Sunday, May 04, 2008

This land is your land

The Sacramento Bee carried an unusual story on its cover page a couple of days ago - it was about the murder of Michael Wentworth, aka Michael Tinius, a free-roaming spirit, aka homeless man. Tinius lived on the American River Parkway, a 23-mile long sliver of protected riparian habitat and recreational corridor that traverses the city of Sacramento. He refused to call himself homeless, calling the Parkway his home.

Tinius is reported to have two passions - his dog 'Boy' and the US Constitution. He carried a weathered copy of the Constitution in his pocket, and often furnished it as an argument against receiving citations for illegal camping.
"I am not illegally camping," he would say. "That is a public place, and I am part of the public, and it is my constitutional right to be there."
The story of Tinius highlights two peculiar phenomenon in American culture. One is that of the frequent occurence of the Constitution in public discourse and in the lives of everyday Americans. It never fails to impress me how often citizens and media evoke the Constitution on a wide range of topics from gun control to Guantanamo to gay rights. Widespread familiarity with the constitution has an extreme political manifestation in the form of constitutional conservatives, represented by institutions like the Madison Forum, who cling to the words of the Constitution as dearly as the evangelical right clings on to the words of the bible. They stand out as the loony streak in the Republican and Libertarian political establishments, and have been much reviled during the presidential campaign of Ron Paul. Some of the criticism is well-deserved, as you will realize when you see this video of a couple of constitutional conservatives accusing their local police of treason for entering their property.

The other cultural strand is that of the hobo, the much-celebrated free-ranging individual, glorified in popular culture through books like Jack Kerouac's Lonesome Traveller and the music of Woody Guthrie. Strictly speaking, the hobo is defined as an individual who hitchhikes on freight trains and travels widely in search of temporary work, but Tinius and his friends on the American River Parkway do share at least some characteristics with hobos (interesting note on the difference between 'hobo' and 'tramp' is here).

My daily commute on the light rail takes me through the Parkway, and many of my fellow travellers are Parkway-dwellers on their way to or from Loaves & Fishes, a food and shelter charity. Apart from some occasional chutiya characters, I find most of these hobos/tramps to be peaceful, friendly, well-informed and well-travelled individuals. I have had many an engaging conversation with them, and possibly shared a ride, if not a seat, with Tinius at some point.

To sign off, here is a video of This Land is Your Land by Woodie Guthrie, one of the finest celebrations of the roaming lifestyle (thanks to Chandra for reintroducing me to Guthrie and America). Lyrics follow (video does not include all stanzas). Note my emphasis on the last stanza. These are the lines I immediately thought of when I read about Tinius' insistence on the legitimacy of his condition. This song is for you, Michael Tinius!

Click here if video doesnt display in Firefox.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me

I've roamed and rambled and I've followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me

When the sun comes shining then I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting
This land was made for you and me

As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!

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