Property Rights Foundation of America®
Founded 1994

Fighting Leviathan for Fun and Freedom

By James Bovard
Rockville, Maryland

Eighteenth Annual National Conference on
Private Property Rights
October 25, 2014
The Century House, Latham, N.Y.

 

I’m honored to speak to an audience full of hard core freedom fighters. Carol is one of my heroes — she has done such fine work for so many years fighting back against government oppression in so many ways.

My own jaundiced view of government grew out of early experiences and the muckraking I’ve done in recent decades. I was raised in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in an area knee deep with fascinating history — and also some of the worst abuses — almost all forgotten — of property rights.

The school bus I rode each morning traveled up the road into a place named Harmony Hollow. I think it was named that because people there had the habit of shooting each other not quite every weekend. That hollow was dominated by a narrow winding road bordering the Shenandoah National Park. When I was in elementary school, the hollow looked like an ad campaign for Appalachia. Kids lived in shabby houses that differed little from what I saw in photos touting the War on Poverty in Mississippi and Alabama.

Some of the old-timers in Harmony Hollow had been driven off their previous homesteads in the 1930s after politicians decided to confiscate 176,000 acres of private land to create the Shenandoah National Park The government could have easily bought from willing sellers most of the land along the ridges and mountain crests where the Skyline Drive, the crown jewel of the park, was built. But politicians wanted vastly more land on both sides of the mountain range. Park Service officials promised the president an expansive playground cleared of riff-raff. So the answer was Redneck Ethnic Cleansing.

State and federal officials were in cahoots on the land grab. National Park Service official James Lassiter denounced the mountaineers for suffering from a lack of “independence and resourcefulness.” Social Worker Miriam Sizer, in an official government report, portrayed the residents as know-nothing sociopaths — “steeped in ignorance, wrapped in self-satisfaction and complacency, possessed of little or no ambition” — who posed a problem that “challenges the attention of thinking men and women.”

And the “thinking men” — at least those in politics — knew how to help the mountaineers: steal their land at firesale prices. Families were paid as little as a dollar an acre for land worth ten times that much. Land was value solely according to its agricultural value — with no consideration of the scenic beauty and vistas. Heck, if folks wanted to maximize the bushels of corn per acre, they would have been living in the valley, not on mountain peaks.

When some owners refused to budge, members of the Civilian Conservation Corps — known as FDR’s “forest army” — forcibly evicted them and burnt down their cabins to make sure they never returned. While the feds denounced such people for a “lack of independence,” most of them were doing just fine until they were plundered.

Along with other boys, I sometimes hiked cross country from the first crest of the Shenandoah National Park to my house, a distance of about 5 miles. I often saw ruins of old cabins and chimneys, but did not realize they may have been leftover C.C.C. calling cards. And when I saw traces of old stills, I knew enough to pick up the pace.

Perhaps because the park brought in plenty of tourists for businesses, the sordid details of its creation quickly vanished from local memories. I was ignorant of how the government had plundered the mountain folks until long after I exited the Appalachians.

Now, I have often been accused of being a bit biased towards government and its employees. Fifteen years ago, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees denounced me: “It is people such as Mr. Bovard — senselessly vilifying government workers — resulting in tragedies such as the Oklahoma City bombing.”

And it’s not like I was never a government worker. I spent a summer in high school shirking for the Virginia Highway Department....— digging postholes, cutting brush, and, best of all, wielding a chainsaw — an experience that proved invaluable for my future work as a journalist.

As a flag man, I held up traffic while highway employees pretended to work. On hot summer days in the back roads of the county, drivers sometimes tossed me a cold beer as they passed by. Life was different back in the 1970s — Nowadays, if somebody did that, the police might send in a SWAT team — or maybe just call in a drone hellfire missile attack.

I did “roadkill ridealongs” with Bud, an amiable, jelly-bellied truck driver who was always chewing the cheapest, nastiest ceegar ever made — Swisher Sweets. The cigars I smoked cost a nickel more than Bud’s, but I tried not to put on airs around him.

We were supposed to dig a hole to bury any dead animal along the road. For deer, this could take half an hour or longer. Bud’s approach was more efficient. We would get our shovels firmly under the animal — wait until no cars were passing by — and then heave the carcass into the bushes. It was important not to let the job crowd the time available for smoking.

The most important thing I learned that summer was how not to shovel. Any Yuk-a-Puk can grunt and heave material from Spot A to Spot B. But, with a little practice and savvy, a mule-like activity can be refined into an art.

To not shovel right, the shovel handle should rest above the belt buckle while one leans slightly forward. It is important not to have both hands in your pockets while leaning, since that could prevent onlookers from recognizing “Work-in-Progress.”

The key is to appear to be calculating where your next burst of effort will provide maximum returns for the immediate task. One should exude the same keen-eyed concentration a falcon shows before swooping down on its prey.

There was one exception to the highway job’s languid cadence. From 4:30 onwards each work day, teams returned to headquarters and commenced The Big Fret. Employees congregated in a sitting room to await silently, almost breathlessly. There was no clock on the wall, but — at some moment — one of the long term employees decided it was 5 p.m. and everyone jumped up like they were fleeing a ship that had just struck an iceberg. Those guys sweat more in the last 15 minutes than the rest of the day combined.

This was a dream job for me in some ways — it paid 40% more than my prior job in a peach orchard and required far less effort. While I easily downshifted for the highway department, I was pure hustle at the Heckman Bindery, where I worked Friday nights unloading trucks full of boxes of old books. That gig paid a flat rate, cash on the barrelhead, which often worked out to double or triple the Highway Department wage.

The goal with the Highway Department was to conserve energy, while the goal at the bindery was to conserve time — to finish as quickly as possible and move on to better things. With government work, time routinely acquired a negative value — something to be “killed.” And as people here well know, government workers get in the habit of treating everything for their own convenience — including the rights, liberties, and property of private citizens.

ZONING
A few years later, I was living in Blacksburg, Virginia, after having sporadically attended Virginia tech. I lived in 7 or 8 different places there over a four year period — in late 1976, I moved into a small windowless room in the basement of a stout brick house less than a mile from the great college library that was my second (if not first) home.

The room cost $45 a month — it was kinda overpriced but it was the cheapest room I could find. The other residents in that house were a hodgepodge of good fellow college students. The biggest excitement occurred when an agriculture major — a future USDA extension agent — “dropped a dime” on the landlord. After Clarence called in a complaint about a few loose wires in the laundry room, our house was raided by a SWAT team armed with ticket books instead of automatic weapons. Four pre-middle-aged G-men started yelping as if they had found a vat full of hidden corpses. In reality, the worst offense was six people residing in a house zoned for occupancy by not more than five unrelated people.

I was appalled at the bureaucratic hysteria. If we weren’t disturbing the peace, why was the government disturbing us? Blacksburg had no slums, so the code enforcement chumps had to concoct crises out of thin air. The government’s notion of benevolence was limited to throwing its rule book at violators. Since my room was the lowest priced in the house, I got an eviction notice.

Seeking a new cheap abode in the middle of the semester would have been a damn nuisance. I suggested to the landlord that I pay rent in cash under the table. He liked that idea. The Zoning Gestapo never checked with the Post Office to see if the same number of people continued receiving mail at that address. Those occupancy restrictions had nothing to do with safety; instead, they aimed to prop up property values of nearby homes. I sensed that this was an unjustified use of government power, but I did not understand the full noxiousness until I wrote about zoning laws 15 years later.

BOSTON
I decided to become a writer and knew that having a bachelor’s degree from Virginia Tech would not help much on that score. I moved to Boston — I thought that would be a good influence on my writing — and ended up doing all kinds of jobs to pay the rent. I worked as a giant rabbit in a Beatrix Potter promotion, a Santa Claus in a Filene’s Dept. Store, and as a Kelly Girl typist (where I suffered terrible sexual harassment from female bosses).

My proudest achievement from that period was the pathbreaking work I did at the Harvard Business School. I was living in Beantown when it got walloped by the great storm of 1978 — I heard that Harvard was hiring snow shovelers — paying $4 or $5 an hour — I was literally down to my last dollar at that point — so worked 43 hours in 2 days and got caught up on rent and had enough leftover to start drinking beer again....

If I ever had the illusion that cops existed to protect people, Boston cured it. After my bike was stolen in April 1978, I filed a Missing Property report with the police and checked to see if an yellow Atala racing bike had turned up. The listless cop who grudgingly accepted my report muttered that it was very rare for anyone to recover a stolen bike. I finagled a look at the Recovered Property room and was astonished to see it chock-full of bicycles of all types. I was told that the recovered bikes were auctioned off once a year and all the proceeds were pocketed by a group that showered benefits on policemen. Thus, the cops had no incentive to return stolen property to owners.

SUPREME FASHION OFFENDER
Starting in the early 1990s, I wrote often about asset forfeiture. I walloped one proposal in the Wall Street Journal: “The kind of asset-forfeiture law Mr. Clinton is proposing allows confiscation via accusation: A federal agent need only accuse a person of an illegal act for that person’s house, land or car effectively to become the property of the federal government.” The feds were seizing property based on mere rumors and gossip — hearsay evidence — and then requiring their victims to provide iron-clad proof of ownership to reclaim their goods.

This was typical of how the government slants the playing field against citizens’ rights. I began writing more about civil liberties abuses with each passing year.

In 1995, I visited the sacred burial ground of Americans’ rights and liberties — the Supreme Court. Working on an article for Playboy, I went to watch lawyers argue a case about a no-knock raid on an pennyante Arkansas drug dealer.
No-knock raids were routinely carried out by SWAT teams wearing masks and black Ninja outfits and toting submachine guns. And what did it take to justify government effectively declaring war on its own citizens?

Flush toilets. Law enforcement agencies were paranoid that the slightest delay in barging in could allow residents to flush away small amounts of drugs. The Clinton administration told the Supreme Court that “if the officers knew that . . . the premises contain no plumbing facilities . . . then invocation of the destruction-of-evidence justification for an unannounced entry would be unreasonable.” And only then would a no knock raid NOT be justified..

I was appalled at the cravenness at the Supreme Court. I watched lawyers grovel before the Justices like slaves trying to avoid a whipping. Some Justices would browbeat lawyers in front of them without mercy. When Chief Justice William Rehnquist mocked one lawyer’s assertion, everyone in the house responded with a polite chuckle.

When the lawyer who was representing the woman whose house was raided followed up with a good quip, I laughed heartily. And then I noticed that all the Justices — and dang near everybody else in the courtroom — turned and stared in my direction.

I did not realize that there were different standards for laughter, depending on whether the jokester was wearing a bat suit. Admittedly, my laugh can be boisterous at times. I’ve heard that people have used tape recordings of my laugh to frighten away flocks of crows.

A few moments later, I was tapped on the shoulder by a police officer & evicted from the press box. Turns out there was a rule that reporters had to be wearing a coat and tie — a rule that was never enforced before.

It wasn’t like I was wearing bib-overalls — I had on a business shirt with no visible cigar burn holes. When a Washington Post reporter asked me to describe the shirt, I said it was light blue, striped, and from Lord & Taylor. The Post writer concluded that maybe I “should try Brooks Brothers.”

And people wonder why I don’t fit into Washington...

The following year. The court upheld city of Detroit’s confiscation of a Pontiac jointly owned by a married couple after police caught the husband, John Bennis, getting tooted by a prostitute on the front seat. There was never any evidence that the wife had consented to that use of their vehicle. But the Clinton administration implied in a court brief that Tina Bennis was complicit because she failed to take “all reasonable steps” to prevent the illegal use of the vehicle. (This was two years before Mr. Clinton had some difficulties with an intern... which I don’t recall the White House blaming Hillary). Chief Justice Rehnquist based his decision on an 1827 case involving the seizure of a Spanish pirate ship that had attacked U.S. ships. Regrettably, Rehnquist did not deign to explain the legal equivalence of piracy in the 1820s and contemporary fellatio. I lampooned the decision in a Playboy piece titled “Blown Away.”

NORTH CAROLINA
I wrote often about Waco and Ruby Ridge in the mid 1990s. FBI chief Louis Freeh sent an angry letter to the Wall St Journal complaining about one article —

“Mr. Bovard’s often inaccurate facts and misleading or patently false conclusions paint an unfair portrait of the FBI’s actions.” Later that year, the FBI paid a multimillion dollar settlement to Randy Weaver’s family to settle their complaint about the feds killing his wife and son. Waco and Ruby Ridge woke up millions of Americans to the perils of federal agents out of control...

A few years later, I was traveling in the mountains of western North Carolina with my wife — now my ex-wife — and she was looking in a tour book — and found a chateau way back in the mountains that she thought was utterly charming. So we went circling around up and down trying to find the durn place.

I pulled up in front of a hardware store in some one-horse crossroads to recheck the map.

Within 30 seconds, a big ol’ bald guy comes bounding out the store door and heartily asks: “What part of Maryland are you from?”

“Rockville,” I replied — and he started chatting me up — He told me he was originally from Maryland, been living in Carolina for 20 years... so on and so forth — . After about 15 minutes he paused and he admitted he thought I was an undercover federal agent prowling the area. I asked why he thought so. He said I had Maryland license plates and they tend to drive black cars — like mine — and they have hidden tracking devices on the underside of the back of the car. “Feel free to check under my car.”

His eyes widened and he wasted no time taking the chance.

He checked.. — pawed around for a minute underneath my car with his big hands.. Scrunched his forehead a bit — and then — after he was convinced that I was not a G-man — heartily shook my hand — and began to open up.... Dennis was a truck driver — drove 18 wheelers up and down the East Coast, he said. .. He was extremely well informed on the details of Waco and Ruby Ridge and some other federal abuses.

We had a rowdy two hour chat — that part of North Carolina had previously a ton of FBI agents prowling around looking for Eric Rudolph , the guy who allegedly set off a bomb in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics. Dennis said the FBI agents had acted so arrogantly that very few people would help them — and some local restaurants even refused to serve them meals.

After a conversation like that, it was easy to like Dennis.

But I couldn’t help thinking how that run-in captured the story of my life —

The agencies I deal with in Washington think that I’m a redneck, and the rednecks think I am an undercover fed. I just can’t get a break...

At this point, I’ll draw the Curtain of Mercy on the Hooligan stories and welcome any questions y’all might have.

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