The Donner Party, Community, and Ferguson

Donner-0578 The last day we were at Squaw Valley, Michele wanted to work (when most of your work is in cyberspace, you can work from anywhere). For some time now, I have wanted to photograph Sierra Valley and this was the perfect opportunity.

As I left Truckee, I, passed by Alder Creek, one of the two sites where the Donner Party was stuck over the winter of 1846-47.  Tamzene Donner and her husband, George, died here as well as George’s brother, Jacob, and his wife, Elizabeth. Still, all five of Tamzene and George’s children lived as did three of Jacob and Elizabeth’s seven kids. In addition, there was one single woman who lived. But, out of the seven single men who were with the party as teamsters and animal handlers, only two lived.

Two of the children who lived were only three years old. The five teamsters who died ranged in age from 23 to 30, the two who lived were both 16. The only person over 16, who lived, was Dorothea Wolfinger, the single women (who had been widowed on the trail). Clearly, this was not survival of the fittest. Rather, this was a case of the fittest sacrificing for the least fit. If it had been any other way, the survivors would have been considered beasts. If the teamsters had lived by letting the children die, they probably would have been tried for murder.

But I don’t think that is the reason they saved the children, I think that they considered themselves as part of a large family. Family might not be the right word; maybe small community would be better.

Going into Sierra Valley, it struck me that this was a community also.





It is a community that is spread out, but – in my imagination, at least – a community that would not let its three-year old children starve to death.



As I drove through the Sierra Valley, passing ranches, separated by miles of seemingly nothingness, I kept mulling over the idea of Community and how it affects its member’s actions. When Romney was running for president, he seemed particularly hard-hearted and out of touch, but people who knew him thought that he was generous to a fault. However, his generosity was to people that he knew or were in the same church, in other words, in his community. When I think back on the Conservatives I know and have known, they were all generous. Indeed, they are often more generous than many of the Liberals I know but, they are only generous to members of what they consider to be their community. The Liberals, however, tend to consider their community to be more diverse – and, I think, larger – than Conservatives so that their community includes homeless Guatemalan children trying to get back to their parents (although Liberals are not so diverse that they would want to give money to the Westboro Baptist Church).

I entered Sierra Valley from Truckee, going through Sierraville and as I left it at the eastern end of the valley, I saw a train loaded with Armored Cars. They fascinated me, they seemed so out-of-place and, in a very strange way, so lovingly conceived. They were brutal with exquisite detailing, the kind of that can only happen when something is built with, close to, an unlimited budget. Donner-0707



It also struck me that anybody inside that armored car – looking out through the bulletproof windows – was completely separated from whomever was outside. They are in a different community. Soldiers, riding in those behemoths, in Iraq or Afghanistan, are saying We are not you, we are separate, and we can do anything we want. Cops riding on city streets are saying the same thing, not only to the citizens outside, but to themselves.


San Mateo County is about 42% white, 27% Asian, and 25%  Hispanic with a per capita income of $57,906 and we have an armored car. Our armored car – owned by the people but run by our local Sheriff’s Department, to be used against the people, if needed – even has a ring on the top so that it can be equipped with a  machine gun. There is no sane use, in my San Mateo County – anybody’s San Mateo County – for a mobile fort. More germane is that there is no sane use for a mobile fort in Ferguson.

But, it turns out, the Armored Cars – were pretty much free – through a Department of Homeland Security program to fund armored vehicles after 9/11 – so they are hard to turn down. But, again, they are actually bad for everybody concerned. When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail; armored cars get used. The police, looking through the windows, are no longer part of the community, they have become an occupying army. They say things like Bring it, you fucking animals!

That’s the problem, the militarization of the police is not good for anybody except the people actually selling the military equipment. Armored Cars don’t help deter crime, they don’t help catch criminals, Armored Cars don’t help with crowd control, they don’t even help in riot control (although, I guess, one could argue that they would help in a mass zombie attack).

2 thoughts on “The Donner Party, Community, and Ferguson

  1. Funny you should mention zombies ’cause that’s something my son Bryan [who drove and rode around in behemoth vehicles like those on the train his second trip to Afghanistan] is constantly joking about with his mates in the Army; they sort of get it, or some of them do…he certainly understands there’s no winning hearts and minds from that vantage point. Seeing the surplus ones on the streets of our towns; that ain’t no “security”, homie.

    Nice little demockery we got here; what’s next?


  2. I think that the grunts on the line often have a better hold on reality than some rear-echelon officer, and the higher they go, the more detached – from what is really happening – they are.

    When the pitchforks come out, The Man will be ready, that’s their hope, at least. But, still, right now – aren’t those behemoths neat?

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