Saturday, July 5, 2008

Gualala Fireworks, Independence, and Slavery

Recently the wire services have carried stories about the prohibition of a Fourth of July fireworks show in the Gualala area of Mendocino County. The story has been cast as a small band of environmentalists who got the California Coastal Commission to say the event required a permit, and that one would not be granted. While this works as a short summary, it misses a story that has as much to do with town rivalries, and money, as it does with conservative patriots having their holiday spoiled by rude nature lovers.

Similarly, as we celebrate the Fourth of July, we are almost always told a simple story. The British Empire did not allow the American colonies to be represented in Parliament, yet taxed them. So a nation was born that wanted self-government. Inconvenient historical details are swept under the rug. For instance, the southern colonies, with economies based on slavery, did not want to be represented in Parliament. If they had been represented in Parliament, they might be considered English soil. And slavery had long been abolished on English soil, as was re-confirmed in the Somersett decision of 1772. Shortly after the leading southern slavers learned about that decision handed down by a British court, freeing an American slave, they suddenly took a big interest in the idea of independence that had been so popular in Massachusetts since the Boston Massacre.

The new stories don't mention that Gualala is a short drive from the "city" of Point Arena, where fireworks have been held at the harbor annually for over 2 decades. The fireworks were first set up by one (now deceased) Raven Earlygrow, who also had the distinction of being the first Green Party member ever elected to be mayor of any town or city in California. Nor do they mention Billy Hay, a major local landowner and businessman. Among his possessions are the Point Arena water utility and a gravel business. The first has a long history of irritating rate payers. The gravel business was an irritation to the local environmentalists, who managed to close down the extraction of gravel from the Garcia River. There are still no salmon in the Garcia, but at least now it isn't because of the gravel operations. A book could be written on Mr. Hay, and it would be a pretty interesting book.

Similarly, simplistic historical summaries don't mention that George Washington and many other land speculators, claimed to own land in the Ohio territories. In order to keep the costs of the Indian wars down, the British forbade Americans taking Indian lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains. By winning the Revolutionary War, a whole new era of land speculation and genocide was opened up.

Point Arena, the city with the fireworks, has had a hard time economically since the 1970s. Just south of the Gualala River, which marks the Mendocino County line, a vast planned community known as The Sea Ranch has been developed. No allowance was made for commercial areas in The Sea Ranch, which was to be an ecological community. But people who build 5000 square foot houses need to shop, and Gualala (which is not an incorporated area) developed into the local shopping center, eclipsing the businesses in Point Arena.

There is a lot of local rivalry between The Sea Ranch, Gualala, and Point Arena. There is a class basis to this, with the wealthiest people tending to live on The Sea Ranch, the poorest in or near Point Arena and its nearby Pomo reservation. There is a historic theater in Point Arena, but The Sea Ranchers considered it too tacky and too far a drive so they built their own theater/art center in Gualala. Mostly this rivalry is friendly, little more than banter, but there are economic interests at stake too, mainly tourist and shopping dollars.

So everyone assumes that Billy Hay lurks in the background of the idea to have a rival fireworks display in Gualala, where he now owns the cement and gravel business. Hence the opposition of the Point Arena citizens is easy to understand, fueled by usurpation of a historic function by a nearby town and by personal animosities. But the hard-core opposition to the Gualala fireworks came from Gualala and Sea Ranch citizens, not Point Arena.

In 1776 coalitions had to be forged. Many Americans remained loyal to the King and Parliament. Those who wanted independence had many motives. Each state had different motives, and within each state different factions of people had their own feelings on the subject. That is why the Revolutionary War had been going on quite a while before the Continental Congress declared Independence.

The California Coastal Commission would not have known about the Gualala fireworks if they had not been pestered about it. Permits for parades and the like are usually issued by local authorities. The real reason for opposition to the fireworks had little to do with protecting nesting sea birds. It was about peace and quiet.

Many people who live around Gualala are there to enjoy nature, peace and quiet, and (if they are rich or lucky) ocean views. There is not much else to draw a person to Gualala. Tourists are a contradiction. They seldom come to Gualala to party; they too are drawn to the natural splendor and quiet. But when a whole bunch of tourists come at once, the little area is overburdened. There is not enough parking, the food store shelves are stripped, and it gets crowded and noisy. Nature retreats from the smell of crowds of humans.

A faction of merchants were willing to promote the fireworks because they felt that would both increase their weekend receipts and encourage people to make visits at other times of the year.

But to retired residents, and those not in the tourist or retail trade, the fireworks take away from the value of the community.

When you write a Declaration of Independence, and are not sure that all that many of your fellow colonists are willing to fight so that you won't be hung as a traitor, you might spin things in a direction that will motivate people. You might not want to mention that England has abolished slavery and that is why you are fighting. It might work better to write beautiful words about men being created free and equal, and list the bad qualities of your enemies.

In the microcosm of fights about development in this 21st century, it isn't cool to say, "I just don't like tourists." You need to find something more humane to complain about. Like poor endangered birds.

And even then the cards are stacked against ordinary citizens and in favor of the local business class. The first year the fireworks were held no one even bothered to get a permit. And it was not just fireworks. The whole thing was called Patriot Days and included a number of historical re-enactments, including a full scale revolutionary war battle.

Of course, back in 1776 Gualala was part of a Spanish land grant. Nothing particular happened in Gualala in 1776.

The American Revolution was a big, complex phenomena. Each town and county had its story of conflicted citizens, to some extent looking out for themselves, but also to some extent looking to the greater good. Some families were split between Tories and revolutionists.

In the Gualala Fireworks war there are no bad people. Some people think historic reenactments are entertainment; some find them educational; some use them to prop up patriotism and support for U.S. military might. Others find them noisy, tourist magnets, propping up the sentiments of war crimes.

In the aftermath of the American Revolution slavery would last almost 90 years and every Native American Indian would eventually be put on a reservation. But democratic institutions also emerged, and the idea of civil rights emerged, and over time these institutions have provided great benefit, at least to the victors.

With the Coastal Commission decision the anti-fireworks people won at least a temporary victory. But they did so at the cost of failing to solve the problem within the local community. This stems largely from the corrupt, undemocratic system of government that exists in Mendocino County. If Gualala had an elected City Council, the decision might have been made locally. If voters did not like the decision, they could elect a new council. The California Coastal Commission is also appointed, not elected. While I may see no need to have a fireworks display in Gualala when there is already one in Point Arena, I don't like the precedent of appealing to the Commission to micro-manage our local events.

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