communicate with his tweet—and who he wished to reach.  Vance has recently taken policy positions that indicate a right-ward lurch on a range of polarizing issues.  He notoriously retracted his 2016 criticism of Trump and has been chasing Trump’s endorsement for months.  But Vance may have accomplished more with that single tweet than with all his recent op-eds and policy statements combined.  After all, few messages will reach a MAGA voter as clearly and directly as a kid at a gun show.

As I thought about Vance’s tweet, though, I realized that in a different place and time—and from a different source—I would not have recoiled from a photo of a child at a gun show any more than I would have recoiled from a photo of a child accompanying a parent on an errand to the barber shop or an outing to the county fair. 

That’s because I grew up in rural Arkansas, in a place where hunting was so common and culturally significant that school was dismissed the first two days of deer season every November.  The local newspaper regularly published photos of kids as young as 10 years with the deer they’d bagged.  I’d wager that 90% of the households in my community owned guns, all used primarily for hunting and target practice, with a spectral need for defense of home and family at back of mind.  Implicit in this culture was a healthy respect for the lethality of these tools. 

But guns have long signaled something different in rural places than in urban ones.  Just as significant, guns now signify something radically different than they did a few decades ago.  In short, guns have become highly politicized, both a cause and a symbol of our nation’s accelerating polarization.    

If you’re curious about that shifting meaning and the rural-urban rift in relation to firearms, you’ll want to read Gunfight:  My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized Americaa compelling and timely new book by Ryan Busse.   

Busse, who grew up rural in western Kansas and until last year was a gun industry executive, uses memoir as a vehicle for serving up a tell all on one of the nation’s most secretive, profitable, and powerful industries.  He takes the reader through step after increasingly painful step of how the firearms industry—effectively corralled and led by the National Rifle Association—became so mighty a force in American life and politics that many in Congress quake in their boots at the very mention of three little letters:  NRA.  

Two Factions of Gun Owners

Busse attempts to thread the needle between two broad factions of gun owners.  On the one hand are hunters and outdoors folk, the aficionados of guns like old-school, bolt-action rifles, pistols with artisan grips and such—the sorts of guns that are, or could become, family heirlooms.  The folks who own these guns are widely associated with rural America.  They’re the people I grew up with.

On the other hand are what the industry once pejoratively (and politically incorrectly) called “tactards,” those drawn to fire power, high capacity magazines, and the semi-automatic experience associated with so-called “black rifles.”  Interestingly, lots of folks also associate these guns with rural America, though no one needs a semi-automatic weapon to hunt game or to protect themselves.   

Busse is firmly in the former camp.  His love of guns and the outdoors—and his respect for both—drew him as a fresh-faced 20-something to his dream job with Kimber, a boutique manufacturer of rifles and pistols based in Kalispell, Montana.  The early rollicking pages of Gunfight exude a youthful enthusiasm. Those chapters are populated by colorful characters like Busse’s first boss at Kimber, an Aussie who ate three meals a day at the neighborhood strip club (who knew strip clubs served breakfast?) and a fellow Kimber salesman with a “world-class mullet,” a mustard-yellow pick-up, a dog named Ted Nugent (after the famously pro-gun rocker), and chronic girlfriend problems.

But as Busse climbs the corporate ladder, the gun scene in the United States shifts away from the old guard gun faction, which Busse calls “wise men,” and towards the tactards and their black rifles.  This is where the tale turns ominous—for both Busse and the nation.  There’s the bullet-proof glass erected at Kimber’s manufacturing facility to protect executives in the event a worker “goes postal.”  There are the crass jokes about a “back-to-school sale” on guns in the wake of Columbine.  Eventually, as Busse refuses to toe the industry line on politics, there are threats against him.   

This shift from old guard to tactard is illustrated well by two vignettes from Gunfight.

The before times are represented with a description of the Southwind Classic, an annual prairie dog hunt Kimber sponsored at the Kansas ranch of Busse’s youth.  The event gathered trade journalists to try the company’s wares and have a good time.  When a young writer showed up at the event in 2004 with an AR-15, the wise men of the industry 

huddled around the new kid to explain the unwritten rules of their polite gun society. … ‘Look, son “normal” people don’t use or shoot that kind of gun,’ one of them explained. … ‘We’re not like those tactards,’ someone said, referring to … fringe consumers who believed more in the rifles of militia building than the art and craftsmanship of the fine guns we were trying to sell.

Fast forward eight years to the after times.  Busse describes in chilling detail the Bushmaster XM-15 E2S Shorty AK that Adam Lanza used in the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012: “specifically designed for professional military combat in close-quarter situations … like vehicles, terrorist-filled caves, and buildings with numerous hallways and doors—building like grade schools.”  Busse details the gun’s various upgrades to establish that Lanza was “equipped with the most lethal military weaponry ever made,” thus illustrating how the industry had shifted to cater to the very tactards the old guard had shamed and shunned less than a decade earlier. 

Busse argues that fearmongering and associated pressures within the firearms industry effectively fueled not only the development of guns like Lanza’s—guns “designed to win wars through efficient mass killing”—but also the demand for them:

“Social media accounts boomed. New companies were built. Fortunes were made. Lanza and his rifles were products of it all, and when he arrived at Sandy Hook and pulled out his own black rifle, there were no norms left to break.”

Studies in contrast like this one make Gunfight a menacing account of how quickly the firearms industry changed, in a deadly feedback loop with what Busse sees as a radicalized segment of America.  But it’s impossible to say which came first, the chicken or the egg?  That is, was the firearms industry fomenting the radicalization, as Busse asserts, or was it radical, right-wing forces outside the industry that prodded firearms manufacturers down the incendiary and deadly path they are still on?

Busse’s Big Pivot

Whether the genesis of the polarizing winds was from within the industry or outside it, Busse saw the tornado taking shape on the horizon well before Sandy Hook. Busse’s big pivot—at once personal and professional—came midway through the Bush administration when he spoke out in a high-profile venue against a Bush-Cheney plan to open public lands in the West to energy exploration.  Among the places at risk was Badger-Two Medicine, Busse’s most beloved Montana hunting grounds and a place sacred to the Blackfeet tribe. 

Busse didn’t see his pro-conservation position as being at odds with his employer or his industry, explaining he was “trying to help save places so we can sell more guns.”  But his stance attracted attention from across the political spectrum because it marked him as a turncoat, “a red-meat gun executive who criticizes a Republican.”  Busse writes of being “betrayed and embarrassed” at having “been duped into believing I was part of an industry that shared the values of my childhood—much of the talk about conservation and hunting was just another ruse to get people like me into the culture war.”  

Both the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation came down on Kimber for Busse’s opposition to the Bush administration plan, and for a time, his job seemed to hang by a thread.  Yet the attention Busse garnered from his contrarian stance convinced him he could “exert an outsized impact by staying inside the industry.”  So stay he did.  By Busse’s account, he was a fly in the ointment of the firearms industry during that time, a consistent voice of moderation in the face of a freight train barreling in the direction of hate, intolerance, fear—and the attendant proliferation of military- style weapons available to anyone who wanted them.

Busse’s writing is clear, and the story thread of Gunfight is fast-paced and engaging.  He does a fine job of stitching together much of the recent history and politics of firearms in America.  But perhaps Busse’s greatest value add is having been in the room where it happened.  Busse was privy to industry decisions about marketing and re-positioning their wares to take advantage of shifting tides and emerging cultural forces. 

Among these forces was the role of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans-turned-influencers, men like Kyle Best and Mat Lamb who developed massive followings on social media and inspired wannabes that the industry called “couch commandos,”

the millions of consumers who had never fought in a war, much less joined the military, but who nonetheless considered themselves experts simply because they scrolled through the social media feeds of [influencers] like Lamb and Best, and knew how to play first-person-shooter video games from the comfort and safety of their couches.

Thanks to the demand created by consumers like these, guns in “desert tan” finish became a standard feature of new product launches. 

Other aspects of gun marketing also morphed to meet the moment’s burgeoning new consumer sectors.  Corporate leaders had previously consulted with attorneys to avoid giving guns names that might expose companies to liability on the basis that they encouraged deadly  behavior.  Thus products had long been marketed with mundane names like Kimber Custom Classic, the Remington 870, and the Smith & Wesson Model 629.  But as the industry shifted to fuel sales to the new “tactical culture,” it embraced provocative names like the Ultimate Arms Warmonger and the Combat Super Sniper AR-10.

The pages of Gunfight are replete with illustrations of the power and greed of the firearms industry.  Take the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey amendment, introduced in 2013 in the wake of Sandy Hook.  Seeing some federal gun reform as inevitable—and even a good idea—a few industry players expressed early support for the amendment, a less restrictive option than one proposed by the Obama administration.

The Manchin-Toomey amendment would have done nothing but close the loophole that permits purchasers to avoid background checks when they buy at gun shows.  That law had long been a thorn in the flesh of those seeking regulation, in part because it was that very loophole that had enabled Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to get their hands on the guns they used to kill 15 at Columbine High School in 1999.  Indeed, the loophole is another reason the photo of Vance at a gun show is, well, triggering—no pun intended—for those who support common sense gun reform. 

As Busse explains it, the Manchin-Toomey amendment would have had a negligible impact on gun sales, simply channeling purchasers to established retailers.  But for the NRA, stopping the law—any gun safety law—was about more than short-term profits.  It had become a matter of principle after Smith & Wesson secretly negotiated with the Clinton administration in 2000 to agree to several safety features and marketing limitations, e.g., trigger locks, not marketing firearms to the general public, in exchange for limits on liability associated with handgun violence. 

Combined with Clinton’s success with the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban of the 1990s, Smith & Wesson’s move—considered a betrayal to the industry—had been too much for the NRA to bear; indeed, it also put both Clintons permanently in the cross-hairs of the organization.  After Smith & Wesson’s back room deal, Busse asserts, the industry rigorously policed internal dissent.  It embraced zero tolerance of gun safety regulation and developed a lobbying machine capable of achieving that goal.    

It was in that context that Wayne LaPierre and his deputies went for broke on Manchin-Toomey.  In the face of what looked like the worst of a string of public relations disasters for the gun industry over the course of a few decades—the massacre of 20 first graders and six educators—the NRA announced it would “score the vote” on the amendment.  This meant politicians’ NRA rating was at stake.  Too many senators, anxious to retain their A+ grade from the NRA, were unwilling to call the organization’s bluff.  Manchin-Toomey failed by a vote of 54-46. 

A Million Gun Sales after Sandy Hook

If the slaughter of innocents with a semi-automatic rifle inside the walls of a primary school couldn’t move the needle on gun reform, it got harder to imagine what could.  Equally shocking was the NRA’s decision to roll out a new slogan in the wake of Sandy Hook:  “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Again, the firearms industry turned a national tragedy into a literal call to arms, which meant it conveniently doubled as a sales opportunity.  Not only did the slogan stick among a growing number of second amendment absolutists, a million guns sold in the week following the massacre.  Other staggering new records were set, as daily gun sales hit 30-to-40 times normal levels at national retailers like Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s and tens of thousands of high-capacity magazines flew off the shelves in a single hour.

As Busse expresses it, the firearms industry had again succeeded “in converting an opportunity to make policy improvements into just another temperature increase for the national pressure cooker.”  It is that failure to make policy improvements that Busse seems to think portends ill for gun owners like him and other hunters, those of the old-fashioned, wise men variety.  Busse argues that if gun owners won’t accept moderate regulations, they risk far more sweeping regulations once the legislative tide finally turns on gun safety measures.  The weakness in his argument is that it’s nearly impossible to see that tide ever turning with sufficient force to threaten the sorts of guns the old guard values and owns.    

The firearms industry flex, like the one in response to Manchin-Toomey, is a move Busse documents through one mass murder after another—and through one Democratic administration after another.  The specter of regulation always goosed gun sales, in part because the firearms industry messaged paranoia—even lies—about the loss of gun rights.  During the 2008 presidential campaign, for example, the NRA claimed Obama would “ban use of firearms for home self defense,” “ban the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns,” develop plans to “ban virtually all deer hunting ammunition” and “erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and exorcise it from the U.S. Constitution.”  No evidence supported these assertions, but like the “alternative facts” that came to be associated with the Trump administration a few election cycles later, truth was beside the point. 

In talking about how the industry leveraged Obama’s Blackness to drive up fear, Busse doesn’t shy away from calling out a racial dog whistle.  For example, he summarizes the NRA’s message about Obama’s candidacy:  “the only thing worse than losing a culture was having it taken by a Black community organizer from Chicago with a law degree from Harvard.”  

Book Ignores Street Violence, Suicide

Yet Gunfight generally neglects other racialized and gendered phenomena associated with guns.  These include the role of firearms in killing thousands every year—disproportionately people of color—in street violence, as well as their role in an epidemic of intimate partner violence.  The word “suicide” isn’t used once in the book.  Busse also glosses over controversies associated with self-defense, though he does name names in placing the blame for the “Stand Your Ground” law that protected George Zimmerman when he killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012:  Marion Hammer, LaPierre’s predecessor at the NRA.  The epidemic of children—including toddlers—who get their hands on guns and kill or wound people accidentally or purposefully also is not taken up in the book, though this phenomon surely implicates all gun owners and suggests that the gun safety norms that were a feature of my rural upbringing have fallen away.  All told, hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost to gun violence in the last decade, but Busse sticks almost entirely to headline-grabbing mass shootings to bolster his depiction of an industry with no internal controls and, he concludes, no decency. 

Following Busse’s initial dust-up with the firearms industry over his pro-conservation stance, he describes an enterprise in airtight alignment with the Republican Party and all its policy stances.  What Busse reveals, in fact, sounds remarkably like an early iteration of the sort of loyalty and purity tests we have seen more recently in American politics, though associated with the cult of personality as much or more than policy positions.  Consider that the few members of the GOP supporting an investigation into the Capitol insurrection of January 6 have become pariahs within their party.  

Indeed, while Gunfight was already in the publication pipeline on January 6, 2021, it’s interesting to revisit the line Busse draws between the old guard and the tactards in light of that day’s events.  Initial reports suggested that it was rural and working class white folks who’d stormed the Capitol, but subsequent investigation has revealed that relatively affluent suburbanites led the charge.  The coastal elites among whom I live and work tend similarly to associate rural folks with the black-rifle set—if they differentiate at all between Busse’s two factions of gun owners.  Guns have thus become one more reason for folks in my uber woke world to cast rural residents as the bad guys, though I suspect there is no more correlation between rurality and the take-no-prisoners, permit-no-regulation set in the gun industry than the media have found between rurality and the January 6 insurrectionists.       

Gunfight depicts the firearms industry as a big bully, but it hasn’t just bullied senators, members of Congress and, by extension, the entire nation.  Part of the book’s tension comes from the parallel bullying Busse experienced as a dissident within.  In one jarring scene, Busse’s boss at Kimber—angry at slumping gun sales at the end of Obama’s presidency—quips, “The problem is that we have Democrats. Let’s solve our problems, Ryan. How about we just kill all the Democrats? Well, all of them except you, Ryan. Let’s kill all the Democrats except Ryan.”  

In the face of such an abusive workplace, Busse’s explanation for why he stayed at Kimber as long as he did is not always convincing.  At several junctures, one fears he will sacrifice his marriage for the company and his career, as his wife repeatedly implores him to get out of the gun business.  In the face of these pressures, one assumes that Busse was not only stubborn, but presumably well compensated, perhaps anticipating that Kimber would go public and deliver a windfall.  That didn’t happen, and sanity—as well as the proverbial love of a good woman—ultimately prevailed when Busse left Kimber in mid-2020.

As should be evident by now, Gunfight is not just about guns.  It’s about how guns have become a potent symbol in the culture wars—of Right v. Left, Republican v. Democrat and—accurately or not—rural v. urban.  This book is also about greed, power, lobbyists, the post 9/11 wars, militias, and how we got to January 6.  At the end of the day, Busse may convince you that guns are not only literally killing people, they’ve become a potent symbol of the polarization that’s killing our democracy.

Lisa Pruitt is a the Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Law at the University of California, Davis, and runs the Legal Ruralism Blog. She previously reviewed Senator Jon Tester’s memoir, Grounded, for the Daily Yonder and was interviewed for the Yonder’s Path Finders series in April 2021.

July 21, 2021

A Silver Lining for Rural America in the Supreme Court’s Decision in Brnovich?

Cross-posted to the Daily Yonder and Legal Ruralism.

Lisa R. Pruitt & Ezera Miller-Walfish, Class of 2022

Although the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent voting rights decision in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee was very bad news for rural residents (and, indeed, all voters) in terms of the precedent set, there is perhaps a silver lining to be found in the dissenting opinion, written by Justice Elena Kagan and joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.  

That dissent took the concept of distance–rural spatiality–more seriously than any faction of the Supreme Court has ever done. Unlike the majority opinion, Kagan’s dissent examines the extra burden that living in a rural area can place on access, in this case to the ballot box.

In Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, the Court split along ideological lines, voting 6-3 to uphold the State of Arizona’s restrictions on voting. The Arizona law limits the practice of ballot collection—a process whereby third-party individuals can return a voter’s signed and sealed mail-in ballot—and allows election officials to discard ballots cast at the wrong precinct.

We are a law professor and law student engaged in a thinking critically about the difference rurality makes to the operation of law, and we have followed this case for reasons other than those that have led election and constitutional law scholars to follow it: we’re interested in the case’s implications for rural populations and also how the Court understands lived realities in rural America.

Brnovich’s “Big Picture”

Before we get into the “rural weeds,” though, let us first refer to what Professor Rick Hasen of the UC Irvine School of Law said on his Election Law Blog about the big picture of Brnovich in relation to voting rights precedents.

[The decision] severely weakened Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act [a federal law dating to the Civil Rights Era] as a tool to fight against laws that make it harder to register and vote. Rather than focus on disparate impact—whether a law leads to minority voters registering or voting in lower numbers—the court applies a much broader totality of the circumstances test with a huge thumb on the scale favoring the state and its restrictive law. If a law imposes just a “usual burden of voting,” and the burden on minorities is not too much, and the state can assert (but does not need to prove) a significant interest in preventing voter fraud or another interest, then the law can stand.

The term “usual burden” is interesting here because in some prior cases, the focus has been on the opposite — on an “undue burden” on exercising the right. We will come back to that below when we draw the parallel between this voting rights case and another strand of constitutional litigation that uses an “undue burden” standard: abortion restrictions. On voting, Hasen continues:

When you couple this opinion with the 2008 ruling in the Crawford case, upholding Indiana’s voter ID law against a Fourteenth Amendment equal protection challenge, the 2013 ruling in Shelby County killing off the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act for states with a history of discrimination, and today’s reading of Section 2, the conservative Supreme Court has taken away all the major available tools for going after voting restrictions. This at a time when some Republican states are passing new restrictive voting law.
The Court today also makes it harder to prove intentional racial discrimination in passing a voting rule.

In a guest post on the Election Law Blog, Professor Doug Spencer provided further big-picture context in relation to the Court’s approach to other enumerated rights.

It’s hard to reconcile the Court’s indifference to inconveniences on voting rights (e.g., fn 11, slip op. at 16) with its uncompromising protection of gun rights or its “most-favored-nation” approach to religious freedom. Why are voting rights so different? And so less worthy of protection?

(Congratulations to Prof. Spencer and UC Davis' own Prof. Chris Elmendorf, whose Columbia Law Review article on Section  2 of the Voting Rigths Act was cited by Justice Kagan in dissent).

A New Response to Rurality

OK, enough on the broad U.S. Constitutional and voting rights context. We want to turn now to why this case is exceptional from a ruralist standpoint.

The backstory here is that we have been arguing in legal scholarship–if not in amicus briefs or any other form that would actually get directly before the Justices–that rural spatiality, aka material distance, is an obstacle the Supreme Court should take seriously in considering “undue burdens” on the exercise of constitutional rights like voting and abortion.

The context in which the issue of distance has arisen most frequently is abortion access, which one of us has written about herehere, and here. The Supreme Court of the United States has rarely grappled in any meaningful way with the distance a woman must travel to reach an abortion provider, an issue that arises when waiting periods make two trips necessary or when state abortion regulations force providers to close, thus forcing women to travel longer distances to other providers. But in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, Justice Breyer, writing for the majority in the 2016 opinion, used the word “rural” only once, though he used the word “miles” 19 times.

Specifically, Breyer quoted the trial (federal district) court opinion, which acknowledged the added burden the clinic closures were causing “poor, rural, or disadvantaged women.” The disadvantaged group most focused on in that litigation were Latinas living in the Rio Grande Valley, who tended to be “poor, rural and disadvantaged.” Interestingly, the Court did not again use the word “poor” or “poverty” in the majority opinion, which is bit unusual–and disappointing–given that poor women disproportionately seek abortions compared to their more affluent counterparts. The Court did, however, use the term “Rio Grande Valley” twice, which suggests that population drew particular solicitude.

The Hellerstedt Court’s use of “miles” also mostly tracked the district court’s findings, here about the specific impact of the law on women’s abortion access. Because the challenged law had the effect of closing abortion providers across Texas, the geographical distribution of abortion providers shifted, with these consequences:

[T]he number of women of reproductive age living more than 50 miles from a clinic has doubled, the number living more than 100 miles away has increased by 150%, the number living more than 150 miles away by more than 350%, and the number living more than 200 miles away by about 2,800%.

Also looming was the fact that if another pending restriction went into effect, Texas would have abortion providers “only in five metropolitan areas.” Finally, Breyer used “miles” when quoting the federal district court for the proposition that Texas is big–specifically, that it covers nearly 280,000 square miles and that 25 million people–5.4 million of them women of reproductive age–live on that vast land area.

Ultimately, Breyer’s opinion concluded:

We recognize that increased driving distances do not always constitute an “undue burden.” See Casey, 505 U. S., at 885–887 (joint opinion of O’Connor, KENNEDY, and Souter, JJ.). But here, those increases are but one additional burden, which, when taken together with others that the closings brought about, and when viewed in light of the virtual absence of any health benefit [from the Texas law], lead us to conclude that the record adequately supports the District Court’s “undue burden” conclusion.

That was a real victory for rural women, however defined, though the focus was much more on the distance–really increased distance–that any woman might have to travel to reach an abortion provider. This did not explicitly focus on rural women, but the Hellerstedt majority went much further than any prior opinion in taking seriously material distance, expressed as miles traveled.

Rural America and Voting Rights

That brings us to Brnovich and voting rights. In discussing this case, it makes sense to discuss first the number of times the dissent mentions the word “rural” because it far outnumbers–and outweighs–what the majority had to say. Justice Kagan, writing for the dissent, used the word “rural” twelve times, frequently as part of the phrase “rural Native Americans.” The reason for this linkage is that the Voting Rights Act responds to discrimination on the basis of race. Thus, the sensitivity–if there is any–is to racial or ethnic difference, and that difference gets paired with rurality in what scholars call intersectionality. That is, status as a Native American intersects with rurality to aggravate the disadvantage experienced by this population, just as status as a poor woman intersected with status as a Latina and rural location to disadvantage women in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley in Hellerstedt.

Here’s perhaps the most salient quote from Kagan’s dissent:

Arizona’s law mostly banning third-party ballot collection also results in a significant race-based disparity in voting opportunities. The problem with that law again lies in facts nearly unique to Arizona—here, the presence of rural Native American communities that lack ready access to mail service. Given that circumstance, the Arizona statute discriminates in just the way Section 2 proscribes. The majority once more comes to a different conclusion only by ignoring the local conditions with which Arizona’s law interacts.
The critical facts for evaluating the ballot-collection rule have to do with mail service. Most Arizonans vote by mail. But many rural Native American voters lack access to mail service, to a degree hard for most of us to fathom.

This language–humble for a Supreme Court Justice-–reminds me of Justice Thurgood Marshall’s rhetorical practice of putting himself in the shoes of litigants and acknowledging the challenge for Supreme Court justices to do just that. He wrote in United States v. Kras (1973), a case involving a court filing fee:

It may be easy for some people to think that weekly savings of less than $2 are no burden. But no one who has had close contact with poor people can fail to understand how close to the margin of survival many of them are. . . .It is perfectly proper for judges to disagree about what the Constitution requires. But it is disgraceful for an interpretation of the Constitution to be premised upon unfounded assumptions about how people live.

One of us has made similar arguments re the Supreme Court’s struggle to grasp the burden of distance, especially with so many current justices having grown up in New York City. There is not, after all, much geographic diversity on the Court, and no current justice has any meaningful links to rurality.

Kagan’s dissent in Brnovich continues with a focus on the burden of rurality in relation to Native Americans, veering into the subject of those who rely on the U.S. mail in order to vote:

Only 18% of Native voters in rural counties receive home mail delivery, compared to 86% of white voters living in those counties. And for many or most, there is no nearby post office. Native Americans in rural Arizona “often must travel 45 minutes to 2 hours just to get to a mailbox.” (“Ready access to reliable and secure mail service is nonexistent” in some Native American communities). And between a quarter to a half of households in these Native communities do not have a car. See ibid. So getting ballots by mail and sending them back poses a serious challenge for Arizona’s rural Native Americans.

For that reason, an unusually high rate of Native Americans used to “return their early ballots with the assistance of third parties.” As the District Court found: “[F]or many Native Americans living in rural locations,” voting “is an activity that requires the active assistance of friends and neighbors.” So in some Native communities, third-party collection of ballots—mostly by fellow clan members—became “standard practice.” And stopping it, as one tribal election official testified, “would be a huge devastation.” [citations omitted]

It bears noting that Arizona, the sixth largest state in land area, is not alone in terms of challenges facing rural residents—and Native American voters in particular. Similar issues in Montana, the fourth largest state in the nation, are highlighted in this recent New York Times story, which focuses on the details of voting on Blackfeet reservation in the northwest part of the state.

Geography, poverty and politics all create obstacles for Native Americans. The Blackfeet reservation is roughly the size of Delaware but had only two election offices and four ballot drop-off locations last year, one of which was listed as open for just 14 hours over two days. Many other reservations in Montana have no polling places, meaning residents must go to the county seat to vote, and many don’t have cars or can’t afford to take time off.

The Majority’s Dismissiveness of Rural and Over-reliance on the U.S. Post Office

From a ruralist standpoint, the most shocking thing about the Brnovich litigation is the Supreme Court majority’s response to the dissent’s concern over these rural realities, especially as they impact Native Americans. Indeed, the majority was so dismissive of these concerns as to relegate its response to a footnote, footnote 21. Justice Alito, writing for the majority, notes the ways people will be still able to vote under the challenged Arizona law, e.g., the legality of having a ballot picked up and mailed by family or household members. Beyond that, he simply relies on provisions of the U.S. Code about the postal service, specifically the provisions about the circumstances under which small post offices may be closed. Here’s the full quote.

The burdens that fall on remote communities are mitigated by the long period of time prior to an election during which a vote may be cast either in person or by mail and by the legality of having a ballot picked up and mailed by family or household members. And in this suit, no individual voter testified that HB 2023 would make it significantly more difficult for him or her to vote. 329 F. Supp. 3d, at 871. Moreover, the Postal Service is required by law to “provide a maximum degree of effective and regular postal services to rural areas, communities, and small towns where post offices are not self-sustaining.” 39 U. S. C. §101(b); see also §403(b)(3). Small post offices may not be closed “solely for operating at a deficit,” §101(b), and any decision to close or consolidate a post office may be appealed to the Postal Regulatory Commission, see §404(d)(5). An alleged failure by the Postal Service to comply with its statutory obligations in a particular location does not in itself provide a ground for overturning a voting rule that applies throughout an entire state. [emphasis added]

So, on the one hand, there’s this federal statute that says the USPS must provide a “maximum degree of effective and regular” delivery even to places–including rural ones–where the local post office doesn’t “break even.” On the other hand, if the USPS fails to comply with this statute, that lack of compliance won’t be grounds for overturning a state voting law.

Folks who’ve followed the recent degradation in U.S. Postal Service will immediately see some irony in the majority’s reliance on this institution. Those who’ve followed the decades long efforts to close and consolidate rural post offices will see yet another level of irony. Indeed, the latest proposal to downgrade postal service, detailed here, would ”disproportionately affect states west of the Rocky Mountains,” which includes a lot of Indian Country–and many other rural places, too. Specifically, 57% of first-class mail sent in Montana and 55% sent in Arizona will take longer to arrive.

This has us wondering if rural postal service advocates will try to rely on this footnote in Brnovich majority to resist some future effort to close more post offices. The argument would be, we guess, that if the Supreme Court says it won’t be done because of this statute, then it should not be done. But what the footnote–and the statute–give, they also take away in saying that post offices can, of course, be closed, although there’s a right to appeal such closures.

This is all pretty grim—for all patrons of the U.S. Postal Service, but especially for rural and Native American folks whose local post offices are most likely to be on the chopping block.

The majority opinion in Brnovich is devastating for voting rights generally speaking, and for Native American and rural communities in particular. But there is a sliver of hope to be found here: the dissent in this case shows that the U.S. Supreme Court is capable of taking rurality seriously–at least as a factor intersecting with Native American status. The Brnovich dissent grapples with the lived realities of distance, with the material spatiality of the rural, in an even more explicit and compelling way than the Hellerstedt majority did five years ago.

This leaves us with hope that the groundwork laid by the Brnovich dissent will be invoked in some future case, if and when the liberal wing of the Court is in the majority and called on to take seriously the rights of rural folks and therefore also the state-imposed barriers that undermine their ability to exercise those rights. The liberal bloc has finally shown they know how to do this. Let’s hope they don’t forget if they are some day back in a position to be the final arbiters of what is or is not an “undue burden.”

Ezera Miller-Walfish is a rising third-year law student at UC Davis School of Law.  She grew up in rural northern New Mexico.  
May 10, 2021

Justice Cruz Reynoso's Rural Life

By Lisa Pruitt

Cruz Reynoso, former California Supreme Court Justice and my colleague at UC Davis School of Law for two decades, died a few days ago at the age of 90.  Many are offering remembrances of Reynoso -- who the faculty and staff at the law school knew as just "Cruz"-- and it's interesting for me as a ruralist to see the number of references to "rural" in his life's story.  

Of course, Reynoso famously led California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), the "first statewide, federally funded legal aid program in the country."  That was during the heyday of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta's organizing in the 1960s.  CRLA provides free legal services to farmworkers.  In California, "rural" is largely conflated with agriculture in the popular imaginary (though there are far less densely populated and more remote California locales than its agricultural valleys), and the organization's website articulates its mission as helping “rural communities because those communities were not receiving legal help.” 

The tumultuous history of that organization under Reynoso's leadership is recounted in a Los Angeles Times story

Then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan repeatedly vetoed federal funds for the California Rural Legal Assistance while Reynoso headed the office and even signed off on an investigation that accused the nonprofit of trying to foment murders and prison riots (the investigation went nowhere).

Among other achievements during his leadership, Reynoso "oversaw eventually successful efforts to ban the short-handled hoe, which required farmworkers to stoop and led to debilitating back problems, and DDT, the deadly agricultural chemical."  

The Sacramento Bee reports on one of CRLA's big litigation victories under Reynoso's leadership, Diana v. California State Board of Education:  


It centered on Latino children who were incorrectly assessed by their school and labeled mentally challenged. The pupils were funneled into special education classes when, in reality, they were simply new English learners. CRLA lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of students in the Monterey County town of Soledad.


“CRLA won a consent decree that allowed non-Anglo children to choose the language in which they would respond on IQ tests,” wrote the Salinas Californian in 2016. “It banned verbal sections of the test. It also required state psychologists to develop an IQ test appropriate for Mexican Americans and other non-English-speaking students.”

This column by Gustavo Arellano in the Los Angeles Times recounts Reynoso's childhood -- including early activism -- in Orange County, which then included significant rural stretches: 

[Reynoso's] family lived in a rural part of La Habra, where the Ku Klux Klan had held the majority of City Council seats just a decade earlier and Mexicans were forced to live on the wrong side of the tracks. Reynoso’s parents and neighbors had to travel a mile to the post office for their mail because the local postmaster claimed it was too inconvenient to deliver letters to their neighborhood.


Reynoso didn’t question this at first — “I just accepted that as part of the scheme of things,” he’d tell an oral historian decades later, in 2002.


But one day, a white family moved near the Reynosos and immediately began to receive mail. The teenage Cruz asked the postmaster why they were able to receive mail, but his Mexican family couldn’t. If you have a problem with this, the postmaster replied, write to her boss in Washington D.C.

And write a letter to the U.S. Postmaster General is exactly what Reynoso did.  According to a story released by UC Davis on the occasion of Reynoso's death: 

He wrote out a petition, gathered signatures, and successfully lobbied the U.S. Postmaster General in Washington, D.C., for rural mail delivery.

The obituary in the Los Angeles Times notes that Reynoso continued to live a rural life, even while working in Sacramento and Davis.  He "had a 30-acre spread in the agricultural Sacramento County town of Herald," population 1,184.The L.A. Times also reports that, as children, Reynoso and his 10 siblings worked summers in the fields with their parents. 

But the rural fact that leapt out at me most prominently was this line from the UC Davis story about what Reynoso did after finishing law school at UC Berkeley:

Justice Reynoso and his wife, Jeannene, moved to El Centro, in California’s Imperial Valley, where he started his own practice.


Today, Imperial County and El Centro, its county seat, are legal deserts--and they probably were back then, too.  Just imagine a UC Berkeley Law or UC Davis Law grad going to El Centro and hanging out a shingle in 2021?  It's nearly unthinkable, though a few probably go there each year to work for legal aid organizations like CRLA.  If it were more common to follow such a career path -- and for legal educators to prommote and honor those paths -- the Golden State would not be facing a rural lawyer shortage, with impoverished communities of vulnerable workers like the Imperial Valley suffering most as a consequence of that deficit.    


A Sacramento Bee column about Reynoso by Marcos Breton on the occasion of Reynoso's death features several remarkable photos.  These include one of Reynoso at the Herald property in 2000 with his then-young grandchildren; Reynoso was wearing overalls, a signifier of his rural authenticity.  The photo was taken by a Bee reporter the year he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and previously published as part of the paper's reporting on that honor.  


Speaking of that authenticity, I always appreciated Cruz's frequent use of the word "folk" to refer to groups of people, or the populace generally. Indeed, I see the Spanish translation is "la gente," meaning "people, town, dweller."  For me, his use of "folk" provided implicit permission to use that word and its plural, both terms I'd grown up with but later excised from my professional vocabulary becuse I had thought them too colloquial.  


Cruz was as approachable to students as he was to faculty and staff.  We often saw him walking to the Silo (an eatery on campus) with a group of students for lunch.  And in my first year at UC Davis, 1999-2000, when Cruz was visiting from UCLA's law school, he gamely agreed to participate in a student-sponsored moot court event called "Battle of the Giants," which featured two professors playing the role of advocates in a mock appellate argument.  It took a while for the student organizers of the event to get someone to agree to be the opposing "giant" (eventually, I reluctantly agreed), but Cruz had not hesitated to take on this time-consuming task, one little valued by the law school administration.

 

Cruz was very gentle in how he engaged and educated people, which I believe often rendered him particularly persuasive. Many years ago, I heard him say to a group of students, in his typical, soft-spoken way, "No human being is illegal." This was at a time whne the phrases "illegal alien" and "illegal immigrant" were still widely used. Expressed in his calm, avuncular, matter-of-fact way, I'm sure he won over many, got them to think about the significance of language. It's quite a contrast with the ways in which so many in our educational institutions today "call out" or "cancel" each other in shrill and judgmental fashion, a tactic that often serves primarily to aggravate divisions.   

 

Given Cruz's commitment to students and education, it's not surprising that his family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the UC Davis student scholarship fund "for legal access" that honors him and his wife

January 22, 2021

5 ways Biden can help rural America thrive and bridge the rural-urban divide

 

By Ann Eisenberg, Jessica A. Shoemaker and Lisa R. Pruitt

[Cross-posted from The Conversation]

It’s no secret that rural and urban people have grown apart culturally and economically in recent years. A quick glance at the media – especially social media – confirms an ideological gap has also widened.

City folks have long been detached from rural conditions. Even in the 1700s, urbanites labeled rural people as backward or different. And lately, urban views of rural people have deteriorated.

All three of us are law professors who study and advocate intervention to assist distressed rural communities. The response we often hear is, “You expect me to care about those far-off places, especially given the way the people there vote?”

Our answer is “yes.”

Rural communities provide much of the food and energy that fuel our lives. They are made up of people who, after decades of exploitative resource extraction and neglect, need strong connective infrastructure and opportunities to pursue regional prosperity. A lack of investment in broadband, schools, jobs, sustainable farms, hospitals, roads and even the U.S. Postal Service has increasingly driven rural voters to seek change from national politics. And this sharp hunger for change gave Trump’s promises to disrupt the status quo particular appeal in rural areas.

Metropolitan stakeholders often complain that the Electoral College and U.S. Senate give less populous states disproportionate power nationally. Yet that power has not steered enough resources, infrastructure investment and jobs to rural America for communities to survive and thrive.

So, how can the federal government help?

Based on our years of research into rural issues, here are five federal initiatives that would go a long way toward empowering distressed rural communities to improve their destinies, while also helping bridge the urban/rural divide.

1. Get high-speed internet to the rest of rural America

The COVID-19 era has made more acute something rural communities were already familiar with: High-speed internet is the gateway to everything. Education, work, health care, information access and even a social life depend directly on broadband.

Yet 22.3% of rural residents and 27.7% of tribal lands residents lacked access to high-speed internet as of 2018, compared with 1.5% of urban residents.

The Trump administration undermined progress on the digital divide in 2018 by reversing an Obama-era rule that categorized broadband as a public utility, like electricity. When broadband was regulated as a utility, the government could ensure fairer access even in regions that were less profitable for service providers. The reversal left rural communities more vulnerable to the whims of competitive markets.

Although President Joe Biden has signaled support for rural broadband expansion, it’s not yet clear what the Federal Communications Commission might do under his leadership. Recategorizing broadband as a public utility could help close the digital divide.

2. Help local governments avoid going broke

It’s easy to take for granted the everyday things local governments do, like trash pickup, building code enforcement and overseeing public health. So, what happens when a local government goes broke?

A lot of rural local governments are dealing with an invisible crisis of fiscal collapse. Regions that have lost traditional livelihoods in manufacturing, mining, timber and agriculture are stuck in a downward cycle: Jobs loss and population decline mean less tax revenue to keep local government running.

Federal institutions could help by expanding capacity-building programs, like Community Development Block Grants and Rural Economic Development Loans and Grants that let communities invest in long-term assets like main street improvements and housing.

Rural activists are also calling for a federal office of rural prosperity or economic transitions that could provide leadership on the widespread need to reverse declining rural communities’ fates.

3. Rein in big agriculture

Only 6% of rural people still live in counties with economies that are farming dependent.

Decades of policies favoring consolidation of agriculture have emptied out large swaths of rural landscapes. The largest 8% of farms in America now control more than 70% of American farmland, and the rural people who remain increasingly bear the brunt of decisions made in urban agribusiness boardrooms.

Rural communities get less and less of the wealth. Those in counties with industrialized agricultural are more likely to have unsafe drinking water, lower incomes and greater economic inequality.

What many rural people want from agricultural policy is increased antitrust enforcement to break up agricultural monopolies, improved conditions for agricultural workers, conservation policies that actually protect rural health, and a food policy that addresses rural hunger, which outpaces food insecurity in urban areas.

Access to affordable land is another huge issue. Beginning farmers cite that as their biggest obstacle. Federal support for these new farmers, like that imagined in the proposed Justice for Black Farmers Act or in other property-law reforms, could help rebuild an agriculture system that is diversified, sustainable and rooted in close connections to rural communities.

Biden’s plan to bring former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack back in the same role he held in the Obama administration has cast doubt on whether Biden is really committed to change. Vilsack built a suspect record on racial equity and has spent the past four years as a marketing executive for big dairy, leading many to worry his leadership will result in “agribusiness as usual.”

4. Pursue broad racial justice in rural America

One in five rural residents are people of color, and they are two to three times more likely to be poor than rural whites. Diverse rural residents are also significantly more likely to live in impoverished areas that have been described as “rural ghettos.”

More than 98% of U.S. agricultural land is owned by white people, while over 83% of farmworkers are Hispanic.

Criminal justice and law enforcement reforms occurring in cities are less likely to reach small or remote communities, leaving rural minorities vulnerable to discrimination and vigilantism, with limited avenues for redress.

At a minimum, the federal government can enhance workplace protections for farm laborers, strengthen protections of ancestral lands and tribal sovereignty and provide leadership for improving rural access to justice.

5. Focus on the basics

People who live in distressed rural communities have important place-based connections. In many cases, the idea of “just move someplace else” is a myth.

The greatest historic progress on rural poverty followed large-scale federal intervention via Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Although these reforms were implemented in ways that were racially unjust, they offer models for ameliorating rural poverty.

They created public jobs programs that addressed important social needs like conservation and school building repair; established relationships between universities and communities for agricultural and economic progress; provided federal funding for K-12 schools and made higher education more affordable; and expanded the social safety net to address hunger and other health needs.

A new federal antipoverty program – which urban communities also need – could go a long way to improving rural quality of life. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act targeted many of these issues. But urban communities’ quicker and stronger recovery from the Great Recession than rural ones shows that this program neglected key rural challenges.

Some of these steps will also require Congress’s involvement. So the question is, will federal leadership take the bold steps necessary to address rural marginalization and start mending these divisions? Or will it pay lip service to those steps while continuing the patterns of neglect and exploitation that have gotten the U.S. to where it is today: facing an untenable stalemate shaped by inequality and mutual distrust.

January 19, 2021

Book review: 'Grounded' by Jon Tester

Senator Tester's memoir could become a helpful roadmap for coastal Democrats fighting for rural votes. The question is: will they pick it up and read it?


[Cross-posted from The Daily Yonder]

By Lisa Pruitt

Democratic Senator Jon Tester of Montana got little fanfare from the press when he published his memoir, Grounded, in September 2020.  Only the Wall Street Journal reviewed the book, while National Public Radio and the Los Angeles Review of Books interviewed the Senator.  The New York Times finally talked to Tester, too, but only in mid-December.  

 

I can see why national media wouldn’t rush to do puff pieces on a self-serving book, which all memoirs are, of course, if only in their aim of selling books.  More so political memoirs, even when there’s no reason to believe Tester is planning a presidential run.  Indeed, at age 64 and with four years left in his third Senate term, it’s not at all clear Tester will again run for anything.  

 

But I’d have thought that the subtitle of Tester’s book, “A Senator’s Lessons on Winning Back Rural America,” (author’s emphasis) sets it apart.  The rural-urban divide is a topic that garners a lot of airtime and column inches in the mainstream media.  Many say they want to build bridges across the burgeoning geographic chasm.  Yet, so far, neither coastal progressives nor Republicans are engaging Tester’s blueprint for that very task.  Indeed, Democratic Congresswoman Cheri Bustos’ 2018 plan to win back rural Democrats arguably garnered more publicity than Grounded has thus far attracted.

 

So what gives?  Once again in 2020, Democrats did not fare well among rural voters, keeping Tester’s hybrid memoir-policy manifesto timely.  Have progressive influencers read the book and found Tester’s suggestions untenable, unpalatable, or impractical?  A bridge too far and therefore not worth discussing, let alone implementing? 

 

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that when I got around to reading Grounded last month, I found it to be informative and thoroughly enjoyable.  It landed on my reading list “for business,” because I think, teach and write about rural issues. But I stayed with Grounded for the pleasure of reading the life story and ruminations of a rural iconoclast in 21st century politics.

  

The book’s appeal to me is no doubt a function of my interest in rural people and places, but you don’t have to be a ruralist to appreciate Grounded. Indeed, metro folks are the ones with the most to learn from it.  And Tester has even provided a shortcut for the efficient consumer:  Skip to the Epilogue where you’ll find two handy “to do” lists, one for Democrats and one for Republicans.  But readers who cut straight to the chase will shortchange themselves on the rich detail of Tester’s life, deeply rooted in rural Big Sandy, Montana, and a short history of that state’s politics, including the successful, century-long fight to banish dark money from politics. 

 

Most people who follow national politics even a little bit know something about Tester, the giant of a Senator with a big smile, a flat-top haircut, a direct manner, and a passion for government accountability.  Some will know that Tester lost three fingers to a meat grinder in his parents’ butcher shop when he was nine years old.  Folks may also be aware that Tester is the only U.S. Senator who’s also a full-time farmer.  But did you know that Tester’s college degree is in music, that as a young man he taught music at the elementary school in Big Sandy?


Tester inherited both his politics — he’s an unapologetic FDR Democrat — and his interest in politics from his mother, Helen, who got it from her mother, Christine.  Tester’s reverence for these women, as well as for his wife Sharla, his partner in both life and the management of their 1800-acre farm, is palpable throughout the book.  

 

Tester parlayed early stints on the Big Sandy School Board and the Choteau County Soil Conservation District into a seat in the Montana State Senate in the mid 1990s; he soon became the president of that legislative body.  Then, in 2006, Tester took a big political plunge, challenging U.S. Senator Conrad Burns, a Republican who had gotten entangled with scandal-ridden lobbyist Jack Abramoff.  Tester narrowly defeated Burns, thus reclaiming the Senate seat that had been held by Mike Mansfield (1953-77), the longest serving Senate Majority Leader in our nation’s history.  Assisted by former staffer Aaron Murphy (who gets some authorial credit on Grounded), Tester details these and other adventures in life and politics in a well-paced and engaging fashion.  Admitting that I’m a sucker for authenticity, grit, and hard work — as long as the deed accompanies the word — Tester’s book delivers. 

 

The central tension in Grounded arises from Tester’s 2018 re-election bid, a race that suddenly tightened that spring when President Trump set his sights on Tester’s defeat.  The senior senator from Montana caught Trump’s eye — and raised the president’s ire — when, as ranking member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Tester challenged the appointment of Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson to lead the Department.  (Jackson was White House physician to Trump, as he had been to Obama and Bush).  Tester’s stance on the nomination was based on credible information that Jackson had provided controlled substances without a prescription and engaged in other questionable practices.  Ultimately, Jackson withdrew his candidacy for the VA job, giving Tester a victory in round one against Trump. 

 

Enraged that Tester had derailed his nominee, Trump declared war on Tester.  The president flew to Montana four times in the ensuing months and also dispatched his children to stump for Tester’s opponent.  In a state that Trump had carried by some 20 points, the Cook Political Report eventually moved the race from “leans Democratic” to “toss-up.” 

 

Come Election Day 2018, however, Tester prevailed in round two against Trump.  The Senator won his third term by garnering the votes of not only Democrats and Independents but also 7% of registered Republicans.  Indeed, it was the first time Tester won his Senate seat by a majority rather than a mere plurality.  Along the way, Donald Trump Jr. called Tester a “piece of shit,” and Tester had ample opportunity to demonstrate his political acumen. On the day of Trump’s first visit to the state, Tester took out full-page ads in 14 Montana newspapers with this text:

 

“Welcome to Montana, and thank you President Trump for supporting Jon’s legislation to help veterans and first responders, hold the VA accountable, and get rid of waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government.  Washington’s a mess — but that’s not stopping Jon from getting things done for Montana.”

 

Grounded pulls no punches with Trump and his family.  Tester repeatedly refers to Donald Trump, Jr., as the “greasy-haired kid,” (p. 27) and he likens the elder Trump to the biggest bully on the Big Sandy school playground — the one Tester took on and thumped as a kid, sending a signal to all the bullies to buzz off.

December 7, 2020

The chattering classes got the 'Hillbilly Elegy' book wrong -- and they're getting the movie wrong, too

[Cross-posted from The Conversation]

By Lisa Pruitt

Film critics have had nary a good word to say about Netflix’s new movieHillbilly Elegy.”

Reviewers varyingly called itOscar-Season B.S.,” woefully misguided,” Yokel Hokum,” laughably bad and simply awful.”

I admit to delight when I read professional critics trashing the film, which is based on J.D. Vance’s widely praised memoir detailing his dramatic class migration from a midsize city in Ohio to the hallowed halls of Yale Law School. I was expecting the worst based on my dislike of the book, and these reviews confirmed my expectations.

But once I saw the film, I felt it had been harshly judged by the chattering classes – the folks who write the reviews and seek to create meaning for the rest of us. In fact, the film is an earnest depiction of the most dramatic parts of the book: a lower-middle-class family caught in the throes of addiction.

Everyday viewers seem to find the film enjoyable enough – it has solid audience reviews on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes.

So why the big gap between the critical response and audience reaction? Could it be yet another sign of the country’s steadily growing class divide?

A bootstrap manifesto

The film’s negative reviews are an about-face from critics’ warm embrace of the book, which was published in 2016, when Vance was just 31.

In telling his story of overcoming his mother’s addiction and attendant familial and economic precarity, Vance credits his Mamaw and Papaw, along with luck and hard work.

Fair enough. But he gives no nod to the government structures – K-12 schools, the military and the GI bill, the public university where he earned his B.A – that greased the skids of his sharp ascension into the ruling class. Worse still, Vance expressly blames laziness as the culprit of those left behind, with only cursory attention to the impact of policies that encouraged the offshoring of manufacturing jobs and weakening of the social safety net.

The book is not subtle in its message: Working-class grunts are to blame for their own struggles. If they’d just get off their duffs, go to church and stay married, everything would be OK.

Yet commentators from across the political spectrum greeted the book with a big wet kiss. Published months before Donald Trump’s election, it was perfectly timed for the zeitgeist, and Vance’s extended personal anecdote suddenly became the authoritative text about enigmatic working-class whites, all presumptive Trump supporters. The New York Times fawned over its discerning sociological analysis,” overlooking Vance’s one-sided invocation of data and scholarly literature, while prestigious think tanks like the Brookings Institution elevated Vance to expert status.

I was one of few progressive elites to push back against the media’s early, broad embrace of the book. Admittedly, I was moved by Vance’s compelling biography, which featured many of the hallmarks of my own: hillbilly roots, addicted parent, family violence and – ultimately – a dramatic class leap into elite legal circles.

But I was put off by Vance’s singular focus on personal responsibility and use of his story to advance an agenda antagonistic to the social safety net. Many of Vance’s positions run contrary to my own scholarly work about the white working class and rural America.

Vance also suggests that his family – in both its best and worst manifestations – is representative of Appalachia. Yet like all families, Vance’s is typical in some ways but not in others. And that’s what got so many Appalachians up in arms when the book came out. Not all of them are drug addicted any more than they’re all coal miners. Further, not all Appalachians are white. Many lead boring lives.

From curiosity to disdain

I wasn’t happy when Ron Howard and Netflix paid $45 million for the movie rights, because I didn’t want the book to get an even wider audience. But the film leaves Vance’s politics aside and instead focuses on three generations worth of Vance family saga. That means the positive potential I saw in the book is at the heart of the film.

For one, working-class white people can see themselves on screen. When I read the book, I initially laughed out loud – but also cried – over the ways Vance’s hillbilly grandparents reminded me of my own extended family. I also related to his “fish out of water” experiences in elite law firms.

Second, the story is a reminder that white skin is no magic bullet. Folks where I live and work in California often use “white privilege” as synonymous with “you’re white, you’ll be all right.” Members of the Vance family are white, but they are clearly not all right. The movie has the potential to foster empathy between the two worlds J.D. Vance straddles – the ones I also straddle – between working class and professional class.

Yet to some critics, the film amounted to no more than poverty porn.” They lamented a lack of complexity, nuance, motivation and internal conflict in the film’s characters.

Really? Those reviewers must have looked right past the trauma both Mamaw and Bev experienced in their early lives – the former as a child bride, the latter as a child raised in the violent home of that child bride. J.D. is a product of both.

There are surely other reasons, too, that the film world has turned a cold shoulder to this cinematic packaging of Vance’s book. I suspect that it has something to do with the fact that the four-year span between the book and the film neatly coincided with the beginning and end of Trump’s presidency. During that same period, what started as progressive elites’ curiosity about the white working class gave way to bald disdain and fury.

Nowadays, my Twitter feed is awash with resentment every time “mainstream media” run a story about white Trump supporters.

The woke whine that such coverage implies that these are the “real Americans” who we should try to understand, while overlooking other marginalized subsets of the population. Film critic negativity about “Hillbilly Elegy” may reflect similar attitudes – a mix of exasperation and boredom with a pet topic for media outlets since the 2016 election.

Audiences have a different response

To me, the real pity is that so many coastal elites know so few working-class folks of any color, let alone the hillbilly subset of them. Indeed, studies show that, increasingly, people from different socioeconomic strata no longer mix even within the same metro areas.

The crummy reviews ultimately evince this profound and persistent disconnect between those who write the reviews and “regular” folks.

A week after its release, the film’s critic score on Rotten Tomatoes was 27, while its audience score was 82. That’s a massive spread, and one that may align with the yawning chasm cutting across our national electorate.

The cosmopolitan set can’t believe viewers would want to watch “those people” – and may even be able to relate to them – any more than we can believe so many people voted for Donald Trump.

When critic Sarah Jones, an Appalachian by upbringing, argues that “Hillbilly Elegy” wasn’t made for hillbilly viewers, I’m not convinced. Jones places “Hillbilly Elegy” among “an old and ignoble genre” that “caricatures the hillbilly for an audience’s titillation.”

Maybe. But there are far worse depictions of rural folks and other hillbilly types. Look no further than this appalling scene from “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” or the 1972 classic Deliverance.”

Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor certainly took liberties in condensing and dramatizing decades of Vance family dysfunction, but we shouldn’t pretend that families like these don’t exist. I know people like them – heck, I’m even related to some.

Many viewers will relate to “Hillbilly Elegy” simply because addiction is such a shockingly common phenomenon, one that touches many families and every community. Others will appreciate the film because it presents J.D. Vance achieving the “American dream.” It’s an ideal many find irresistible in spite of the fact that – or, indeed, because – upward mobility is more elusive than ever.

With Vance’s politics tucked out of sight, can we simply judge the film for its entertainment value? Can we acknowledge that we don’t all like the same things?

After all, there may be a few things elites don’t “get.” And that could be because the movie wasn’t made for them in the first place.

August 3, 2020

Rural California suffers a painful shortage of lawyers

[Cross-posted from the Daily Journal]

By Lisa Pruitt and Kelly Beskin ‘21

Rural America lags behind the rest of the nation in access to health care, broadband, quality of education and nearly every other measure of well-being. On July 28, the American Bar Association hosted an online program featuring leaders and scholars of the legal profession discussing ways to address another rural deficit: the painful shortage of lawyers.

Although about a fifth of the nation's population lives in rural areas, these places are home to only 2% of small law practices. These so-called legal deserts are significant barriers to justice for their residents.

This access to justice crisis is also playing out in rural California. While the statewide ratio of attorneys to residents is 1:626, just over 3% of lawyers have addresses in "rural" and "frontier" areas as those terms are defined by California's Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development. The ratio of lawyers to residents thus varies dramatically from region to region, county to county, and from city to town to unincorporated area.

Read more … 

May 6, 2019

What 'Hillbilly Elegy' reveals about race in 21st-century America

[Cross-posted from Kentucky.com, and excerpted from Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy, West Virginia Press, 2019]

My initial response to the publication of Hillbilly Elegy and the media hubbub that ensued was something akin to pride. I was pleased that so many readers were engaged by a tale of my people, a community so alien to the milieu in which I now live and work. Like Vance, I’m from hillbilly stock, albeit the Ozarks rather than Appalachia. Reading the early chapters, I laughed out loud—and sometimes cried—at the antics of Vance’s grandparents, not least because they reminded me of my childhood and extended, working-class family back in Arkansas.

I appreciated Vance’s attention not only to place and culture, but to class and some of the cognitive and emotional complications of class migration. I’m a first-generation college graduate, too, and elite academic settings and posh law firms have taken some getting used to. Vance’s journey to an intellectual understanding of his family instability and his experience grappling with the resulting demons were familiar territory for me. In short, I empathize with Vance on many fronts.

Yet as I read deeper into Hillbilly Elegy, my early enthusiasm for it was seriously dampened by Vance’s use of what was ostensibly a memoir to support ill-informed policy prescriptions. Once I got to the part where Vance harshly judges the food stamp recipients he observed while bagging groceries as a high school student, I was annoyed by his highly selective dalliances into the social sciences and public policy. A few more chapters in, Vance was advocating against the regulation of payday lenders, and I began to realize that Hillbilly Elegy was a net loss for my people.

The chattering classes’ “shock and awe” response to Hillbilly Elegy—(white) people actually live like that?!?—demonstrates apparent widespread ignorance of white socioeconomic disadvantage and the dysfunction it frequently spawns, a feedback loop that, in recent years, has taken on the character of a death spiral. One reason for such ignorance is that the public face of poverty in America today is almost exclusively Black or Brown. Only in the aftermath of the 2016 election has the media renewed attention to white socioeconomic disadvantage. Also, the widespread praise of Hillbilly Elegy suggests that elites across the political spectrum are willing to make scapegoats of poor whites. Progressive folks (among whom I count myself) would vigorously protest Vance’s tough-love stance if he were writing about poor people of color, calling them lazy and criticizing them for “bad choices.” Most progressives seem unfazed, however, that Vance’s assessments and policy proposals throw low-income whites under the proverbial bus.

One very poignant vignette in J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy comes in the book’s conclusion. Vance holds up 15-year-old Brian, whom Vance is mentoring, as an illustration for what our country—and “hillbillies”—are getting and doing wrong. Vance writes of taking Brian to a fast-food restaurant and noticing “little quirks that few others would,” such as the fact that Brian didn’t want to share his milkshake and that the young man “finished his food quickly and then looked nervously from person to person. I could tell that he wanted to ask a question, so I wrapped my arm around his shoulder and asked if he needed anything. ‘Y-Yeah,’ he started, refusing to make eye contact. And then, almost in a whisper: ‘I wonder if I could get a few more french fries?’ He was hungry. In 2014, in the richest country on earth, he wanted a little extra to eat but felt uncomfortable asking. Lord help us.”

Vance’s outrage is palpable, and justifiably so. I share that outrage. I have often wondered what people who fail to support food programs (e.g., SNAP/food stamps, free and reduced-price school lunches) think they are accomplishing by keeping kids hungry. I tend to conclude that this stance is explained by a desire to visit the sins of the parents (perceived or real) on their children. Never mind that hungry kids don’t perform well in school, are more likely to have disciplinary problems, and—as a result—further aggravate parental stress. Never mind that when kids go hungry, their potential is thwarted, and their future—as well as that of our nation—is put at risk. Childhood hunger is a pipeline to adult dysfunction.

Yet Vance is apparently among those who see no role for food programs that could alleviate Brian’s hunger. His solution to hungry kids like Brian is for their parents to get and stay married and go to church. His solution is for Brian’s parents not to be white trash. But marriage and church don’t feed the kids, regardless of the kids’ skin color. Why, then, are liberals not outraged at Vance’s policy prescription for a hungry white teenager in Appalachian Kentucky? Progressives would be apoplectic if Vance were saying this about a hungry Black teenager in Detroit?

This acceptance of Vance’s message by elite whites across the political spectrum is bad news for people of color as well as for poor whites because it is one more way in which affluent whites prevent cross-racial coalition building among the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Indeed, it reminds me of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed about white elites during Reconstruction, about the genesis of the Jim Crow era: that elite whites used Jim Crow to segregate the races, to thwart coalition building, to prevent poor whites from seeing what they had in common with Blacks.

Elite whites are still driving wedges between poor whites and Blacks, though I would like to think progressive elites are doing so unwittingly. But vilifying poor whites while expressing concern for the interests of poor Blacks only drives deeper that wedge between two constituencies who desperately need to be in coalition with each other. The acceptance of Hillbilly Elegy’s politics—a politics inflected with race as much as with class—is yet more evidence of that unfortunate phenomenon.

Read more here: https://www.kentucky.com/opinion/op-ed/article229945864.html#storylink=cpy
September 6, 2018

Happy 11th Birthday, Legal Ruralism

 

I nearly forgot--again this year--to commemorate the birthday of my Legal Ruralism Blog (subtitle:  a little legal realism about the rural).  Last year's milestone birthday slipped right by me.  The day of the inaugural post was actually September 3, 2007, so I'm a few days late.  Never mind:  HAPPY 11th BIRTHDAY, LEGAL RURALISM!   The last time I wrote a post about the blog's birthday was on the one year anniversary (roughly), and it featured a photo of Sarah Palin, who had become the face of rural America as John McCain's running mate.  Remember all that Main Street v. Wall Street rhetoric from Election 2008?  And all that rural bashing that Palin's presence on the national stage elicited?  Actually, sounds rather similar to where we are a decade on, thanks to different political actors.  

 

In the last year, I've noticed that Legal Ruralism was cited in a Vera Institute Report on rural jails and that it was cited in a couple of law review articles (e.g., Savannah Law Review and Georgia State Law Review) by scholars other than me.  Admittedly, I have cited the blog fairly frequently in my own academic writing because often I put on the blog a "half-baked" idea about a possible rural trend, and those posts later prove useful when I wind up writing an academic article about what has, in fact, proved to be a trend.   

 

Maybe Legal Ruralism is beginning to prove the adage, "if you build it, they will come."  Certainly, it has helped several national journalists find me over the past few years, as the media became more interested in rural America in the wake of Trump's election. 

 

Here's the first post, from September, 2007, the first semester I taught my Law and Rural Livelihoods course, which launched simultaneously with the blog:

Three articles in the Sunday New York Times pick up on rural themes and phenomena that we discussed in our first class: lack of anonymity, lack of economic opportunity, and urban use (and abuse) of the rural. 

The first story, about a small-town newspaper in western Nebraska, describes a situation similar to the one I described regarding my own home town: complete listings of calls to law enforcement authorities, reported verbatim in the local newspaper. The Nebraska editor is quoted as saying that these reports rival the obituaries in popularity among readers. A look at the reported items indicate that residents of this Nebraska town not only report petty thefts and minor happenings unrelated to law (e.g., squirrel down the chimney), which might go unreported in  urban places, but that they also officiously report their neighbors’ activities. One caller told police that a 9-year-old boy was being endangered by mowing his lawn when the child’s mother was “perfectly capable of doing it herself.” In light of limited law enforcement resources in rural areas, what are we to make of such uses of those resources? Do stories such as this effectively refute the familiar images of rural folk as self-sufficient, close-knit and looking out for one another in helpful ways? 

The other two articles reflect the lack of opportunity associated with rural areas and discuss two different communities’ debates about how to respond to it. One reports on the 5,000-member Yurok tribe in northern California. Situated along the once salmon-rich Klamath River, the tribe is deciding how to spend $92.6 million in logging proceeds – a figure six times the tribe’s annual budget. Some favor a lump sum distribution to members, while others support investment in programs to address high unemployment, flagging fishing, and the drug and alcohol problems with which the tribe has struggled. Meanwhile, development is afoot: a new gas station and 99 slot machines. 

The third article similarly considers the economic struggles of rural folk. Once a thriving paper mill town in northern New Hampshire, Berlin (population 10,000) is trying both to revive its economy -- and to diversify it, “not to put all our eggs in one basket” as the mayor reports. Construction of a federal prison will begin this fall, and the town is developing a 7,500 acre A.T.V. park which it hopes will generate $700,000 in revenue each year.  

While developments in both Klamath, California and Berlin, New Hampshire, are generating hope among residents, the extent to which those residents have considered the downsides to such developments are unclear.

Interestingly, the Klamath River and the Hoopa Tribe who depend on it were in the New York Times again this week.  Christopher Chavis regularly posts about New Hampshire and elsewhere in New England, as he did here a few days ago.  And as for rural self-sufficiency, that was a major theme of this post from a few days ago.  So, I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.  That's certainly true of the "urban use of rural" label, one of the "tags" I put on that very first post eleven years ago.  At this point, more than a decade on, I've used that label more than 100 times, a sad commentary on the ongoing relationship between rural and urban in the United States.  

 

A dear colleague from another institution recently pointed out that someone forgot to tell me that blogging is so yesterday's medium.  Maybe so, but students like doing it in my three seminar courses (I also have a Feminist Legal Theory Blog and a Working Class Whites and the Law Blog) because it's a great way to exchange ideas, to have an extended conversation, to sharpen written communication skills.  I think I'll stick with it for a while--at least another 11 years.  

September 4, 2018

McClatchy feature on policing in rural California echoes my theorizing of law's relation to rurality

Most Wanted Poster

Trinity County, California, Courthouse, July 2018

Photos by Lisa R. Pruitt 

The headline is "Calling 911 in rural California?  Danger might be close, but the law can be hours away," and four Sacramento Bee journalists contributed to this major feature, which has been in the works since December, 2017.

 

I was gratified to see the story--which documents the reality (and consequences) of lack of effective law enforcement and high per capita violent crime rates in California's nonmetro counties.  To be clear, the news is bad, but I was gratified in that the story confirms work I have been doing for more than a decade now (some of it documented in this blog since September, 2007, 11 years ago this month).  That work has been theorizing the difference that rurality makes to law's operation and people's attitudes about law.  In other words, what is the legal relevance of rurality and, thus, why should legal scholars attend to rural difference?  why should "rural" be a category of analysis in the implicitly urbanormative field of law?

Siskiyou County Sheriff's Office, Yreka, California, July 2018

photos by Lisa R. Pruitt (c) 2018

 

Just a few years ago, I published a chapter on this issue in a volume of legal geography essays.  Mine was titled, "The Rural Lawscape: Space Tames Law Tames Space."  My argument was that rural spatiality is in tension with law.  That is, the distance between homes and the distances that legal actors must traverse in order to exert law's authority--to make law meaningful--practically disables law.  Technology can help (that is, time can trump space), but it's costly and cannot always be a substitute for the presence of human law enforcement.  Further, rural residents' sense that they must be self sufficient is reinforced by this lived reality.  As academics express it, society, spatiality and law and all mutually constituting or co-constitutive.  If people know that legal actors such as law enforcement are effectively not present, then they know they must take care of themselves.  In a sense, the lack of efficacy of law promotes a sort of frontier justice or informal order.   

 

Now, the empirical work of these Bee journalists confirms my theorizing with hard data about the number of sheriffs deputies per 100 square miles in California counties--including those all across the state, not just in the northern third on which Sac Bee usually focuses.  These journalists also look at  violent crime rates, confirming that  many of the highest crime counties are "rural" according to the metric used by the reporters:  Alpine (with a population of just 1,175, the state's least populous county, in the eastern Sierra) and Lassen (in the northern Sierra) lead the pack.  Third is metropolitan San Joaquin County, home to Stockton.  

Plumas (again, northern Sierra) is next, followed by the state's most urban county, San Francisco, then nonmetro InyoShastaLake and Modoc.  Of course with populations as low as those of many of these nonmetro counties, the violent crime count doesn't have to be very high to rise to the top of the per capita heap.  Indeed, it would be interesting to see data on deputy sheriff per 1000 residents vs deputy sheriff per 100 square miles.  How different would the map and rankings look then?  And which is the more salient metric, given the significance that material distance plays in rural lives? 

 

The Bee story begins with information about a 2011 double murder in the Trinity County community of Kettenpom, nearer to Mendocino County than to Weaverville, the Trinity County seat.  In that case, Trinity County law enforcement asked the neighbors of a couple who called 911 to check in on that couple because sheriffs deputies coming from Weaverville were several hours away.  The incident ended badly, with the responding neighbors severely wounded and the assailant, who had killed the couple who initially called 911 by the time the responding neighbors arrived, also dead after a car chase.  The responding neighbors, Norma and Jim Gund, are suing the Trinity County Sheriff (in a case now going to the Supreme Court of California), and in the related story by journalist Ryan Sabalow observe, "Over here, we have to take care of ourselves."  Any trust they had in the sheriff's office has disappeared, the story reports.  (The separate story about this law suit is well worth a read, especially for legal eagles who will be interested in the arguments of the respective parties, including the assertion that the Gunds were effectively "posse comitatus," which happens to be the name of a far-right survivalist group).

Another quote from this McClatchy feature similarly speaks powerfully to informal order.  The man quoted is one whom Modoc County Sheriff's deputies knew was growing marijuana illegally.  Yet when they stopped him in a remote locale, they made an effort to calm his anger rather than confront him with the marijuana infraction.  The story reports that the deputies planned to return later with reinforcements rather than risk the consequences of his ire when they stopped him in a vulnerable location.  The man who was stopped, identified as Roberts, told the reporter who was on a "ride along" with the deputies:

We have freedom with responsibility out here.  We can do a lot of stuff. These guys [sheriffs deputies] referee.  

Read more here: https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/article215453050.html#storylink=cpy

Wow, law enforcement as referees for what residents want to do?  This is sounding like the wild west, indeed.  (As it happens, I am in the midst of reading about the wild west in Wallace Stegner's Pulitzer Prize winning Angle of Repose, which features vignettes where vigilante justice takes over, much to the dismay of eastern transplants to places like Leadville, Colorado in the 19th century).  

Bieber, California (Lassen County), July, 2018 

Lack of tax revenue undermines rural counties' 

ability to finance public services

 

These somewhat harrowing vignettes from Trinity and Modoc County aside, what I consider to be the story's lede contrasts rural with urban:

As urban areas such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Fresno grapple with discussions about use of force and the over-policing of minority communities, the state’s rural counties face a growing and no-less-serious law enforcement crisis: a severe shortage of staff that puts the public — and deputies — in danger. 

A McClatchy investigation found that large stretches of rural California — where county sheriffs are the predominant law enforcement agencies and towns often run only a few blocks — do not have enough sworn deputies to provide adequate public safety for the communities they serve.

Elsewhere the story provides this illustration, again contrasting rural and urban:

Del Norte Courthouse, Crescent City, July 2018  

While the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department employs nearly 160 deputies for every 100 square miles it covers, the tiny sheriff’s departments in Madera, Mariposa and Mendocino counties employ about four deputies for the same amount of turf. In Del Norte and Alpine, the counties make do with two deputies per 100 square miles.

Those figures include non-patrol personnel and those who work in county jails. 

Also, consider the role that the phenomena of distance and personnel shortage played in this tragic story out of Tehama County last fall.  Perhaps these Rancho Tehama events gave the Bee journalists the idea for this story.

Tehama County Sheriff's Office, Red Bluff, California, July 2018

The McClatchy story features a color-coded map that shows the number of law enforcement officers per 100 square miles (again, what would it look like if deputies per 1000 residents?).  It reminds me of maps I have helped to produce here showing lawyers per capita in California counties.  Guess what? As with law enforcement officials, nonmetro counties have shortages of lawyers.

 

Another interesting theme/revelation in the story is that no deputy actively patrols in some counties, e.g., Mendocino, for some parts of the night, though deputies are on call from their homes.  When I wrote something similar on Legal Ruralism about my home town in Arkansas a few years ago (see herehere and here), students in my Law and Rural Livelihoods class were shocked to imagine a place with no law enforcement on duty 24-7, yet it is happening here in California, too.

 

A third interesting theme:  population churn in rural areas, partly driven by low cost of living, has had an impact on how rural communities are policed:

Tex Dowdy, the sheriff-elect of Modoc County, said an influx of transient residents drawn to the low cost of living has made identifying suspects harder for Modoc’s deputies. 

The story quotes Dowdy: 

It isn’t the same place where we used to live.  You used to recognize the bad guy walking around the street because he was in the paper every week.

Alturas, California (Modoc County) July 2018

Note the lack of anonymity theme, about which I have written a great deal in the last decade, including here and here.  The sheriff basically confirmed what I have argued:  in rural counties, the "usual suspects" is as powerful a type of profiling as racial profiling, if not more so (and, of course, the two can overlap).

 

A fourth interesting theme--one also  articulated in my academic writing--is that some people seek our rurality for the privacy and effective seclusion from law that it provides.  (Think Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, in rural Montana).  These folks are unlikely to call on law enforcement even when they need it.  Regarding this proposition, the story quotes Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal in relation to this phenomenon:

Things go on in the hills all around us that go unreported.  We know that. Daily. It happens. It’s something that we’ve just gotten used to. There are shootings that occur in the middle of the night. ... We know that there’s kidnappings, we know there are people getting brutalized out in the hills, we know there are people getting robbed.

Honsal's quote reminded me of this feature by Reveal last fall, which I blogged about here, regarding wage theft and sexual abuse of "trimmigrants" in places like Humboldt and Trinity County.  Of course, immigration status can also make people reluctant to report a crime, a particular concern in places like the San Joaquin Valley.  The Chief Justice of California has, for that reason, criticized ICE for any presence in California courthouses.

 

A fifth theme relates to budgets, cuts to which have undermined a prior practice of deputizing people who lived in the remote reaches of a given county:

Until recent years, many rural departments had regional substations and hired “resident deputies” who lived in the remote areas they served. Those resident deputies knew their territories and most of the locals by name, making it harder for crime to go unnoticed, said multiple sheriffs. Resident deputies also allowed for quicker response times. 

Those in need “just come and knock on your door,” said Modoc’s Poindexter. “You just grab your gun belt and go out the door and try to fix it.”

July 2018, Bieber, California (far northern Lassen County), a sheriff station

at the local school, which is closer to Alturas, in Modoc County, than to Susanville,

the Lassen County seat.

Indeed, in my recent drive up California 299 from Burney (Shasta County) to Alturas (Modoc County), I saw a sign indicating such a remote outpost of the Lassen County Sheriff's office in Bieber, which is near the Modoc County line and also not far from Shasta County.   Yet it is technically in Lassen County, and how interesting that the Lassen Sheriff's substation should be at the school, of all places. (More photos from that journey are here and here with more to come in future posts on access to justice in rural California).  A few years ago, I also photographed a Siskiyou County Sheriff's substation in Dunsmuir.  Though it is at the southern edge of the county, it is hardly remote given its locale on I-5.

 

Siskiyou County Sheriff's

Substation, Dunsmuir July 2016

Another aspect of the economic situation is the inability of counties to tax public lands, both federal and state.  The story explains:  

The state compensates counties for protected lands, too, but that funding has been controversial and even less predictable. Since the 2015-2016 budget cycle, the state has given rural counties $644,000 for payments in total each year to be divided among them, said state Sen. Mike McGuire, whose coastal district spans seven counties from Marin to the Oregon border.

I have written previously here and here of the constraints that lack of tax revenue on federal lands place on local governments in rural areas, especially in the West, which has a much greater percentage of public lands than the rest of the country.  The impact of shrinking federal dollars on law enforcement in Southern Oregon has attracted media attention in recent years.  As for that state contribution, less than $700K/year spread among seven counties is pretty pitiful,  even in the context of a paltry rural budget. 

 

Sierra County Courthouse,

Downieville, California, July 2017

A sixth theme of the story is that the state practice of re-alignment (re: prisons and local jails) has not served nonmetro counties well.  The Bee story includes a few interesting quotes to illustrate the conundrum re-alignment has created for county law enforcement. 

 

A seventh theme is the lack of mental health support.

Rural counties have 0.9 psychiatrists for every 10,000 residents, about half the statewide average, according to California Medical Board data. Mariposa has been experimenting with “tele-doc” video technology to connect jail inmates with mental-health professionals in other counties.

Read more here: https://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/article215453050.html#storylink=cpy

Of course, telemedicine is being used to provide mental health and other services in rural counties generally, and not only to incarcerated populations.

 

An eighth theme regards reliance on other law enforcement agencies, including not just California Highway Patrol, but also both federal and state game and fish officers.  The photos show a sign at the California Highway Patrol office in Weaverville (Trinity County), which sits next to the DMV office.  I assume that the sign encouraging reports of vehicle theft responds to the reality that rural residents report crimes at lower rates than their urban counterparts, even when the perpetrator is a stranger.  The other photo I took in Weverville this summer is of a USDA vehicle, reprsenting the sort of law enforcement proxy that game and fish commissioners sometimes represent in rural areas. 

USDA Forest Service vehicle, Weaverville, California, July 2018 

Back to the budget/economics note, I'll close with this stunning data point:  rookie deputies in Modoc County earn $13/hour!  I assume baristas in Los Angeles are paid better than that, especially if you take into account tips.

 

Cross-posted to Legal Ruralism.