The entire country and a large part of the world have by now caught wind of the drama unfolding in the sparsely populated Harney County in rural Oregon. Since last Saturday, January 2, a group of armed white “patriots” who call themselves the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom has been occupying buildings on federal land in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Ammon Bundy, Nevada rancher and apparent leader of the estimated 30-person occupation, has stated that although they do not want a violent confrontation, they are armed and ready to face officials. Bundy and his brothers are joined by the Three Percenters of Idaho and Oregon and the Pacific Patriot Network, composed of groups scattered across Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and California.
On Wednesday, they stated they would leave under certain conditions, including the release of Dwight and Steven Hammond as well as the dispersal of an undetermined amount of land now administered by the federal government into private hands. The Hammonds, a wealthy landowning family, were indicted in 2010 under the Federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act for setting fires that encroached on federal territory. Dwight and Steven were both found guilty of arson and sentenced to 3 months and 1 year, respectively. After an appeal, the Hammonds were sentenced to instead serve the mandatory five-year minimum. On Monday, they surrendered themselves to a federal correctional facility in California.
A lot has been said about the Oregon standoff. A few points are worth discussing here.
First, there’s the stark contrast–pointed out even by New York Times–between how authorities are handling Bundy and his crowd and the way the armed forces of the state have always dealt with subversive and radical elements. Not surprisingly, the billionaires’ press club does little to explain why that is. In a past article , we argued that the armed forces of the State are the enemies of the working class and their primary role is to protect capitalism from the “dangerous classes” by breaking up strikes and demonstrations, arresting and killing political “deviants,” and especially targeting radicals, Blacks, immigrants, LGBT people, and the poor.
In recent times, we’ve seen plenty evidence of trigger-happy policing along with the government going all-out to smash protests. In early December, activists in Minneapolis formed a peaceful encampment outside the 4th precinct to protest the murder of Jamar Clark by the cops. A few days later, they were attacked by local police, held at gunpoint, and beaten up. Protesters held fast to the occupation, but after a few weeks it was forcibly cleared by local police.
During Occupy Wall Street, folks camped at Zuccotti Park in NYC through sleet and snow, setting up a communal kitchen and holding nightly general assemblies open to all. This was reproduced all across the country. What happened to these encampments? They were ruthlessly cleared by local pigs. In New York City and Oakland, homeless youth and elderly living on the square as well as students and activists were beaten and badly injured in the process.
So what’s the government’s response to the vigilante gunmen holding public lands hostage? Cutting off their cable. Not today, not tomorrow, but Monday.
The government plans to “cut the power to the building where the militiamen are spending their nights.” One official was quoted saying, “After they shut off the power, they’ll kill the phone service. Then they’ll block all the roads so that all those guys have a long, lonely winter to think about what they’ve done.” On Thursday, Harney County Sheriff David Ward met with Ammon Bundy in person to ask him to “peacefully leave.” Bundy refused, the chat ended in a handshake, and both men walked away.
Where did this patience come from? What of the police’s proud legacy of bloodletting and repression? First, it goes without saying that these guys–white, male, some from prominent landowning families–look, talk, and sometimes think a lot like the local authorities, law enforcement in particular. This explains some of the kid-glove treatment that Bundy and others like him have gotten, with handshakes, man-to-man talks and the like. In addition to this undeniable dynamic underpinned by racism and chauvinism, the fact is: if you look into the politics and social base of these armed groups, they present no real threat to the powers that be.
What are their aims? Whom do they represent?
The people living in Harney County, Oregon are working class, mostly white and Native American, with over 18 percent living below the line of poverty. In no way do this self-important armed group represent the majority of the people, who are neither landowners nor bosses. In no way do the rag-tag groupings aligned with the Patriot movement propose a radical change to the currently existing social order that would mean better conditions for the oppressed and working class.
What about their claims of being at the service of the people, to “stand up for those who can’t fight for themselves”?
Right-wing extremist Jon Ritzheimer of Arizona was one of the men who joined the occupation. In a video he recorded before Saturday, he said, “Out here in Harney County, Oregon–this used to be one of the most thriving economies. What’s happened? The federal government, an oppressing force, comes in.” This rhetoric is punctuated with grandiose statements like, “I am 100% willing to lay my life down to fight against tyranny in this country.” Echoing the cheap populism of Ammon Bundy and other voices of the Patriot movement, Ritzheimer plays on the general economic stagnation and material hardship faced by many Americans–of course, low-wage workers, but also those who once made up the “middle class,” now forced to take on more work, more debt, and dig deeper into their pockets to make ends meet. Actually, Ritzheimer made his debut in social media with videos of himself spewing anti-Muslim slogans (“Fuck Islam” and “Islam is a tyrannical ideology”) and broadcasting videotaped threats to Muslims flashing a gun in hand.
The overall political vision, of course, is far from progressive. These men seek to expand the privileges of a landowning elite by shaking off the nuisance of environmental protections and federal taxes for their own benefit.
It’s clear that when Ammon Bundy’s father, Cliven says, “It’s our first amendment right to peaceful assembly and protest,” he isn’t defending the rights of black youth who are protesting racist police brutality and systemic oppression. It’s also clear that when the militiamen demand that the government return the land to the rightful owners –“the people who are more in tune with the ground and the earth,” they aren’t lending support to the sovereign Native nations, specifically the Paiute Indians who have fought hard to maintain rights to their sacred land in Harney County, which the gunmen are occupying now.
The Oath Keepers: White Allies?
The Oath Keepers, another armed patriot extremist group, had many people scratching their heads when they presented themselves in full armor and self-importance during last August’s one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder by police. They prattled on about “protecting property and people,” shown on TV marching in step with Ferguson protesters, who didn’t seem to mind their presence. But are the Oath Keepers an armed contingent in alliance with the movement against police brutality?
The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the Oath Keepers as an outgrowth of the “antigovernment ‘Patriot’ movement that took root during the Tea Party movement in 2009. Their sister organization, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, actually recruits country sheriffs and cops around a common enemy, the “tyrannical” federal government. These vigilante groups promote and train for armed resistance against federal agencies, like the Bureau of Land Management (as in the spectacle currently unfolding in Oregon), the Environmental Protection Agency, and the FDA, but their top priority is squashing gun control measures. One can’t help but notice parallels with the KKK, which has always boasted law enforcement officers among its ranks. These guys are not benevolent white allies with guns coming to defend the rights of peaceful protesters.
A useful nuisance
On the one hand, this drama proves to be absolutely useful to the political establishment, reinforcing the need for the State to impose order by any means necessary. Also, conveniently, the Patriot movement’s ultra-religious, unrefined rhetoric make Wall Street bankers look pretty good and provides a foil for the Democratic Party. Maybe, it can be argued, the continuation of the legal system of class exploitation and private robbery of public wealth through massive austerity, subcontracting, and privatization isn’t so bad when compared to a “new order” championed by these wackos.
These antics end up filling the arsenal of the preachers of Law and Order who by contrast, call for peace on “rational” capitalist terms. Case in point: a New York Times editorial published on January 7 chides the wayward militiamen, who have apparently lost faith in a fail-proof system: “The way to have this argument is through peaceful means…Every day, citizens around the country sue or otherwise challenge the government over alleged violations of the law or the Constitution, and they do it without a rifle in their hand…America would no longer be a nation governed by the rule of law. Their grievances, like everyone else’s, can be addressed. But not before they put down the guns.”
The idea is that much like the free markets that can do no wrong when left alone, the State’s legal and administrative processes will work out the best solution when one follows the right steps and waits patiently. These bourgeois pacifists serve a special function within the context of capitalism. With their flowery words of peace and rule of law, they call for complete faith in the prosecutors, law enforcement, and courts that sheltered 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s killers from indictment; the same system that keeps over 2.2 million people–disproportionately black, brown, immigrant, and poor–locked away and forced to work in slave-like conditions.
To varying degrees, our lives as workers and oppressed people are never free of everyday violence and precarity, much less from unpredictable attacks by right-wing extremists. The solution is not to turn to half-measures to control the sale of arms, or to amp-up the State’s already-almost complete monopoly on violence. Nor can we afford to harbor any illusions about “progressive possibilities” of these disparate militia groups, unmistakably conservative in their aims and reactionary and racist in nature.
* This article was corrected on January 27, 2015 for accuracy regarding the SLPC description of the Oath Keepers.