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Pokémon Go, an Unnatural History: Reflections on race, privilege, and access to augmented nature

Bryan B. Rasmussen

Lately, I’ve put summers in the service of natural history, something I didn’t get much of as a kid. As much as I protest to friends and family that I do not have summers “off,” academic life frees my summers from the usual workaday constraints. Last summer it was collecting butterflies: easier on the joints than the prior summer’s three-week trek through the Sierra Nevada, but disadvantaged by some unfortunate optics: I’m in my forties, and as Vladimir Nabokov, another forty-something would-be lepidopterist, once noted, “the older the man, the queerer he looks with a butterfly net in his hand.”[1] On one afternoon collecting “expedition” to a city park not far from where I live, I found myself under a dense canopy of riparian willows, in a spot well off the path, damp, and full of litter. I’m in the North Atwater Bioswale, a densely vegetated ditch or gully bordering the Los Angeles River. My dog Amelia, a reluctant assistant, stands close in the somewhat wild place, on lookout for dangers known only to her, while I peer from beneath the boughs for evidence of my quarry, the elusive Western Tiger Swallowtail.

This huge, four- to five-inch “splendid, pale-yellow creature with black blotches, blue crenels, and a cinnabar eyespot above each chrome-rimmed black tail,”[2] is a marvel of invertebrate life. And it is appropriately smug about it, rarely mucking about with us terrestrials. Its massive wingspan allows it to sail at high altitudes for an eternity. Though I’ve spotted a dozen of them, to my consternation I’ve never been able to net one. But patient observation reveals that they do occasionally descend to sublunar levels. Like planes over a landing strip, they drop through the middle and lowest part of the swale that forms a treeless alleyway of dense coyote brush and California gold bush where there are no paths. This alleyway terminates at its southern end in the arboreal grotto where I’m standing, and where the swallowtails go for reasons I have yet to divine.

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Positioned in hope of netting one just as it enters, right out of the air, I hear on the path above me two teenagers talking animatedly. They can’t see me but I see them pretty clearly. So there I am, not just a forty-something man with too much unstructured time and a butterfly net, but a forty-something creeper, barely out of view of a pair of teenagers, ducking self-consciously under dank vegetal cover, with a butterfly net, wondering if I could get arrested for this.

It is soon apparent they are arguing about Pokémon Go. They’re in my swale because their phones told them of an invisible, imaginary animal here somewhere, a Pokémon, and they are out to collect it. Overnight, my swale has become host to digital fauna in addition to the analog ones I’m staking out. Suddenly it makes sense why I’ve seen more mothers out with their kids today than in all my previous visits combined. They, like those teens arguing about Jigglypuff or Wartortle or whatever, are looking to net Pokémon. Who knows how many Pokémon are all around me that I can’t see. The place is probably an ark of Pokémon, an illuminated eBestiary of “augmented” nature. And it is clear these players do not pursue their quarry with the same self-conscious shame with which I pursue mine.

The juxtaposition struck me as odd: Me, with net and jangly bag of killing jars, copy of Heath’s Butterflies of Southern California, field notebook, scratched up from clamoring off the path to this spot known mostly to swallowtails and secret pot smokers, sweaty, covered in the ants that rain down from the willows above, and worrying that Amelia might step on god knows what—a used needle? They, inside-kids clearly unused to being outdoors (you can just tell), clutching their Androids, indifferent to the actual fauna all around them, hunting an image superimposed on a digital camera reproduction of a real landscape.

In my moment of discomfort and shame, a host of ungenerous, but not entirely unmerited, arguments came to mind: arguments about the inherent merits of analog over virtual or “augmented” nature; about people not spending enough or the right kind of time outdoors; about being outside not really being the point; about the daily battle for kids’ (and adults’) time, attention, and money. After all, those teenagers that have turned my swale into a GPS data point are little more than the sweaty consumer endpoints of algorithms created by computer programmers (themselves inside-kids, I’d wager) breathing the cool recycled air pumped into their glass and steel San Francisco campus at Niantic, Inc., the corporate origin of digital species. They’re merely extensions of the artificial worlds in which we have largely confined ourselves and, to a greater degree, our nature-deprived children who now suffer from something called “nature-deficit disorder”—journalist Richard Louv’s diagnosis for the disease that plagues our technology-addled modern youth.[3]

Later, though, like the Lake poet William Wordsworth,

…when on my couch I lie
In vacant or pensive mood[4]

I found myself suspicious of the ease with which such snarky criticisms came to mind—easy, perhaps because of the enticing moral boilerplate that drives much of our talk about “nature” and what it means to be “in” it. Such notions about nature are as much morally as physically prescriptive: going out in nature is good for you and therefore good. These ideas are old. Louv’s nature-deficit disorder, for example, dresses up American Transcendentalist philosophy in clinical language. It’s a version of Emerson’s prescription that “a nobler want of man is served by nature,”[5] which he borrowed from the Romantics who insisted that “nature be your teacher.”[6] Nature ideals have always contained normative assumptions: about the boundaries between the natural and artificial worlds (nature is “essences untouched by man,” so I guess leaves and things); about what counts as valuable outside time (walking, preferably aimlessly, roughly westward, and definitely not to work); about the right way to be outside (alone, in awe).

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And they contain assumptions about privilege and access to nature: not just, are you really outside when you’re playing Pokémon Go?—but should you really be outside? Different people experience the answer to this last question differently. In fact, few would even put that question to a white professional like me, even a silly-looking one with a butterfly net. But those teenagers playing Pokémon Go were Hispanic, as were those mothers with their kids. The issue with Pokémon Go isn’t just the human-computer intersection that challenges what it means to really be outside, it’s the politics of being outside at all. It reminds us how fraught “going outside” actually is.

Lying on my proverbial poet’s couch, I found myself confronting not just the queer, quaint privilege of the scholar-naturalist, but what it means to practice natural history while white. If he’s not careful, the cranky naturalist, lurking beneath damp willows, waving around a butterfly net and some hackneyed nature ideal to justify his disapproval of some teenagers’ digitally augmented outdoor experience, can find himself also policing access to nature—an act historically underpinned by race and privilege. An afternoon’s jaunt to my local park in pursuit of natural history had turned out to be anything but quaint.

Is Pokémon Go Natural History?

Pokémon Go actually sells itself as a kind of virtual natural history. When you first play, you’re greeted by Professor Willow, a stylishly outfitted naturalist-cum-urban explorer who asks for your help in his global research project to collect Pokémon (or “pocket monsters,” in the original Japanese game concept from 1995), mystery animals that seem like the composite creatures in a medieval bestiary, with names—besides Jigglypuff or Wartortle—like Rhyhorn, Horsea, and the coveted Charizard. Like all such franchised worlds, it has a hugely complex and sprawling mythology and detailed rules. But the gist of it is this: Your device shows you a map of your area, which you use to locate a wild Pokémon. When you’re close enough to one, you can select it by tapping it on your screen, and then it actually appears in “real” life—that is, superimposed on the camera image displayed by your smartphone. To catch it, you throw the equivalent of a net, a “Poké Ball,” over the creature. If you’re successful, its information enters your Pokédex, an encyclopedia with detailed information on your Pokémon’s habitat and ethology. Meanwhile, the creature remains inside the Poké Ball while you feed it, or you can train your Pokémon for battle against others at a local “gym,” like a Balinese cock or a Shanghai fighting cricket.

Scientists have been among the first to recognize and exploit the parallels between Pokémon Go and natural history. They suggest that the game might reinvigorate interest in the venerable practices of observing, identifying, and classifying organisms in the form of citizen science. As legions of players armed with high-resolution digital cameras wander out of doors looking for digital fauna, “they are spotting other wildlife, too,”[7] useful data to scientists that study biodiversity. The potential of these players to advance understanding of biodiversity is huge, especially in an era of declining attention to field study in schools and colleges.[8] So-called “digital collectors”—anyone with a cell phone camera—“are fast outnumbering specimen collectors.” Moreover, with “new conservation rules [that make] it harder to collect and transport real species samples,” scientists would do well, they argue, to mobilize the popularity of Pokémon Go.[9]

Ecologist Andrew Thaler says the game has the potential to inspire interest in natural history because it promotes “active, creative, exploratory play that encourages players to interact with their environment.” [10] Morgan Jackson, a fly-researcher, says playing the Pokémon games as a kid helped spark his interest in biology. “Catching [flies], ID’ing them and figuring out how they’re all related” is, he says, essentially doing “Pokémon in real life.” Maybe “it’s not a cure for Nature-Deficit Disorder,” says Thaler, “but it’s definitely a potential treatment.”[11]

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Image courtesy of Colleen Greene.

There are some obvious ironies to Pokémon Go’s thin pretense to natural history. For example, the game’s gladiatorial feature runs counter to any recognizable conservation philosophy. While it’s true that natural history has historically relied on violence to secure specimens, scientists are among the most likely to regard capturing and killing specimens as an unfortunate feature of their discipline, to be practiced with great constraint, not celebrated. In many branches of biology, the practice has wended away from capture and kill and toward observe and record. Furthermore, natural history is just a side-effect of game play, certainly not the point. To call Pokémon Go players “digital collectors” is a stretch. Rather than, say, educating them about the importance of biodiversity survey, or schooling them in good field practice, or even deploying them for the higher purposes of data collection, the game instead instrumentalizes and monetizes its users. Citizen science it is not.

While promoting going outside might seem like the cure for what ails us as a culture detached from the things of the earth, there is a certain cruel spectacle to sending a lot of people outside who are ill-equipped to be there. Nature-lovers’ naive optimism about the benefits of going outside were largely overwhelmed last summer by the media rollout of (let’s face it, much more entertaining) stories about the public nuisance that going outside actually creates. In summer of 2016, within just days of the game’s introduction, the Los Angeles Times reported that two men from San Diego “fell off a bluff” while playing, obviously because they were outside only in the physical sense—their minds were elsewhere. One of them fell 75 to 100 feet (he lived). An Oregon man was stabbed while playing the game after midnight (he kept playing); a New York man crashed his car while driving to a PokéStop. Two English teens got stranded underground in some caves. Three San Diego women stumbled on a dead body in a park. Some others tracked their Pokémon into the Washington, D.C. Holocaust Museum.[12] Reports like these raise the issue that while the game encourages its players to go outside, it doesn’t provide the tools to thrive—or even survive—there.[13]

Moreover, it’s hard to reconcile Pokémon Go’s promise of exploratory play in the environment with the disproportionate risks of, and uneven access to, that play. Just ask the two Florida teens playing Pokémon Go that were shot at, evidently mistaken for thieves, or the Iowa State football player mistaken for a bank robber.[14] As it has been for naturalists for hundreds of years, being outside entails risk. Naturalists have had to “share the field” with all manner of folks: “hunters, fishers, poachers, trappers, surveyors, tramps, madmen, shamans, loggers, prospectors, bird watchers, bandits, vacationers, herbalists, cowboys, students, con men, true and false prophets, and green terrorists.”[15] So along with similar practices, it only makes sense (and it’s only fair) that Pokémon Go’s “digital collectors” should experience similar dangers.

But Faith Ekakitie, the Iowa State student mistaken for a criminal, is Black. Police justified stopping him on the street because he fit “the exact description of a bank robbery suspect police believed was in the vicinity.” Exact? In the context of the incidents of shootings of unarmed Black teenagers and men, and in particular with the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin by vigilante George Zimmerman that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s impossible not to read such statements as anything but the outcome of racial profiling of Black men who have the audacity to simply be outside.

The danger that Ekakitie faced was categorically different than the average Pokémon Go player. He wasn’t just exposed to the greater risks of being outdoors: he was risk itself, and therefore subject to risk containment in the form of police attention that could easily have turned fatal. This highlights the potential for uneven distribution of risk among Pokémon Go players, or playing Pokémon Go while Black. It also highlights the matter of uneven free access to the outdoors. Writer Omar Akil puts it this way: “The premise of Pokémon Go asks me to put my life in danger if I choose to play it as it is intended.” [16] More directly: “I might die if I keep playing.”[17]

In light of incidents like this, the real question facing Pokémon Go players may not be, are you doing natural history, but, do you belong in the landscape? The question of what to do with people is one with which natural historians have long struggled, often confusing the study of the natural world with the policing of social norms.

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Natural History and the Politics of Being Outside

The politics of being outside—in my case, the comparatively low-risk shame of being a working-age male wandering, to any reasonable observer, aimlessly during daylight hours—is in part what drove me to make my natural history hobby conventionally scientific rather than merely quaint. I like to imagine that the pretense of scientific purpose, manifest in the totem of my butterfly net, protects me from the charge of privilege (even as much as being white reveals that privilege).

I chose the North Atwater Bioswale to make a systematic survey of butterfly diversity, accounting for number and kinds of species according to season. I was inspired by an exhibit at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum where I learned that of the 236 butterfly species in Los Angeles County, forty-five make their home at Griffith Park.[18] The North Atwater Bioswale is just across the 5 Freeway and the Los Angeles River from Griffith Park, which is the easternmost edge of the Santa Monica Mountain Range: Can my swale still be considered part of the mountains? What is the ecological relationship between Griffith and North Atwater Parks? What kind of biogeographical barriers do rivers and freeways make? Do butterflies cross freeways?

However, if I’m being honest, quaintness does motivate me. I am inspired as much by modern ecology as by my favorite English naturalist Gilbert White, the eighteenth-century country parson who spent his life documenting the flora and fauna of his native county of Selborne in the south of England. White’s Natural History of Selborne (1789), the best-selling book in England after the Bible for 200 years, made local or “backyard” natural history fashionable and inspired generations of naturalists, including Charles Darwin. It provides a prescient model for what we now would call citizen science, that practice of experts outsourcing observations in nature to local amateur field agents (though the expert/amateur distinction did not technically exist in the eighteenth century). White’s book is a collection of his letters to his naturalist friends Thomas Pennant and Daines Barrington on local flora and fauna and is famous for its quaint charm, and for the persona of the humble, interested observer, characterized by expressions like this: “My remarks are the result of many years of observation; and are, I trust, true in the whole: though I do not pretend that they are perfectly void of mistake, or that a more nice [i.e., expert] observer might not make many additions, since subjects of this kind are inexhaustible.”[19] His field study might be regarded as among the first to attempt a biological survey, richly documenting the biodiversity of his native county and exemplifying his dictum that “all nature is so full, that that district produces the greatest variety which is the most examined.”[20]

I am so enchanted by White’s example of deep natural history that I set out to do my own Natural History of North Atwater Park. I focused my attention on this bioswale on the western edge of the park about a hundred meters wide and running a quarter mile along the Los Angeles River. Devoting myself to an entire county is daunting, but a three-acre urban watershed management park within a dog-walk from my house seems manageable. The swale is teeming with native flora, and is really accessible, crisscrossed with compacted dirt paths and adorned with informative signage explaining what kinds of plants can be found there and what a bioswale even is.[21]

The swale also provides rich faunal habitat. Since I started paying attention, I have observed a bestiary of Los Angeles invertebrates: the Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera); the less common Golden Digger Wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus); hoverflies, like the tiny Margined Calligrapher (Toxomerus marginatus); huge Gray Bird Grasshoppers (Schistocerca nitens) and giant rust-colored Flame Skimmer Dragonflies (Libellula saturate), as big as small birds; and California Mantis (Stagmomantis californica), whose oothecae festoon the willow branches and on which I keep a close eye for signs of activity. And my main interest, the lepidoptera. In just a couple of months, I’ve documented or captured ten species on my rounds: Marine Blues, Gulf Fritillaries, Common Buckeyes, Cabbage Whites, Mourning Cloaks, West Coast Ladies, Fiery Skippers, Funereal Duskywing Skippers, Umber Skippers, and, of course, Western Tiger Swallowtails.

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Lizards, birds, and mammals, too, frequent the swale—and people. There is the odd dog-walker, but mostly vagrants, drug dealers, and weed-smokers, probably because of the good cover the dense vegetation provides. I know this because of the colorful weed cannisters that adorn the underbrush, and the Toonerville gang’s (Toonerville Rifa 13) tagging of the educational placards. I generally steer clear of people on my afternoon expeditions, partly out of my sense of shame, and partly for fear that people take a dim view of collecting. But people and cultures have always been features of natural history, albeit perhaps the most problematic ones. The shared nature of “the field” puts into relief the social conflicts incurred simply by being outdoors.

White, for example, wrote a lot about the people of Selborne and their habits. Among them, he took special note of the “gangs or hordes of gypsies” that came through his county a few times a year. Like many of the birds that White describes, Gypsies are not native to Selborne, having migrated “from Egypt and the East, two or three centuries ago.” However, despite their long habitation in England, White insists on calling them “vagrants.” Their “family name,” the Curleople, which, though “a little corrupted” from its Greek origins, betrays their origins in the Levant region of the eastern Mediterranean. So does their language, which he characterizes, under cover of academic inquiry, as the “mutilated remains” of their native Greek and, even less academically, as “harsh gibberish” and “cant.”

White marks the Gypsies as “other”[22] not just in their name and language, but in their habits, too: they prefer, he says, to live “sub dio”—that is, under the sun, or outside—eschewing even the “barns, stables, and cow-houses” preferred by other, presumably English, beggars. In delineating between dwellings suitable for animals and living sub dio, White uses the Gypsies to police what it means to be “outside.” Living sub dio makes them neither animal nor beggar, but something closer to pests: they “infest the south and west of England;” they can’t be contained. “Europe itself, it seems, cannot set bounds to the rovings of these vagabonds,” as reports of them have been returned as far as “the confines of Tartary,” where they “were endeavoring to… try their fortune in China.”

White’s natural history description bleeds into normative racial and ethnic identity politics. For him, natural history patrols the boundaries around Englishness, regulating who is belongs and who does not. Furthermore, in his examination of their language and habits, he marks the Gypsies as rootless, homeless wanderers, severing their ties to their homeland in the Middle East even as he links them to it.[23] They’re left with no legitimate claim to place. In the end, White includes Gypsies as features of The Natural History of Selborne only to exclude them. They represent a kind of “unnatural” history: after all, birds pass through the country during migration, too, but birds don’t carry the same baggage of belonging or nativity that humans do.[24] Humans’ role in nature has historically had more contested significance than the nonhuman.

Romantic Nature’s Racist Legacy

For White, nature is not only a floral and faunal landscape, but a moral one as well. And natural history is not just a set of practices to study birds and whatnot, but an instrument to assess how different people figure differently in that landscape. It is this idea of nature and the study of nature as a moral enterprise that allows us to draw a straight line between White’s not-so-subtle exclusionary racism and the normative nature/non-nature, inside/outside boundaries made evident by Pokémon Go.

White’s natural history belongs to the late eighteenth-century zeal for nature experience and study that we associate with the likes of Romantics like Wordsworth, who aimed to reveal nature’s “spontaneous wisdom” through poetry.[25] For the Romantics, nature taught important moral lessons. Writers like Emerson imported the Romantics and their European-style nature-worship to America as Transcendentalism, signaling a major shift in modern nature philosophy. Before the Romantics, “nature” in America was mostly a lot of wasteland in between colonial towns on the east coast where wild animals and “savages” could murder you.[26] Majestic American mountain landscapes were then just blights on God’s otherwise harmonious vistas. Nature-worship was viewed as a form of paganism by settlers that were less likely to regard the indigenous people as humans than as (at worst) Satan’s howling demons or as (at best) fauna fit to be the objects of natural history, but not its practitioners. Nature from this moral vantage point ought not be preserved but tamed, along with the natives, to make room for Manifest Destiny: the God-ordained annexation of free land for white settlement and industrial development.

Romantic nature philosophy arrived on the scene at a time when Americans were beginning to contend with new and disturbing realities. First, God-ordained industrial and technological mastery provided the frightening ability to domesticate the fearsomeness of nature by eradicating entire landscapes and the people who lived on them in the pursuit of resources and profit. The real devils were now land surveyors and private landowners and, by extension, civilized town life more generally. Second, our religio-capitalist land-rape didn’t exactly deliver on its promise of moral health and happiness. In fact, to nature sages like Thoreau and Muir, land-rape and moral health seemed at odds. After a century or more of nature exploitation, under the auspices of “improvement,” had driven us more and more indoors, those historical “wastelands”—now safely delivered of their scary megafauna and original inhabitants—suddenly started to look spiritually rejuvenating. So, we drew lines around some big parks, kicked out the rest of the savages, and called the areas “nature.” This is more or less the story of how the wastelands of yore were resurrected as unpeopled wilderness preserves for the spiritual benefit of temporary sojourners in need of respite from the stresses of civilized life. Other less majestic places were left to fend for themselves. Joshua Tree versus the Salton Sea is a pretty striking local example of the consequences of such a binary land ethic, but perhaps more striking is the classic and widespread division between nature and city, which expresses the ultimate in normative nature ideas, that nature is anywhere humans are not.[27]

The Romantic nature ideal allowed for the preservation of unparalleled swaths of pristine national parkland against industrial development and exploitation, but at the same time it left a legacy of uneven access to that same ideal. While the “nature experience” has long been held up as a foundation of American identity, it has also been confined to specific places accessible mostly to whites. For along with eliminating permanent inhabitants from national parks, it helped turn those parks into temporary enclaves of middle-class white leisure-time activity—as places to travel to on family holidays, or as destinations of adventure requiring not only time but resources, such as three weeks during the summer and a few thousand dollars worth of gear to hike the John Muir Trail.

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This legacy is today evident in the radically uneven usership of national parks. For example, studies show that whites make up a disproportionately high percentage of visitors, while Black and Hispanic attendance lags far behind. A 2008-2009 study by the Park Service on “Racial and Ethnic Diversity of National Park System Visitors and Non-Visitors” found that of National Park visitors nation wide just 9% identified as Hispanic, and just 7% identified as African American. In total, non-Whites were just 20% of all visitors.[28] This despite that minorities account for almost 40% of the U.S. population. An NPR piece from 2016 examined Saguaro National Park in Tucson, Arizona, as exemplary of the demographic challenges facing the parks today and found that “The type of people who visit the park don’t reflect the type of people living in the community. Tucson is about 44 percent Hispanic or Latino. Of the park’s roughly 650,000 annual visitors, less than 2 percent self-identify as Hispanic.”[29]

Hispanic minorities cite the high cost of travel to parks, entry fees, lack of signage in Spanish, lack of shade (too sub dio, I guess), and the overwhelming whiteness of park employees as reasons not to visit. But they also cite cultural differences in the kind of experiences that they expect from nature: Whereas the ideal nature experience promoted by parks frequently borrows on “the solitude and quiet of a John Muir photo,” Hispanics “might want to have a different experience in the outdoors.” Hispanics enjoy nature, not as solitary wanderers above a sea of fog, but as whole families: “I’m going to bring my whole family,” said Oscar Medina, a teacher at a nearby high school: “we’re going to be loud, we’re going to explore.” But “that’s not what’s promoted” in parks that function a lot like museums. The result is the feeling that “this is not our space.” One park ranger observed, “If we’re not being relevant to almost half of the population, then 30, 40, 50 years from now, the park isn’t going to matter to them.”[30]

Instead of pristine wilderness, minorities have had to content themselves with whatever nature experience cities might offer,[31] a form of compromised nature far from the traditional nature of curated parklands. We tend not to revere urban nature with the same degree of ethical care as national parks, despite the fact that from an ecological point of view biodiversity skews higher in urban areas than elsewhere. Scientists regard Los Angeles, for example, as a biodiversity “hot spot.” It “lies within the California Floristic Province, which is globally recognized as one of just thirty-five biodiversity hotspots in the world—and the only one in the continental United States.”[32] According to Brian Brown, Curator of Entomology at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, “There’s often a misconception that Los Angeles is a concrete jungle, when in reality the city is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world.”[33] But when we imagine ourselves “out in nature,” taking in the landscape from the aerie vantage of mountaintops, we tend not to imagine a landscape crisscrossed by freeways and concrete flood control channels. The reality is that Los Angeles suffers less from a “nature” problem than a perception problem.

But this distinction may be moot, because even in such “compromised” spaces as urban parklands, non-whites suffer the same problems of accessibility as they do in national parks. Urban minorities are more likely to be “park poor,” or to live farther away from public parks. A public health study in Los Angeles from 2016 found that “African Americans and Latinos were more likely than Asians and Whites to live in cities and communities with less park space per capita.”[34] As a result, they were also far more likely to suffer “significant public health implications.” This is evidenced by a ten-year study of more than 3,000 children living in southern California, which found that “those living near parks and recreational programs had lower rates of obesity at 18 years of age than comparable children who lived further away.”[35]

Compromised nature leads to compromised quality of life. Given the higher rates of white children with access to “nature” in whatever form, non-white children are statistically more likely to experience Louv’s nature-deficit disorder. They’re also more likely to live closer to urban environmental hazards, like waste facilities or Superfund sites and so are perhaps less likely to participate in the national myth that our common American heritage resides in our relationship to “places untouched by man.”[36] The ethnic demographics of visitors to national parks, the traditionally park-poor communities of urban centers like Los Angeles, and the “unequal vulnerability” of minority populations to environmental degradation, illustrate that access to nature, in the traditional Romantic sense, is not a right but a privilege of race and class.[37] The reality is that minorities in urban centers are more likely to be the victims of a nature ideal secured by violence, not its beneficiaries.

At the same time, while Hispanics are underrepresented in national parks, they “are slightly overrepresented among Pokémon Go players.” Hispanics makes up 17% of the U.S. population, and only 9% of national park visitors, but they represent 19% of Pokémon Go players. This representation may correlate with the rural/urban divide in Pokémon Go usership: rates of play are much higher in cities than in the country. The game’s appeal to a diverse urban usership is particularly evident in the rates of new players. In one study, “while 34% of all respondents said they never had played a Pokémon game before,” that number was much higher for Black and Latino players (49% and 40% respectively). One interpretation of these figures is that white and non-white players experience the game’s offer of outdoor activity differently. Non-white players may express in their attraction to Pokémon Go a desire for the kinds of outdoor activities that are denied them. Perhaps these figures even reveal a criticism of the uneven opportunities to engage in outdoor activity that confront urban minorities daily as features of their built environment.

However, despite these statistics, some have argued that Pokémon Go simply reproduces the uneven access to and experience of nature that we find in city and national parks. Almost as soon as the game hit its high-water mark of popularity in the summer of 2016, critics revealed that different groups experienced the game differently. For example, Los Angeles-based environmental journalist Aura Bogado points out the striking disproportion of PokéStops and “gyms” in white versus minority communities. Using a Twitter campaign #mypokehood to gather user-generated evidence of the disproportion, Bogado found that there were far more PokéStops in Long Beach, which is about fifty percent white, than in her own majority-minority neighborhood in South LA. She found the same to be true for Chicago, Miami, New York, and Washington D.C. “As the share of the white population increases, PokéStops and gyms become more plentiful,” writes Shiva Kooragayala and Tanaya Srini of the Urban Institute, which corroborated Bogado’s findings. In fact, in majority white neighborhoods they found an average of 55 PokéStops, compared to only 19 in majority Black neighborhoods.[38] Furthermore, they argue that racialized public space is built into the game’s design, and in the gaming industry more generally. It turns out that Pokémon Go game designers simply borrowed the mapping algorithm of an earlier game called Ingress, also put out by Niantic. This, argues Bogado, is how environmental racism becomes structural, passed down uncritically from one design to another until the experience of inequity goes from bug to feature.

Some have referred to this “redlining”, a term more typically used to describe minority communities’ limited access to “essential services,” such as access to affordable housing.[39] Is access to nature an “essential service?” What about augmented nature? Pokémon Go promises access to the outdoors, but at the same time reinforces the unevenness of that promise.

Unnatural History

How can we resolve this apparent contradiction between the game’s promise, on one hand, of access to the nature experience through the practice of natural history and, on the other, its complicity in the long history of exclusionary environmental racism in this country? One avenue presents itself: the creator of the original Pokemon franchise, Satoshi Tajiri. I was surprised to learn Tajiri attributed his inspiration to a childhood spent collecting insects in the rural countryside around his hometown of Machida, a suburb of Tokyo—a place “full of nature,” a phrase that makes me imagine my bioswale, only much bigger.[40] Bugs fascinated Tajiri—or Dr. Bug, as he was known to his friends. He recalled in a 1999 Time interview being a keen observer of bug life: he possessed intimate knowledge of their variety, habitats, and behaviors. He knew beetles liked to sleep under rocks so he placed rocks under trees at night and would check on them in the morning in order to collect the sleepy beasts. “Every time I found a new insect,” he relates, “it was mysterious to me.”

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However, as rural landscape gave way to commercial development, “all the insects were driven away.” Tajiri saw a decrease in insects year over year as trees came down and buildings went up: “A fishing pond would become an arcade center,” which was a particularly ironic reflection given his own professional destiny as a video game designer. When asked if insects gave him the idea for Pokémon, Tajiri said yes: but not just the insects—the loss of insects and insect habitat, along with the accompanying shifts in childhood behavior, from an outside culture to an inside one.

Tajiri built this environmental consciousness into the game, intending it, writes Anne Allison, as a “play-form… to both capture and transmit to present-day kids” his “childhood experiences in a town where nature had not yet been overtaken by industrialization.”[41] Tajiri understood that as a result of these shifts, “people spend more time alone, forming intimacies less with one another than with the goods they consume and the technologies they rely upon.” Most of the games kids turn to demand that users master a degree of complexity that draws them further into the game world and away from the real world, leaving them without the connections to people and environment that can be sources of community, comfort, and health. For Tajiri, going outside meant connecting not just to nature, but also to one another. Natural history-style gameplay becomes a social experience that alleviates the stresses of living under industrial capitalism.

Given that Pokémon was originally imagined as a response to urban alienation, it is fitting that it is more likely to be played in urban locations by the people most impacted by poor access to natural resources. These are the same communities for whom the traditional distinction between nature and non-nature, real and augmented, probably makes less sense as a defining contrast. Historically compromised access to nature may mean that the desire for outdoor experience is not driven by nostalgia for a lost, pre-industrial nature ideal, as it was for the Romantics and Transcendentalists. And so by a curious historical and transnational confluence, urban minority Pokémon Go players in American cities come to resemble more closely the experience not of nature per se, but of the augmented nature captured in Tajiri’s design. Plugging into the smartphone game app, Pokémon Go players become students of a different nature than those in the Romantic school. They become living embodiments of Tajiri’s environmental consciousness, and, to borrow from Gilbert White, some “progress in a kind of information to which I have been attached from my childhood.”[42] The “information” I’m referring to is not White’s natural history: I maintain that Pokémon Go players are not learning much natural history. Rather, I’m talking about progress toward conceptualizing our actual, augmented relationship to nature, rather than the imaginary Romantic one we tend to wield, sometimes (charmingly) like a butterfly net, but sometimes (problematically) like police baton. The compromises and contradictions embedded in Pokémon Go players’ experience of the world, I think, better characterize this actual relationship to nature. They remind us that there is no nature without people, and that an untouched nature exists only as an exclusionary ideal.

Understood in the course of natural history, Pokémon Go gives us the means to re-imagine the nature ideal as an inclusive rather than exclusive one. This represents the value of “augmented” nature. Its natural historian, Tajiri, is a postcolonial Gilbert White: rather than using natural history to police boundaries, to deny access and connection, Tajiri designed his game with the intent to dissolve boundaries, to grant access and connection. In doing so, he re-designed “nature” itself. To modify Wordsworth,

“let augmented nature be your teacher.”

My beloved bioswale has been a good classroom for the lessons taught by augment nature: it’s as full of contradictions as it is of native flora and fauna. Its “nature” is propped up by a host of human contrivances. Completed in 2014, it’s a $4 million city planning component of the LA River Revitalization Master Plan to install environmentally sensitive urban design and improve water quality along a 51-mile watershed river that connects thirteen cities and many more municipalities in one of the most densely populated regions on the continent. It employs the latest in watershed design, like native plant biofiltration and permeable paving stones. It’s the result of huge collaboration among multiple city departments.[43] And it lies along the LA River: a concrete flood control channel that was once a naturally occurring seasonal meandering waterway, but which has become perhaps one of the world’s best exhibits of the contradictions of the human-nonhuman confluence. The LA River only looks like an “actual” river (at least where I live in the “Glendale Narrows” portion) because treated wastewater gets dumped into it daily from the Los Angeles-Glendale Water Treatment Plant. This is water that sustains the habitat that provides a home for human and nonhuman animals alike. Anything “natural” about North Atwater Park—in that cranky sense that nature is anything where humans are not—is a total fiction. The park is a work of human art and nature, which, when I think about it, makes me love it more rather than less.

Catching butterflies at this park was never really about living “the nature ideal” as it was a project that combined my need to get outside with my academic interest in the history and practices of science. By disposition, I’m probably a lot like those kids I see with their smartphones: I’m not a born naturalist, like Tajiri, and I’ve never been one to experience nature for its Romantic appeal. I’m frequently detached from the outside, and I use technology as a carrot to lure me there. Alongside my collecting net and notebook and killing jar I have a citizen science app called iNaturalist to photograph species and outsource identifications to local experts. iNaturalist geo-tags my observations and plots them on a Google Earth map for others to see. I sometimes use it like a geocaching tool, revisiting places where others have recorded an interesting butterfly in hopes of seeing one, too.

Like those Pokémon Go players, I need some alluring mission, like documenting how nonhuman animals make use of a three-acre marvel of environmental engineering. More meaningful to me than the question of whether the park is natural or artificial is that it needs a natural history because, to modify White, “that district possesses the greatest value which is the most examined.” Doing natural history in places historically relegated to “non-nature” is a step on the way to accommodating them in our nature philosophy. Perhaps only then might we improve both their quality and the access to them. As a White middle-class male, the question of my access to this park is not much contested. But a complete natural history of the North Atwater Bioswale ought not be limited to its fauna, Poké or otherwise: It ought to treat the experience of the humans who hunt them—the experience of privilege and exclusion alike. After all, these are features of the landscape, as well as its bugs.

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Notes

[1] Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (orig. 1966, reprint, Vintage, 1989), 131.

[2] Ibid., 120.

[3] Sean Greene, “‘Pokemon Go’ players are finding real animals while searching for digital ones,” Los Angeles Times, 11 July 2016, http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-pokemon-go-real-animals-20160711-20160711-snap-story.html.

[4] William Wordsworth, “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” Poems, in Two Volumes (London: Longman, 1807).

[5] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” (Boston: James Munro, 1836), 19.

[6] Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned.” Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems (London: 1798).

[7] “Gotta name them all: how Pokémon can transform taxonomy,” Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science, 19 July 2016,  http://www.nature.com/news/gotta-name-them-all-how-pok%C3%A9mon-can-transform-taxonomy-1.20275.

[8] See, for example: Robert E. Kohler, Landscapes and Labscapes: Exploring the Lab-Field Border in Biology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); John T. Anderson, Deep Things Out of Darkness: A History of Natural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 250-56.

[9] “Gotta name them all.”

[10] Greene, “‘Pokemon Go’ players are finding real animals.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] Veronica Rocha, “2 California men fall off edge of ocean bluff while playing ‘Pokemon Go,’” Los Angeles Times, 14 July 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-pokemon-go-players-stabbed-fall-off-cliff-20160714-snap-story.html. “Man Stabbed While Playing ‘Pokemon Go,’ But Continues Playing,” ABC7 News, 15 July 2016. http://abc7.com/news/pokemon-go-player-stabbed-keeps-playing/1428184/. Feliks Garcia, “Pokemon Go Gamer Crashes Car Into Tree in New York,” Independent 14 July 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/gaming/pokemon-go-car-crash-new-york-a7137261.html.; “Pokemon Go teens stuck in caves 100ft underground,” BBC News 15 July 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-wiltshire-36805615. Last accessed: July 17, 2016; Veronica Rocha, “‘Pokemon Go’ players find corpse in San Diego Park,” Los Angeles Times 15 July 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-san-diego-dead-body-pokemon-go-20160715-snap-story.html; Andrea Peterson, “Holocaust Museum to Visitors: Please Stop Catching Pokemon Here,” Washington Post 12 July 2016,. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2016/07/12/holocaust-museum-to-visitors-please-stop-catching-pokemon-here/.

[13] The following gives handy list of such incidents involving the game: http://www.syracuse.com/us-news/index.ssf/2016/07/pokemon_go_dangerous_every_crime_accident_death_shooting_linked_to_game.html#0.

[14] Adam Hamze, “Police body camera shows Pokemon Go player mistaken for bank robber.” Vice News, 26 July 2016; https://news.vice.com/article/police-body-camera-shows-pokemon-go-player-mistaken-for-bank-robber; “Florida teens, mistaken for thieves, shot at playing Pokemon Go,” BBC News, 17 July 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36818384.

[15] Kohler, Landscapes 6-7.

[16] Omar Akil, “Warning: Pokémon GO Could Be A Death Sentence If You Are A Black Man,” Huffington Post, 12 July 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/omari-akil/warning-pokemon-go-is-death-sentence-black-man_b_10946826.html.

[17] Ibid.

[18] This figure is down from fifty-five in the 1920s. Over ninety or so years, Griffith Park lost nearly 20 percent of its native butterfly diversity—I’m guessing due to habitat loss associated with human development. I would actually have expected a greater reduction, but Griffith Park remains a surprisingly unimpacted landscape in the middle of this metropolis.

[19] Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne (1789), reprinted (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 133.

[20] Ibid., 45.

[21] Turns out “bioswale” is environmental-design speak for a biofiltration system that uses plants, rocks, and soil to capture trash, particulates, and toxins from flood water and break them down before they enter the aquifer or are expelled into the river through an outflow pipe. This water management strategy lies behind the design of the many “pocket parks” along the LA River intended to enhance aesthetics and improve water quality.

[22] White, 158-59.

[23] Ibid.

[24] In fact, bird migration was a major source of controversy: some theories said birds migrate for winter, others that they hide (Introduction, White, xxii).

[25] Wordsworth, “The Tables Turned.”

[26] See, for example, Baird Callicott and Priscilla Ybarra, “Puritan Origins of the American Wilderness Movement,” Nature Transformed: The Environment in American History, National Humanities Center and TeacherServe (2009): http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nattrans/ntwilderness/essays/puritan.htm. See also Evan Berry, Devoted to Nature: The Religious Roots of American Environmentalism (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), esp. 102-147.

[27] See, for example, William Cronon’s now-canonical essay “The Trouble with Wilderness: Getting Back to the Wrong Kind of Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995), 69-90.

[28] National Park Service Comprehensive Survey of the American Public, 2008–2009: Racial and Ethnic Diversity of National Park System Visitors and Non-Visitors. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/SSD/NRR—2011/432

[29] Rott, “Don’t Care About National Parks? The Park Service Needs You To,” All Things Considered, 9 March 2016, http://www.npr.org/2016/03/09/463851006/dont-care-about-national-parks-the-park-service-needs-you-to.

[30] Rott.

[31] See for example these 2014 statistics on children living in rural versus urban settings, according to race and ethnicity in U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, Maternal and Child Health Bureau. Child Health USA 2014 (Rockville, Maryland: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2014), https://mchb.hrsa.gov/chusa14/population-characteristics/rural-urban-children.html.

[32] Damon Nagami, “Los Angeles Launches #BioDiversifyLA to Protect Region’s Rare Biodiversity.” 25 April 2015, https://www.nrdc.org/experts/damon-nagami/los-angeles-launches-biodiversifyla-protect-regions-rare-biodiversity.

[33] Rory Carroll, “LA, a surprise nature hotspot, is home to one of the biggest biodiversity studies,” The Guardian, 14 April 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/apr/14/los-angeles-biodiversity-nature-study-natural-history-museum.

[34] County of Los Angeles Public Health, “Parks and Public Health in Los Angeles County,” May 2016, http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/chronic/docs/Parks%20Report%202016-rev_051816.pdf.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Emerson, “Nature.” See for example the Ken Burns documentary, The National Parks.

[37] Jedediah Purdy, “Environmentalism’s Racist History,” The New Yorker, 13 August 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/environmentalisms-racist-history.

[38] Shiva Kooragayala and Tanaya Srini, “Pokémon GO is changing how cities use public space, but could it be more inclusive?” Urban Institute, 5 August 2016, http://www.urban.org/urban-wire/pokemon-go-changing-how-cities-use-public-space-could-it-be-more-inclusive.

[39] Allana Akhtar, “Is Pokémon Go racist? How the app may be redlining communities of color,” USA Today, 9 August 2016, http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2016/08/09/pokemon-go-racist-app-redlining-communities-color-racist-pokestops-gyms/87732734/.

[40] “The Ultimate Game Freak,” Time, 22 November 1999, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2040095,00.html.

[41] Anne Allison, “Portable monsters and commodity cuteness: Pokémon as Japan’s new global power,” Postcolonial Studies 6 (2003): 388.

[42] White, 24.

[43] This includes the DPW, the Bureau of Engineering, Rec and Parks, and the Bureau of Sanitation. It’s funded by California’s Proposition 50 River Parkways Grant Program, and by Supplemental Environmental Project funds from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Bryan B. Rasmussen is Chair of English at California Lutheran University, where he teaches and writes about environmental literature, science and literature, and natural history. He sometimes blogs about these topics at http://www.oxbornbee.org. This summer he’s getting certified to be a California Naturalist and can be found leading nature walks for the Friends of the LA River.

Copyright: © 2017 Bryan B. Rasmussen. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Reviews

Origins of the LA Riots

The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots, by Brenda Stevenson (Oxford University Press, 423pp, $29.95)

Reviewed by Annie Powers

On March 16, 1991, African-American teenager Latasha Harlins walked into the Empire Liquor Market in South Central LA. She grabbed a bottle of orange juice, slipped it into her backpack, and walked to the counter to pay. Korean shopkeeper Soon Ja Du, concerned that Harlins was trying to steal the juice, tried to take the girl’s backpack. Harlins fought back, and the pair struggled. Harlins threw punches. Du threw a stool. Finally, Harlins disengaged, leaving the orange juice, and turning toward the door. Du grabbed a gun from under the counter and shot Harlins in the back of the head. Latasha Harlins died clutching $2 that she had planned to use to buy some juice. Du was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, a conviction with a maximum sentence of 16 years in prison. But Soon Ja Du would serve no prison time. Instead, Judge Joyce Karlin, a Jewish woman, sentenced her to five years probation, community service, and a $500 fine. Less than six months later, police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted, and Los Angeles erupted into violence. The LA riots had begun.

The three women involved in the shooting of Harlins and sentencing of Du—a poor black girl, a Korean woman from a small-business owning family, and an affluent female Jewish judge—are the focus of UCLA historian Brenda Stevenson’s new book, The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins. By focusing on the death of Harlins and trial of Du, Stevenson moves away from a male-dominated narrative that emphasizes the police beating of Rodney King as the main cause of the LA riots. Instead, Stevenson argues, it was the Harlins murder and trial, a story centered on women, that was the real spark for the violence of spring 1992. The Harlins case crystallized frustrations among African-Americans about Korean-American shopkeepers in South Central LA, who seemed to regard their black customers as criminals. In the wake of Du’s sentencing, black Angelenos acutely felt that justice had been denied to Harlins and the black community. It was in reaction to the Harlins case that boycotts of Korean businesses began. It was through the experience of the Harlins case that African-Americans understood the Rodney King verdict and during the riots destroyed Korean shops. Stevenson’s shift of focus from Rodney King to the Harlins murder and verdict changes our understanding of the LA riots.

In her acknowledgments, Stevenson writes that this book has been in the works since 1991. Her long-term effort shows. Carefully assessing the intersections of gender, race, and class, Stevenson explores the circumstances under which Du could shoot Harlins and get off with a light sentence from Karlin. Stevenson does this by probing into the deep pasts of each player, extending her analytical reach into long histories of slavery, immigration, discrimination, poverty, and racism. This book is about Latasha Harlins, Soon Ja Du, and Joyce Karlin, but in many ways, it is about much more than that. It is about the importance of race, gender, and class in crime, justice, and, most crucially, lived experience. And perhaps most of all, it is about the ways in which history bleeds ever-forward into the present.

Photograph at top by Flickr user Dark Sevier

Articles

Witness to a Hanging

by Jared Farmer

From Boom Spring 2013, Vol. 3, No. 1

California’s haunted trees

When a man dies hanging from a tree, is that tree an accessory to the act or a witness? In legal terminology, a “witness tree” is a boundary marker, whereas in popular culture, a “witness tree” is an arboreal survivor at a historic site. At Gettysburg National Military Park, for example, the National Park Service has made an inventory of all of the battlefield orchard trees still standing; these living relics function as markers of collective memory. When Californians think about floral witnesses, they reflexively turn to sequoias or their cousins, the redwoods, and wish that they could speak. The impulse to personify them goes back a long time. “Could these magnificent and venerable forest giants of Calaveras County be gifted with a descriptive historical tongue, how their recital would startle us,” wrote James Hutchings, the pioneering promoter, in 1865. From his generation to ours, people have imagined the Big Tree’s perspective on ancient Old World events. “Are you as old as Noah?” inquired the clergyman Thomas Starr King to one of the “vegetable Titans” in 1861. “Do you span the centuries as far as Moses? Can you remember the time of Solomon?” Sequoias are estranging: they take our imaginations to distant times and faraway places; they offer a bridge between the shallows of historical time and the unfathomable depths of geological time. There is value in that. But California has much better candidates for local witness trees—namely, “hang trees” that force us to think about the state’s violent history of uprooting amidst its countervailing history of putting down roots.1


View of the “Hanging Tree” in Calabasas, Los Angeles County, 1939. Photograph by Dick Whittington. Courtesy of the Huntington Library.

In 1847, even before the end of the US-Mexico War and the discovery of gold, the governor and general of Alta California capitulated to an emissary of Col. John C. Frémont outside of San Fernando. Supposedly they made treaty beneath an oak—a tree later commemorated by Anglo-Americans as the “Oak of Peace.” In fact, the transition following the Gold Rush brought discord and violence, as witnessed by certain native plants, mainly oaks and sycamores. A postcard, printed circa 1900, shows a knotted oak near Julian, in San Diego County, and a rhyme in the tree’s voice:

In the days of old

in the days of gold

nuggets were picked by the peck.

On a limb of mine,

in eighteen seventy nine,

a man was hung by the neck.2

The American tradition of lynching transcended the white-black milieu of the Deep South. Two social historians, William Carrigan and Clive Webb, have made a strong documentary case that the “lynching rate” for Mexican-Americans was comparable to that for African Americans.3 California led the way in anti-Mexican and anti-Chinese vigilantism. According to legend, Joaquín Murrieta—one of the great figures in Gold Rush and Chicano history—chose his second career in banditry in response to the hanging of his half brother. Even after the placer gold petered out, Californians of Mexican descent, Californios—often called “greasers,” a word on a par with “niggers”—continued to be lynched at a rate wildly disproportionate to their overall population. (As for Indians, settlers were more likely to murder them without any pretense of legality). Occasionally, Californios killed in common cause with Anglos. In 1867 a volunteer militia under the command of Andrés Pico captured and hanged two outlaws, associates of the bandit Juan Flores, for the murder of the sheriff of Los Angeles. It took much less provocation for white Angelenos to attack their Chinese neighbors. According to one witness of the 1871 “Chinese Massacre,” enforcers erected all kinds of impromptu gallows; “trees, awnings, lamp posts, even farmer’s wagons were thus utilized, until eighteen ghastly corpses—one that of a mere child—dangled about the street.”4


Commemorative plaque, Orchard Hills, Irvine, Orange County, 2008. Photograph by Chris Jepsen.

Retributory violence could also cut across race and ethnicity. This was especially true in the early years of the Gold Rush, when, according to a forty-niner from France, “It seemed as if every prison in every civilized country had sent the elite of its inmates out here to colonize this country.”5 In a high-stakes, all-male atmosphere, in the absence of regular law enforcement, vigilance committees meted out punishment to accused criminals of every background—Anglo-Americans, Irishmen, Australians, Frenchmen, Belgians, Chileans, Sonorans, Californios, Miwoks. Death by hanging wasn’t the only extralegal remedy in the gold camps. Lynch courts also dictated banishment, branding, whipping—or a combination of all three. In many cases, vigilantes relieved the accused of his shirt, tied him to a tree, or forced him to hug its trunk, and administered the rawhide.


“Hangmans Tree” (with supporting guy wires) along Big Oak Flat Road (State Route 120), Second Garotte, Tuolumne County, 1951. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

A tree allowed two methods of killing. Most commonly, the accused stood on a movable object—a bench or a horse—with the tree-bound noose around his neck. In the absence of such a removable platform, he might be convinced to climb the tree and jump off. All too often, the branch’s height was insufficient for the force of gravity to snap the poor man’s neck. Desperately, he grabbed at the rope as he choked to death, while onlookers tried to restrain his hands. To avoid excessive unpleasantries, careful vigilantes pinioned the victim’s arms in advance. The second method of tree hanging inflicted even crueler agony. The executioner jerked the roped person up and down, like a piñata, until the neck finally broke. Sometimes a kangaroo court strung up the accused, then let him down temporarily for the purpose of extracting a coerced confession, and finally killed him with the satisfaction of justice served.


“Hangmans Tree” (view from the road). Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

Public executions attracted large audiences. Gathered under a tree, the community of spectators gave tacit approval to lynching. Petty property crimes like raiding a sluice box or rustling a horse could lead to summary death penalties in the gold fields. Occasionally, a softhearted bystander tried to intercede. A Methodist missionary urged a lynch mob to take pity on its prisoner, a teenaged thief, a “mere tool and victim of the older criminals who had made their escape.” Send him back to his dear old mother in the States, pleaded the man of the cloth. Momentarily rebuffed, the vigilantes dispersed. They reorganized in the night and dragged the accused from jail. “The tree on which the boy was hanged was a healthy, vigorous young oak, in full leaf,” wrote the preacher. “In a few days its every leaf had withered!”6

Gold Rush executioners did not mark their gallows; eyewitnesses typically only mention “a convenient oak tree.” In a few mining camps, the tree of convenience earned its own name through repeated use. Most famously, the town of Jackson, in Amador County, fussed over its “Hangman’s Tree,” located on Main Street next to a saloon. At least ten men died here—seven Mexicans, one Chilean, one European (variously identified as German, Swiss, and Swedish), and one indigenous man. In 1854 a French-language newspaper announced—ironically, one assumes—that it had opened a subscription to purchase the notorious tree to make a carved statue of Judge Lynch. After a town-wide conflagration in 1862, residents of Jackson cut down the blackened bough; in response, a regional newspaper opined that California’s “most remarkable tree” should have merited preservation. A pioneer-era historian informs us that this plant (an interior live oak) was “never very beautiful, but was a source of so much pride to the citizens” that they engraved a likeness of it on Amador County’s first seal. Similarly, when the namesake tree of Placerville—known popularly as Hangtown—withered and died, residents turned its wood into souvenir canes. In 1941 a donated heirloom piece of the Hangtown Oak found its way into the handle of the specially made shovel used to lay the cornerstone of Bank of America’s headquarters in San Francisco.7


Neon sign for the Hangmans Tree Historic Spot tavern, Placerville, El Dorado County, 2006. Photograph by Thomas Hawk.

Re-rooting followed uprooting; commemoration followed violence. In the post-pioneer period, “Hangman’s Tree” became a generic place-name and the subject of fakelore. Many towns boasted of having one, and invented or exaggerated the number of people killed. In 1896 a San Francisco paper repeated the legend that over forty people “passed into eternity” from the largest limb of Hangman’s Oak near Copperopolis. The next year, newspapers across the nation printed a syndicated story—a fond and plainly racist obituary—about the “famous gallows tree of San Bernardino.” From its branches, supposedly, more than fourteen men had “swung into eternity,” and in its shade “some of the most thrilling events in the history of the wresting of the golden state of California from Indian half breeds and Mexican domination have been planned.” In the 1930s the Native Daughters of the Golden West erected plaques to commemorate the genuine lynching trees in Jackson and in Placerville, seat of El Dorado County. A generation later, a second plaque erected beside Placerville city hall asked for empathy for the executioners: “let us not judge them too harshly for those were the rough days of the great gold rush.” The official state historical landmark sign stands in front of the shuttered Hangman’s Tree bar on Main Street; according to the placard, the stump of the tree lies beneath the building. Until 2008, as an added effect for tourists, a dummy on a noose hung above the tavern’s neon sign.8

Long before, tourism boosters in Gold Country placed unofficial signs on a massive oak tree along the main access road to Yosemite National Park near the ghost town evocatively named Second Garrote. In 1932 the California Department of Public Works severely pruned this decaying tree to prevent falling limbs from killing automobilists. Supported by guy wires, the amputated framework of “‘Hangmans’ Tree” stood as a roadside attraction (next to the falsely advertised “Bret Harte Cabin”) through the sixties. In 1942 some xenophobe pinned to its trunk the US military’s relocation order for all persons of Japanese ancestry living in California.9


Eucalyptus “Hangman’s Tree” with noose, Ghost Town, Knott’s Berry Farm, Orange County, 2012. Photograph by Loren Javier.


The “Hanging Tree” in Calabasas, Los Angeles County, 1939. Photographs by Dick Whittington. Courtesy of the Huntington Library.

Legendary trees occasionally appeared in suburban settings, too. In 1930 Outpost Estates in Los Angeles invited prospective buyers on a guided tour to the “Hollywood hangman’s tree,” a California sycamore at which “more than thirty persons” met their maker. As whimsically reported by the Los Angeles Times, the property developer dedicated this arboreal landmark in conjunction with the unveiling of five Mediterranean model homes.10 In Orange County, on the side of Highway 39, the wildly popular Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant added an adjacent “Ghost Town Village”—the beginnings of the Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park—in 1940. This simulacrum of a Gold Rush camp included a eucalyptus ornamented with a noose.


Sign for “Hangman’s Tree,“ Ghost Town, Knott‘s Berry Farm. Photograph by Loren Javier.

The folkloric hang tree achieved its final incarnation at Calabasas, a wealthy suburban enclave at the edge of the San Fernando Valley. For decades residents attached nooses to a coast live oak on the main road; the chamber of commerce used a likeness of the “Hanging Tree” as a logo. According to doubtful town tradition, members of Tiburcio Vásquez’s outlaw gang died here. In the postwar years the massive tree, located next to a Union 76 gas station, declined and died—possibly due to a gasoline leak. It was pruned down to its core and festooned with a larger noose. In 1965 this emblem of the Old West made way for the Space Age. Los Angeles-based Rocketdyne, a division of North American Aviation, designer of the second-stage launch vehicle for the Saturn V, needed to transport a prototype rocket through Calabasas to its testing facility in Simi Hills. Even in its amputated state, the landmark tree created a bottleneck for the oversize load. To solve the problem, a crane operator carefully transported the lifeless 30-foot trunk down the road to Leonis Adobe, a Calabasas house once owned by a prominent nineteenth-century Basque rancher. Preservationists subsequently restored the adobe and converted it to a living history museum that became a cornerstone of “Old Town,” a shopping and restaurant district. Here the beloved mock gallows, concreted into place, stood until 1995, when a winter storm toppled it. The desiccated wood shattered instantly, and in the aftermath, someone absconded with the decorative noose. Some old-timers insisted that a still-standing live oak across the street, by another bell-shaped sign marking the historic El Camino Real, was the real Hangman’s Oak.11

The multiple second lives of the frontier “hang tree” reveal something unsettling about the Golden State. Beauty, violence, and heritage share the same scene. In the span of one century, Californians progressed from lynching fellow fortune-seekers from stately trees to making up stories about such trees to preserving the remnants of pseudo-historic lynching trees. If these “witnesses” could be compelled to give testimony, what florid untruths we would hear—along with haunting true accounts of expulsions from Eden.

Notes

1. James M. Hutchings, Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California (London, 1865), 13; Thomas Starr King, A Vacation among the Sierras: Yosemite in 1860 (San Francisco, 1962), 35–36 (originally published in Boston Evening Transcript, 12 Jan. 1861).

2. Postcard, ca. 1900, San Diego History Center, available for view online at Calisphere.

3. William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb, Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States, 1848–1928 (Oxford, 2013). See also Warren Franklin Webb, “A History of Lynching in California since 1875” (M.A. thesis, UC Berkeley, 1935); Robert W. Blew, “Vigilantism in Los Angeles, 1935–1974,” Southern California Quarterly 54 (March 1972): 11–30; David A. Johnson, “Vigilance and the Law: The Moral Authority of Popular Justice in the Far West,” American Quarterly 33 (Winter 1981): 558–86; Christopher Waldrep, The Many Faces of Judge Lynch: Extralegal Violence and Punishment in America (New York, 2002), 49–61; Paul R. Spitzzeri, “Judge Lynch in Session: Popular Justice in Los Angeles, 1850–1875,” Southern California Quarterly 87 (June 2005): 83–122; and Ken Gonzales-Day, Lynching in the West, 1850–1935 (Durham, N.C., 2006). Gonzales-Day has also exhibited his artistic photographs of hang trees.

4. L. Vernon Briggs, California and the West, 1881, and Later (Boston, 1931), 122. On violence against indigenous peoples, begin with Brendan C. Lindsay, Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846–1873 (Lincoln, 2012). On violence against Chinese, see Scott Zesch, The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871 (Oxford, 2012); and Jean Pfaelzer, Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans (New York, 2007). On banditry, see Lori Lee Wilson, The Joaquín Band: The History Behind the Legend (Norman, 2011); John Boessenecker, Bandido: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vasquez (Norman, 2012); and Susan Lee Johnson, Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush (New York, 2000). In 2007, fire crews battling a blaze in the Santa Ana Mountains—part of the Irvine Ranch in Orange County—stumbled upon a historical marker, erected in the centennial year 1967, that had been overgrown by weedy black mustard (picture on p. 73). See Mike Anton, “A Gnarled Reminder of California’s Past,” Los Angeles Times, 12 May 2009.

5. Marguerite Eyer Wilbur, trans., A Frenchman in the Gold Rush: The Journal of Ernest de Massey, Argonaut of 1849 (San Francisco, 1927), 171.

6. O. P. Fitzgerald, California Sketches, 4th ed. (Nashville, 1880), 161–67. Italics in original.

7. “A Memorable Tree Destroyed,” Stockton Daily Independent, 6 Nov. 1862, quoted in Larry Cenotto, Logan’s Alley: Amador County Yesterdays in Picture and Prose, vol. 1 (Jackson, Calif., 1988), 156; Jesse D. Mason, History of Amador County (Oakland, 1881), 171. French-language newspaper reported in Daily Democratic State Journal (Sacramento), 6 April 1854. See also Richard Ferber, “Natural History of A Hanging Tree,” True West (April 1998): 39–43. Placerville information from L. A. Norton, Life and Adventures of Col. L. A. Norton (Oakland, 1887), 293; and “Piece of Hangman’s Tree Presented for Bank Ceremony,” Mountain Democrat (Placerville, Calif.), 20 Feb. 1941. In addition to the above sources, I found many accounts of lynching in period newspapers available through the website of the California Digital Newspaper Collection.

8. “A Natural Gallows,” San Francisco Call, 8 March 1896; “The Gallows Tree: Famous Live Oak of California That Is No More,” printed in outlets as widespread as Philadelphia Times, Saturday Journal (Lewiston, Me.), Daily Times (New Brunswick, N.J.), Daily Tribune (Bismarck, N.D.), and Daily News (Des Moines, Iowa) in 1897.

9. H. Dana Bowers, “Doctor’s Operate on ‘Hangman’s Tree’ by Bret Harte Cabin,” California Highways and Public Works 12 (March 1933): 35. Anti-Japanese photograph in John W. Winkley, “The Sage of 49 Flat,” Ghost Town News 2 (Dec. 1942): 12. Ghost Town News was a bimonthly western history magazine published from Ghost Town Village at Knott’s Berry Place.

10. “Home Exhibit Visitors to See Hangman Tree,” Los Angeles Times, 25 May 1930.

11. “Shoved Aside for Rocket,” Los Angeles Times, 4 Feb. 1965; “Gallows Toppled,” Los Angeles Times, 11 Feb. 1965; “Calabasas: Old ‘Hanging Tree’ Felled by Storm,” Los Angeles Times, 27 Jan. 1995.

Articles

Justice and Time

by Keenan Norris

From Boom Summer 2012, Vol. 2, No. 2

Before and after Oscar Grant

Crime

1 January 2009. Oakland, California. Underground. The all-illumined Bay Area Rapid Transit Fruitvale train station platform.

A melee of indistinct origin and uncertain conclusion occurs on an arriving train. The transit system’s private police are called in to restore order. A big, husky officer walks along the outside of the train beating his baton furiously against the train windows. He produces his taser, flashes it about like an abstract warning. His male and female fellow officers decide to roust the offenders. Young men in baggy pants, their dreadlocks and beanies and hoodies bobbing back and forth, are hustled off the train. Confusion ensues. Insults and expletives are exchanged between the officers and young men. A crowd gathers. A mass of jeering New Year’s youth form a circle around what is quickly degenerating into a spectacle.

Photograph by Nick Fisher

The crowd is chanting, deriding the gang of overzealous, armed security guards. The boys argue with their captors. They make a big deal about being handcuffed, continue to volubly object and claim innocence even as, one by one, they adopt the physical positions of compliance. Hands behind their backs. On their knees. On their stomachs. On the ground.

Cell phone cameras are held aloft, their black, inscrutable lenses trained on the rolling debacle. These are the first images of Oakland in 2009: A stupid fight. Some stupid kids. Some stupid cops.

Two officers, including the one with the baton, force a medium-sized, nondescript brother to the ground. They want him to concede completely. He has conceded, gone limp and immobile. The one with the baton is still on top of the kid, the difference in weight and strength obvious by the way the kid collapses stomach first, prostrate. More arguing, more jeering, more complaints. Then the officer produces his gun. He points it directly at the kid’s back. He shoots him once, then presses his knee deeper into his back.

Photograph by Michael Mees

Trial

It was on the enclave island of Alameda, connected to Oakland and the rest of Northern California’s East Bay by three mechanical bridges, that the “Oscar Grant Trial,” as it’s come to be known throughout California, really started to make sense to me. At an Alameda diner, I overheard a man say that Alameda’s business plan, in case disgraced Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Officer Johannes Mehserle was found innocent, was to raise the bridges before the riot spread to the island.

I remember wondering how the man would like it if the bridges stayed raised and the good people of Alameda had to swim to work for a while. He could lead the way.

Slip the yoke and change the joke, as black folks used to say.

I never actually wanted anyone to swim to work, but this overheard remark crystallizes the conflict of visions that slashes across this case. The verdict is in. The jury has decided, but the decision no more than a formality. Involuntary manslaughter; in other words, an accident.

The scales of justice do not tilt this strangely in a single instant. In this case, they started tilting in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, when BART police officers tried to confiscate the camera phones from the onlookers who had just witnessed and recorded the shooting. They were tilting when the proposal went in for the trial site to be moved from Oakland to conservative bedrock Orange County, and when downtown Los Angeles was eventually decided upon as a compromise location. They were tilting when the defense and prosecution took an hour to agree on a jury without even one black juror, and they were tilting when the judge summarily dismissed the first-degree murder charge before closing arguments were read. All of this could have been predicted.

Photograph by Michael Mees

Verdict

Viewed from the perspective of an ideology and a lived experience that encourages trust in law enforcement and a court system that from time immemorial has protected and served, Officer Mehserle appears as a tragic figure guilty merely of a rash misreach for his taser, poor police education, and an understandable panic at his proximity to several (variously handcuffed, prostrate, unarmed, and restrained) young black men. But viewed from the perspective of those young black men, or this young black man, that vision is absurd. The notion that we black men—prostrate on train platforms, loitering aimlessly on corners, bullshitting in bars, raising children, being loving spouses—may one day surrender our lives to some weird welter of color-struck paranoia, half-assed job training and taser confusion is idiotic. Statistics, by the way, tell us that violent crimes committed by black people overwhelmingly are committed against other black people, that in fact (as opposed to fear), white people have never been at the mercy of an irrepressible black crime wave. From our perspective, this verdict lends any police action formed against us, including shooting a prostrate man in his back while he lies on a clean, well-lit train platform in full view of dozens of witnesses, plausible deniability. Black men, in the governing ideology, are not understood as victims of crime. Emmett Till’s coffin has closed. Our murder, whether from police action or drug war crossfire or whatever, becomes the sacrifice by which the nation ritually defines its distance from randomness and premature death.

Justice and time

The arc of the moral universe is long but it does not necessarily bend toward justice.

Between 1865 and 1870, Reconstruction saw sweeping legislation for full civil rights for black men, including the Fifteenth Amendment’s effectively enacted rights to vote and hold political office. The beginnings of black power were, tragically, located within a South characterized by anti-black vigilante and police terrorism, and within a Republican Party that effectively bound the freedom struggle to Northern capitalist interests much as our current-day Democratic Party binds a medley of underserved constituencies to an overserved business elite. The grassroots resistance of low country South Carolina rice workers by means of rolling labor strikes during Reconstruction’s final days testifies not only to the injustice of payment in scrip (the issuance of promissory notes that were only valid at local stores as opposed to actual monies exchanged for labor), and opposition to segregationist terror, but to the increasing unwillingness of most white Americans to represent black labor, let alone protect black lives. The trajectory of Reconstruction, from sudden admission of a previously enslaved racial minority into the body politic to an almost equally rapid foreclosure of freedoms—a foreclosure essentially supported by the unabashed antipathy of one political party and the apathy of the other—suggests not so much the impossibility of revolution in America as the certainty of counter-revolutionary opposition.

Absent representation and protection, a whirlwind of repression spread nationwide. All-white hamlets where blacks could travel through and conduct business only during daylight hours became commonplace in rural northern and western communities, as detailed in James Loewen’s 2005 book Sundown Towns. And the under-taught and consequently little-known, yet nation-defining anti-black riots, from San Juan Hill in New York City, to the Massacre in East St. Louis, to the Burning of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, forced blacks into more and more rigidly cordoned ghettos, from Harlem to Oakland. Not only did the riots take black lives, they wiped out businesses and destroyed much black financial capital. The riots signaled a virulent resistance to our migration into America’s centers of industry, wealth, and power. Systematic backlashes against minorities have neither been inevitable nor in inevitable decline, but rather tend to intensify during periods of social progress and inclusion.

Photograph courtesy of Keenan Norris

In Oakland and far beyond this city’s limits, our era is revealing itself not as some magical post-race realm, but rather a brook of fire familiar to a nation that has always known racial change as a violent crossing over. In the crossing there is no assurance, no affirmation. I still see shirts here and there around Oakland celebrating Barack Obama’s presidential victory of 2008. I still see from time to time, as well, those unearthly aurora red, blue, and beige graphics of President Obama’s face that make him look like something superhuman suddenly arrived. They read to me now as advertisements on the sharp brevity of euphoria. The shirts that I no longer see are the ones that memorialize Oscar Grant, not so much because he has been forgotten here, but rather because most know that his tragedy will be replaced many times over.

Articles

El Grito and the Tea Party

by Alexander I. Olson
with art by Guillermo Nericcio García

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

Recalling Diversity

Less than a month after California’s hotly contested midterm election in November 2010, the Sacramento Bee reported that local Tea Party activists had begun gathering signatures for a ballot measure modeled after Arizona’s notorious SB 1070—the law requiring state and local law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of suspected “illegals.” It is no surprise that the craze for border enforcement has again swept California. Although the Pew Research Center has found that the flow of undocumented workers into the United States has actually decreased in recent years, and despite the estimated $253 million in lost economic output that Arizona has endured since the passage of SB 1070, polling has suggested that a majority of California voters support the Arizona measure.1 As Michael Erickson, the Tea Party activist behind the California measure, explained in the Bee, “it’s going to be we the people who are going to make it happen.”2

Whatever the fate of Erickson’s signature drive, his populist rhetoric mirrors that of the national Tea Party, with its emphasis on “taking back” the country and “restoring” American democracy. Despite imagery that would suggest a preoccupation with contesting the meaning of the American Revolution (witness the Minutemen at the United States-Mexico border and the revival of the Gadsden flag), the Tea Party has proven itself to be a potent force in contemporary US politics, drawing together diverse conservative ideologies.3 The movement’s fusion of past and present can be seen in the writings of former Fox News personality Glenn Beck, whose revision of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense spent four months atop the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list in 2009.4 Readers can enroll in “Beck University” to take lessons in topics that include “Divine Providence vs. Manifest Destiny” and “Presidents You Need to Hate.”5 Such lessons portray the United States’ claim to Alta California—a northern territory of Mexico ceded to the United States in 1848 by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War—as justified by divine sanction. Particularly in the US Southwest, the Tea Party’s emphasis on border enforcement is as much about defending an embattled white American heritage as more widely cited reasons such as preventing unemployment and terrorism.6 In the dystopian vision of Beck and his compatriots, Mexican immigrants and their “anchor babies” will shove aside the rituals of the Fourth of July in favor of el Grito—the cry of September 16th, or Mexican Independence Day.7

As California voters contemplate the wisdom of racial profiling and mass deportation, it is worth looking back to another aspect of California’s heritage: the multicultural towns of Owens Valley in the late nineteenth century. These isolated communities in the eastern Sierra Nevada were remnants of the complicated demographics of the Gold Rush and, indeed, the forty-niners were late arrivals in a region with a long history of migration—Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and Russian.

Some of the first Anglo visitors to Alta California were convicts dumped on the beach in Carmel in 1796. According to Doyce Nunis, Jr., they proved to be “hard-working and docile” laborers under the Spanish colonial regime before being sent to Spain the following year. After Mexican independence in 1821, the naturalization process was made “fast and easy” for migrants from the United States and around the world, many of whom intermarried with locals. An exciting body of literature in recent years—including Louise Pubols’s masterful study of the de la Guerra family of Santa Barbara, The Father of All (2009)—has deepened our understanding of the complex social and economic world of the Californios.8

“Bear on the Lam” by Guillermo Nericcio García (2011, digital mixed media)

All this was threatened when Mexico lost Alta California to the United States in 1848. Although wealthier Californios remained active and savvy players in the new political system, the American Invasion ushered in an era of state-sponsored racial violence, as Anglos sought to drive Mexican, Chilean, and other “foreign” families from mining country through such measures as the Foreign Miners Tax of 1850. By sanctioning white supremacy, such laws eroded the land claims and citizenship rights of racialized “others” who were recast as “illegal aliens” in the twentieth century.9 Nevertheless, Anglo dominance was “difficult to enforce, and groups of people united by shared interests could create for themselves spheres of autonomy and strategies for interdependence.”10 The Owens Valley became such a sphere. For Anglos no less than Mexican, Basque, and Cuban families in the late nineteenth century, the towns of the Owens Valley were motley communities of exiles hoping to make a living in their adopted home.

By 1903, when Mary Hunter Austin published The Land of Little Rain, many of these towns were dwindling, if not vanished, and Los Angeles had already begun to eye the Owens Valley’s water resources.11 Rather than emphasizing decline, however, Austin painted a portrait of a vibrant, transnational, and deeply Californian culture where borders meant little, languages blended, and the chance to celebrate el Grito sparked joy, not fear. Every year on September 16, in her telling, shouts of ¡Viva la Libertad! and ¡Viva Mexico! resounded through the “Little Town of the Grape Vines.”12 From the grito itself to the hoisting of “the red, white, and green of Old Mexico,” the entire town joined in the festivities. At midnight, according to Austin, as the singing and dancing drew to a close, the flag was taken down. But this was not the end of the celebration. As “shepherd fires glow strongly on the glooming hills,” the music began “softly and aside,” playing “airs of old longing and exile.” Next, and suddenly, the music struck “a barbaric swelling tune,” and the Star Spangled Banner was raised above the camp. The same people who had shouted the grito joined in singing the US national anthem. As Austin put it, “They sing everything, America, the Marseillaise, for the sake of the French shepherds hereabout, the hymn of Cuba, and the Chilean national air to comfort two families of that land.“13

To be sure, Austin’s vision of harmony passes all too easily over the darker sides of life in the Owens Valley in the late nineteenth century—-the misogyny, the poverty, the endemic violence. Austin herself escaped this world for the literary communities of San Francisco and Santa Fe, and her portrait of the “Little Town of the Grape Vines” might be understood as an example of what Renato Rosaldo has called “imperialist nostalgia,” an ethnographic stance and mode of cultural production in which “people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed.”14 Austin never mentions efforts to erode multiculturalism through public health policy and anti-immigration measures such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.15 Yet unlike other examples of such nostalgia—including the ongoing fascination with the Gold Rush legend of the Mexican bandit Joaquín Murrieta, a figure who turned the tables on white colonial violence in attacks aimed at Anglo invaders—Austin’s story does not position the Owens Valley as a culture of the past, but as a vision for the future that inspired her later work on regionalism.16 Romanticized as her version of the Grito celebration might be, it offers a powerful corrective to the Tea Party’s campaign for harsh new immigration restrictions, reminding Californians of all stripes that our multicultural present has roots in many decades of migration—east, west, north, and south.

Notes

1. Jeffrey Passel and D’Vera Cohn, “U.S. Unauthorized Immigration Flows Are Down Sharply Since Mid-Decade,” Pew Hispanic Center Report, 1 September 2010. A Los Angeles Times/USC poll of California voters showed a split of 50%–43% in favor of the Arizona measure. Seema Mehta, “Voters Split on Arizona Law,” Los Angeles Times, 31 May 2010. A Field Poll in June 2010 found a similar split of 49%–45% in favor of the measure. Shelby Grad, “Arizona Immigration Crackdown Divides California Voters, New Poll Shows,” Los Angeles Times, 16 July 2010. The lost economic output figure is based on an estimate of conference cancellations. Marshall Fitz and Angela Kelley, “Stop the Conference: The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Conference Cancellations Due to Arizona’s S.B. 1070,” Center for American Progress Report, November 2010.

2. Susan Ferriss, “Tea Party Activist Launches Arizona-style Immigration Initiative for California,” Sacramento Bee, 24 November 2010.

3. For the Tea Party’s role in a longer cultural struggle over the meaning of the American Revolution, see Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). The Tea Party’s ideological composition is surveyed in “The Tea Party, Religion and Social Issues,” Pew Research Center Report, 23 February 2011.

4. Glenn Beck, Glenn Beck’s Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine (New York: Mercury Radio Arts/Threshold Editions, 1999). For number of weeks on the bestseller list, see New York Times, 18 October 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/18/books/bestseller/bestpapernonfiction.html [accessed 1 March 2011]. For Beck’s connection to the Tea Party, see Sean Wilentz, “Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party’s Cold War Roots,” The New Yorker, 18 October 2010. Wilentz identifies Beck’s role in the movement as “both a unifying figure and an intellectual guide.”

5. Beck University. http://www.glennbeck.com/becku/about.php [accessed 1 March 2011].

6. On TeaParty.org, a group with offices in California and Texas, the first item in a list of “Non-negotiable core beliefs” is “Illegal Aliens Are Here Illegally.” http://www.teaparty.org/about.php [accessed 1 March 2011].

7. Jorge Rivas, “Fox News: ‘Penélope Cruz Is Having an Anchor Baby,'” Color Lines: News for Action, 13 December 2010. http://colorlines.com/archives/2010/12/fox_news_penelope_cruz_is_having_an_anchor_baby.html [accessed 1 March 2011]. See also “Beck Embraces ‘Anchor Babies’ Slur,” Media Matters, 6 May 2010. http://mediamatters.org/mmtv/201005060042 [accessed 1 March 2011]. Michael Erickson, sponsor of the SB 1070-style measure in California, has styled himself as a voice of reason by opposing state legislative attacks on “anchor babies”—even while arguing for judicial solutions and warning against the “ravages of crime and welfare dependency” supposedly encouraged by birthright citizenship. See Michael Erickson, “Birthright Citizenship: The Latest Gimmick of Immigration Enforcement Advocates,” 7 February 2011 (quotation by Erickson is located in comments section). http://www.rniamerica.org/node/589213 [accessed 1 March 2011].

8. Doyce B. Nunis, Jr., “Alta California’s Trojan Horse: Foreign Immigration,” in Ramón A. Gutiérrez and Richard J. Orsi, eds., Contested Eden: California Before the Gold Rush (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 302–305. For intermarriage of Anglos and Californios before the Gold Rush, see Louise Pubols, “Open Ports and Intermarriage,” in The Father of All: The de la Guerra Family, Power, and Patriarchy in Mexican California (Berkeley: University of California Press and Huntington Library, 2009), 105–148, and María Raquél Casas, Married to a Daughter of the Land: Spanish-Mexican Women and Interethnic Marriage in California, 1820–1880 (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2007). For conflict with Native Americans, see Michael González, This Small City Will Be a Mexican Paradise: Exploring the Origins of Mexican Culture in Los Angeles, 1821–1846 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005).

9. Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

10. Susan Lee Johnson, Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), 51. For racial conflict in the Santa Clara Valley, see Stephen Pitti, The Devil in Silicon Valley: Northern California, Race, and Mexican Americans (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

11. Construction on the Los Angeles Aqueduct—which devastated the remaining farms in the Owens Valley by diverting their water—began in 1908, and led to decades of conflict. See William Kahrl, Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles’ Water Supply in the Owens Valley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), and John Walton, Western Times and Water Wars: State, Culture, and Rebellion in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

12. The modern celebration of el Grito de la Independencia begins the night of September 15, with the shouting of el grito (“the cry”) resounding near midnight. The festivities continue on through September 16.

13. Mary Hunter Austin, The Land of Little Rain (New York: Modern Library, 2003 ed.), 106–107.

14. Renato Rosaldo, “Imperialist Nostalgia,” Representations, no. 26 (Spring 1989): 108.

15. For efforts to curb or contain racial diversity in California through public health policy, see Natalia Molina, Fit to Be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879–1939 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), Alexandra Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), and Nayah Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001). Austin’s portrait echoed the efforts of boosters to celebrate a sanitized version of the region’s racial history, a marketing strategy that “allowed easterners to luxuriate in the Southern California so brilliantly advertised: exotic, semi-tropic, romantic.” William Deverell, Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 28.

16. John Rollin Ridge, Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, The Celebrated California Bandit (San Francisco, 1854). Susan Lee Johnson links the Murrieta legend to the concept of “imperialist nostalgia” in Roaring Camp, 49. Murrieta’s ongoing cultural resonance can be seen in Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune (New York: HarperCollins, 1999) and the Hollywood blockbuster The Mask of Zorro (1998).

Photography/Art

Images from the Central Valley

by Tracy Perkins, Julie Sze
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1

Above photo: Earlimart, CA, March 7, 2008: Teresa DeAnda stands on the narrow strip of dirt and road that divides her home from the fields next door. Pesticides regularly drift into her yard. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

When Californians think of the Central Valley, they often think of its problems: poverty, pesticides, disputes over the allocation of irrigation water, farmworker deaths, and, most recently, a cluster of babies born with birth defects in the small town of Kettleman City. These are some of the ways this region makes the statewide news. But the Central Valley also has a rich history of community organizing and its own stark beauty. These photographs by Tracy Perkins and the oral histories she collected to accompany them document an important aspect of life there: environmental-health problems and the diverse network of advocates who are fighting to solve them.

Practically speaking, the Central Valley is all but invisible to those who live outside it. Over the course of the twentieth century, legislators and growers turned this 500-mile-long stretch of land into one of the most intensively farmed regions in the world, watered by one of the world’s most ambitious irrigation systems. Although California leads the nation in agricultural production, many Californians have little sense of what goes on in the agricultural regions of their state. This invisibility helps to explain why California has located two of the state’s three hazardous-waste landfills and many of its prisons there, while also continuing to allow high levels of toxicity in the air and water.

Nonetheless, the politics of the Central Valley have implications outside the region’s boundaries—as its history shows. From farm families migrating there in search of a haven from the Dust Bowl of the 1930s to César Chávez and the farmworkers’ movement in the 1960s and 1970s, the Central Valley has played an important role in shaping California and the nation. More recently, Central Valley advocates have entered the debate about global warming as part of a statewide coalition that has sued the state on the grounds that its landmark new law, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, would, ironically, increase air pollution where they live. Under the law’s current implementation plan, new energy plants would likely be built in the Central Valley to phase out older, less efficient, and more polluting energy plants in other parts of the state. New incinerators that burn imported wood debris would also be built to create “renewable energy.” Both types of plants would add to the toxic burden residents already bear from pesticide drift, diesel exhaust, toxic waste, drinking-water pollution, and high air pollution levels. You may be surprised to learn that in 2007 the Environmental Protection Agency listed the small Central Valley town of Arvin, population 16,200, as having the worst smog levels in the US. Arvin continues to be smoggier than Los Angeles. Residents already suffering from asthma and other health problems linked to air pollution are unlikely to welcome new pollution sources. This struggle is surely being watched by other states as they consider their own responses to global warming.

boom-2011-1-1-71-ufigure-3
Tulare County, March 8, 2008: Anhydrous ammonia flows into an unlined irrigation canal. Later it will find its way through a sprinkler system onto the fields. It provides nitrogen to the crops, but also seeps into the groundwater that Central Valley townspeople drink. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

Nor is this the only national issue in which the Central Valley plays an important role. In the 1990s, advocates pioneered the use of civil-rights law to reduce pollution in communities of color. This strategy was first used as part of a campaign to stop the building of a toxic-waste incinerator in the largely Latino town of Kettleman City, which was already neighbor to the largest hazardous-waste landfill west of the Mississippi River. Civil-rights litigation has since been incorporated into environmental struggles in communities of color across the country. Similarly, between 2008 and 2010 pesticide buffer zones were created in Tulare, Madera, Stanislaus, and Kern Counties. All of these counties banned the aerial spraying of restricted pesticides within a quarter-mile of schools, and three counties protected farm-labor camps and residential areas as well. Environmental and farmworker groups have petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to create similar buffer zones across the nation, and have recorded 42,000 statements of support for the cause.

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Visalia, November 17, 2007: Tap water samples from small towns in the vicinity of Visalia. Their contents include nitrates from fertilizers and cow manure from the area’s mega-dairies, as well as dibromochloropropane, a pesticide banned in 1977 but still present in groundwater, and arsenic. Some of the water smells like sewage. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

The region also represents demographic shifts that are important beyond its borders. White people became a minority in the Central Valley long before they did so in the state as a whole. However, the racial makeup of Valley politicians has yet to follow suit. According to Jonathan Fox, a scholar at the University of California, Santa Cruz, many Latino citizens in the Central Valley are not yet voting regularly and large numbers of those eligible to become citizens have not yet done so. If both groups became active voters, they could replace many of the area’s traditionally conservative elected officials with more progressive representatives of their interests and have a hefty impact on state politics.

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Earlimart, March 7, 2008: Josefina Miranda shows her daughter how she protects herself when she works in the fields. When Miranda was four months pregnant with an earlier child, she and her coworkers were sent to work in a field still wet with pesticides. By the time they left, her clothes were so soaked that she could wring the pesticides out of them. She miscarried the next day. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

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Kettleman City, July 18, 2009 (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

The growing advocacy networks in the Central Valley are key to helping people link their everyday problems to the political process. The pages that follow offer a window into their lives and labor, from an activist for prison reform to a woman whose town was poisoned by pesticide drift to a community leader who helped defeat a proposal to build a toxic-waste incinerator just outside her town. These photographs and stories are taken from “25 Stories from the Central Valley,” a multimedia project that documents the women leaders of the Central Valley environmental justice movement. Visit http://twentyfive.ucdavis.edu for additional photographs, stories, and teaching tools to use in college classrooms.

Debbie Reyes, Fresno Central Valley Coordinator
California Prison Moratorium Project

There were folks that came from all over the state to the Central Valley to discuss the issues. It was pretty empowering for our Valley to have something like that in Fresno, the place that I left many years ago because I thought there was nothing for me— “That place will never change,” you know? I’ve seen a tremendous change from the first year I got back, thirteen years ago to now. Then, the Ku Klux Klan was standing on the corner of a gay pride parade; now, in 2007, we have Rally in the Valley, which is like a peace march. We had the Environmental Justice Network Conference. We’re having the Uncaging the Valley Prisons conference, Black and Brown Unity marchers. And now, here I’m sitting at a table with folks that are working to create change in the state to regulate pesticide spraying in communities. So inside I was going, “Yeah, finally!” It’s taken twenty-five years but here we are.

Teresa DeAnda, Earlimart
Central Valley Coordinator
Californians for Pesticide Reform

Our street was the first street to get evacuated [after the pesticide drifted off the fields and into our neighborhood]. I’d driven to Delano, and when I came back there was a sheriff standing at our gate. It had just gotten dark, and my husband said, “We need to get out, because there’s something happening.” I smelled it a little bit, but I didn’t smell it that strong. But I was still very disturbed. It’s a horrible feeling, getting told you’ve got to get out, that there’s something that you shouldn’t be smelling. I got the kids, and we left in the van. My husband got my blind uncle and my 87-year-old compadre, and then we drove. But I was just so fearful for the people that were staying.

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Wasco, CA. January 30, 2009 (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

Days later, we found out what happened to everybody. I had read the newspaper, but it didn’t mention what happened to the people that Saturday night, November 13, 1999. On Wednesday the UFW [United Farm Workers] had a meeting and they had all the agencies there: the county air commissioner, the fire department, an expert on pesticides, Pesticide Watch. It was just packed with mad, angry people. That night, I found out what had happened when we left.

[When the pesticide drifted over the town] the people who were the sickest, they were told to go to the middle school. And at the middle school they told the men, women, and children to take off their clothes and go down the decontamination line. Keep in mind: these people were vomiting and had burning eyes, just coughing and coughing, and so they were scared to death. They were given no privacy, just two tarps on either side, and they were told to take off their clothes. And the people didn’t want to.

One lady said, “Where’s my rights? Where’s my rights?” They told her, “Listen, you have no rights tonight; you’ve lost your rights.” And so she took off her clothes, and she said that that was the worst feeling in the world, because her kids had never seen her without her clothes, and they could see her. This is indicative of how they did the decon [decontamination]. She took off everything, absolutely everything, but she wouldn’t take off her underwear, so they yanked it off. They yanked off her Nikes, and so there she goes through the decontamination line, which was a fire-department water hose, on a cold November night. A fire-department water hose with a guy standing there holding it. She went through one line and then the other, but they didn’t wet her hair. At the end of the decon line they were supposed to have ambulances waiting, but the ambulances weren’t there yet, so they just gave them little covers and told them to sit on the ground.

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Buttonwillow Park, Jan. 30, 2009 (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

So I’m finding all this stuff out at the meeting. All these mad people are just yelling at the agencies, telling them, “How could you do this to us?” And then they told us what had happened at the hospital. The people did get transported to the hospital. Some went to Tulare Hospital, some went to Porterville Hospital, some went to Delano Hospital. Well, the lady with a lot of kids, she was baby-sitting kids too, they couldn’t take all of her kids to the same place, so they wrote their phone numbers on their stomachs, like they were animals. At the hospitals, they took their information, their names, their number, their address, but they didn’t even triage them. The doctor called poison control, and poison control said, “There’s nothing happening to them, just tell them to go back home but to try not to get re-exposed.” That’s all poison control told them. So they were sent on their way and they were given the clothes that they had been in before they got decontaminated. They just gave them back to them. Didn’t have them cleaned.

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Earlimart, May 7, 2008: Orchards in bloom present a beautiful vision of agriculture in the Valley. At certain times of the year, pesticide applicators are required to notify beekeepers within a one-mile radius of their targeted spraying areas so that hives can be moved away. In most cases, however, human residents receive no such notification. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

So I started learning more and getting more and more angry. I couldn’t sleep at night, ’cause I was so upset at how it had changed my kids’ health and my health. When I was growing up, my dad had always said, “Trust the government. The government’s never going to lie; the government’s good,” and all that. And I thought, “No, they’re not,” because they really let us down that night, they really, really let us down. So much for trusting the government. I couldn’t sleep at night because it bothered me so much that it happened and that still nothing was being done about the people who had gotten sick. I learned a lot about pesticides. And then at press conferences they would always ask me to speak. Even though I wasn’t one of the victims that got deconned, I was one of the ones speaking all the time. They were calling me for meetings and conferences and stuff to talk about what had happened.

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Kettleman City, July 18, 2009: Alejandro Alvarez touches the image of his daughter, Ashley, one of a cluster of children born with a cleft palette and other birth defects in Kettleman City and neighboring Avenal. Residents fear that the hazardous-waste landfill located between their towns may be causing the birth defects. Alvarez got the tattoo shortly after his daughter died in January 2009, age 10 months. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

What happened in Earlimart was in November, so by September UFW and us, we had formed El Comité Para el Bienestar de Earlimart [Committee for the Well-Being of Earlimart]. All of the people were victims of the accident. They were all mostly farm workers. Just a couple weren’t. We started having meetings, our own meetings without UFW, still supporting UFW in any press conference they wanted us to, but then we started having our own meetings.

And then in September of 2000 we asked the farmer and the chemical applicator to pay the medical payments for the people that had asthma. It was coming out that people had gotten asthma—didn’t have it before that night in 1999—just like that, from that night, that exposure. And it had gotten in their mucus membrane and then in their lungs. And so they needed long-term treatment. We got Wilbur-Ellis [the company hired by the farm to apply the pesticide] to pay for that.

We had a big press conference, right here at the house. And that was a big victory. The State of California Department of Pesticide Regulation gave Wilbur-Ellis the biggest fine that had ever happened. It’s still peanuts compared to other fines for toxic spills and stuff, but it was the biggest for pesticides. [Note: Pesticide specialists later told the activists from Earlimart that the particular chemical they had been exposed to is activated by water and that they should not have been hosed down as part of the decontamination process.]

Mary Lou Mares, Kettleman City
Organizer, El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpio
(People for Clean Air and Water)

I remember people that lived in town, [where a toxic-waste incinerator was planned], they would say, “Well, Mary Lou, if you don’t like it, why don’t you move out?” Because I like it here; this is my town, this is where I bought my house, and I want to be here. You can’t always just move and go away from the problem and just leave it there; it’s going to follow you. No matter where you go, this kind of stuff is going to follow you, so you might as well stay and fight. Can’t do anything else. You have to. B