Wednesday, March 3, 2021
March 3, 2021

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Jayne: Oregon town symbol of times

By , Columbian Opinion Editor

It is, possibly, the perfect metaphor for our times.

It involves voters’ reluctance to pay for services. Legal and illegal drugs. Demonization of “others.” Crime. Profiling. And a sense that any Joe off the streets can do the job of professionals.

In short, it involves the destruction of norms and our willingness to undermine the foundations of society.

That might be an overstatement. But the situation in Cave Junction, Ore., seems to encapsulate many of the things that are chipping away at the social construct that long has provided stability throughout the United States.

We’ll start at the end: In Cave Junction, a town of about 2,000 people in Southern Oregon, the city council has agreed to try a new experiment in policing. Cave Junction does not have a police force, and the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office that protects the town has been decimated over the years by budget cuts. According to media reports, a call to 911 at night can result in a 45-minute wait for help to arrive.

That being an untenable situation, the city council has voted unanimously to install security cameras on lampposts in the town and have a volunteer citizen patrol monitor those cameras. The group already conducts regular nighttime patrols in the town.

And that is where it gets interesting. Rebecca Patton, Cave Junction’s city recorder, told Jefferson Public Radio that the volunteers can identify “hardcore criminals” just by looking at them.

“They can identify them by the way that they dress, because they have a certain apparel that they wear all the time, or the way they walk,” she told the station. “Sometimes they carry things all the time, it could be something as simple as a skateboard. They have learned how to identify these people very, very quickly, then they know how to respond.”

That is a remarkable trick. And the guess is that some big-city police departments would be eager to hire volunteers who can identify hardened criminals just by looking at them. America has not had anybody with that kind of prescience since Bull Connor was controlling the streets of Birmingham. And at least Cave Junction might soon be rid of the scourge of people carrying skateboards.

The volunteers have not received formal training or undergone background checks, but Patton said she might introduce checks before granting access to security footage. Phew, that’s reassuring. And still the Oregon Justice Resource Center earned a gold star for snark by writing on Twitter, “Civil rights violation incoming in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …”

Which brings us to the beginning of the tale. Josephine County, where Grants Pass is the county seat and the entire population is about 87,000, was once a stable timber- and gold-mining area. But a decline in the timber industry, largely precipitated by federal policy, has hampered the county in recent decades. In 2018, the county received about $1 million from the federal government under the Secure Rural Schools program to mitigate a decline in the timber industry.

Times are tough, and because of that residents have repeatedly voted to reject funding for essential services. You know, like law enforcement.

Crime has increased, and the region’s burgeoning legal marijuana growing industry — combined with an illegal methamphetamine trade — has exacerbated the situation. A 2016 report from Medford’s KTVL described the city as “a town known for vandalism and break-ins with little police presence.” Fortunately, the criminals have a certain apparel they wear all the time.

All of this could describe many rural towns, the places where a struggling economy has combined with an anti-tax and anti-government ethos that moves us closer to anarchy. One solution would be for the good people of Josephine County to actually fund their sheriff’s office. But apparently that is not as appealing as allowing anybody with the proper amount of self-righteousness to handle the job.

So, in many ways, Cave Junction has become a metaphor for the current state of America.


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