This has been a difficult piece for me to write and share. I suspect it is similar to the internal process I might undergo if I were inquiring as to whether I had been molested as a child, or raped when I was unconscious. It involves overcoming the urge to denial. It involves difficult situations with long-time friends. It involves doing my best to understand if I am recalling buried memories, or merely falling into paranoid fantasies. The truth, as they say, is out there, somewhere, and the only way I know to find it is to keep asking questions.
In that spirit, here’s the latest chapter in my inquiry into whether the demise of “The old Farm” was an “oops!” or a “whodunnit?” This is very much a work in progress. I have learned a lot in the course of my investigation. People handed me “puzzle pieces” that fit in with other sources’ “puzzle pieces” and created a picture that the individual puzzle piece holders could not have seen, and that I could hardly have anticipated. I suspect there may be further surprises awaiting me. For that reason, this chapter is largely couched in “supposes,” “perhapses,” and questions, and I have chosen not to name names. New information is always welcome. (In case you’re wondering, no, this story is not part of the “Green Hour” radio show broadcasts, but it does have some great music links, mostly in the section dealing with the community’s musical outreach.) (on 8-27-15, I added a paragraph to “The Plot Thickens section, making this v.3.0.1. I have noted in the text that the paragraph is a later addition.) (further additions and corrections made 9-6-15, and enough material added 12-7-15 to rate changing the title number to “3.1.” A small, but significant, further addition was made 12-21-15, to the “Mystery Drums” section, moving the version number to 3.1.1.) (further additions made 1-15-16, bumping it to 3.2)
Here are links to my earlier efforts on this topic:
EDWARD SNOWDEN AND THE FARM focusses on how a particular NSA document that Snowden released might relate to what happened on The Farm, recounts the community’s history of involvement with a number of other sociopolitical movements, and points out how those groups and others were demonstrably sabotaged by covert government action.
SNOWDEN AND THE FARM, PART TWO is largely a response to the question, “why does it matter at this late date?”
1.ROBERT SCHEER, A FACEBOOK RANT, AND A PAIR OF RAIDS
In a speech in Seattle last March, Robert Scheer, author, investigative journalist, editor of the “Truthdig” website and former editor of Ramparts Magazine, had this to say:
I know why they were after King, because King was not staying put. King was a moral force. King said, I have to deal with poverty and I have to deal with war. And after Selma, I remember, because I published it in Ramparts, King’s speech at Riverside Church condemning the U.S. as the major purveyor of violence in the world today. He said, How can I condemn violence in the ghetto by young kids, and then you draft them and you send them off on to fight in Vietnam to kill and be killed? So King had become an irritant to people of power, a big irritant. When he died, he was there working with garbage collectors in Memphis who were on strike, dealing with poverty issue. So he wouldn’t stay put in his moral concerns…..
….if there is a King alive today, he will be destroyed and you won’t even know it. I’m not talking about the creepy stuff like you control his car and smash into a cliff or do all the other things that can be done with modern technology. I mean, all of us are vulnerable to people who want to smear us, whether they use true stuff or false stuff, whether they make it or they manufacture it. Scott Ritter, who was the most effective critic of the whole phony weapons of mass destruction, he gets entrapped by a police agent in some kind of Internet sex thing and serves time in jail. Elliott Spitzer, the most effective critic of the banks when he was attorney general in New York and then governor, suddenly it’s a big deal that he went to a house of prostitution or something, and he’s destroyed. So the ability to destroy people, like a Martin Luther King or anyone else, is out there. It’s in the hands of all these government agencies, all these police forces. Trust me, it’s going to be rampant.
I share Robert Scheer’s strong suspicion that King was not killed by a random nut with a gun, but by a concerted government effort, and I share his assessment that the government decided that it would be better to nip any possible King successors in the bud, without going to the extreme of murdering them, and thus turning them into martyrs. Assassinating someone’s character or sabotaging their organization is a lot less messy, and leaves no martyrs. Stephen Gaskin, too, was “not staying put.” He was a major figure in a movement that was bringing together the back-to-the-land counterculture, Native Americans from the US and Central America, inner-city African-Americans, anti-nuclear power activists, and peace activists, among others, to challenge the dominant paradigm. Why wouldn’t the government want him out of the way?
Here’s something a former Farm resident wrote in a comment thread on one of the earlier parts of this series:
My dad was a vice prez for an international management consulting firm.early on when he found out how the farm ran its business, he said it would never make it. The last years of the farm, those of us who actually worked and brought in money would talk about how the farm needed to completely change the way it did things. not be ran by an ego maniac whose policies were heading the farm into bankruptcy,10000$ band tours,taking on hundreds of people while our infrastructure sucked,many of whom were dead weight,not to mention the dead weight that was already there,people more concerned with being “spiritual” than getting their heads outta their asses and pull in the cash.People carving out little empires “because they were doin something heavy” and not bringing any money in and not listening to those of us who supported them,,,,a perfect storm for failure…..isnt that what happened? We got labelled “unspiritual” etc (dots were in the original, do not denote deleted content)
Your last post actually illustrates one of the techniques that the NSA/FBI use to break up groups–badmouthing other members of the group and exacerbating divisions. Those who worked on The Farm were support staff for those who worked off the Farm, providing food, medical care, child care, education, and countless other services.
To that response, I would now add: The community also served as an incubator for businesses, some of which paid off handsomely. Some would have paid off if they’d had a few more years to develop. Some, yeah, were never going to be commercially viable, but the idea was always to find enough ways to generate income at home so that nobody had to go off The Farm to work. Eventually, as this comment indicates, the work-off-the-Farm tail wagged the dog. My reply to the commenter continued:
I’m not saying that the system was flawless, nor that Stephen was flawless, but the NSA presentation that Edward Snowden released, that I cite in my previous “Snowden and The Farm” writings, directs infiltrating agents to encourage exactly the feelings (“us” vs. “them”) that you are expressing. They did that to plenty of groups and were good enough at it so that most of the groups they broke up had no clue they’d been disrupted–they just thought it was their own fault. We were in the same radical category as the groups that we now know were disrupted. Why would we be the exception?
I also had to go to some lengths to assure the poster that no, I was not saying he was an agent, just that he might have been influenced by one.
One friend reminded me of an event that seems to speak to the question of whether the government considered The Farm a threat. We had become used to being buzzed by nearly treetop-level warplanes. The terrain of middle Tennessee was a lot like eastern Europe, the brass at nearby Ft. Campbell explained, and that made it a good place for combat pilots to train. Our settlement happened to be in the middle of a large, relatively uninhabited area, and that was why we experienced the overflights. The jets sped over in a matter of seconds, but one day in October of 1978, a group of Farm residents saw a line of helicopters approaching at treetop level. Vietnam vets in the group noted that it was “an attack formation.” This time, they weren’t just passing through. The helicopters fanned out over the community and hovered over each dwelling and public building, low enough to rattle windows and shake dishes off shelves. When we contacted Ft. Campbell to complain, the military admitted the helicopters had flown low over the community,”due to weather conditions,” but denied that they had any orders to do what they did. We were asked to believe that the helicopter commanders, on their own initiative, spontaneously staged a comprehensive mock attack on The Farm. Any takers for that?
This simulated raid took place a couple of months after Farm members had participated in an AIM-sponsored demonstration at the FBI building that marked the end of “The Longest Walk,” which was a coast-to-coast walk for Native American rights. There was at least one Native American Farm member on the Longest Walk, and The Farm provided some logistical and other support for the effort.
Just two months after the helicopter attack, the government conducted an atomic bomb test in Nevada that was code named “Farm.” The tests before and after that one were called Emmenthal, Concentration, Baccanat, and Quinella, in a long series of tests whose code names mostly seemed to be assigned from a list of card and other games. Draw your own conclusions.
Then, on July 11, 1980, the government put its boots on our ground, with the famous “Ragweed Day raid.” There were comic opera flourishes to the whole fiasco: the police mistook a watermelon field overgrown with ragweed for a marijuana field, and then claimed that, because somebody had tipped the community off to the impending raid (a few hours before it happened), we had somehow harvested and hidden six acres of marijuana overnight. The folly was capped by the complete failure of the authorities, despite a sweeping search warrant, to find any marijuana at all. (Most Farm residents, at this period in our history, couldn’t find any marijuana at all, either, unless they were in, or connected with, the upper echelons of the community’s management.) The comedy was compounded a few weeks later when a former resident came for a visit and, to his hosts’ surprise, unscrewed a door panel on an abandoned vehicle and pulled out several pounds of marijuana that he had concealed there before the raid. Luckily for us, the police–and their drug-sniffing dogs–had completely missed this sizeable stash.
What was not humorous was the sweeping warrant that was issued, naming “spoons and balloons,” among other things, as drug paraphernalia, and authorizing police to confiscate such items and arrest their possessors. Moreover, this warrant allowed the search of every building in a community of 1500 people, spread over two square miles, because of the alleged presence of marijuana plants in one field on the property. Fortunately for The Farm, their failure to find any marijuana meant no arrests or confiscations, so no household was deprived of its precious spoons, or balloons. The judge who issued this warrant later apologized, and its broad scope was almost certainly Constitutionally dubious, but it’s obvious that somebody, or several somebodies, in the law enforcement community had it in for The Farm, and wanted to make sure we understood that we were, indeed, subject to the authority of the United States government.
Even more to the point, consider the results of Farm lawyer Albert Bates’ FOIA suit. Bates discovered that, due to our involvement in appropriate tech and the empowerment of Guatemalan villagers, the Reagan administration had labelled us, as well as groups like CISPES (the Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) as “domestic terrorist organizations,” and FEMA had made plans to detain all known members of such organizations in the event that the US became involved in an out-front shooting war in Central America. That never happened, but, considering what we now know about government harassment of CISPES, we can be assured that it had The Farm firmly in its sights. It is also worth noting that FOIA requests cannot be made of the National Security Agency. We simply don’t know what we don’t know, but what we do know makes it all the more likely that the parallels between the NSA infiltration manuals that Edward Snowden released and what happened on, and to, The Farm are not mere coincidence.
2.THE PLOT THICKENS
Suppose you managed one of the Farm businesses that was bringing money into the community. You knew your own cash flow pretty well, and knew that, if not for the fact that the money you earned was “held in common” and “distributed to each as s/he had need,” you would be able to pay yourself, and your employees, a pretty good wage, and even make a profit. Suppose you got together with the other managers of profitable businesses and started planning how to shed the “dead weight,” to use my Facebook friend’s phrase, so that you could turn The Farm from a down-at-the-heels countercultural mecca into a more upscale, less crowded, business-friendly, progressive-but-not-radical, gated community for those who could afford to pay their own way?
The first step in your counter-revolution might be to start having invitation-only meetings, billed as “cocktail parties,” where you and your fellow managers (and a few trusted employees) could gather to ritually violate The Farm’s agreements by drinking, yes, cocktails, but not so many that you couldn’t make coherent plans to further your goal. As another sign of commitment, many of the men involved might start shaving and cutting their hair, and the women might apply makeup and wear jewelry, all in contravention to The Farm’s “agreements” about abstaining from such overt talismans of personal vanity. (I recall one woman, whom I had known since my first Monday Night Class in San Francisco in 1968, going to great lengths to flash her painted toenails at me. If she was fishing, I didn’t take the bait.)
In my first post on this subject, I noted that I had found in The Farm’s video records an interview with…
…a New York City resident who was talking about the FBI/COINTELPRO infiltration of community organizations–not just advocacy groups, but even community theater groups–in Harlem in the 1970s. According to him, the government’s aim had been to covertly destroy these organizations, so that nobody who was genuinely involved would realize they had been intentionally disrupted. “The agents I knew seemed like the hippest cats I had ever met,” he said. “They were the first people who ever talked up the idea of being ‘tribal’ to me.”
The other interesting discovery was an interview with someone who played a central role in the community’s governance towards the end of its communal period. In an interview with a TV news reporter, this person praised The Farm, saying, “It’s a very tribal place.” In no other interview with any other person from The Farm (and I had plenty to choose from) did anybody else use the word “tribal” in relation to The Farm.
It is interesting to note that the person who used the word “tribal” is also the person credited with organizing these “cocktail parties.” Of course, this may be pure coincidence. There was plenty of discontent on The Farm by the early 80’s, and the cocktail party movement may have been spontaneous. If an agent, or agents, were involved, nobody would have known it or, probably, even suspected it.
Such plotters would almost certainly have decided they would need to thoroughly discredit Stephen for their scheme to work. Perhaps some of them were in Stephen’s small circle of close advisers and long-time companions. Such a trusted insider might have encouraged Stephen to be unyielding in his stance on various issues that the plotters knew would divide the community and drive residents away. Stephen’s strong self-assurance would not have needed much prompting. To be entirely fair, he may not have needed any, but my recollections of the time seem to indicate that nobody around him was suggesting that he rein himself in. “Let Stephen be Stephen” was the word. While the community slowly crossed the blurry line from funky fourth-world elegance into shoddy third-world poverty, Stephen cruised the Caribbean on a sailing ship, promoting appropriate technology, and pushed to find money in the community’s tight cash flow to take The Farm Band, now called “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” to Europe.
There may be an example of the plot to discredit Stephen in the book, “Voices From The Farm,” when someone recounts the tale of the nationalization of “Saturday money.” There had been a long standing tradition on The Farm of allowing households to keep money their members earned from working off The Farm on Saturdays to use for home improvements. This story reminds us that it was Stephen who announced the decision that this would no longer be the case, starting immediately, and that money that had been earned with the understanding that it would go towards home improvements would not be released for that purpose. But, was this Stephen’s decision? By this stage in the community’s evolution he had largely detached himself from the day-to-day management of the place. Was it a move by plotters closely involved with The Farm’s finances, who asked Stephen to announce the new policy because they knew he would be the focus of peoples’ disappointment, anger, and frustration, just as they wanted him to be? While our financial situation was difficult, this expropriation served more to alienate people than to raise cash, since it effectively ended the practice of Farm residents going off the Farm to work for money for their households on Saturdays, making life in the increasingly shabby community even more difficult. Was that the real intention of this change?
Another “interesting” case is an incident, well known in Farm circles, when a long-time member of the community publicly challenged Stephen’s call for us to continue to accept new members and keep up our political activism and international development work. The challenger, who had been involved with Stephen since Monday Night Class in San Francisco in the late 60’s, opined that we ought to take care of who we had on board already, and get our own house in order before taking on other peoples’ problems. He phoned this in during a Sunday Service that was being broadcast on the community’s cable TV network on a cold, rainy morning when we could not have gathered in the meadow where we traditionally meditated. First thing Monday, Stephen and a couple of his close lieutenants showed up at the challenger’s workplace, and gave him a severe dressing down. Some witnesses thought the lieutenants were pushing Stephen into extreme polarity with the objector. Was this simple overzealousness, or calculated manipulation? We will probably never know. The dissenter and his family left soon after. He and his wife had been cornerstones of the community since its beginning. Even at the time, it seemed like a tipping point.
The band may provide another example. The “NRC” was “almost famous,” and, after sharing the stage with Graham Nash, Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt, reportedly attracted major label attention, which could have brought in enough money to ease, or even solve, our tenuous financial situation. Did the plotters push Stephen to be wary of this, to worry that record company lawyers would take advantage of us–even though The Farm had a crack legal team that had taken complicated cases all the way to the US Supreme Court? I have been told that, at Stephen’s insistence, the major label contract, worth hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of dollars, was turned down.
Another challenge came from within. By this time, the The Farm was largely managed by a board of directors that was nominally elected by the community. Like most boards of directors, the board itself nominated replacements for members who were rotating out, and the community generally ratified those choices. A group of Farm residents concluded, independently of the plotters, that privatization was the way to go, and, in the Spring 1983 election, challenged the sitting board of directors, campaigning for more personal financial freedom and greater transparency in decision making. If this upstart group won, the presumed plotters would lose control of the community and its assets, and their plans would be derailed. The incumbent board assured community residents that they were firmly committed to keeping The Farm communal, and were re-elected by an overwhelming majority. That promise, in retrospect, seems to have been a (pardon the shaving pun!) bald-faced lie.
Another situation that arose may have been met in a different way–by contriving to lose a court case. The community was being sued by Vanderbilt Medical Center for hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills, mostly from two residents who had nearly been killed in work-related accidents. (We were “self-insured,” did not pay workmen’s comp, and did not take welfare, as a matter of principle. We did not want to be beholden to the government, or the taxpayers who support it.) The hospital was more than willing to negotiate how much The Farm owed them, and at what rate we would pay it back, but the Farm lawyer who handled the case, by being uncompromising, managed to get a judgement against The Farm for the full amount of the debt, to be enforced by a lien on the property in the form of a second mortgage. Was this outcome just bad lawyering, or was it intentional, a way to give the plotters an excuse to institute the kind of austerity measures that Naomi Klein would later characterize as “The Shock Doctrine,” or “disaster capitalism”–in her words, “the rapid-fire corporate re-engineering of societies still reeling from shock,” shocks often created by the capitalists who then exploit them?
(This paragraph was added after initial publication) I think it is important to note that the community’s financial crisis was real, and due to factors beyond our control. Throughout the 70’s, about half the community’s expenses had been met by new members joining and contributing their assets, and by community members donating inheritances from deceased parents and grandparents. Those revenue streams dried up in after 1980, for a variety of reasons. The relaxed decade of the 1970’s had been enabled by the peak of widespread American prosperity, and the beginning of widening income disparity. By 1980, those effects were beginning to be felt. College education funding was increasingly switching from grants and low tuition to loans and higher tuition, making it more difficult for students to just drop out without serious financial consequences. This may have been an intentional move on the part of the government to suppress general student unrest. A third factor was the increasing commodification of old age and death, which resulted in older peoples’ assets going to the nursing homes and hospitals where they spent their final years rather than to their heirs. On The Farm’s end of things, as it became more “third world” and less “fourth world,” it lost its appeal to people who had some success on their own. Everyone on The Farm felt the shock of the community’s diminished income.
And, speaking of the shock doctrine, the plotters brought in an outside consultant to advise them on reorganizing The Farm. He just happened to be connected to USAID, the “help and development” arm of US foreign policy, known for advancing the neoliberal agenda of privatization and monetization. He did not disappoint, advising the board that most of the community’s infrastructure, such as the farming crew and the motor pool crew, did not pull its financial weight compared to what they could earn if they had “outside jobs.” The Board knew full well that there were not enough jobs in the area to employ that many people, and that the real value of the services on-Farm workers–the creation of community–was incalculable in conventional financial terms. They knew that terminating so many on-Farm service and support jobs would trash much of the vital infrastructure of the community, and would likely result in most of the Farm members who worked on The Farm, and their families, having to relocate. That may have been exactly what they wanted.
Almost as if designed to maximally disrupt community businesses and services, the board embarked on a program of drafting dozens of men and women from the on-Farm workforce to leave the community for weeks at a time and plant pine trees around the south-eastern U.S. We were paid by the tree. Some of the draftees were good at it, some (like me) were not so good. After all the expenses of sending out fully equipped crews and providing us with food, camping gear, and gas money, I don’t think the drive netted the community much income, but it was very disruptive.
There’s another aspect of the pine-tree planting effort that was, to my knowledge, never discussed in the community. Here’s the big picture: timber companies had bought up hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of acres of diverse, native hardwood forest in the southeast, clearcut them where it was profitable, and simply bulldozed the forest into windrows where it was not. They then hired us, among many others, to come in and plant a monocrop of pine trees where these ecologically rich hardwood forests had been. Given our record of protesting the spread of nuclear power and other injustices both environmental and political, we should have been a strong part of the coalition against this practice, not humble servants of such widespread ecological destruction, but “we needed the money”–not that, in the long term, it did us any good.
One effect of this ecocide was to change the weather. In summer, mature hardwood forests, including the one that had surrounded us and was mostly cut, transpire enormous amounts of water from the ground into the air, resulting in fairly dependable afternoon thunderstorms. With the deciduous trees gone, the afternoon thunderstorms quit happening, the soil dried out, and farming became more difficult. Replacement of old-growth forest by young underbrush also fed a surge in the deer population. The deer not only browsed the clearcuts and young pine forests, they browsed farmers’ fields, including ours, and our yields of everything from sweet potatoes to apples to tomatoes to soy beans to strawberries plummeted, further devaluing our farming efforts–as well as those of every other row crop, fruit, or vegetable farmer in the region.
The cleared forests also attracted Eastern cicada killer wasps that nested in the newly dry soil of the former forest. The two-inch long wasps are aggressive, painful stingers who invade homes, furniture, cabinets and beds, and who can eat the insides out of all the fruit on a tree, or in a bushel basket, with remarkable speed. My attempt to make my living tending the Farm’s orchards got harder still.
All that was just “externalities” to the timber companies. But that’s another subject…..
Another shock that helped drive The Farm into an austerity program was the collapse of one of the community’s main banks. Hohenwald Bank and Trust president and chief loan officer Jerry Yokley was known for his liberal lending policies, the flexibility of which had become essential to keeping The Farm, and many other Lewis County businesses, afloat. John H. Candler, a great-grandson of the founder of the Coca-Cola company, conspired with him to cash $3.8 million dollars in bad checks, which left the bank insolvent. I recall hearing at the time that Yokley was arrested at the Nashville airport, on his way to Brazil, which did not have an extradition agreement with the U.S. I am guessing he was hoping to retire on his share of the proceeds. Instead, both men went to jail.
Apparently this was not the first embezzling scheme Candler had hatched, nor would it be the last. Until I unearthed that fact, I thought that Yokley may have been laundering drug money for the black ops part of our government, who instructed him to cast a net that would snare The Farm, but I am less convinced of that now. Nevertheless, the switch from Yokley’s loose, open-handed policies to the FDIC’s strict discipline re-enforced the privatizers’ calls for austerity measures on The Farm.
While members of upper management spent community money on liquor and “personal grooming supplies,” the average Farm resident was faced with food and fuel shortages, the near-impossibility of getting a new pair of shoes, and limitations on the availability of medical care.The community was small enough so that these differences in living standards were widely known, and the source of a great deal of resentment among many of the less fortunate. In retrospect, that may have been part of the plan.
With the election safely behind them, the Farm’s board of directors announced that the only way out of the community’s debt was to end the community’s collectivity, just as they had promised not to do in the lead-up to the election. That debt, we were told, totalled about a million dollars, or a little less than $1,000 per person. To Farm residents, living on a dollar a day and a lot of help from each other (and, in many cases, help from their families off The Farm), that seemed like a lot of money. Interestingly enough, the average per capita debt for European-Americans (which most of us were) in 1983 was….$2,000. We were being frightened by a debt that was half that of the average American. Ominous rumours circulated: the debt was really closer to two million dollars; “we could lose the land” if we didn’t pay Vanderbilt and the FDIC on time. The standard of living for most residents continued to plummet. Long-time member families left, seeking paying jobs that could not be found within a reasonable commute from Summertown. Farewell parties were the major social events. Attendance at Stephen’s Sunday morning meditation/sermon/community meeting dwindled to the hardy few who enjoyed meditating and/or still had some faith in Stephen. In some ways, that actually improved the meditation, because a lot of people, I had observed, seemed to be not so much meditating as sitting there waiting for Stephen to speak. There’s a big difference! This also leads into the community’s failure to educate newcomers in the basics of what we were about, the failure of long-term residents to remember what we were about, the insufficiency of once-a-week meditation, and many other subjects, but those are topics for another time.
And so, in October of 1983, the new Farm order was established. Everyone was responsible for their own expenses. The community’s by-now tattered agreements about avoiding alcohol, tobacco, makeup, and haircuts/hairdos, among other things, were discarded, although there seemed to be agreement about remaining non-violent, at least in some respects. (more on that later) Community businesses, such as the store, the school, the soy dairy, the motor pool, and the clinic, began to charge money for their services, and the Board pushed their operators to buy these businesses from The Foundation. I was asked if I would like to “buy the orchards,” although that did not involve getting to own the land on which the trees grew. No thanks, I responded–the orchard belongs to the community and I will care-take it in return for whatever I can earn from it. That was acceptable to the board.
The community’s remaining common financial demands–a certain amount of maintenance and security and the regular payment of the community’s debts–were met by that reactionary wet dream, a flat tax. It didn’t matter if you were a managing a successful business or struggling to support yourself and your family by day labor. “It would be too difficult to have a graduated tax system,” our community managers protested. In other words, we had changed overnight from a community based in transparency, honesty, and sharing to a community where we were not trusted to accurately report our incomes so we could pay our fair share of our own community’s expenses. A graduated system would have made it easier for those who were barely getting by, but it seems the plotters wanted as many people as possible to leave. They took their children out of the Farm School and sent them off to school in Hohenwald, the county seat, twenty miles and a broad cultural gap away, alleging that they “couldn’t afford tuition.” Or maybe, they just wanted all the hippie alternative school folks to go away. The school struggled, and laid off a lot of teachers, but ultimately survived thanks to generous donations from a few grandparents who appreciated the kind of radical, personalized education the school imparted.
The monthly “dues payment” was not only a flat tax, but a poll tax. If you didn’t pay, you couldn’t vote in community elections. At first, measures to raise dues and tighten control by the faction that had taken over The Farm passed by very narrow margins, but as the financial treadmill sped up and objectors gave up, their proposals passed more and more handily. One item that community dues funded was an office and a regular retainer for the lawyer who had lost the Vanderbilt lawsuit.
Meanwhile, privatization of the community’s resources proceeded apace, as community businesses were sold to their managers, with the income from these sales dedicated to paying down the community’s debts–another classic neoliberal austerity move. One of the most interesting examples of this is what happened with “Farm Foods,” the community’s venture into commercial soy-based ice cream. This, along with The Nuclear Regulatory Commission/Farm Band, had been our big hope for a moneymaker.
The folks who were managing Farm Foods had morphed more than any of the rest of us from hippies into businessmen. When they announced that “Farm Foods” was to be sold to the Barricini Chocolate Company, somehow it came as no surprise. The deal, when it came down, was a real deal for somebody: The Farm was paid in Barricini stock, which at the time was selling, as I recall, for about $20 a share. We had to promise not to sell our stock for a while. As far as I know, The Farm never cashed in its Barricini shares, which today are worthless. Farm Foods’ management team left for Barricini together, but quickly found their own separate pathways into corporate America. Most of them have rarely returned to visit.
If there was a plot, this may be where a schism occurred among the plotters. One person who would almost certainly have been in on it, is widely reported to have commented that the community “got screwed by the Barricini deal.”
3.THE SKY CHANGES COLOR
“if you don’t like it here, go someplace else” was the refrain with which supporters of the new order met protests from what remained of the old order. But many of us, including me, had come to The Farm because it wasn’t like anyplace else. That was no longer so much the case, but there was no place else I wanted to go, even though most of what I loved about the community had irretrievably vanished. For me, it was as if the sky had changed color, or as if there was less oxygen in the air.
There was certainly less compassion in the air. One of the community’s best-loved midwives, who had assisted with the birthings of scores, if not hundreds, of Farm women, was stranded on the main road leading to The Farm when her car broke down. As she stood by her vehicle, its hood open, waving for help, numerous cars driven by Farm members drove by. None of them stopped to help her. Not long after, she and her husband left the community.
More tragically, a blind woman who had come to The Farm as a sanctuary case found herself feeling increasingly isolated and helpless as the population dropped and most of the people who had been her friends and caretakers left. She became depressed and took her own life. Nobody saw it coming.
Another example, far more convoluted, is the tale of a couple I’ll call David and Rosanna. They had long been one of the community’s “problem marriages.” They didn’t get along well, but they loved to make up. As a result of their making up, and in spite of the best advice the community’s natural birth control counselors could provide, they produced an unusually large number of children, even in a culture where having a child every two years was more or less the norm. David and Rosanna’s situation was complicated by the fact that Rosanna, more than most mothers, had a hard time taking adequate care of her brood.
The kids were still pre-teens when what seemed like help arrived—a childless couple who loved to babysit. After a couple of years of this arrangement, David and Rosanna discovered that the guy in the couple, with his wife’s complicity, was sexually molesting their pre-teenage children.
This situation landed in the lap of an elected body known as “The Council of Elders,” which Stephen created to take over his function of being the primary spiritual authority in the community. Rosanna declined to press charges against the couple, so they simply left the community and went to another state. (This is not the only case of the quiet eviction of a child predator, unreported to the police.) I am told the guy was convicted of molesting other kids in the town they settled in when they left, and died in jail. Prisoners don’t like child molesters.
Some of the elders involved suggested that we find some form of professional counselling for the kids, but locating a competent therapist who could deal with the extreme cultural differences between Farm kids and Farm reality and the American mainstream would have been difficult if not impossible. With no idea of the changes to come, the Elders decided to wait until the kids were older, and deal with problems as they arose.
Shortly before the changeover, the board pushed this couple out of the community. They settled in a run-down house a few miles away, and continued to visit regularly. The Farm Store, which transitioned from the community’s pantry into a grocery store, was their nearest source of healthy food, and besides, many of their friends, and their kids’ friends, still lived on The Farm.
Just a few years later, as the molested kids grew into their teens and started coming into their sexuality, trouble started brewing. The victimized kids were, as it’s called, “acting out” in various antisocial ways in response to the damage that had been done to them, and a great deal of that “acting out” took place on The Farm. The post-changeover community leadership simply called the police and had them arrested. There was no mention of the possibility that the community owed them any mercy or help. Some of them survived this betrayal and have gone on to lead fulfilling lives. Some of them were doped up on psychiatric meds and have never recovered.
4. THE MEMBERSHIP COMMITTEE
One instrument in the machinery of control was called “The Membership Committee.” It was created to deal with community members who were having a hard time paying their community dues, or who were otherwise not fitting in well with the new regime, and to handle the possibility that somebody new might come along who actually wanted to become a member. I was elected to the first Membership Committee, on a platform of compassion for those in difficulty. I did not win re-election. Much of what follows is based on my experience in that community governance committee.
A factor that played an important, although never openly stated, role in “The New Farm” was the security needs of one of its resident businesses, one that went from being an often-inadequate, but free, community service on “The Old Farm” to being a virtual license to print money under the new regime. I am referring to the community’s marijuana growing operation. In retrospect, it seems to have been the unspoken purpose of “The Membership Committee” to turn The Farm into a safe house for its marijuana business. Much later, I would learn that there may have been a lot more going on than mere marijuana.
Let me make my position clear. I have a long-standing, deep appreciation for marijuana, and the science that has been done on it in the course of its rise to widespread acceptability confirms my appreciation, but I do not appreciate people who get greedy about the large amounts of money that marijuana can generate. In my estimation, “The New Farm” was, at least in the years I was there, run, behind the scenes, by people in the grip of just that greed.
So, the hidden agenda of The Membership Committee was to rid the community of flakes and dissenters and wild-eyed counter-culturalists who might bring too much official attention, and heat, to bear on the community.
There were two members of the Committee that I would call “alpha males.” One of them was particularly charismatic. He would dominate the meetings with his opinions, and was very persuasive. I would fall under his sway until I left the meeting and his spell would evaporate, then come to the next meeting and contest the results of the previous meeting. He and his “sidekick” seemed to be there with the expectation that the rest of us would be reasonable and do it their way, and “their way” seemed to be to drum up animosity about community members who were on the fringes, and push to eject them. One of their targets was a guy who was what, on “the old Farm,” we had called a sanctuary case. He wasn’t disabled, overtly crazy, or at all threatening, just kind of clueless. He had come to The Farm because two of his brothers were living here, but they had left. He was living alone in a decaying house that everyone else had abandoned, and was managing to come up with enough money to feed himself and his cats, but not enough to pay “dues.” He apparently had no other place else to go, and would have likely become homeless if he left The Farm. The two alpha males from the Membership Committee kept harassing him and threatening him with eviction, until one day they came to threaten him and found he had killed all his cats, and his lifeless body was hanging at the end of a rope from an open stairway in his home. We discussed this whole situation at length in the Membership Committee meeting that happened soon after. The suicide did not seem to give pause to either of the alphas. It was his problem, not theirs. They didn’t seem to accept the possibility that the way they threatened him was verbal violence, or that such verbal violence was not OK.
There was another “problem couple” besides David and Rosanna. Don and Yvonne, as I’ll call them, were also long-time community members. Don had been part of Monday Night Class. He had also done time for attempted murder, and would say, with a laugh, “If he hadn’t ducked, it wouldn’t have been attempted murder, and I’d still be in jail.” Don did not like the new regime, and was known to be considering pursuing legal action against the board of directors. Since this might involve an outside audit and “discovery” of some people’s extralegal sources of income, he had to be pre-emptively removed from the community as quickly as possible. The alpha males on the membership community railed against him. When one of the women on the committee objected, one of the alphas verbally abused her. (Pejorative use of the word “pussy” was involved.) One of the great regrets of my life is that I did not rise strongly enough to her defense. I don’t recall if I politely remonstrated or just sat there with my jaw on the floor, amazed to hear a man talk to a woman like that, but the alphas succeeded in intimidating both of us. Don and Yvonne’s membership was to be terminated–after all the guy admitted he owned a gun, which was against one of the community agreements that still stood, and was known to have shot somebody when he was younger. He was dangerous! There would be a community meeting to discuss the issue, as per our rules and regs, which granted every expulsion case what was supposed to be a fair hearing. (note: since publishing this, I have spoken with others who served on the Membership Committee after I left, who reported other instances of verbal abuse of women on the committee by this same alpha.)
Don and Yvonne declined to show up for the “hearing,” which turned out to be anything but fair. The moderator of the meeting opened by announcing the ground rules: everybody who had something to say would have five minutes to speak. One of the alphas was among the first to speak, and he ranted on for nearly a half hour, while the “moderator” made no effort to “moderate” him, and, believe me, what he said was not moderate–it was as close to a call for a lynching as he could make without actually waving a rope. By the time he finished his diatribe, the meeting had become a mob. When that mob discovered that I had been surreptitiously taping this travesty of justice, they mobbed me, and, again, I did not do myself proud under pressure. It had been a long time since I had felt so frightened for my personal safety. As Mike Tyson famously said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” I didn’t get punched, but that possibility seemed to be in the air. Needless to say, the community meeting agreed that Don and Yvonne should be expelled.
Here, as with the man driven to suicide, we again see a double standard, in which verbal violence from community officials was OK, but talking back to them in the same tone, as Don did, was not. This had its roots in the “Old Farm” spiritual practice of “getting up in someone’s thing,” which involved Stephen, or somebody else in the community who enjoyed some recognition as being spiritually adept, telling someone their view and understanding of that person’s subconscious habitual behavior. This started from Stephen having, and exercising, superior powers of observation and expression about people’s body language and the way they expressed themselves,and much of his spiritual teaching was about how the rest of us could become adept at it. “This is a teachers’ college,” he liked to say. It was sometimes scathing, but always based in compassion, or at least intended in compassion. His/our willingness to address, and his/our creation of a language for addressing, our own and others’ metaprogramming was one of the most unique things about The Farm’s culture, a kind of early version of what is now known as “Non-violent communication.” After Stephen was toppled, our mode of direct speech remained, not with the intent of enlightening the addressee, but with the intent of pushing them to get with the program. This degeneration, though, occurred gradually, and was well under way before “the changeover.” The changeover merely marked its complete desanctification, which brings us back to Don and Yvonne.
Don and Yvonne’s threatened lawsuit evaporated when they and their lawyer faced up to the fact that The Farm had a very good reputation in the local court system, and they would almost certainly have to fund not just the great expense of a trial, but the greater expense of filing an appeal. That was beyond their means, especially once they were burdened with the necessity of establishing a new home off The Farm. The IRS, we would soon discover, was not so easily distracted.
As near as I can recall at this 30-year distance, Don’s proposed lawsuit focused on the fact that the board had removed a clause from the Farm charter that “willed” all our assets to The Tassajara Zen Center in the event of our dissolution, and shifted asset devolution to the members, creating a strong incentive for dissolution, and the fact that The Farm,
despite its tax status as a “religious or apostolic association,” was no longer distributing income on a per capita basis.
Let’s review a little history here. Shortly after its founding,The Farm had been granted 501(d) status by the IRS. This status
“provide(s tax) exemption for a religious or apostolic association or corporation if:
it has a common or community treasury, even if it engages in business for the common benefit of its members; and
the members include in their gross income their entire pro rata shares, whether distributed or not, of the taxable income of the association or corporation for the year. “
In the event of its dissolution, the assets of a 501(d) are not required to be transferred intact to another exempt organization, as is the case in tax-deductible 501(c)(3) associations. However, at the time of its inception, The Farm had, as I mentioned above, “willed” its assets to the Tassajara Zen Center. For the board of directors to strike that clause from our charter and shift asset devolution from a Buddhist retreat center to its own members, i.e., themselves, was a significant change of direction, in essence hauling down The Farm’s flag as a spiritual community.
The IRS didn’t care about that change to our charter, but the community soon gave them something to care about. The lawyer who had lost the Vanderbilt Hospital case, at the direction of the board, told the IRS that henceforth we would not be issuing “pro-rata” (equal) shares but rather shares that reflected actual earnings of members effectively standing the 501(d) on its head.
Summoned to Washington to explain the change, the lawyer left his briefcase in a parked car, from which it was stolen, and then stood mute and unprepared before the examining panel, unable to speak without his prepared notes. I find it astonishing that he would be so unfamiliar with this case, or so uncommitted to defending it, as to be completely unable to speak without notes. Well, OK, it’s hard to remember dozens of legal references off the top of your head. But still…Predictably, the IRS responded by revoking the Foundation’s tax-exempt status, classifying instead as a for-profit “C-corporation.”
With Don and Yvonne run off, one of the remaining threats to the safety of the drug dealers was the community’s teenagers, who made a serious game–you could even call it a guerilla war–of finding out as much as they could of whatever the grownups were trying to keep secret. To counter them, a “hit squad,” composed mostly of Farm residents who were ex-Marines, tackled the teenagers one by one. Those who were over eighteen or had family elsewhere were ejected from the community on one pretence or another, and several who were the rebellious children of the junta were put on anti-psychotic medications at the insistence of their families. In my opinion, what many of the kids were suffering from was cultural dislocation. They had been brought up to be members of a sharing, caring, communal society, which vanished just as they approached adulthood. Dude, where’s my commune?
Sometimes the interventions were bizarrely humorous, as when one of the junta leaders was caught taking wires out of the engine of the VW bug my pre-driving age son had fixed up to use on The Farm. It is legal for an underage driver to operate a motor vehicle on private property, but the board insisted that he had to have insurance, and we thought that was unreasonable. Our son had little interest in academics, but loved hands-on projects. The car was kind of part of his home schooling. The Farm was a very low-traffic area, and insisting on insurance just seemed like an attempt to shut him down. My son gathered a dozen or more of his friends and went to the man’s house to confront him. He, in turn, summoned several of his lieutenants, who came a little later–but their timing turned out to be perfect.
The man, for some reason, had also removed the plug wires from the car of a friend of my son’s who was old enough to drive, had a license and insurance, and was using his car to commute to the local college. It was now Sunday afternoon, and he needed his car running to attend a Monday morning class. The alpha male refused to give him his plug wires back and taunted him, getting down on his knees and daring the youth, much more slightly built than the alpha, to hit him. “I’m nonviolent, and if I was going to change my mind, it would have to be for something more serious than the likes of you,” the youth shot back. It was around that time that the alpha’s subordinates arrived, sized up the situation, and advised their “leader” to give the kids their plug wires back. “It ain’t easy being me,” he was later quoted as saying.
Much of what the teenagers discovered about adult behavior was pretty standard stuff. Most of the now free-to-do-what-we-want Farm residents were not using their new freedom to explore the secrets of the universe, but to explore each others’ spouses. “Money, food, and sex” were back in charge.
Something new had been added, however, as the youths discovered when they filched unfinished joints from their parents. Joints from one house in particular were not always just marijuana, it seemed. There was something much stronger in them, something uncomfortably disorienting, even to teens who had tried DMT. Exploring the house where these weird joints originated, they discovered a small, locked room with half a dozen or more padlocked 55-gallon drums in it. A few of the drums were relatively light, and contained marijuana, which one teen discovered by breaking into a light drum–but most of the drums were quite heavy. Deciding that discretion was in order, the kids did not try to open those heavy drums, not wanting to unduly alarm the folks whose “roaches” they were spiriting away.
They kept up their observations, however, and discovered that, on a regular basis, heavy-duty diesel pickup trucks with camper tops on them would appear late at night, take away the drums that were there, and/or drop off new ones. They observed this activity throughout the eighties, and have no idea if it continued after they gave up their late night forays as they grew into their twenties. (note: since publishing this, a former community member has told me that, while visiting The Farm in 1992, he mentioned to a friend [who, unbeknownst to him, was a member of the “hit squad” I mentioned earlier] that his son had seen the trucks and barrels I am describing. A few weeks later, at a gathering of former community members in California, the alpha male who seems to have been running the operation confronted him, telling him to “keep his f—ing trap shut about the barrels.” This story seems to confirm that there was communication, and probably co-ordination, between the “hit squad” and the drug ring. ) In relation to this, it is worth noting that one of the community jobs that had been eliminated was that of “night gate-keeper.” There was only one road in and out of The Farm, and we closed a gate across the road from late at night until early morning. For years, somebody stayed awake all night at “The Gate House” to let people out and let late arrivals in, if they passed muster. The night gate-keeper was replaced with an automatic gate and garage door openers for all community members with cars. One feature of the new system was that there was no longer a witness to late night comings and goings, like these.
Perhaps the high point of the teenage guerilla movement was the incident, shortly after the gate was installed, in which they used a pickup truck and a logging chain to yank the automated gate from its tracks, drag it down the road to a nearby pond, and toss it in, to protest both the automation of a long-standing human function (night gateman–it was always a man) and the autocratic attitude of the community’s government, which strongly leaned towards the dictatorship of the majority rather than finding consensus. The community government lost no time in replacing, and reinforcing, the gate, but stopped short of calling the law in.
Regular late-night deliveries of 55-gallon drums of lots of something and a couple of drums of herb suggests to me is that the Farm’s once innocent marijuana growing operation was handling a lot more marijuana than the 50-70 households in the community were consuming, and seems to have morphed into a distributorship for something besides marijuana. What was in those drums? One source suggests to me that they contained cocaine, which might account for the disorienting roaches the teens occasionally encountered. From what I can find out, when 55-gallon drums are used to transport other drugs, more concentrated and valuable on a per-pound basis than marijuana, the drugs are usually hidden in a drum filled with an innocuous substance. But these drums, in the same small truck as containers full of herb, would have been automatically suspect if the truck was stopped. Were they not concerned about getting stopped? Regardless of their contents, where did these drums come from? Where were they going? Thirty years later, the mystery drums remain a mystery.
Were the drums heavy because they were filled with honey? The Farm’s marijuana growing operations had originally operated under the cover of its bee-keeping crew, since the beekeepers had a legitimate reason to be in remote rural locations, and police were unlikely to search, or even set dogs on, a truck loaded with beehives. Perhaps the heavy drums contained honey, put at the back of a truckload of marijuana to discourage further searching? Perhaps, but why would anybody put a padlock on a drum of honey?
Another question is, how did this activity go on for so long without, apparently, drawing the attention of the authorities? You could say that was because the people involved were very smart and very cautious, which, indeed, they were. But I have to wonder if there was something more to it than that. There was a culture war going on in America in the last two decades of the twentieth century. It was a very dirty war, and the forces of repression, by and large, won it, laying waste to the counterculture. It is all too easy to forget how loose and open things were getting in the 70’s and even into the early 80’s, and how all that vanished under not just drug enforcement, but the assaults of zoning and social service agencies, increased use of psychiatric meds, and increased financial pressure of many kinds. The fact that marijuana survived this assault, and is now on the cusp of widespread legal acceptance, is gratifying, but I know many, many people whose lives were destroyed by this war.
Hippies were supporting themselves and their families and friends by growing/producing and selling “drugs,” generally the more benign ones such as marijuana, mushrooms, LSD, and Ecstasy. The feds broke up most of these families through a simple tactic. Whenever they arrested somebody on drug charges, they would throw the book at him or her, threatening decades or a lifetime in prison–then offer to relent if that person turned in others. Here’s a few examples:
I had a friend in Michigan whose neighbor was a friendly but kind of inept guy. Let’s call him Bob. Bob owned a few acres, enough for his home and a garden spot, and he and his wife were bringing up a family, supported by his work at a local factory. Bob planted marijuana in his garden, just for his personal use, and got busted three times for doing it. The third time, the police told Bob that, since it was a third offense, they were going to seek a long jail sentence for him on the grounds that he was an habitual criminal, and, when Bob went to jail, they would make sure his cellmate was “a mean black dude who will make you his bitch and give you AIDS.” The prosecutor further said that he would confiscate Bob’s house and land, since they had been used in commission of a crime, and move to have his wife declared an unfit mother and his children taken away from her–after all, if she was a fit mother, she would have turned Bob in, right? Or, Bob could give the prosecutor some promising leads, and most of the charges against him would be dropped, and he could keep his house, his family, and his virgin asshole. Faced with such threats, Bob caved in, and turned in my friend and several other local hippies who grew, and sold, marijuana to supplement their legal income, which was not great–they were small farmers, mechanics, and carpenters. Not long after that, Bob’s house caught fire and burned to the ground. My friend, who had a wife and four kids of his own, spent a year in prison. What had once been a neighborhood of friendly, mutually supportive hippies was never the same again, thanks to the drug war.
Similarly, the only two Farm members I know who, independently of what I am calling “the cartel,” had gotten deep into the marijuana business, were both caught when their business partners, who were also their close personal friends, were busted. One was arrested with a suitcase containing about $200,000, the other with 350 pounds of marijuana, and, just for the record, the one of them I spoke with said that the junta operation I have been describing was “much, much larger than mine.” Both were threatened with sexual molestation and long jail sentences unless they gave names. They gave names. I don’t hold that against them, although those they turned in might not be so forgiving. They were subjected to a kind of torture that causes no physical pain and leaves no physical scars–it just destroyed their lives, their friendship networks, and their self-esteem, which was what the government intended. “Under the spreading chestnut tree/I sold you and you sold me,” as George Orwell put it in 1984. Make no mistake about it, the U.S. government did not want no stinking counterculture to get a foothold in this country. In the spirit of Margaret Thatcher, there could be no alternative. In the spirit of the Robert Scheer’s remarks that open this piece, it’s much more effective to assassinate character than it is to assassinate bodies.
So, I have to wonder whether the Farm cartel got through this dirty war purely on their own smarts, or whether there was another factor involved. That other factor could be that they were, in effect, working for the government. There have been numerous, often hotly disputed, claims that the federal government was, and perhaps still is, one of the chief importers of hard drugs into this country, and also dabbles in the marijuana, trade. The money thus raised allegedly supports the “black ops” budget. People who are strung out on heroin or cocaine do not generally make serious trouble for the government, which uses the hard-drug horrors it creates as a cover for its war on psychedelics, which have a tendency to lead their users to “question authority.”
If the reason this smuggling operation was never interrupted is because it was being done by or for the government, I then have to ask: when did this alliance begin? Is it possible that some of those involved in this drug trafficking ring had been working for the government all along? Based on what I myself heard him say, one of the individuals involved was probably the source of the strong negative opinions expressed on Facebook that began this piece. If somebody appears to be following the NSA’s talking points, and then seems to be distributing the government’s drugs, you have to wonder if that person might be working for the government.
Again, I can cite an example of just how long, and deep, government agents can go under cover. Through the eighties and nineties, much of the LSD produced in America came from a group of women chemists in the San Francisco Bay area. These women arranged their production so that nothing that any one of them did was likely to draw the attention of law enforcement. Each woman did one step of the process, and then passed it on to another. All communication was face-to-face. The government spent ten years working an agent into this system. The agent gained the trust of one of the women, who eventually introduced the agent to the rest of the crew, believing the agent to be a trustworthy, long-time friend. The agent bought increasing amounts of the women’s’ production, until s/he was their major customer. Once the government knew everyone who was involved, it sprang the trap. That was in the mid-90’s. Most of the women served ten to twenty years, so I hope they are all free again by now. (This story is based on what I was told by someone who was a friend of a member the group. Sorry, I can’t find a link/reference for it! Much of the tragic story of the war on [some] drugs has not been properly told. Beyond the individual cases I have cited, there is, to cite just one example, the DEA’s campaign of entrapment at Grateful Dead shows, which sent thousands of people to jail on trumped-up felony charges. My oldest son was one of them.)
The Farm was not producing LSD, but we were pulling together a movement that had every intention of subverting the dominant paradigm, and was solidly enough grounded to give it some chance of success. I think it’s entirely possible that the government thought we were worth sending one or more agents in on deep cover, and that they might have found a certain ironic joy in using the formerly “no laboratory-made drugs” Farm as a hard drug warehouse. After all, the DEA’s internal newspaper is called “The Microgram.” (Look it up yourself. I’m not going to grace them, or tip them off, with a link. I’m sure they can find, and probably have found, me just fine all by themselves.)
For further re-enforcement of this possibility, we can look at the relationship between one of the likely cartel leaders and another individual on The Farm–the lawyer who had not joined the plot to overthrow the old regime. He was doing his best to keep the community’s tradition of fighting for truth and justice alive by, among other things, suing the government over its treatment of radiation-exposed veterans and helping prevent deployment of the MX missile.
One of the cases he was working on was local–Stauffer Chemical company had a phosphate refining plant in nearby Mt. Pleasant, and was disposing of their waste products by injecting them into the deep water table, even though there was no guarantee they would stay there, and not irreversibly contaminate the aquifer that supplied Mt. Pleasant–and The Farm–with drinking water. Even though he received death threats over this lawsuit, he persevered until he won it and stopped deep well injection. The “cartel leader” directly threatened this lawyer with dire consequences if he did not stop pursuing the Stauffer lawsuit, alleging that he, too, was being threatened on account of it. The lawyer declined to knuckle under. The “cartel leader” did not make good on his physical threats, but he did complain to the boards of directors of the community and of the charitable organization that was fronting out the lawyer’s work under its 501c3, and kept up this campaign long after the Stauffer case had been settled.
Why did shutting down the public interest lawyer matter so much to this individual? There was never even an attempt to make good on the threats, and the cartel leader’s public persona was that he wasn’t afraid of anyone or anything. The lawyer was defending the cartel leader’s drinking water, as well. If he was merely running a smuggling ring, he might have been concerned that the lawyer’s work would bring undue attention to The Farm and to his own illegal activities. The cartel boss also worked behind the scenes to oppose and ultimately shut down a public rock music festival that was held on The Farm for several years in the late nineties, obviously because he didn’t want the community to become known for recreational drug use. Here we once again see what could be “plausible deniability.” He could have been acting out of pure self-interest–or he could have been fabricating the story about being threatened and carrying a message from his bosses.
6.THE END OF ORGANIZED RESISTANCE
Those of us who objected to the new order did more than engage in the losing battle of the community’s electoral politics. Just as most Farm residents used their new freedom to return to a more mainstream way of life, we felt freed to create a counterculture. We got together to listen to and discuss talks by spiritual teachers of various persuasions–Native American, Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, and appreciated the way their words encouraged us to work on ourselves. We gathered to drum on the night of the full moon. Even though Stephen had quit showing up on Sunday mornings, some of us kept a meditative presence going. Another of our number had connections with the Lakota Sioux, and brought in Native Americans to introduce us to the sweat lodge, which we adopted and adapted, holding monthly ceremonies in conjunction with the new moon. We always made it clear that everybody on The Farm was welcome at these events, hoping that getting into the open-minded states created by drumming and sweating would promote brotherhood, sisterhood, and dialogue in the community. No adults from “the other side” ever attended these events, but many of their teenage children did, creating the charge, old as Socrates, that we were “corrupting the youth.” “Teenage boys and girls naked together, oh no, oh no!” The teens, more understanding than their parents thought they were, respected the sacred space, and no inappropriate behavior ever occurred there. Meanwhile, many of those who were expressing concern were having parties where they reportedly played spin the bottle and “seven minutes in heaven.” I don’t care if that’s what consenting adults want to do. It could even be fun with the right people. I’m just mentioning it to put their concerns about what their kids were up to in some kind of perspective.
Less controversially, some of us brought in teachers to hold workshops on group process, communications skills, and coming to consensus, and made it clear that the entire community was invited to participate, but, again, only people from “our side” showed up. I think the message that this absence conveyed is pretty clear: “We’re running things. If you don’t like it, go someplace else.”
Stephen and his family were not very active in our efforts, apart from joining “The Second Foundation,” a followup 501d organization that attempted, with some success, to build on what we had learned from “The Foundation,” as we had called our initial “religious and apostolic” organization. Although, shortly after “the changeover,” he had said he felt “as if I’d been dragged down the main road by the heels behind a jeep,” ( a Mussolini reference, oddly enough) he remained muted in his criticisms of the new system, saying that, in the new regime, more community members would do the opposite of what he said than do what he said. I think he also found himself in the position of being supported by his spouse, whose ability to earn money on The Farm as a midwife depended on maintaining good relations with the existing government. (later addition: In a confrontation at the time of the changeover, Stephen was told by the organizer of the cocktail parties that “If you try and fight us on this, we will bury you in court.” Stephen must have known what cards the man was holding, because he backed down. So far, I have been unable to find anyone who can authoritatively tell me what made Stephen back down.)
In spite of our efforts to keep each others’ spirits up, our base continued to shrink. We could tell that we were losing. We had known all along that we were not going to win. We just didn’t want to go down without a fight. In my own life, it became obvious that the orchards I was tending were not going to provide a living for me and my family, and that financial stress, along with other, more personal stress, caused my wife and I to separate. She left the community but stayed nearby, with friends who had already despaired of the struggle on The Farm and bought land of their own. Our two oldest sons and their partners continued to live in our family’s home, as did I. One son was defiant, the other willing to play along. The older one, who was willing to play along, applied for formal membership in the community he had been part of since his mother brought him to Tennessee at the age of three months. He had a steady job and was making good money, but he was not voted in. “He’ll thank us for this later,” one person who apparently voted against his membership told me. His rejection has always seemed especially ironic, for two reasons. The first is that many of the Farm members who declined to accept him hadn’t lived there as long as he had. The second is that when, a few years later, he was dying of colon and lung cancer that he may have contracted as a result of exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls in electrical equipment that one of the aforementioned alpha males had left lying around in a very public place in the community, he asked to be, and was, buried in The Farm’s cemetery. That was OK with the powers that be. Dead men tell no tales and make no trouble.
At this point, his bout with cancer was still a few years ahead of him, and he moved off The Farm into a more hassle-free environment. My second son bought land near The Farm, adjoining the new homes of my estranged wife and other friends, forming their own de-facto community. He and his family moved there as soon as he could finish a house to live in. I grew tired of the losing struggle and moved to Vermont where, when I told people I was “from The Farm,” they looked at my quizzically and asked, “which one?” Everybody who remained on The Farm was more or less reconciled to the new order. The junta’s victory was complete.
The membership of that oligarchy was deliberately kept vague. If the overlords didn’t approve of something, a messenger arrived, bearing word that “some people” didn’t like your sweat lodge or your Rainbow Tribe guests or whatever else threatened their sense of security. There was no point in discussing the issue with the messenger, who was merely a messenger, for persons whose identity was never divulged. Or maybe, when you weren’t there to witness or stop them, “some people” just tore down the shrine or sweat lodge you had spent hours erecting at some isolated spot in the forest. What a wonderful, liberating change this was from the days when Stephen (or whoever) would get “up in your thing” because he felt like your attitude or behavior was interfering with your enlightenment! On “the Old Farm,” you knew who was talking to you and what the point was. On “the New Farm,” anonymity and self-interest reigned.
Here’s an example. By the early 90’s, I had begun attending Rainbow Gatherings and Grateful Dead concerts, in part to enjoy the ambience of not being the only “far out hippie” around, and, in fact, being one of the less flamboyantly far-out hippies at the party. A guy I had met at a Rainbow Gathering and spent some time with called me up and asked if he and the 5-6 people he was travelling with, including a couple of nursing mothers, could spend the night at my place. With the worst late Winter snowstorm in years bearing down on us, I said yes.
After helping my guests get settled, I walked out to the driveway, where I saw a compact figure standing in the dark. It was somebody I hadn’t seen much of in quite a while, as our on-Farm political differences had swept us apart. I asked her what brought her to my home on this stormy night. “Your guests,” she firmly told me. “This is not a motel. They have to leave. Tell them to go to Lawrenceburg and get a motel room.” I informed her in no uncertain terms that my guests were my guests, and none of her business. She grumped, but left, and I never heard anything more about it. I have often wondered how she came to be the one delivering this message, since she had no connection I knew of to “The Gate Crew,” the community’s security division. In over twenty years, I have yet to find a chance to ask her. Life sweeps people apart sometimes.
What The Farm underwent was a form of “ethnic cleansing.” It had been home to a unique culture, spawned by its economic, social, and spiritual conditions. Those of us who nurtured it saw as the hope of the world, the seed pearl of a new paradigm of human existence. During the 1980’s and early 90’s, that culture was relentlessly stamped out. Once it seemed gone, things relaxed a bit. (Getting out from under the debts we had been paying off didn’t hurt, either!) The cartel seems to have slowly faded away. Many of the kids who survived the purge of uppity young people are now in their 40’s, and have assumed leadership positions in the community. New members have arrived, inspired by knowledge of what the community once was and what it could yet be. The amount residents pay as community dues has become more flexible, and debtors are no longer disenfranchised. As I mentioned, a modified form of the old Farm’s economic system, which calls itself “The Second Foundation” still exists, but without Mr. Gaskin’s messianic fervor. A mutated, and muted, form of the old culture has, like the grass, pushed through, and is enlarging, the cracks in the concrete that was meant to bury it forever.
On the rare occasions when I visit The Farm these days, I see more unfamiliar faces than familiar ones. Many of the people I was close with left in the ethnic cleansing, and the members who did the cleansing tend to keep their distance. For some years, I tried for rapprochement with them, seeking to focus on what we had in common rather than what had separated us, but felt subtly and consistently rejected. I have done my best to move on. But a voice still nags at me, saying that violence was done to a creative project that embodied the highest ideals of my generation, and we were made to believe that it was entirely due to our own shortcomings and the foolishness of our ideals. In retrospect, and with what I now know, it seems as if that failure may well have been abetted by people who were agents of a government that was deeply threatened by our efforts.
7. TELL ‘EM WHAT YOU TOLD ‘EM (this title and the next four paragraphs were added in December of 2015)
I doubt if we will ever know the full truth, but, if The Farm was brought down with help from undercover government infiltrators, here’s how I think it worked. There were probably four active agents. One became one of Stephen’s trusted advisers, and used this trust to separate Stephen from what was really happening on The Farm and push him to take extreme positions that would alienate community members and create division and dissension. Two others insinuated themselves into the community’s government. One of these individuals became a central part of the community’s governance, and then pushed the “cocktail party movement” that gathered and organized dissatisfied community members under the aegis of “saving The Farm.” The other agent who was involved with finances dealt with day-to-day financial issues, using that position to foment dissatisfaction with the community’s financial state while quietly pushing measures that made life more onerous for community members than it might otherwise have been. For example, I think these two collaborated to push the community into unsustainable levels of debt, and may have been the source of the demoralizing nationalization of “Saturday money” that I mentioned in part one of this series. Running up large debts, and then insisting that austerity be imposed to repay them, is a classic neoliberal tactic for bringing small, but uppity socialist countries to heel–and we half joked on The Farm that we had done all we could to secede from the United States without provoking an armed response from the government. The fourth agent was the only one who was openly oppositional and defiant, working to polarize the community by stirring up resentment towards community members who worked on The Farm among those who worked off The Farm earning money to support it. The essential tactic used by all four was to appear to be zealous true believers in the cause, all the while pushing the stated beliefs of the community past the point of reason and compassion, and their talk and behavior seems to come right out of the NSA’s playbook. It appears to me that they walk like ducks, people. It appears to me that they talk like ducks. Maybe it’s coincidence, but I don’t think it’s my imagination.
I think it’s important to recall that The Farm had already weathered one financial crisis, known as “wheat berry winter” because we subsisted largely on the soy beans, kale, sweet potatoes, and wheat that we had grown, cooking the wheat berries like rice. (They’re pretty chewy!) That was a difficult time for the community, and, while some people left, the people who stayed were the ones who were willing to endure privation in order to follow their vision of a sane and peaceful community. Ten years later, in 1983, who got to stay was determined not by who was committed to the vision, but by who had a job that would pay when the community was privatized. The two are as different as night and day–or revolution and counter-revolution.
If I am somehow proven wrong, do I owe these individuals an apology for suspecting them of such gross betrayal of the community to which we pledged “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor”? I don’t think so. Even if they were acting completely on their own, their attitudes and actions destroyed a unique experiment that cannot possibly be recreated. Mao and his followers endured incredible hardship to create the Chinese revolution. Our revolution dissipated because some among us just couldn’t stand outhouses, a simple diet, communal households, shabby shoes, and the scarcity of underwear.
But I don’t think they were acting on their own. On those occasions when the veil of secrecy has been ripped aside, we have repeatedly discovered that our government will go to great lengths to cripple any possible opposition. In recent years, agents have posed as zealous activists to entrap American Muslim men and radical environmentalists as “terrorists,” and used similar tactics to destroy the American Indian Movement and the Black Panthers in the 1970’s. Why wouldn’t they have done the same to us?Their operatives are very good at what they do, so skilled at making murder look like suicide that even their victims believe they’re pulling the trigger themselves, of their own free will. (note: the link for “good” refers to an incident in England, but I think it’s reasonable to presume that American undercover agents have done similar things.)
At this point, I can do no better than to repeat, slightly edited, the concluding paragraphs of the first version of this story:
As our world becomes dirtier, more crowded, more dangerous, and more precarious, it is ever more obvious to me that The Farm, and the hippie movement in general, was a potentially viable attempt to create a society that addresses all the problems that threaten to undo us in the 21st century. This is not to say that The Farm was some kind of utopia; it was not. It was very much a work in progress. Stephen, despite his aspirations and ours, was, while wise and visionary, not an omniscient, perfect guru. The debate within the Farm over whether to take care of the existing community first, or go out and raise hell and recruit more people, was a legitimate one, with a lot of valid arguments both ways. If our debt to Vanderbilt Hospital and the FDIC had not been used to impose austerity and privatization on the community, we might have had the time and energy to resolve these challenges in a way that left us strong and communal. Did the financial straight jacket these two institutions put us in “just happen,” or was it orchestrated? All of our allies were hacked and whacked by undercover government operatives. Did we really shoot ourselves in the foot, or is that just what we’re supposed to believe?
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and we, the people of the world, chose, or have been manipulated to choose, the ecocidal high road of materialism, greed, growth, and wealth for the few over the sustainable low road of community, simplicity, spiritual values, and sharing. I can only pray that it is not too late for us to find a way to return to the right path.
On The Farm, we pioneered a kind of precursor of “post-collapse lifestyle,” both materially and spiritually/attitudinally. It looks to me like our country, and the whole world, is heading down from the peak of material abundance into a time of scarcity and making do, a time when compassion and the ability to willingly and cheerfully share and do without will become much more important to the survival of the human race. If the only conclusion to be drawn from the old Farm’s collapse is “even a self-selected volunteer group of Americans can’t live simply and collectively,” then most Americans will prove to be psychologically unable to live in real community or even radically simplify their lives and material desires. That, I think, would make our future very, very bleak. “Mad Max,” anyone?
If, on the other hand, our experiment didn’t work out because forces hostile to it infiltrated and disrupted it, perhaps there is hope for humanity, even with the knowledge that those who control our society are terribly threatened by efforts to create an egalitarian alternative. I would vastly prefer to feel that there is hope for us. Stephen used to say something like, “It may seem grandiose to the point of insanity, but I believe the fate of the world hinges on how well we do our thing here on The Farm.” As the decades pass and the shape of the future becomes more and more apparent, I think he got that right.