Power to the People

The words Pray and Obey on a chimney at the former home of Warren Jeffs in Hildale, Wednesday April 5, 2017. (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

For years, Hildale, Utah, was controlled by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and more specifically, by Warren Jeffs; under his watch, every element of civic and social life was dictated by the church, and powerful church families controlled the lion’s share of wealth, creating a steep economic divide. Jeffs is now in prison and Hildale is trying to redefine itself — last year it elected a secular mayor, a woman — but as Tarpley Hitt explains in her story for The Daily Beast, “redefining” is about a lot more than transferring government power back to the actual government.

For the new government, bridging that divide is a top priority. In a sense, they have a head start (most of their 1 percent is now incarcerated). But inequality in Hildale is not like inequality anywhere else in the United States, where disparity usually stems from an unbalanced capitalist system. For decades, Short Creek operated as a quasi-communist state. The original settlers wanted to establish a radical kind of cooperative society that adhered to the New Testament value of holding “all things in common.” They pooled all their resources in a collective trust, and for decades—the vast majority of Short Creek’s existence—everything in the town was shared: from homes, to food, to health care.

After Jeffs and his father, the communal trust crumpled. When the federal government seized all the town’s assets in 2005, it was valued at a staggering $110 million, much of which had been leached from apostates and less powerful families. Not long later, the feds ordered the town to subdivide, and in the years since, Hildale has been gradually—and painfully, for many townspeople—divvying up the land, establishing private property for the first time in history.

The new council has been tasked with overseeing the town’s transition to an entirely new economic system. But they’re trying to do that while nursing the wounds Warren left behind—in a deeply divided constituency, where the act of drawing lines in the sand (sometimes literally: the council had to draft zoning laws) runs the risk of driving people even further apart.

Read the story