A group of armed men are holed up today in the tiny headquarters of the Malheur Federal Wildlife Refuge in rural Oregon, camping with their food and guns in a handful of government buildings.
They are right-wing militiamen from across the country. They say they stand for liberty, property rights, and the state of Oregon, and that they are protesting against the mighty injustice that has been done to the Hammonds, a father, Dwight, and his son, Steven: ranchers who face a five-year sentence for setting illegal fires on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. In their eyes, the militiamen have occupied buildings that are the seat of illegal federal domination of area ranchers.
The Hammonds were arrested and jailed in 2011 for two arsons, in 2001 and 2006, which burned dozens of acres of federal land. The Hammonds say the fires were range management burns started on their own property, and though they were convicted, the judge in the case sentenced the elderly Dwight to three months in prison, and sent Steven to jail for a year and a day — terms far shorter than the federally mandated sentence of five years, as specified in the 1996 Federal Antiterrorism Effective Death Penalty Act. The federal government appealed the decision, and the Ninth Circuit Court upheld the mandated five-year sentence.
The Hammonds — due to enter prison today — have disavowed the militiamen, who are led by Ammon Bundy and his two brothers. The Bundy brothers are the sons of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who held his own standoff with the BLM in 2014 in protest of grazing fees for cattle. When BLM rangers tried to confiscate five hundred cattle they said were grazing illegally on public land, Bundy sought justice outside the courts, calling over fifty supporters, many armed, to defend them.
The standoff was reported widely and received support from Fox News and numerous politicians, including Rand Paul. Although the Hammond case and the Bundy standoff happened in different states, their grievances reside in a wider context of landowner dissatisfaction with federal land management. They adhere to an idiosyncratic legal interpretation of federal law which claims that individual states and their citizens hold rightful title to public lands, not the government.
For many supporters the cause of the Hammonds’ freedom represents a specific struggle — decades of rancher dissatisfaction with government — but the Bundy brothers claim to be equal opportunity patriots and present the occupation as a casus belli for right-wing radicals of many stripes.
The interpretation of the US Constitution and the armed strategy favored by the gunmen are both rooted in racist Christian militias like the 1970s Posse Comitatus, and the armed force that Ammon Bundy and his brothers have summoned through social media are likely riddled with white supremacists. The movement the Bundys claim to represent is suffused with racism, and while Ammon sounded somewhat bewildered during an early morning CNN interview, the militia members standing alongside him have links to known hate groups.
Ammon’s father, Cliven, shared his views on black people at a press conference during the 2014 Nevada standoff:
They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.
On Twitter, Ammon shows his hand a bit more subtly; an account purporting to be Ammon has claimed the militiamen’s “peaceful protest” is morally superior to that of Black Lives Matter because it has disrupted no private property or commerce. By triggering a week-long school closure, it appears to have disrupted both.
But there is no doubt that these militiamen have the nation’s attention. The response from many progressives has been loud: clamoring for the world to call the Oregon gunmen terrorists. And while that term is a fraught one, it is essential for us to raise our voices, contrasting how the state and media treat these gunmen with how they treat the black women, children, and men gunned down by police, or the protesters that fight against police violence. Similarly, rebuking media who call the Oregon gunmen “protesters” offers an important corrective to widespread Islamophobia in the press.
But what we must not do is call for the police to move in with the tear gas and rubber bullets of Ferguson and Baltimore, or the live rounds of MOVE or Wounded Knee, because equal injustice is not justice done.
It’s no surprise that liberals are invoking state action, calling the gunmen seditious, traitors, implying their support of a violent government response. Esquire’s Charles Pierce writes:
This is an act of armed sedition against lawful authority. That is all that it is, and that is quite enough. This is not “an expression of anti-government sentiment . . . These are men with guns who have declared themselves outside the law. These are men with guns who have taken something that belongs to all of us. These are traitors and thieves who got away with this dangerous nonsense once, and have been encouraged to get away with it again.
The improbable logic of many liberals is that state violence can be held to a moral rubric, that the deeply corrupt American state, bound to the functional psychopaths of the one percent who rule it, can be induced to be fair.
It cannot. The current US state is racist and venal; it doesn’t call the Oregon gunmen terrorists and doesn’t mow them down because their occupation cannot threaten it even a fraction as much as Black Lives Matter actions have. The right-wing militia movement is virulent and dangerous, and its ideals nourish the worldview of people like Dylann Roof, but Black Lives Matter questions the very legitimacy of our society. That threat, and systemic racism, decides when the government pulls the trigger; mass action, not words, will hold it to account.
How we respond to those calling for blood in Oregon makes manifest the crucial dividing line between liberals and socialists.
A socialist approaches the state with critical caution. She might call for the incarceration of a rapist, but she knows only a people’s challenge to misogyny and capitalism can end rape culture. She demands that police be sacked and jailed for their racist murders, and she fights to reform the police to spare lives, but she also fights against the gentrification of communities and the criminalization of the marginalized that the police routinely enforce.
Though we hate and fear the worldview the Oregon gunmen profess, subjecting them to the same brutality the state metes out against black people would simply empower the militia movement. Ammon might call this occupation peaceful, but there are people hunkered in that refuge who are ready to die for their beliefs. Giving them their martyrs would only strengthen their cause.
The racist and radical right, while spared the crackdown experienced by the marginalized, the Left, and the poor have also been brutally put down in recent times. In Ruby Ridge, Idaho, a white supremacist waged a standoff that ended in the death of his wife and young son; in Waco, Texas a tense standoff between federal agents and the Branch Davidian doomsday cult led to conflagration and massacre in which seventy-six people died.
These events fuel the virulent, aggrieved entitlement of the Right; both names are legends on the lips of the militiamen and their supporters. Strategy and human mercy demand that we not add Malheur to this grisly list.