Wednesday, May 6, 2009
When is a Fight Worth Fighting?
The US Congress is looking to deal a crippling blow to Native tobacco retailers; in particular those retailers who sell tobacco and use the US mail for delivery. Under the guise of "saving the children", the Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking (PACT) Act specifically moves to make tobacco non-mailable. Claims that tens of thousands of children order cigarettes through the mail have fanned the flames of this legislation that targets Native retailers almost exclusively. Much of the momentum that this measure enjoys is due, in no small part, to the fact that it appears that no resistance is being offered up by Native people.
The Seneca Nation is home to the largest number of mail order tobacco shops. It is estimated that 80% of their retail tobacco sales are delivered by mail. The Seneca Nation which has adopted the most strict and heavy handed stamping/tax/pricing/inspection scheme of the Nations involved in the business (complete with tobacco police with badges and uniforms) generated over $30,000,000 in 2008 from the individual retailers. 80% of that will disappear with the death of the mail order retailers. The 19 wholesaler/stamping agents of the Seneca Nation will likely reduce to three. All of the brands manufactured in Seneca territory will fail and with big tobacco throwing Native retailers under the bus, a reliable source of product for the brick and mortar stores will be almost impossible to come by. The Native private sector tobacco business represents the largest employer in Western New York and contributes more to the Native and surrounding economy than any other industry, including gaming. This will change when 80% of it goes away.
You would expect both the individual Native tobacco businesses and the Seneca Nation (that has learned so much from the State about how to fleece them) to launch a full scale media and lobbying effort to debunk all the misinformation used to push this act and defend their businesses. But you would be wrong. The Seneca Nation Senior Policy Advisor and Legal Counsel, Rob Porter, believes this fight is not worth fighting. As such he has discouraged the Nation's involvement in any attempts to resist or even speak out against the PACT Act. He has also criticized the handful of retailers that have been trying to put a program together to fight the act, calling it "foolish and wasteful" and referring to their legal counsel as a "white lawyer" "selling snake oil". Although Mr. Porter is advising no action regarding the PACT Act he has expressed his very deep concern that non-compliance by the retailers to the tobacco laws he wrote might "affect... the business supply lines." Thus he is calling for "Vigorous Nation enforcement" by their tobacco police to protect the Nation and specifically "cutting off supply to illegally operating retailers/stamping agents."
So to make this clear, Porter is recommending no action against the federal legislation that is about to destroy the Seneca Nation's private sector economy, but is calling for "Vigorous Nation enforcement" against their own people instead. The ridiculousness of Rob Porter's advice seems almost unworthy of comment. The fact that there will be little left to fleece seems to have completely eluded him.
What Rob and all those retailers on the sidelines who hope someone else will save the day for them or just figure the fight is not worth fighting don't realize is that win or lose we still have got to be heard. To go down without a fight is just plain giving up. To not even speak up, lets those who continue to stomp on any success we have, do it guilt free. We have to shame them. We have to call out their lies, expose their bullshit stats and call them for what they are. When anti-Indian legislation is proposed, we have to expose it for what it is. We can't let them try to claim it is for the children or for fire safety or to prevent terrorism. If we quietly throw the towel in then it looks like we were wrong all along. If we refuse to shame those who work against us then shame on those who just sat by and watched. When our kids and grand kids ask us why we let this one go without a fight, what will be the answer? For Rob Porter, your success is the private sector's failure so let's hope you fail or pay dearly for your success.
What gets lost in all this is that we can fight this and the reality is that we have pushed back and won before. There are several hundred legislators in Washington that have no idea who we are or what we do. It is our job to make them see us and hold them accountable for their actions. I do believe there are plenty of them that wish we would just disappear, but we only need to arm a few of them to oppose legislation aimed at our destruction. The Seneca people must lead this charge not just because it is winnable, but because it is a fight worth fighting. Who knows you might even win your Nation back.