People who are “friends” or “followers” of mine on Facebook may have noticed I’d become kind of obsessed with Cliven Bundy and his standoff with the Federal government over his proclaimed right to graze cattle for free on Federally-owned land. People who know me probably think that’s gratuitous on my part and, certainly, out of the ordinary. After all, the issues I really focus on revolve around economic justice, affordable housing and civil rights. What, then, do I care about what a nutcase, millionaire cattle rancher does on Federal land in Nevada?
I’m going to first be honest and get it out there. He’s fun! He’s a looney tunes character trying to make serious arguments around civil and property rights for his defense (not to disparage real Looney Tunes characters). There are a thousand-and-one comedy sketches that could be made about him. Why he doesn’t feel the least embarrassed, I don’t know. There’s also the matter of Tea Party members coming to back him up with armaments; like they would really win an armed standoff with government agents. This matter exemplifies their warped view of the world and of how our government is supposed to relate to the citizenry in terms of enforcing laws governing government property. They’re both really out there and I’m enjoying the comedic responses!
Added to that is what we’re learning about Cliven Bundy as the story unfolds; beyond the fact that he’s an opportunistic liar who wants to maximize his profit from production without paying the required production costs. We know, for example, he’s an unapologetic racist and a libertarian of the Southern “we should have won the war” stripe. And he doesn’t believe in personal accountability. Sort of sounds like talking points of the Tea Party. It’s no wonder their more committed members came to his armed defense. How Bill O’Reilly conflated that with Occupy Wall Street is another mystery in the messaging surrounding this story. At any rate, we see here that weird intersection between racism, self-interested maneuvering and economic bullying I referenced in my last blog post.
I’m following the unfolding of this story for more personal — maybe, more meaningful — reasons, though. The story raises questions in three significant areas: whether the government can assert (or, by extension, claim) ownership over property; under what conditions can an individual or corporate person assert their own needs (or perceived rights) over the government’s claim; and what is it the government is charged with protecting or promoting when it asserts ownership? I’m sure there are more questions that derive from this matter should folks step back and reflect on it, rather than simply soaking in ad hominem sound bites. But these are valid questions, I think. It appears Bundy has staked out his own position on them. I have my own, too.
That’s why I find this an intriguing story. I’m a long-time member and current board member of an organization, Picture the Homeless, that is addressing some of those same questions this story raises. Together with the Take Back the Land movement and the New York City Community Land Trust Initiative, we are looking at ways to redirect property and residential ownership and use of property to promote a human right to housing over merely viewing housing as a commodity that economically benefits a few who, want to maximize a return on investment without benefitting the communities in which they own private property. Obviously, we’re looking at a number of ways to achieve that; but we are not closed to the idea of leveraging eminent domain. When I mentioned that, not long ago, to a journalist, he acted surprised that you could use eminent domain to achieve that. I reminded him of the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case where the Court ruled the government can absolutely exercise eminent domain for the economic health of a community. The Court did so, in that case, for a community government that wanted to take private property from individuals and turn it over to private hotel developers. If the Court can determine the Constitution allows that for the economic benefit of the community, and the Court did, who’s to say the Court won’t affirm — or at least, should affirm — that the State can do so when the economic benefit of the community means making safe, affordable housing available to people who are otherwise priced out of the housing market?
By raising these questions from the libertarian right, albeit unknowingly and for self-interested reasons, Cliven Bundy and his Tea Party allies are actually diffusing, in advance, charges of “communism” and “socialism” when we raise the same questions from the left. That makes the case of Cliven Budy and his assertion of free access to Federal land more than just fun or intriguing. It gives us something substantive to watch.