Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Blind Spots

In yesterday's article at Oregon Public Broadcasting, Ashley Ahearn interviews two coal terminal opponents in Bellingham, Washington, who also happen to be good friends. She speaks of the public scoping process for the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal as being divisive, though, so much so that the topic is unmentioned by many seeking to avoid confrontation. Wisely, Ahearn counsels moderation in what has become a grand circus of stump speeches and inflammatory accusations.

But Whatcom county, on the edge of the San Juan Islands and the Canadian border, has a history of things getting out of hand over real estate development. In the 1990s, environmental battles there led to threats, intimidation and harassment of environmental activists, Native Americans and public officials by property rights groups bent on doing whatever they want, environmental protections be damned. Extra law enforcement personnel had to be on hand at functions like public hearings and candidate forums.

Memories are understandably short when it comes to political conflict, but it was only twenty years ago when the Washington Association of Realtors and the Building Industry Association teamed up to undermine the Growth Management Act demanded by voters and passed by the legislature. From 1992 to 1996, the industry funded and organized field agent provocateurs went on a rampage inciting vigilantism against Native Americans and environmentalists in 14 counties, culminating in the arrest and conviction of eight individuals on federal firearms and explosives charges.

The worst of this covert campaign by industry to defeat environmentalism happened in Whatcom county, where the sole daily newspaper, the Bellingham Herald, assisted them by actively covering up the connections between industry and political violence. I later wrote about this travesty in my polemic memoir Blind Spots.

While the current conflict is by comparison pretty tame, it doesn't take much to inflame already present tensions. Keeping the campaigns in check is the responsibility of partisans, but more importantly, the obligation of those who monitor and educate on social conflict. Groups like League of Women Voters and the Association of Churches played a vital role in the past, and need to do so again.