On November 14, a gunman in Rancho Tehama, California, shot 15 people. Five died. It was the 318th mass shooting of 2017 in the US. Of these, it ranked as the fifth deadliest (tied with a June 5 attack in Orlando, Florida). In terms of injuries, it was the sixth worst (tied with May 20 in Philadelphia and January 27 in Brownsville, Tennessee). The assailant was himself killed by law enforcement.
As it so happens, I arrived in the area later that same day, on my way from Portland to Mendocino County. My plan was to harvest olives from an untended orchard near the town of Corning.
I’d been listening exclusively to MP3s on the drive, so didn’t hear anything about the shooting until I stopped in a restaurant for dinner. It was a Thai place, which is always a great choice for meatless and gluten-free food, which are my preferences. Though it was around 7pm, I was the only customer. The owner immediately volunteered why that was.
“Everyone’s nervous to go out tonight after what happened today,” she said, and then detailed the violent event after I expressed my ignorance of it.
“We’re taking it hard,” she added. “This a small place and we all know each other.” Indeed, when a twenty-something female came in to pick up take-out, she was greeted by her first name. The two women chatted with an easy familiarity, though the conversation was distinctly tinged with the shakiness that follows a dramatic event. Also clear was the mutual reassurance they seemed to get from the exchange.
The next day I picked up some newspapers. All three featured the shooting as the leading story on the front page above the fold, with the headline size decreasing in proportion to their distance from the town. The stories contained the familiar set of elements: a play-by-play of the events accompanied by sincerely shocked reactions from locals, prayerful platitudes from politicians, and no real analysis about the root causes.
Though the apparently increasing frequency and intensity of such events might seem to be “the new normal,” in truth, nothing new at all is happening. Bloodshed is more “American” than baseball, and definitely predates that sport.
This is, after all, a society founded on the genocide of the Native Americans and made wealthy by the brutal enslavement of Africans. Its role as global superpower was declared with the militarily needless atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The decades since then have been soaked in violence, to the tune of tens of millions of victims. And that is to speak only of the human toll and not of the ecocide destroying the very web of life of the planet itself.
To the degree that no government can act without the will of the governed, everyone – the collective “us” of the US – has been party to this shameful system and its bloody results.
The shooter in Rancho Tehama was not the only killer in the US on November 14th. The day was also marked by the deaths of at least two men at the hands of police officers, one in Arizona and the other in California. These brought the total number of killings by the police this year to 1,047. (See killedbypolice.net.) The number of deaths in 2017 from mass shootings, meanwhile, reached 415 with Rancho Tehama. (See gunviolencearchive.org.)
One difference between the two categories of killing is that though mass shootings are typically described as “tragic” and viewed as aberrational, police killings are accepted – if not actually condoned or even celebrated – by the society at large.
Another difference is that most victims of the police are male (over 93% in 2017) whereas the mass shooters are more opportunistic and so end up killing both women and men.
The racial bias of the police against people-of-color is well-documented, but mass shooters are, again, less discriminating in their targets.
A significant similarity between killer cops and mass shooters, though, is that the overwhelming majority are male. The socialization of males to be violent is an undeniable fact but nonetheless is often brushed off. “Boys will be boys,” after all, whether they are on the beat, the playing field or in bed, all venues where they are known to bully, bludgeon and abuse. These are expressions of what has lately been called, “toxic masculinity.”
Mass shooters are often toxic in their own personal way, as Robert Okyn recently pointed out on Counterpunch:
“Research by Everytown for Gun Safety found that of all mass shootings in the U.S. between 2009 and 2015, 57 percent of victims were family members, the spouse, or the shooter’s ex. In other words, domestic violence was central in over half of the cases.”
This was the case in Rancho Tehama, where the shooter killed his wife at the start of his 45 minute rampage. He had previously been the subject of a domestic violence complaint to the county sheriff.
Okyn also raised the subject of men who, though they do not kill, engage in sexual assault, sometimes serially:
“In between the Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs shootings [Oct. 1st and Nov. 10th], Harvey Weinstein and other men were exposed for sexually assaulting women. What connects the shooters and the assaulters is men’s entitlement, their exerting power over others. It’s time to examine the connection between the shooters’ poisonous masculinity and the Weinstein crowd’s variety.”
I agree. I would also add that we must dig deep, and address not merely the cruelties and injustices of our time, but also expose their roots in Patriarchy, which predates the US by many centuries.
* * *
A few miles southeast of Rancho Tehama is the town of Corning, which bills itself as “Olive City” and for good reason. It is surrounded by olive orchards and the climate (at least so far) has been ideal for that crop. A popular tourist stop is the “Olive Pit,” where one can sample a variety of olives and their oils. In this time of homogenized placelessness – what Kunstler famously called the Geography of Nowhere – it is refreshing to see actual local differences trumpeted.
But olives are monocrop agriculture and monocrop agriculture is itself violent: against the birds who lost their migratory stops when the wetlands were drained; against the innumerable animals who formerly ranged through the land, hunting and grazing, from bear to wolf and rabbit to elk; against the fish who are shut out of their ancestral waters by dams that collect irrigation waters; against the trees and wildflowers and mushrooms who were wiped away for tilled fields of one species; against the insects, including harmless butterflies and helpful bees, who are regularly exterminated.
Agriculture emerged in the Middle East not more than 12,000 years ago, and did not come to dominate until at least 5,000 years after that, later in other parts of the world. With agriculture came private property, including the ownership of women by men. It also brought the rise of Patriarchy, which was mythologized by monotheism and powered by slavery. Eventually, agriculture turned the “fertile crescent” into a desert.
Agriculture led to the mass confinement of domesticated animals. Setting aside for a moment the debate about whether humans are omnivores (and not the foglio-frugivores that their anatomy suggests), industrialized meat production in the US is a horror show, unbelievably brutal and “inhumane.” Is it possible that the violence therein does not affect people? Said Tolstoy: “As long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields.”
Agriculture also birthed “civilization.” The word itself simply denotes a culture based on cities, and is bereft of any value judgment. In common usage, however, it generally connotes a positive value, as if city-centered societies are higher, better, more evolved, etc., than non-urban societies. However, other views certainly exist. As Jayesh Bear, an acquaintance from the Walla Walla/Yakama tribe put it on Facebook, in reference to the Rancho Tehama shooting: “It seems as though the safety and comfort of the ‘civilized’ world has really been a festering infection all along.” Quite so.
Our species, Homo sapiens, goes back at least 200,000 and quite possibly 300,000 years. So, it is only recently that we took this turn away from our previous modes of living, which – accumulating evidence suggests – were egalitarian, collective and sustainable. Are we capable of dropping our destructive ways and taking up a healthy lifestyle again? Not of “going back,” since there’s no such thing, but of “bringing the past forward”? (to use a phrase from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz in “All the Real Indians Died Off”: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans.)
As I harvested olives, I thought about all this. The olives were perfect: plump with just a little “give” when squeezed. They plopped with satisfying thuds into my bucket. A misty rain drizzled my face. I experienced that particular joy of simple, transcendent presence that attends the gathering of fresh food.
The orchard was no longer actively tended. I could tell from the unchecked brambles, thriving rootstock suckers, and broken irrigation lines. Which meant it wasn’t sprayed I assumed (or hoped). I had harvested here in years past and enjoyed learning how to cure the fruit with delicious results. In time, if left alone, the spot would be re-wilded, and native flora and fauna could return.
Unless or until Climate Change makes the area uninhabitable to its former denizens and to the olive trees themselves, that is. The potential for healing our hurts to the earth and to ourselves is now severely curtailed by the greater processes underway that could make moot our efforts: the greenhousing of the atmosphere, acidifying of the oceans and overheating of the landmasses, just to tick off three items on the death list.
Rancho Tehama is located in Tehama County, at the north end of California’s Central Valley, which is a vast agricultural area. Throughout the valley, nearly all the wilderness was extirpated for farms. To call the landscape scarred would be inaccurate; the wounds are kept constantly open and poisons poured in. Violence compounds violence in a noxious cycle that is lauded as productive and dubbed inevitable when it is neither.
It is no wonder at all that a man took up weapons and set out to kill in an environment like Tehama County. It is no wonder that it happens anywhere in the US. It is no wonder that violence is what is reaped when violence is what was sown.
Before the European invasion, the Paskenta Band of the Nomlaki Indians lived in the area. “Tehama” is assumed to be a Native American word, but the meaning is no longer known for sure. One theory is that “te-ha-ma” meant “shallow” and was used insultingly by an “Indian maiden” to describe the white people who invaded the area.
Even if not factual, there is truth in this story. The cultural content of the European occupation of the Americas is indeed shallow, and over time has become shallower. If one attempts to sift it for wisdom, one soon hits the bottom empty-handed. If we are to become free and to survive, we will need to go far beyond our conventional assumptions and normal perspectives. Until we dig deep and act on what we discover, we will be trapped here.
And the killings will continue.