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Why We Should Stop Calling the Malheur Militia Terrorists, and Start Calling Them Racists

This last week has seen news coverage dominated by the resurrection of the Cliven Bundy ranch stand-off, this time in rural Oregon.  The story, which has been a little difficult to track down in the dense media coverage, reflects much of what sparked the Bundy standoff a couple years ago: rich white ranchers being incensed that they cannot use federal land at will and do what they want without legal recourse.  Dwight and Steve Hammond, ranchers in Eastern Oregon, own around 12,000 acres of land, as well as federal land use rights, that they use to graze cattle.  In 2012 the two were found guilty of lighting fires on Bureau of Land Management land in 2001 and 2006, which was listed as their way of hiding their illegal poaching attempts.  A judge friendly to the family gave them less than the mandatory-minimum sentences, which the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals later overturned after the two men had been released from their light prison stay.  They were court ordered then to return to prison to carry out their five year sentences.  Part of this comes from a perceived terrorism that was used to enhance the sentence, which comes from the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 because of the threat the fire had to trap four BLM firefighters and the fact that it was an arson on federal land.

This terrorism enhancement and recall of their release was seen as “double jeopardy” to many on the right, and it was taken up by a growing militia movement that see this as the federal government overreaching into the property rights of rural ranchers.  Ammon Bundy, son of white supremacist rancher Cliven Bundy, used this as an opportunity to restart the militia movement response to his family’s fight with federal authorities over his unpaid grazing fees for use of federal land.  What came next was well watched, as Bundy and Ryan Payne, a well known Islamophobic conspiracy theorist, came to Burns in December and set up a meeting called the Committee of Safety to try and stop the sentencing of the Hammonds.  As the group swelled, almost entirely from non-residents, they moved on to enter and occupy an administration building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.  This is essentially a federal building used to protect the habitat and wildlife of the area, and likely an example of the kind of “liberal” public use of land that they want to see turned over to ranchers, miners, and loggers.

Left wing press jumped on this immediately, as it should as the danger of the right-wing militia movement brings the current threat to its peak in the early 1990s.  The conversation quickly shifted to the double standard that refuses to label this occupation as “terrorism,” especially given the fact that they are discussing “violent revolution” and are brandishing semi-automatic weapons.  While this rhetoric brings up obvious dissonance in media characterizations of things like Black Lives Matter versus the militia movement, it draws a problematic narrative that can have consequences that the radical left will feel.  When looking at the ongoing occupation of the federal buildings, there are a few key reasons that left wing commentary should move away from consistently calling them terrorists.

 

  1. The Term “Terrorism” Is a Bully Club of the State to Criminalize Dissent

 

Over the last fifty years of political organizing and conflict in the U.S., it is not the right-wing that has been the ideological victim of the word “terrorist.” In the early 2000s, the environmental and animal rights movement saw all semi-militant action moved directly under the banner of “eco-terrorism” with legislation like the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.  Using the term “terrorism” is to a method of re-labeling militant actions as outside of possible political behavior and discourse, discredits it as conscious political activity with logical motivations, and attempts to reinforce the narrative that the state and its parallel institutions need to be protected from these “terrorists.”  This narrative is important because it creates a social support for the state and the ways it sets parameters of “acceptable political behavior.”  This notion does not necessarily undermine the reality that terrorism does exist, with a clear example of this being the culmination of the 1990s militia movement in the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing of 1995.  Instead, going after non-violent direct action and labeling it as terrorism creates a model where by militant action of any kind, not just on the right, has the ability to be undermined and criminalized as such.

This issue is especially true when looking at the tactics of the militia’s confrontation currently, which is a building occupation.  This has been a staple of movements on the left for decades, many of which have matched its use of armed personnel and revolutionary rhetoric.  An example of this is the occupation of Alcatraz by the Indians of All Tribes, lasting for almost two years from 1969-71.  Citing the Treaty of Fort Laramie, unused federal land must be returned to the First Nations people who resided on it previously.  The occupation drew on the Civil Rights Movement and the growing anti-war movement, where occupations of tactical buildings was commonplace.  Since then, occupations have been used as a radical option in nearly every movement with direct action components, and on the flip side we have seen the BLM targeted by Earth First! organizers in similar ways.

Beyond its application for radical movements on the left, the term terrorism has been one of the primary forces of victimization in the all out assault on Muslims, both in this country and abroad.  The broad “war on terror” has been one of the most disasterous periods of U.S. foreign policy, leading the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and an ongoing crisis of bigotry that singles Muslims out as prime suspects in almost every type of offense.  Simply the concept of terrorism, both undefined and inconsistent, is one that has lost almost all useful descriptive power, and its mere invocation is one that brings us back to the underlying bigotry and imperialism that it is used to justify.  In a similar way to discussions around “hate crimes” legislation in places like Against Equality, it is difficult to see why invoking terrorism can do anything but further empower an “anti-terrorist” state apparatus that is unequally victimizing to people of color and other minorities.  It is not going to be the shotgun clad ranchers that feel the brunt over any resurgence of “terrorist” fervor, it is going to be the most oppressed classes in general.

The judge that issued the terrorism enhancements and called for the Hammonds to return to prison to serve out a much longer sentence was Judge Anne Aiken.  People may remember her as the Judge who ruled over the 2005 Operation Backfire arrests, where members of the Earth Liberation Front had terrorism enhancements added to their sentences for property destruction actions.  This was part of a larger “Green Scare” that labeled this sort of radicalism as terrorism in the wake of 9/11, and here we saw possible sentences into the hundreds of years as a way to intimidate both the public and the defendants into informing on each other.  The same principle is at play here, yet it is exactly the tools of the state and “anti-terrorism” infrastructures that will attack left-wing radicals and minority groups more severely in the future.

If the term terrorism is empowered to confront the militia standoff, it maintains that power to be used to marginalize later on.  This essentially “borrows from Peter to pay Paul” in that, while using the term to win this rhetorical battle, it can then be used against us later.

 

  1. “Terrorism” Is Besides the Point

 

The Bundy occupation is a ridiculous show of privilege from rich ranchers who exhibit racist, sexist, and bizarre conspiracy ideas that should be exposed and openly opposed.  They represent a regressive part of the American middle class, which holds onto their white privilege as their last life line as they see demographics shift in the U.S.  The militia movement itself was on the decline dramatically through the Bush years, but rose up along with the Tea Party once there was a person of color in the white house.  Most of their narratives see the federal government as “overreaching” and “oppressive” mainly because of minor inconveniences like taxes, which they generally opposed because they do not like the idea of a welfare state being accessible to people who look unlike themselves.  They are a growing and violent part of the white supremacist right, but their problematic nature is not derivative of their tactics in this stand-off.

To focus in on much of the milder protest actions, such as keeping guns on the premises or ranting and raving to the media, then labeling this behavior terrorism, it misses the point that it is their ideology and political role that should be exposed and challenged.  There are very real and obvious impulses and disgusting elements that they represent, but we miss those entirely when we instead focus on the protest action that we cannot tie directly to what gives them political distinction.

Plainly put: we don’t declare this militia movement enemies because this standoff represents “terrorism,” we stand against them because they are racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, anti-working class, and violently reactionary.  This should be the center of our discourse and narrative about the new Bundy standoff and not whether or not they broke specific laws in their protest actions.

 

  1. The “Terrorism” Double Standard Itself Should Be the Discussion

 

Much of this use of the term “terrorism” when discussing the occupation came from the realization that the media failed to label this group as terrorists, while direct action occupations with people of color are commonly labeled as such.  This is absolutely true and we need to continue to expose the way that white men in confrontational situations are allowed clear perceptive privilege.  There needs to be an ongoing discussion for how the same behavior and actions are characterized for people of color to make them appear more frightening and less rational.

That does not, however, actually mean that anyone in this story are, in fact, terrorists.  Instead, what it should act as is a prompt to see the absolute inequality in media narratives, and we should continue to use moments like these to expose the disparity.  It is not useful to then try to reverse the disparity as, beyond what was mentioned earlier, it just distracts from the issue that people of color are almost always painted as violent extremists.

Anti-fascist writer Spencer Sunshine recently elaborated on this in his articles “Where the Oregon Militias Came From” for The Progressive.

Many of us who watch the far right have long believed that after Rudy Ridge and Waco, the federal government adopted an unspoken rule that it would treat armed (largely white) right-wing groups with kid gloves. While a domestic “war on terror” was unleashed on Muslims and radical leftwing activists, the far right has been spared. This was certainly true at the Bundy Ranch, when Patriot movement activists pointed guns at federal officials, but were never arrested. The federal government has held the door open for the Bundy militia, and they’ve walked through it.

There is certainly a racially charged double-standard in the use of the “terrorism” label; however, the federal terrorism enhancement has been used so wantonly that it is hard to argue in favor of expanding it. Instead of applying it to the paramilitaries, it would be more productive to reevaluate those sentences affected by the 1996 law. While using arson to hide poaching is illegal—as is setting fire to logging machinery—neither one amounts to terrorism.

For a lot organizing on the radical left, we need to consistently consider how tactics used today may be reinterpreted later for broader anti-racist struggle.  This is critical in how we employ terms like “terrorism,” and why it should often be reserved for outright wanton civilian violence.

 

***

Much of what we think of as the militia movement was started with Posse Comitatus in the 1960s, which was built on radicalizing much of the anti-semitic conspiracy theories that were found in places like the John Birch society.  Right from the start it was closely allied with the Christian Identity movement, which was one of the most virulently violent racialist versions of Christianity.  In this interpretation, people of color were considered the “beasts of the field” and not actually humans with souls, Jews were literally the spawns of Satan out to destroy the white race, and the ancient Israelites of the Old Testament are actually European descended people who they now think are in diaspora.  Posse Comitatus organizational charters actually came from Portland, Oregon in 1969 by Henry Lamont Beach, who was formally a member of the Nazi-allied Silver Shirts.  Throughout the existence of the militia movement they kept close allegiences with the more militant rural wings of the neo-Nazi revolutionary movements, most specifically the Christian Identity churches under the banner of Aryan Nations and the Church of Jesus Christ Christian.  It is exactly this connection that fueled the standoff at Ruby Ridge as well as the radicalization see with Timothy McVeigh.  At all levels, the militia movement is built on the foundation of conspiratorial fear of a state built on leftist values, ones that have a secret cabal of “outsiders” and out to benefit people who are not of their insular in-groups.

The newest incarnation of the militia movement has again followed suit by coding racial fears in vague economic and totalitarian terms, which is seen in the creation of the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters.  The Oath Keepers, made up of former police, military, and first-responders who are making an oath to defend the “people” against perceived government authoritarianism.  What this has meant in practice is actually patrolling in places like Ferguson, Missouri to defend against Black Lives Matter protesters as well as supporting just about every open white nationalist in times of social struggle.  The Three Percenters, named for the unverified theory that only three percent of early American colonists actually rose up and fought the British, have taken all of the “black helicopter” rhetoric even further and often ally with almost explicitly racialist language as they defend “white rights.”  Both groups have made the various Bundy standoffs their pet cause, even though now leadership in the Oath Keepers are now calling for a pull out from Oregon.  This standoff is seeing a strong support from the newer Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, which feels like a a direct inheritor of the racist revolutionary program of Posee Comitatus.

Oregon itself is not just a surprise target in this occupation, which many seem to argue because of the perception of Portland as a liberal homeland.  Instead, this has been a consistent feature of Oregon’s history.  This was the home of the “skinhead wars” of the 1980s and 90s when East Side White Pride skinheads associated with the White Aryan Resistance attacked ethopian student Mulegata Seraw.  The KKK has seen a long history heading all the way back to the state’s founding as a “white homeland,” even up until recent efforts to organize in white working class areas of the city.  Recently, after the shooting at Umqua Community College in Roseberg, militia organized embarrassing “gun rights” rallies to intimidate Obama on his visit.  The Sugar Pine mine fiasco last year, where “patriots” including the Oath Keepers came to defend a mine from BLM intervention, bolstered the idea that these types of militia occupations could be successful.  In that case, a judge finally ordered the BLM to walk away from enforcing normal regulations on the mine.  The logic may be to push local authorities to back down just as they did there and with the Cliven Bundy blunder, and, unfortunately, they could be right.  Without a strong counter-movement, which fights to both counter the reactionaries and the rights of rich property owners, it is hard to see how authorities will not buckle under ongoing pressure from increasingly volatile ideologues.

 

***

While moving away from the terrorism rhetoric, we may be able to more clearly create an opposition that can really counter them politically, and identify them as the racists they are.  Their occupation of both the environmental land and Paiute tribal areas calls for the intersection of the environmental and First Nations movement, as well as highlights the illogical and offensive way that propertied militia members continue to victimize tribal peoples as part of their role in the global land grab.  The Paiute Tribe of the Burns areas has unequivocally called for the militia member to leave, which is not to mention the Hammonds themselves, who have distanced themselves while reporting to prison to serve their sentences.

The growth of the militia movement is not just a problem for Oregon, but for areas across the country as they make up a more rural wing of a larger reactionary political thrust.  Empowered by Donald Trump, given intellectual pedigree by the Alt Right and Neoreaction, and given a voice through trolling and “headline jacking,” militias are only a part of the larger backlash of a growing white nationalist movement.  While the militia in Oregon avoids racialized language, it is those anxieties that hits directly at their root.  For anti-racists and anti-fascists organizers, this means building an intersectional movement that can mobilize beyond the radical sphere is critical to both fighting back when they arrive and eroding their disaffected white working class base.  The Bundy standoff will end soon, and the pundit talking points will fade just as they did after the Nevada sideshow, but it is the reactionary white masculinity that is going to continue to drive confrontations like this.

The impulse to support those going after the government, no matter what their motivations are, is often strong in a disparate radical left without strong political foundations.  In Alexander Reid Ross’s recent article from inside the Bundy occupation, “Toward an Anti-Fascist Analysis of the Malheur Rebellion,” he calls for the need for ongoing counter-organizing since we cannot rely on the state to effectively counter such movements.

We need the Cascadians, moderates, and anti-statists of every variety to come out directly against the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation and all other occupations motivated by colonial narratives lodged in racism and the interests of capital. We also need to be respectfully and responsibly introspective about the small ways in which we perpetuate what Joel Olson called “white democracy” in everyday life.  The racists, Islamophobes, and lunatics involved are clearly manipulating our rhetoric for the use of big business and private interests. Their hope—to bring down the government by enshrining the corporate state even further through the sacralization of the patriot movement and its would-be martyrdom—remains the enemy of all we stand for.

While we empathize with many people in Burns who distrust of the FBI, police, and federal government, we also agree with their higher levels of animosity toward the Bundys for bringing those forces to bear in their community. We believe that the far right is ultimately not the government’s responsibility to deal with. Antifascists must organize to stop the spread of the far right with local communities, because no one else will.

This is really true when it comes to the far-right across all cultural manifestations, and we can extend that call to counter as Islamophobia hits critical levels, the Men’s Rights movement only grows, and the internet-focused Alt Right attempts to re-frame the narratives about equality, democracy, and immigration.  A strong counter-movement, one built on a developing anti-racist analysis, is how this type of false consciousness can be answered, and where many of the disaffected members of the white working class can be given an actual revolutionary alternative.

3 thoughts on “Why We Should Stop Calling the Malheur Militia Terrorists, and Start Calling Them Racists”

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