A discussion with Jayne Seminare Docherty, Eastern Mennonite University
June 1, 2021
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Heidi Burgess: Hi and welcome! I’m Heidi Burgess, and I’m with Guy Burgess. Today we are talking with Professor Jayne Docherty who is the Executive Director of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. We've known Jayne for a long time and are very impressed with the work that she does between what we would call “deeply divided, highly intractable” groups and people in conflict. She has a very balanced, and we think insightful, view of people on both sides of the red-blue divide in the United States. We saw her give a talk about her work in Harrisonburg, Virginia where she lives, which she pointed out is very much like a microcosm of the United States. The city is liberal, and the county is conservative. When you put it together, you see the kinds of conflicts arising that we are seeing all over the country. The story that she told earlier about her work with militias in Harrisonburg was fascinating. So, we asked her to come talk to us at BI, and tell the story again. We also asked her to tell us what has been happening since the 2020 election, because I would assume that things have gotten hotter. So, Jayne, why don't you give us the background to your work and tell us what's going on now.
Jayne: Great! Thank you, thanks for inviting me! I really appreciate the time. I would say that to say I been doing a lot of work on this is maybe a little bit of an exaggeration. I am working with a lot of other people, but also just mostly at this point it's very exploratory. It's not like we convened any big conversations. I've had personal conversations with people and I'll talk about that, because I think all good work in this area has to start with good analysis and relationship building, which takes time. So, you can't just of all of a sudden have a crisis and then dive in and say “I am here to help and I have a process!” if you don't have relationships with people already.
S,o I I'd like to go ahead and share that, and talk about what is going on in our area. I’ll use the PowerPoint from the last time we were together which was actually in December. 2020. So, it was before January 6, but after the election.
So, what would you do when the militia are your neighbors, and your community is really a microcosm of the country. That was the question I started with in that earlier talk. I’ll just go ahead and share what I talked about back then.
I wanted to first talk about why I called Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, Virginia, which are in the gorgeous Shenandoah Valley, a microcosm of the US. I’ll then share what some recent critical events have been--the election results and the responses to them, and then what I think we could or should be doing.
So, here we are in the western part of the state and you can see our election results. 70% of the county went for Trump and 65% of the city went for Biden. It has been that way for quite some time. This city flipped fully blue in 2008 and has never gone back. So, now the city itself is extremely multicultural. We are a refugee resettlement community. And so, in addition to universities and businesses related to universities, the refugee resettlement communities and immigrant communities are working largely in the poultry industry,which I'll talk about in and I'm in a minute. The city has become this very multicultural, fascinating, city with lots of really cool restaurants and different cultures, and 60 some languages are spoken in the public schools. Our city schools have become models that people come study for how to do English language learning. We have a school that people come to look at that's dual immersion Spanish and English and parents fight to get their children into that school. No Republican has won a city race since 2008.
And then there's Rockingham County, which has lots of open space with little towns dotted around and lots of poultry farming and beef and some dairy. The county is predominantly white and has lots of “from heres” as opposed all the “come heres” who live in the city. It’s organized around agriculture, and almost no Democrat can win a county race. There are some long long-standing, long-term, family residents who are Democrats and have won. There’s one family who has been there for generations. They are Democrats and they have won, like a school board race, or things like that.I think their "from-here-ness" has outweighed the fact that they are a Democrat, or it has in the past.
There are things that the city and the county share. One thing is agriculture, which is the biggest economic sector in the county. It takes five more counties in the state of Virginia to make as much money on agriculture as does Rockingham County. The county is phenomenally rich in terms of its soil and the microclimate that is created by the mountains on either side of the valley. This County, in particular, is incredible for growing crops and feeding animals. Then the poultry processing and all of the other support services for agriculture a provide a strong economy.
However, there is a lot of poverty and inequality. I don't know if you've heard of the United Way's "Alice Studies." Alice stands for " asset-limited, income-constrained, employed." It's a new category that United Way is trying to track and categorize because the poverty level hasn't changed and the measuring of poverty hasn't been changed. These are the people who are one bad tire on their car away from catastrophe. They have no assets, and limited ability to access anything for an emergency. They are one emergency room visit away from disaster.
They did adjust the study in the city to try to eliminate all of the students who are at James Madison University (the big university) and EMU (our little tiny university on the other side of town) by dropping anyone under the age of 25 out of the city study. They still came up with 61% Alice or below levels of poverty in the city. That had a huge effect during COVID. We were a COVID hotspot for quite some time. People are living in crowded conditions, so, they can't isolate when they got sick. So ,we really had high infection numbers it this year. That's the impact of this kind of inequality.
Then there are a lot of other issues that actually are shared in the city and the county. The county has serious broadband access issues. Again, COVID highlighted that, as students were not able to access schools because of lack of broadband. In the mountains, when you get back in the hollers, there's really not even good cell service in some places, let alone broadband access. And it's not profitable for the companies to establish it. And Virginia's Republican legislators, for a long time, have blocked any broadband expansion through the electric cooperatives by not allowing the municipalities or the electric cooperatives to put in the broadband access, because they kept passing legislation to favor Comcast, and other big companies, which wouldn't do it because it's not profitable.
Also, housing quality is a problem and the affordability of housing is a huge problem right now in the city. Houses aren't even staying on the market for three or four days. They are put up for sale, and practically immediately, they are gone, and especially those in the affordable range. Part of it, they've discovered, through a big housing study, is that it might be partially due to the thrifty Mennonite culture. Those of us who are Mennonite and can afford the McMansions are not moving up into them. So, then there's the squeeze on the houses that would be available to lower-income folks. But we're just not vacating them were not following the traditional pattern.
Drugs --we have a serious problem with drugs, in the County in particular. People talk about the challenge of of drugs. And then the lack of mental health services is a problem in both areas.
What do we look like on the state and national level in terms of electing leaders?. Basically, this area has been gerrymandered so substantially that we probably should have a Democrat as a state delegate, but we don't because they chopped a couple of cities apart, so the state senators in the Valley are all Republicans and our congressional representative is a Republican too. He's one of the ones who are still saying that the election was stolen. But our state senators are both Democrats, and the governor, the Lieutenant Gov. and the Attorney General are Democrats. And in 2019, Democrats took control of the state legislature. So, we are becoming more and more in isolated pocket of Republican representation which I think. with a little "un-gerrymandering," this area could go either way.
So, there are differences and tensions between the areas. One example is immigration enforcement. You can imagine we might have differences of opinion over Second Amendment issues, Black Lives Matter and the militia presence.
So, here's what happened. When Trumps travel ban began in 2017, within 24 hours, about a thousand people, or 1500 people showed up on Court Square in the city to say "No, this is not okay." This picture is not very big--you can't see anywhere near the whole crowd. We were the ninth most affected city by the travel ban because our refugee population came from the countries that were specifically targeted in the ban. These were our neighbors. We had neighbors who were stuck, unable to get back into the country after having gone home for a visit. So, this picture is our community and I just wanted to show you the sign. I don't know if you've seen the tricolored signs—they kind of have gone all over the country— I even saw some in Canada. They say "it says it doesn't matter where you're from, you're welcome here" in three different languages. Those actually were created in our town, and theyve spread everywhere. But they were first created in Harrisonburg, well before the travel ban. So, even before this, we were actively saying we welcome people. They were actually created by a graduate of our program.
Heidi: Were they created because there was pushed back earlier, before the travel ban, or...
Jayne: They were created around the time of Trump's election— so before he had a chance to do that. But when he started running for office, there was all the stuff around the campaign, "build a wall" and all of that. So we, as a community (in the city) very quickly reacted to what looked like a significant threat to our community and our neighbors. We've been a refugee resettlement community for more than 40 years. So we have multi-generational, long-standing immigrant families in our in our area.
There was a movement to end cooperation with ICE that predates Trump, so this would have been back in 2014 or 2015. The city formed a coalition to say" we don't want you cooperating with ICE. It had to do with some incidents where long-term residents with no history of criminal activity or anything were picked up by ICE. There were a couple of cases that really hit the paper and hit the community hard. So the city mobilized to say "we don't want that!" Rockingham County had to get involved and agree to and the 287G Agreement, which is where if you're a local law enforcement officer, and you arrest somebody, then you check their records with ICE and then they can be held locally without trial, until ICE comes and picks them up. So we had to get the county involved in this because the Sheriff's office, which, while it remains mostly white, runs the jail. So, the city law enforcement has become much more diverse.
At the time I put this slideshow together, we had an African-American police chief. We were so excited, he had joined us from Richmond. But then he got a job offer to go back closer to Richmond, which is his home, and to be a chief of a much bigger locality, so he left. But the next person acting chief was Latino. So, there's been this change in the policing in the city where I've actually heard a police officer who's white say something like "if we show up and we don't understand the people, that's on us, not on them." We need to have the language diversity and the capacity to work with the residents of our community. Meantime, the sheriff's office remains mostly white and has a different reputation for working with the community and the diversity of the community. So, there's some tension there. One thing, I think, that happens in the Sheriff's office, is that the deputies who are a little more progressive move into the city and join the city police force.
In 2018, I woke up to a text on my phone at 5 AM and I'm looking at this thing and it's a property record--showing the transfer of property for a house that had been for sale right above Eastern Mennonite University in this little Mennonite neighborhood. And look who moved in! These are the people who run Red Ice Media, which is a major white-nationalist, white-supremacist media operation that has global reach. They bought this house in the middle of this Mennonite community and then they were shocked when we indicated we knew who they were and that they were. I thought, "wow, you didn't do your homework very well. You can't move into a Mennonite community that's pretty closed, and not have everybody go figure out who you are. Because they'll do their research. They ended up leaving —in January 2021, they just packed up and left. They were cut off of YouTube already—in the purges of the media platforms they got cut off. But the response in Harrisonburg was "what are we going to do?" Who are these people? Keep in mind, this is a year after Charlottesville, Virginia, which is an hour away. We feared that they were here to stir things up. So we did a lot of investigation and concluded that basically, their role in the movement of white supremacy that they see themselves as some sort of intelligentsia who set the framework of philosophy, more than they actively rile people up. They are very, very prominent in expanding the the white-replacement theory—the notion that whites are being replaced and that their white culture is in danger. and they really run those kinds of programs. And we concluded that that the people who are actually most at risk from them are not our neighbors, who are not white, but rather, the students at various universities, especially because they seem to be wanting to target people are to be teachers or health professionals or people who were moving into places where they want them to have this white replacement theory in mind. Now all of the universities in our area run teacher education programs, so these are the people we should be worried about getting caught up in this, not our immigrant neighbors. We did a few things around the campuses to say, for example, "let's keep an eye on what kinds of papers students are writing, and what kind of sources they are citing to see if this philosophy is reaching them. But we mostly ignored them. And then they went away.
Heidi: So, there weren't any incidents?
Jayne: No. We had this long strategy conversation, because you can imagine, people wanted to go up [to their house and confront them.] They lived on the top of this gorgeous hill that has a west view and an east view and it is a $500,000 house. It was like a huge house! I know $500,000 doesn't sound like much in some parts of the country, but in Harrisonburg Virginia that's a beautiful house! And it's a dead-end street and people were saying "we should protest! As if that would work great. They would take these tricolored signs and do a whole riff on how everybody but white people who are proud of being white are welcome in Harrisonburg. Right? Like you welcome everybody but them! So in the end, people concluded the best strategy was just to treat them with civility and ignore them. I don't know if that was the right choice or not. We also worked with social media, such as You Tube hoping that they would be "de-platformed," which they were. And so we decided not to confront them directly but to keep an eye on what they were doing.
Of course, as soon as the state legislature and the governorship and the Attorney General and the Lieutenant Governor were all Democrats, guess what became an issue? [The Second Amendment.] So here, we have off year elections, so that was the 2019 election when we slipped blue and then in 2020, here we are! And there's a big movement. It's so ironic, because there was all of this backlash in the county about anybody suggesting we be a sanctuary city for refugees or immigrants—it was a big uproar—but it wasn't a big thing. We had some conversations in the city about whether we should declare ourselves a sanctuary city, but it wasn't anything that became a big deal because there wasn't a big push for it and we believed that we could care of our people. We didn't feel we had to make a big statement about it. But then in the county they started a push to declare the county a "Second Amendment Sanctuary," so making it illegal to enforce any state or federal law against guns in the county. Quite a few counties in Virginia passed this and Rockingham County was considering doing that too. This picture is the high school where the hearing was held. They moved the County supervisors meeting to the high school because they knew they would have a big crowd coming and this is a shot of it. A couple thousand people showed up and they eventually had to shut the meeting down because anyone who tried to speak against sanctuary county status could hardly be heard.
I had a couple of friends who went to speak against this, who, as as it was all breaking up and shutting, s down a couple of people who were there to support the sanctuary county initiative came up to them and said "we do not agree with the tone in this place and we will walk you to your car." So, it got to that level where this was felt very threatening and intimidating, but within the people who were there to advocate for the Second Amendment, there were also people is that "this is not okay," because we believe in the First Amendment as well as the Second Amendment. They self identified as veterans and said "we will walk you to your car." and I know that happened for a couple of people who were there.
In the city, we avoided the whole conversation through a swift maneuver of the agenda of the city Council that led to it being a discussion only, but there would be no vote on it. So, there was sort of a process, a little switcheroo, that didn't give it the kind of hearing [they had in the county] and very few people showed up to support it.
So, that was all on everybody's mind and then George Floyd is murdered and then Black Lives Matter got to be a bid deal. We had a big, big Black Lives Matter rally in the city which everybody would expect, but what I think people didn't anticipate was two small towns out in the county where the high school students — remember the younger generation is a little bit more diverse — and they are in high school with more diverse young people than their parents are used to, sponsored Black Lives Matter rallies to talk about problems with racism and stuff that was going on in the schools in these two small towns. So in Elkton and in Bergton they held these rallies, and they were met by militia and counter-protester. There were a lot of questions about whether those militias were cooperating with the police and vice versa. So, were they coordinating? I know from some personal conversations that city and town officials in both places were not, I don't think, [coordinating with the militias.] I know the officials in at least in one town were concerned about safety and they were as concerned about the militias and the counter protesters as they were about anybody else--maybe even more so.
After this there was a kind of an investigation, and there was some local reporting done that investigated the behavior of the militias and law enforcement. Each of these towns has their own very small Police Department and then there would be the Sheriff's office in the County. The question was whether they cooperated together with the militias in their activities around these two Black Lives Matter rallies. There is no paper trail evidence that they did. But my sense is that they did to some extent, because they all know each other. The guys in the local militia went to high school with the cops right? So, they all know each other, so they are going to talk to each other out in public, they're not going to just say "I can't talk to you." So, there's this whole different set of relationships that gets a little harder to sort out.
Heidi: Was there any violence?
Jayne: No, there wasn't violence. There was some shouting. There are some really ugly pictures of people shouting and screaming at that at the students. There were also some groups here who kind of deployed people to stand between the protestors and promote nonviolence. So a number of people from the city who were trained--they had Christian Peacemaker Teams experience, were out there. And their reports back were that it was "a little more complicated than you think" on the militias.
I'm not surprised by that. Because I have a little theory about what's happening with militias in this country right now. We've had the long-standing militia movements, which are largely local, and then that there are other pressures on them right now—and I'll talk about that in a minute. But it wouldn't all of been local people. So, what I was hearing we that people were coming from other counties, but they were also coming from a little bit from further away. And those were the people that local people were most worried about —the people with no local connections, no social capital, and no social constraints. And even within the militia, there was tension over the non-local people. There were different motives of people who showed up under the banner of "militia." so I was hearing some reports about that myself, and also hearing that from a series of of reports on our local NPR station. That station does some very good local reporting, as does our local online newspaper. And one of the last lines in the last article I read was the head of the Rockingham County militia saying "I wish people would just talk to us. Ask us. Call us."
So, I took that seriously, and I know the reporter and I backtracked and I said "can you get a message to this person?" and they said "yes." So, I ended up having a meeting with them. The meeting didn't take place until after the election. So, let's talk about what was going on in the meantime. So, approaching the election in 2020, there was fear, based on this experience with the militias on the Black Lives Matter rallies. People in the city and people in the county who are Democrats were concerned about potential violence or intimidation at the polls. We have some polling precincts in Harrisonburg that are majority minority —the population that lives there is majority minority, and there were some fear that those polling places might be subject to intimidation or problems.
There was also, of course, a lot of early voting happening, so people were doing what everybody around the country was doing, which is voting early because of the pandemic. And it was very clear in the reports out from the officials that it was Democrats who were voting early, just like happened across the country. There was a lot of heavy voting early in the city, less in the county.
So, the Democratic committee in both the city and the county reached out to the Republican committees to say, "can we get a handle on this? Can we talk about what this will look like.?" And the Republican committees just said "don't worry about it. Not interested." No conversation. So, the Democratic committees were thinking, "how do we protect the voters? How do we make sure there's no intimidation?" And then there were just general citizens who joined the "Hold the Line group which is part of all that national organizing that was happening. So ,we formed a local chapter of Hold the Line and started preparing for how we could ensure safety on the day of the election.
The electoral board members and registrars, both Democrat and Republican, were just doing their jobs. They were being extraordinarily professional, just like we saw in most parts of the country. For them, it was all about the process. Early voting was going on. And on election day, we had no problems, no visible guns. We are a concealed carry state, so, I don't know how many people had concealed weapons—you never know around here. There was no militia presence that we were aware of or could see.
There had been back-channel conversations with the Sheriff's office and the police department about what we were we doing to protect polling places. How are you handling this? There were conversations with the Commonwealth's Attorney. We asked, "are you going to send out a message?" In Charlottesville, they sent out a joint message saying there will be no tolerance at all for any guns at polling places, period. Here they chose not to send that out. They told us "we've communicated as we feel like we need to and we think that any public communication was just going to provoke something. I saw this to mean that they all called their high school buddies and said "don't show up with guns" and it will be okay. And we had to trust them.
I was at a city polling place for the whole day. There was a police car that parked way far away out in the parking lot a couple of times during the day and stayed there for a while. That was it. We didn't hear anything out in the county. I actually heard the sheriff say "you know, us being there can also be a problem of intimidation and we recognize that too. Some people may feel intimidated by our presence there." So, whatever they did was pretty low-key.
The precinct work that day really felt like "the good old days". I don't know if you do precinct work on election day, but generally for decades everywhere I've lived, it's the same. I'm on one side and some person who lives in my community that I see once a year when we're at the polling location is handing out literature is over there, and that's how it was. People were courteous. They had printed their sample ballots on blue paper. Generally, we try to have an agreement that we use the blue paper and they use something else. But you know, I'd just jokingly say "do you want the real blue sample ballot, or do you want theirs?"
We would kind of talk back and forth, but I was overhearing some of their conversation with each other and realizing that we had a problem. For one thing, the polling and the incoming people were clearly more Republican than they were Democrat, because the Democrats had voted early. So, here they are watching this and they're going "yeah, we got this!" You could hear them talking about how "there isn't going to be a problem. It's going to be a clear victory and there's no way Biden can win. And you could see why their perceptions were that this election was stolen if all they saw was that, then they don't know how this happened.
Then there were the tensions while we were awaiting results. The Hold the Line group went out on the street saying "you need to count all the ballots" when Trump was trying to shut the counting down. And then when he said "no, count all the ballots," we got off the streets. But there was just this general tension and are local elected representatives were showing that. Obviously, the Democrats were fine, but our Republican representatives, especially our Congressman, was one of the ones who voted to overturn the result in another state. He signed on to the to the lawsuit [challenging the election outcome]. He has voted against the inquiry into January 6. He's really flipped into being Trump kind of person.
Everywhere I turn in the peacebuilding community, people who have been working overseas are now looking at the U.S. and saying do we do?" We have all the skill sets for violent places. And the first thing people talk about is dialogue, but and I'm like, WHAT? Dialogue is how liberals get what they want. That's how conservatives in this country feel about dialogue. It is true in the churches. What a lot of urban liberal folks maybe don't recognize is that many of the people who are on the more conservative side here have had experiences with dialogue in their churches. In the last decade or so, churches have held dialogues around same-sex marriage, around ordaining women, and other controversial topics. Typically, somebody comes in and tries to do dialogue and that's how liberals get what they want in the church. So, because so many of the people in our work maybe don't go to church or they are in UU, or other very liberal churches, they don't recognize that this whole idea of dialogue is already tainted by other life experiences that their neighbors have had or have felt. So, to just come in and say "let's do dialogue" in the absence of a worldview detente is just "dialogue of the death." How are we going to talk about something if we don't even agree about the reality of it? Something else needs to happen.
Then, honestly, the Republican leaders have really stepped up in our area using paranoia and fear—just fueling it. At the same time, quite honestly, and I want to say this, I have heard some of the most hateful things from my liberal colleagues in terms of the way they talk about rural people, and rural Republicans, and rural communities. It's frankly appalling and it's ignorant. I'll talk about that in a minute.
So, to me, I feel that we need substantive, structural peacebuilding in this country and not dialogue. Dialogue needs to be part of it, but there are many other factors that are driving us apart. There are real things that have happened in rural America that have deeply damaged community fabric, hope, and opportunity. Even within our county, there are towns that have been devastated by their inability to stay connected, never mind to broadband, to stay connected to that poultry economy because the roads are so bad. They've ended up in the situation that their kids all have to move out to find work, leaving behind old people and falling down chicken houses. There are people in our county who lived without connection to sewer and public running water with a straight pipe running to the river because they cannot afford the $30,000 that it would take to dig into the rock and put in a septic system. There's deep divides and real harm that's been done to rural America in the last 40 or 50 years. That has to be taken into account. It's very invisible because people are proud. I lived out in the county for a while. I had neighbors, who during hunting season, that's when they filled their freezer with meat and that's how they managed, even though they're quite poor. They had gardens and they feed themselves and they are very independent.
So, I think a community like ours is kind of like the front line of the so-called civil war. We actually have all of these dynamics, and we're small enough, you can get your arms around it. And we can talk to each other. So my thing is, we start building from the ground up. We start with what are some shared problems that we share across city and county. It could be broadband. It could be flooding. Both locations have some flat areas that are prone to flooding. We identify the structural drivers and begin addressing those together and set aside trying to have the left/right political conversation. And then also hold political leaders on both sides to account for driving this division on purpose.
And there are some people in in the area that are working on this. One is "Faith in Action" which is a is a coalition of faith communities that crosses the city-county line that is trying to ramp up. They've done a lot of work on criminal justice reform. Every year they pick a topic and they push for some kind of change., They've recently signed on with the Industrial Areas Foundation to do a "Power-up drive" — really trying to build local people power to address local issues and these kinds of problems. So I've been spending some time with them. I think they have the right idea.
I also reached out to the militia and we ended up meeting on November 7. So, after the election. What I found really interesting was how so many of my liberal friends responded to my telling them that I was going to meet with the command team of the local militia. This was in the middle of the pandemic. So, I haven't been out or seen people or been out of my little bubble, at all. But I agreed to meet them at a local Irish pub kind of restaurant. And people asked me "are you going to be safe?!!". Like, what are they going to do to me at the Irish pub? "We're in public. It's going to be fine."
What I discovered from talking with them was that my hypothesis is right. The traditional militia groups, which are very local, are being fractured in two different ways. They are being fractured a little bit internally by the people who made the Second Amendment the sole thing that they care, [and those who have broader interests] and then they are being fractured by people who are coming from outside who are trying to drive white-supremacist thinking into what was a local group. The local group, by the time I met with them, had changed their name from Rockingham County Militia to Rockingham County Volunteer Emergency Response Team. So, I was like "hmmm... the militia brand isn't working anymore?" They sort of ignored that. But I that's really what I think it is.
Then they talked about the role that they played and their concerns about election violence earlier in the week. They basically had some conversations, I think, with some of the people who were all about guns to say, "you know, if you really think you're making people safe feel safe when you do that, you're not." I don't know how much of that went on and how much they were responsible for the fact that there weren't a lot of guns or militia types hanging around pulling places. We didn't get deep into it. But there's definitely a conversation that's happening in those groups about how much you focus on the Second Amendment and how much you focus on community safety and what your militia mission was when you formed. As for white supremacists, they said "our group has a zero-tolerance policy around any kind of racist behavior, symbols, activities, any of that.
I think that there are some implications here as we think about what to do going forward. Now remember the first time I presented this was before January 6. It was between the election and January 6. I think that some of the implications are that some of these traditional militia groups and Second Amendment activists tend to be our neighbors. And they may be key people in our communities for fending off white supremacist activists and recruiters who are coming into our communities to try to mobilize. So, we should look for that.
And it's possible that these folks can be worked with around local problems. When we finished chatting about the election and white supremacy, I asked "what are the problems that the county and you all care about? What are the big challenges? How are the farmers doing in the middle of this pandemic? And we we just had a conversation about that. They said "our kids are getting into drugs. We need drug rehab and healthy things for kids to do. We need mental health services, as our area has serious mental health problems. I don't know if people are aware of this. but, generally, the suicide rates in rural communities among white male farmers is astronomical. I don't think that we have had the same problem here because our farming community is so successful. But across America that is a problem in many communities. They said "we need opportunities. We need broadband. We need all of these things." So, a lot of what we talked about was very common problems.
So, I asked, "how do we identify shared problems across the city-county line? Obviously, financial vulnerability, is a shared problem. It's in the city. It's in the county. Access to broadband. The criminal justice system is a huge problem. There is an attempt to expand the regional jail. I met with the militia group again in March and I said "are you aware that they're trying to expand the Middle River jail, (which is the regional jail)? And they responded, "what are they doing that for?!!" We need drug rehab. We need addiction services. Those don't happen in the jail. We need mental health support systems. And I said, "well you know, there's a whole group that's organizing to oppose this expansion. You want me to put you in touch with them? And so I did an introductory email to the group that was organizing and these guys. and they never wrote back on the email, but I think they joined the Facebook group. At least some of them did. But they were really clear [on their opposition]. Some of them had worked at the jail, and even they said "we don't need to expand that place. There's all kinds of problems with that." So, their reaction was instant, insisting "that is not what we need." And they just weren't aware of the organizing that was going on [around the same agenda] in the liberal city.
Heidi: This story is [interesting]. All their concerns sound like liberal concerns.
Heidi: So, the opportunities for joint effort are enormous.
Heidi: So, that brings me back to something you talked about before, which is what it means to them to be a militia member? What is the purpose of a militia?
Jayne: Community service and emergency response.
Heidi: So, like Lions Club or Elks Club or something like that?
Jayne: Yes, but with an emphasis on we can also shoot people if you needed us to. So, there's a bit of a paramilitary focus on this, but it's also a little bit law-enforcement. Some of them have a law enforcement background. Several of them were veterans. And there are younger ones. People who not old people, but people who have been in the "global war on terror."They've been to Afghanistan and Iraq. We had some conversations about that. It is about serving your community.
Guy: Years ago, we were involved in mountain search and rescue all over Colorado and we go into rural communities and there be possies that would basically be a bunch of civilians that would help out the sheriff, on occasion, and they had less mountaineering skills than we did, but we would search together for lost people and they would organize food for everybody.
Jayne: Yep! These guys run a major food bank, not a permanent food bank but when there is a need. They step in when somebody in the community needs money for heath care--they help raise money for that kind of thing. That's what they do!
Another example: I'm trying to remember when that was --it was early on a Saturday morning. I had just gotten out of bed. And my townhouse is up on a hill, overlooking a valley. Well, there was an explosion that rocked my house. My thought was "oh my God, what was that?" I ran over to the bathroom window and saw a giant plume of smoke coming up over near the highway. I thought maybe a tanker truck turned over. It turned out to be a gas explosion in a small strip mall, that blew the place apart, and also did serious damage in the area. The militias responded immediately and went to help with a variety of things like crowd control, so the fire rescue could do what they needed, to set up a food tent—helpful things like that.
I asked them "what was your first thought when you heard the explosion?" Because, actually, my first thought was to wonder who was running a meth lab in the city. My second thought was that it maybe was a tanker truck, and then I didn't know what it was. But they were like, "oh yeah, we're thinking someone's running a meth lab in the city. We know they are out in the county, but wow!"
Another issue that I think we all can get around would be the big poultry industry. The interesting thing about this county is that this is really where big poultry started. There were two families here who created this whole system to raise poultry and get it to communities. This was in the 20s and 30s. They invented a way to get rural farmers' product to market in the communities that needed it. It helped them become self-sustaining and not just hardscrabble farmers. But, over the next decades, the industry has turned to major vertically-integrated poultry operations, where the farmers are now back to, basically, being sharecroppers with a lot of debt for a lot of heavy equipment. That led to a lot of turmoil. But thin in 2005 or 6 or sometime like that, Pilgrim's Pride (one of the big poultry operators) announced that they were going to close their whole operation at one end of the county in 60 days. That was 160 some farmers who were losing their livelihoods. And people are like WHAT???!!! So, they formed cooperative —it is now the Virginia Poultry Growers Cooperative. Tim Kaine, I think was the governor then. He stepped in and helped them find financing. They have now become an alternative approach to farming here. They've moved more towards organic and sustainable because they don't have all the pressure they had before, and they run multiple processing plants. There was also this whole thing with these large operations that they will just abandon a facility that is out of date. They will just walk away from it. And there were a number that was sitting around, so some older farmers were like" I'm not put in another $60,000 into my operation at this stage in my life. I maybe can't take on that debt." So, they formed what is now Farmer Focus and they are producing organics with Shenandoah Valley Organics. They took over the old operating systems and created it. So, we are seeing this reshaping of the poultry economy that nobody's paying attention to. But it's creating resilience Then there are all of these younger people who are homesteading smaller farms and going really, really organic--farming in a different way. So, there is all of this stuff happening out in the county and very few people in urban areas actually recognize what's happening as opportunity.
I think the other thing we have to do is begin diving in very locally to the mostly hidden histories. For example, very few people realize the Shenandoah Valley was burned to the ground during the Civil War. It was also the site of a lot of war resistance because the Mennonites and Brethren would not participate in the war, but the Northern army came through here and burnt this place to the ground because it was the bread basket feeding the South. And there's a huge scar on the psyche that has come down the generations for ways that people approach conflict and how they feel about that [history.] We need to tell the stories and look at them.
After the war, our county with one of the local organizing sites for the "Re-adjuster Movement." You know, we didn't go straight from the end of the Civil War to Jim Crow. It actually took a long time to hammer the Jim Crow system into place. In some places like Wilmington, North Carolina, there was an elected biracial government that was overthrown by a coup. Here in Virginia, we had what was called "the re-adjuster movement" where freed slaves and white up-country farmers got together and told Richmond. "We want schools, we want roads, we are not paying taxes just to pay off your war debt. And they got elected at the state level and the federal level--they got elected into Congress. And it took decades to hammer them out. So, there is a trail of progressive thinking and pockets of progressive thinking in the county that goes back to this period. And it's one of the reasons Harrisonburg has such good schools. It's also why we have our own water. We do our own water supply and it's been really well developed, and our own electric company.
So, in addition to all the innovation and resilience in farming, the other shared history that we have is that we could all get together and tell stories about being pushed off of our land by big operators who wanted us gone. We have refugees from Shenandoah National Park, to the east of us. All the people who lived up in that parkland were pushed off to build the park and were relocated down into our area. That resulted in multi-generational trauma scars. Then in the city, they used HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) money to basically dismantle and take apart the African-American community. So many, many truth tellings could be done about being pushed off the land.
Then I asked the militia guys I met with" how long have your families been here?" I found out that some of them go back to the 16th and 1700s— like first settler families. Some are more recent. A lot of them came from places where they were being pushed off the land. Scottish land clearances, or Irish being pushed out. So, I think even if we just sat and told all of our stories about how our families were were forcibly relocated [we'd find even more commonalities].
Then there is been the whole thing regarding the Monacan Nation, which is the Native American tribal group for this area. This area was mostly a hunting ground for them, so it was shared by many different tribes. But they are revitalizing and they were finally recognized in Virginia and then federal was finally given to the Virginia tribes, too, after a 20 year long fight in recent years. Many conversations could be had.
So that's my story!
Heidi: That's very interesting! So, is anything coming out of your conversations with the militia groups?
Jayne:I touched base with them a second time to show them this [slideshow]. I meant to say, "this is what I shared." And their response was "okay." And I think that's a longer process. So I connected them in with the jail [people], saying I'll probably reach out to them after I get through teaching here, and am a little less busy. I'll reach out again and say that I've also been working with the Faith in Action and the Industrial Areas Foundation trying to help that movement to power up, and I'll ask how we can connect people [to those efforts].
And then I think we should pick one of these things and try to work on it. Part of that will be where there are centers of energy in the county. You know like if it's Elton and Burlington where they have the flooding, then we can connect around that issue. If it's another place, then we can maybe connect on something else. But I just think finding a substantive problem and maybe it's the jail. Maybe it's really resisting this [proposed expansion.] We do not have a progressive prosecutor in our area. Our Commonwealth Attorney is not one of the progressive prosecutors. But in Charlottesville they elected a progressive Commonwealth Attorney and we're working there on a restorative justice diversion project. Possibly we could get some change here. They did put some restorative justice for youth, juveniles, but they're not doing it for anything else. So we just keep working away.
Heidi: It just strikes me as so interesting is you started this story by explaining that the county and the city are really wide apart, and the vote totally differently and there very much at odds. And then the similarities just seem massive. And there's no recognition of that, and nobody besides you trying to do anything about that, I gather.
Well, it's interesting. When I met with the militia, I said, "you know, those problems that we talked about in the county are also problems in the city too. Right? These are all shared problems. And some of them are younger, and they went "Yes!" But there's also this really interesting mental model of the way people divide the geographic space.
So, stretching it a little further, I was doing some work in Shenandoah County, which is the next County North on a river protection project. This was more than a decade ago now. And the river that they're trying to protect —the North Fork of the Shenandoah River— actually originates in Rockingham County. They called us in and asked us to help them figure out how to sustain their group. They told us "We're aging. We don't have many young members." I asked them whether they had thought about expanding into Rockingham County. And they answered: "We're a Shenandoah County organization!" Yes, I thought, but the river starts in Rockingham County. Snd then I started hearing these narratives. "Well, you know Rockingham County. They're all kind of snooty, uppity, rich bankers and farmers. And this is Shenandoah County." And then I thought "what is going on here? I lived right near the border of the counties. Well, it turns out there's a microclimate difference between the counties. Rockingham County, as I said, was really rich with high rainfall, but because of the mountains, Shenandoah County is much more arid, and the farmers up there are poor. This kind of reputation of Shenandoah County,and Rockingham County [being different was there]. Most of the people on that board were "come heres." They didn't grow up with that mental boundary in their head. But somehow they had caught it. So, when I say that, when I'm in these meetings and some of the people in Linville, which is 5 miles north of the city line, but people in Linville don't go to Harrisonburg to shop, they go to Timberville, which is further away! I'm thinking: "interesting!" Or they go to Bergton, which is used to be halfway, but Bergton has now lost all of its locally-owned grocery stores, so you have to go to Timberville to get to the Walmart to get your groceries, but they don't think about coming to Harrisonburg to do their grocery shopping.
Guy: What's the media like in your area? These are a lot of interesting local stories But if your neighborhood is anything like ours, the local newspapers are pretty much wiped out. I used to get involved in local politics around here and you would get a story in the paper and that would generate a lot of interesting interactions. But the papers aren't there anymore. All the news people pay attention to are nationally syndicated, us-versus-them red/blue stuff. And if you ever started seeing local stories like this, a lot of these opportunities would open up, I think
Jayne: We have an interesting media scenario here. We were not ever really in good shape around media for the newspaper. The newspapers up and down the whole valley were owned by the Byrd family and they were very conservative. And they just sold out. I don't remember which group they sold out to except they are located in West Virginia. But what's interesting is that I've seen more diversity of the viewpoints published now than it used to be under the Byrds. I thought it would get more conservative, but it's actually gotten a little more diverse. And there is an actual paper, six days a week. It's hanging in there. I keep a subscription at the office and somebody said "why are you doing that? We read it online." I said, "because we need a local newspaper and we can afford $187 for the year to keep a local newspaper going."
We also have an online newspaper that's very competitive and our local NPR station has started doing local news stories. There's a really dynamic guy there who is mentoring a lot of young reporters who then get scooped out and go off and do other things. But they are into doing local news out of our NPR station. I don't know how much people in the county listen to NPR in general. There is also AM talk radio that's pretty rough stuff and then there's a local television station.
I think there's a lot we can do. I think we could model something here. I would love to see us be able to do so. You asked what I'm going to do after I retire—something along these lines. I've been playing around, considering what's my next mission, vision in life. I thought about running for public office because I have been asked. But I've concluded that's not where my interests lie. At 66 or 67, I'm not going to start a political career. I know how exhausting that is.
But I think what I really want to do is focus on supporting any kinds of activities that that support us in renegotiating our social contract as a country. I think we have to face the reality that the social contract on which our aspirational documents were founded, and even woven into those aspirational documents, is a deeply flawed social contract that includes domination, extraction of wealth and abuse of low-power people, and racism. It's all built in there. So we have to go back and redo that if we're going to grow into the aspirations that that we founded our country on. We can't carry both of them forward.
Guy: It is certainly hard to go forward if you don't have an image of where you are going forward to.
Jayne. Right. Or if all of these patterns of thought that are deeply invisible, are not actually taken out and re-examined. For example, the myths of meritocracy and related of patterns of thinking that are just not going to get us there.
Heidi: So how do we get out of those?
Jayne: I think the first thing is you call them out and name them. You have to trace their history, you have to acknowledge them. All of us could tell stories. How did my family come in here as immigrants and then moved to the middle class, the way we did. We're Italian. We did it by becoming white. Italians were not white when we got here. We constructed a narrative of whiteness around Christopher Columbus, which is why everyone wants to protect the Christopher Columbus statute. But there's not a conversation about "well, why did you elevate him like that?" Because it was a process of cultural whitening and kind of validating and legitimating our right to be here. We all have to start telling me stories.
Guy: I think we need to tell stories of parts of our history there were good, where people were going the right direction,...
Guy: ...to balance acknowledgement about the many, many problems as well. If we lose track of the good things we did together, we are not left with much other than the bad things.
Jayne: I agree. So, in addition to not talking about Tulsa, we also didn't talk about and know about the incredible progressive union movement in Appalachia. We have this whole narrative in the country about Appalachia is this benighted place. I'm sorry, but even today, all across the South and in the Appalachian region, there are progressive groups that been working for centuries, decades on really progressive movements. I love the sign I saw earlier ion Facebook that said that they are being held hostage by "hostile state actors," [by which they meant] gerrymandering. There is a lot of good work going on in rural communities that that people are not seeing and not talking about. We need to pull that history up as well, right?
Heidi: Clearly, as you said, even the militias, whom liberals, like us, tend to think of as being dangerous and evil and hateful. But it sounds like they're doing a lot of things that we would approve of.
Jayne: I would easily work alongside those guys on a project right? I'd be be like, "yeah, let's do it!" And even some of the folks who are a little bit more on the Second Amendment gun side. If you could set that aside for a minute while we work on this flooding problem, I'm happy to work alongside you. I think the white supremacist organizations that are actually trying to foment hate—the different story. But it's really important that we have a much more subtle understanding of who the actors are.
There's Robert Pape's research around the fact that over half of the people that have had charges against them out of January 6 were not poor, were not members of militia groups, they were not any of that. Some of them owned businesses, they were successful people. But they were white people from counties that voted blue, who have bought into the whole white replacement theory. So let's talk about why that feels so scary to people. It's an implicit recognition that being white is a privilege, right?
Guy: I think there are things that folks on the left do to reinforce that.
Jayne: Oh, yes!
Guy: There all the stories about "if we could just get a few more people who are immigrants, a few more people of this group, then whites will never win an election again! There's a book "The Coming Democratic Majority" or something like that.
Jayne: There's another one is called "The End of Whiteness."
Guy: If you want to try to make people anxious and paranoid, that is a good way to do it!
Jayne: There is a demographic reality. We are going to become a majority minority country right? It's coming and it's going to happen. And I think the question is why would we be afraid of that? We would only be afraid of that if we are a country where the rules of the game are one group dominates the other. If we were a country where we all live together and work cooperatively for a shared future and for the good of our children, then we wouldn't be afraid of that. So, yeah, I wish I had done more but you know this kind of relational building takes a little time he can keep hounding people.
Heidi: Well, we come back and do this again in a year and see where this has going.
Jayne: Well, all right.
Heidi: Well, thank you very much. I know that it's been a busy day for you. Sounds like a busy summer and really appreciate this.
Jayne: Thank you! It is always good to chat with you all!