Portait of a Protester: Not What You’d Expect
Symbria Patterson is an organic farmer. She and her 19-year-old daughter, Sara, are pillars of the Local Food community in Cedar City, Utah. They frequently travel to other states to support local food events across the country. They operate their farm on the Community Supported Agriculture model, and hold several events at their farm each year at which they serve gourmet food procured from local sources.
Over the weekend, Symbria and Sara went to Bunkerville, Nevada, to support the anti-BLM protests there. I met with her last night to ask her why.
“I am neither a liberal nor a conservative,” she tells me. “My religion is not my culture. But I do believe in the proper role of government, based on the principles this country was founded on. We should have the right to choose. We should have the right to use our lands.”
Symbria has many objections to how power is used in our country. For starters, although she grows her food organically, she’s not allowed to say so. The Federal Government now defines what “organic” means, and in their view, it must include a certification from a Federally-approved organization. Symbria uses much stricter standards than the government, whose watered-down regulations have made the “organic” designation nearly meaningless.
“The certification is meaningless,” she says. “How can the government own a word?”
But without that certification, Symbria can’t legally use the word “organic” to describe her produce.
Some years ago, Symbria was invited to a Sheriff Mack convention at a Las Vegas casino. She didn’t know who Sheriff Mack was, but the organizers asked her to bring raw milk in support of a raw food table, so Symbria agreed. Crossing state lines with unlicensed raw milk is a federal felony, but she did it because she believes the raw milk ban is wrong. Other participants had brought raw cheese and ice cream. But as soon as they started to serve it, the casino shut them down because raw dairy was illegal, and the casino was afraid of getting into trouble.
“That experience opened my eyes,” she says. “It’s not the government’s place to tell us what we can eat.”
Later, she helped her best friends, who coincidentally happen to be neighbors of Cliven Bundy, put on a farm-to-fork dinner in Nevada. They had rented a mobile kitchen for the event, and a gourmet dinner was prepared by a licensed chef. Authorities shut the dinner down because the meat, eggs, and dairy had been brought from unlicensed producers in Utah, and it had therefore been brought across the state line illegally. They forced the organizers to destroy an entire gourmet dinner by pouring bleach on it. Not only could the participants not eat it, they couldn’t even feed it to their pigs!
“I am a supporter of choice,” Symbria says. “The government is removing our right to choose.”
I asked her why she chose to attend the anti-BLM protests. “It’s just wrong,” she says. “We should be able to use those lands. The Constitution says these lands should be owned by the states. Bundy tried to pay the State of Nevada for his grazing, because they have jurisdiction. But they didn’t know what to do with the money and gave it back.”
During the roundup, Symbria tells me, bulldozers were used to destroy watering holes so the cattle would look for water elsewhere. Some of those watering holes had been built a hundred years ago, long before the BLM even existed. They were built of concrete, and maintained by the ranchers.
“Bundy used to pay his grazing fees,” she tells me. “The BLM was supposed to help him manage the land. But they didn’t manage it. The BLM, which was supposed to be helping him, instead made it impossible for him to make a living. He stopped paying his fees to the BLM because his ‘partner’ was putting him out of business.”
“Did you ever wonder how Cliven Bundy came to owe a million dollars in grazing fees?” she asks. “The grazing fees aren’t that much. It’s the penalties for not paying them.”
She sees Bundy’s situation as representative of the problems many people have with government.
“You should have heard the stories being told around the campfire at night,” Symbria continues. “So many people, especially older people, thought they had a right to land their grandparents had homesteaded. Then the government took it away. One man in his 70s said he’d been fighting for his land since 1946.”
Symbria and her daughter returned from the protest site Friday night so they could sell their produce at a farmers market on Saturday. When the market was over, they drove back to Nevada. Everyone knew that would be the day of the showdown between BLM agents and protesters. There were fears that violence might erupt.
“I wanted to support them,” she says.
At the climax of the day, forty unarmed horsemen gathered under a bridge and prepared to approach the heavily-armed BLM agents. Symbria tells me that she spoke with one of the women in the group afterward.
“They were all alone,” she tells me. “Forty unarmed people against the federal agents’ firepower. They stopped and said a prayer, and talked about whether they would survive this. Some of them discussed who they wanted their horses to go to if they died.”
The horsemen approached the BLM agents slowly. As they came out from under the bridge, more protesters on foot came down from the hill to join them. The BLM began to back up. One BLM agent came out to negotiate, and the protesters told them they wanted the County Sheriff to take over, because legally the Sheriff had jurisdiction over the BLM. The sheriffs took control, and they ordered the BLM back. The sheriffs then allowed the Bundys to approach the corrals and open the gates to release the cattle.
“Would I have joined those people under that bridge, knowing that my daughter and I might be killed?” Symbria wonders. “But I was driving my car into that situation knowing there might be shooting, so I guess I would have.”
At this point, Sara chimes in. She milks the family cow, as well as several goats, and says she was appalled at how the cattle were treated by the BLM. “The conditions in the corrals were disgusting,” she says. “There was no water. There were dozens of dogie calves separated from their mothers. The cows were all full of milk because they had been separated from the calves. Two cows had died, and two more had been crippled and had to be killed.”
Symbria notes that the protests brought together a diverse group of people: ranchers, farmers, small business owners, militia, and retired people. “I grew up in Los Angeles,” she says. “I’m afraid of guns. It was strange to be rubbing elbows with men who were carrying guns openly.”
Yet that diversity demonstrates how many people are concerned about government overreach. Symbria tells me, “I don’t understand why so many people don’t support Cliven Bundy. Some of my friends are mad at me for supporting the Bundys. I don’t understand that. Many of them are angry at the government for not allowing raw food, and failing to regulate GMOs. They seem to think this is different. It’s not different. It’s the government abusing its power.”
I ask Symbria what she thinks the protests accomplished.
“It saved the cattle, at least for the time being,” she notes. “But I think the BLM will come back later.
“What’s more important is that this started a conversation about the role of government. I hope it will change people’s minds. I know people can change their minds, because I changed mine. I attended private schools and college in California, and I never learned about any of this. I never even voted until ten years ago.”
I ask Symbria about the role of nonviolence in getting the BLM to back off. She thinks for a moment before answering.
“There were people there who seem to believe we can’t get our freedom back without bloodshed,” she says. I ask her if she believes that. She pauses, and says, “I hope not.”
Symbria believes that violence is doomed to fail. The government has air power, surveillance, and lots of technology. “This isn’t like it was in the American Revolution,” she says. “They could slaughter us.”
She instead uses the examples of the horsemen who confronted the BLM.
“I asked them if they didn’t have guns,” she tells me. “One man said, ‘Oh, we have guns, we just chose not to bring them.’”
That, she says, is why the protest succeeded.