A long tradition of oppression and perserverence

From the Bundys to #NoDAPL, protest movements in the West thrive.

 

Last weekend, I drove to the recreation center and found a “handicapped” parking spot. I hung my blue tag on the mirror, got out and walked a short distance over a smooth sidewalk to the front of the building. There, I pushed the big button at wheelchair height that automatically opens the doors and went in. No big deal, right?

Only it is a big deal, because access to public spaces and businesses for people like me — I’ve used crutches my whole life — was not a given until the passage of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act. And it took determined people decades to make that happen against the will of a business community that thought — and in pockets still thinks — the law too burdensome.

The ADA is part of our country’s proud tradition of protest movements, which seems to be accelerating in the digital age — from #BlackLivesMatter to #MeToo to the nascent #NeverAgain movement sparked by high school students from Parkland, Florida, where a former student recently gunned down 17 people with a legally purchased AR-15.

As those students jump into the gun debate, they join legions of activists, past and present, who have notched victories and endured setbacks. They comfortably wield the tools of social media, which enables rapid organizing, but also encourages vicious counterattacks. They will need thick skin and stamina to keep their eyes on the prize, as the civil rights movement put it.

The West’s own movements have been magnified by digital connectivity. Witness the anti-federal crowd that rallied around rancher Cliven Bundy and his sons, who outmaneuvered federal prosecutors over armed confrontations in Nevada and Oregon. Writer Hal Herring caught up with them in the tiny town of Paradise, Montana; his essay in this issue reveals a movement that remains small but potent in rural America.

Paul Larmer, executive director and publisher
Brooke Warren/High Country News

And then there is the #NoDAPL movement that erupted on the North Dakota prairie two years ago, seeking to halt an oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Though it failed in that mission, the protest inspired a new generation of Native American activists, who have continued the fight on other battlefields. Contributing Editor Jonathan Thompson spent time with a few of them in the Four Corners region, where oil and gas development is closing in on Navajo communities and the culturally significant Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

Thompson notes that the new activists, steeped in a long tradition of oppression and perseverance, already understand something that the students in Florida may just now be realizing — that their work will be neither easy nor quick. It will take years of on-the-ground organizing and determined negotiation with equally determined industries and politicians. But change is always possible. Those doors may look closed, but under strong enough pressure, they will one day open — like the automatic doors at my recreation center.

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