Warning: This essay has nothing to do with earthquake swarms or the Yellowstone supervolcano. Be forewarned or else you might fall under the apocalypse of reading what is to follow on something else entirely pertaining to Yellowstone. ;)
On January 5, 2009, I was a participant in a march on behalf of the wild buffalo population in Yellowstone National Park, animals who have been denied year round habitat in the state of Montana. The action, sponsored by Buffalo Field Campaign and Buffalo Allies of Bozeman, was in Helena and was targeted at the swearing in of the state legislature and Gov. Brian Schweitzer, under whose watch the greatest wild buffalo slaughter since the 19th century has happened. It was in support of the Montana Wild Buffalo Recovery & Conservation Act of 2009, which calls for shifting management of wild bison from the Montana Department of Livestock to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks so that bison are managed as wildlife instead of as animals in need of disease control. During the action, about 15 activists from West Yellowstone, Bozeman, Missoula, and Helena were able to get inside the capitol rotunda with signs that read, "Stop the Slaughter" and "Stop the B.S. = Buffalo Slaughter = Brian Schweitzer." Reporters took our pictures, filmed us, and wrote articles about it.
Those are most of the basic facts about the action. I can also add that the crowd - mostly Montana policy makers and their families - received us mostly with thumbs up. One of our number reported that the governor acknowledged our sign. I can add that the march through the empty streets of Helena reached few people. Perhaps, I should also add that a native man joined our action outside of the capitol and supported us inside the rotunda. There was no trouble from Helena police; besides the signs and buffalo masks, there was no disruption inside the rotunda. After the rally, participants expressed a sense that the action had gone well, especially once we were inside the capitol, where policy makers were forced to notice and where reaction was mostly positive.
However, the basic facts of an action often miss one of a million other things that can be said. What we are doing is for the buffalo, and while the rest of what I write will deal more with the people power aspect of the action, we cannot forget that the buffalo are at the center of everything that happened. Without the basic injustice being done to this animal by Montana and the federal government, none of what we had to say would have any resonance. Without the great disconnect that we who are living on this continent are continuing to have because of the way we confine buffalo inside of Yellowstone National Park, the drama of the moment would be missing. The organizing of people around a cause, the friendships and challenges, and even the resistance against us would mean nothing if not for the animals caught up in the absurd way we play god over everything under the sun.
All that said, in any action I am regularly struck by the metrics we come up with for judging its success. At the most basic level, we can ask ourselves here whether this advances the cause of the buffalo. And, while helpful to have that framework, that really doesn't get us much further in answering the question. It also seems likely that the success of an action targeting any injustice likely would have similar metrics, and there's no reason not to broaden the continent of our question in just the way we would hope that the buffalo might broaden across the North American continent.
So, based on what I felt about the action, I want to say that the action was a success. If it was a success, what made it successful? How successful was it?
These are all incredibly difficult questions to answer because a lot depends upon what the ultimate goal posts are and how much is possible for a particular group of people acting a particular way. As I understand the question, fighting the injustice of buffalo confined to Yellowstone is only the beginning of an incredible problem facing our society. Yellowstone is that place that was set aside after everything else had been run over or was about to be run over. It was the refugee camp for centuries of pillaging a continent, a pillaging that continues. Undoing everything that was ever done is not even possible; however, undoing the ethical arrogance that continues to drive our relationship with the land must be possible if we are to be better off. Yellowstone itself suffers under the weight of the burden. We must free what is trapped within Yellowstone also to free Yellowstone; and we must also do this to free ourselves. I know that all of that sounds poetic, but this is not the place to rehash old arguments, demonstrating the logical fallacies in our prevalent world views about our relationship with the land.
In any event, I think the goal posts are very far from us, and I also think that the individual should, in her or his particular actions, fervently avoid any action that would give that person power over the agency of another. What I mean is that no person should ever strive for too much power - even for an apparent good - lest you simply create one fundamental problem to replace another. I should never have any right to have power over you and your decisions; I might resist the power you wield over others, but I have no right to become lord over you as you lord over others.
Thus, the challenge against injustice is of a great scale - like the one we see with the buffalo, like the one we see against indigenous people, like the one we see in warfare, like the one we see in sexism, like the one we see in racism, and on and on - and we have to realize that our particular power in exerting our influence over a situation must necessarily be small. We are only capable of small feats against great problems, and that is a terrible dilemma for anyone who wishes to fight against injustice.
I believe that our action in Helena was a small feat that can help us move toward defeating a great problem. Remaining small in scale to fight what's large in scope requires incredible creativity and persistence in organizing. It requires communication, organization, and flexibility. If my action is going to ever be part of something large enough to fight the problem, it has to be part of something that encourages others to take similar actions. It has to be part of something that inspires us to reach out for others and increase our network of support. We have to at once build our own small communities - family units, if you will - while using those family units to build herd after herd so that the injustice eventually falls apart. However, that's a romantic analogy; in truth, it's very difficult for families to get along, for groups of people to get along with other groups of people, for those groups of people to stay in touch, to collaborate, and to build the movement necessary to overrun injustice. It may be hard, but it had better not be impossible.
So, let's look at the action in Helena. What it was first was a collaborative effort, spearheaded by a strong small community - Buffalo Field Campaign - inspired by another small community - the legislation proposed by the Gallatin Wildlife Association - in conjunction with a budding new community - Buffalo Allies of Bozeman - built on connections that already existed with people in Missoula and Helena. However, beyond that, it drew new people in - marchers not known about in Helena, inspiring new connections in our group in Bozeman. Secondly, the action managed to reach the media so that others have the opportunity to know and take action. It provoked the power holders and those guilty of injustice to react, as Schweitzer apparently did. It inspired those who took action to want to take more action, to share their experiences as I am here, and therefore to do more.
Of course, the gains of the action are tentative; their permanence depends on us continuing to chip away, to continue making connections, and to work on inspiring new people both to join our group or to perhaps form their own groups. Maybe, protest isn't your thing; maybe, you are an academic and have information to share. Maybe, you are a farmer and have food to share. Maybe, you are a poet or a musician and have beauty to share. Maybe, you are a cynic and have your honesty to share. The point is that the more we build these connections and embrace and overcome the challenges that arise, the stronger we will become, even though our own individual efforts will remain small and tied to the families and communities with which we belong.
That is the core of people power. Now, if I am wrong that the individual should not aspire to overwhelming acts of heroism or wrong that the problem of the buffalo is huge, then perhaps one could argue that the action was not really a success because the acts were tiny but not large enough to handle a relatively small problem. In that case, no doubt people will keep throwing their money and their energy at that individual who promises to fix the problem. I think that's why people have such faith in electoral politics. If only this guy - for some, it was once Brian Schweitzer - gets elected, then he can fix this problem. We can argue about that, but I will contend that the problem with the buffalo is greater than the Montana Wild Buffalo Recovery & Conservation Act of 2009 and that respecting any animal as wildlife opens quite a pandora's box. And, I will continue to argue that it's beyond any one of us to fix. So, that's why small acts - like pushing for this bill, like rallying in support of it, like organizing in Bozeman, like connecting with friends in the movement - can truly be the most effective and meaningful acts that we undertake. Again, that's my assertion, but I must keep my ambitions relatively small for this essay to be a success.
Thus, protesting, marching, and holding signs can be powerful when they tend to build the roaming of the movement that they are supposed to support. If we are looking for the knockout punch, we are in the wrong sport. Winning will come as we build strong families and strong herds (i.e., strong families and strong communities), but that is built on what might seem to be a lot of pointless moving about. It can be, sometimes, but if you look closely at this action in Helena, this one was far from pointless. Yes, we made our point to Gov. Schweitzer and the politicians of Montana, but more importantly, we made it with each other in a way that can only make us stronger and make our point more strongly.
Somewhat related, please read about the May 2008 action in Helena that I wrote about here.