The Byrne Report
By Peter Byrne
On Oct. 19, hundreds of white people attended an environmental impact hearing at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park. Public comment was taken on a plan by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and their backer, Station Casinos of Las Vegas, to erect a casino-hotel complex on $100 million worth of wetlands. The tribal chairman, Greg Sarris, sat quietly onstage while a score of casino opponents listed reasons why the casino should not be built. They emphasized that Rohnert Park is a "family" community, that it is a "thoughtfully planned" community, that the "water supply is low," that "endangered species must be preserved."
The crowd lustily cheered the anticasino speakers. It fell silent when several people of color defended the casino project by pointing out that community planning did not stop the families of Rohnert Park from inviting Home Depot, Wal-Mart and dozens of industrial companies to scab over the headwaters of the Laguna de Santa Rosa and suck the water table dry.
A few members of the Graton tribe sat in front of me. They chuckled nervously when casino opponents threatened to physically stop the casino from being built. The white guy seated next to me did not like that. He acted by clapping his hands angrily at the Indians when anticasino people spoke. Waves of incipient violence susurrated through the crowd—focusing upon Sarris, who absorbed it. It was a moment of truth: If push comes to shove, I will stand with the Indians, not this mob-in-the-making.
This is not to say I favor a casino. I do not. But there are more than two sides to every story. And the narrative of the Graton's quest for social status and accompanying wealth is as complex and rich as America's bloody history. The centuries-old tale is like a rope woven from uncountable strands, each signifying an instance of murder, rape, hope, fear, the smell of burning flesh, despair, genocide, hope, national oppression, class oppression, political opportunism, desire, fear, joy, greed, hope. This endlessly braiding tale embodies all of our contradictions as a people of peoples. We must not allow it to become a noose.
Don't scoff. I know something you probably don't. I know the person who designed the Spreckels talking points about "family neighborhoods," "criminal elements wandering the streets," "rational city planning" and "saving the water." Her name is Elaine Devary Willman. She hails from Toppenish, Wash. She is the chair of a national organization calling itself Citizens for Equal Rights Alliance, whose associate member groups bear names such as United Property Owners; One Nation United; and from Rohnert Park, Stop the Casino 101, an anticasino group led by Chip Worthington, the pastor of a local church. Willman is advising Worthington on how to create public opinion against the casino and, not surprisingly, the Graton tribe itself.
Hours before the Spreckels hearing, I interviewed Willman at a nearby coffee shop. She travels the country organizing people to oppose the autonomy of sovereign Indian tribes. In fact, she advocates the destruction of tribal governments and the liquidation of Indian nations. To further that end, she wrote a book and made a video, both called Going to Pieces: The Dismantling of the United States of America. Her theme is that the federal government and Indian tribes are conspiring to take away the civil rights of white people. Indians have treated the white settlers badly, she writes, ever since Christopher Columbus brought "civilization" to these shores.
Willman calls tribal governments "rotting hamburger" and argues that they do not serve the interests of their people. She claims that the Environmental Protection Agency and rural tribes conspire to take private property away from non-Indians. Some tribes are empowered, she says with horror, to force farmers to obey environmental laws. She states that nonassimilated Indians are intent upon "balkanizing" the United States and destroying Euro-American culture. White Americans, Willman says, do not owe Indians any apology for slaughtering their ancestors, stealing their lands and forcing tribes into concentration camps. According to her, Indians are potential allies of foreign terrorists who would blow up our dams and power plants. She supports Bush's war on "tribalism" in Iraq, saying we must eradicate it in the homeland, too, replacing it with "democracy."
I showed Willman's video to Ron Lopez, professor of Chicano Studies at Sonoma State University. Afterward, he said, "The group is an agrarian-based, populist movement of white people who own something telling people who own nothing to stay out. They want to protect their system of privileges. Clearly, they are racists. Whites created a similar movement in the South after the Civil War."
While not all people who dislike the Graton's casino project or who question the efficacy of a tribe trading its sovereign rights for slot machine proceeds are racists, some are allowing Willman's perverted ideology to guide their opposition. This is intolerable.
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