Since Saturday, January 2, a group of protesters calling themselves a militia have descended upon the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to occupy a federal building in a stand against federal tyranny. The incident stemmed from a dispute between rancher, Steven Hammond, 46, his father, Dwight Hammond, Jr., 73, and federal authorities. The two men were accused of setting fires in 2001 and 2006 to cover up evidence of poaching activities, however, the Hammond’s claim they were fighting off an invasive plant species.
The men were initially found guilty under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for arson on federal land. The Hammonds were sentenced to far less time, courtesy of U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan, who felt five years would be “grossly disproportionate” to the crime. However, shortly after the men were released from prison, the Department of Justice appealed the ruling — and won. The Hammonds were ordered to serve out the remaining time in the five-year minimum sentence. Both men peacefully turned themselves in on Monday. (For a great explanation of the problems with mandatory minimum sentences, see this piece)
Although the Hammonds have submitted to federal authorities, the protesters are still holding the building to protest what they see as government overreach. One of the leading protesters is Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, who made national headlines in 2014 after a similar standoff with the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada. Ammon Bundy has appeared on mainstream television stating the group is still taking a stand against federal tyranny and theft of lands, even if the Hammonds have given up the fight. It is not yet clear exactly what the armed men want or how long they plan to occupy the empty building.
Regardless of how long this stand plays out, it seems obvious the American people are allowing themselves to be divided by another hot-button issue that is more complex than it appears at first glance. As expected, the pundits, politicians, social media commentators, and armchair philosophers have picked their sides. They are ready to tell you why you should trust your own biases and make fun of the “opposition.”
The corporate left-wing media (and even some of the alternative/independent media) were quick to remind everyone that if these men had been Muslims or black, they would have already been bombed or killed. The left-wing also says media coverage of the event would be much different if the protesters were people of color, with a likely increase in the use of words like “thug” and “criminal.” And you know what? They have a point.
America does have a race problem, and those issues need to be addressed; but supporters of this view are often quick to buy into the narrative that all white men with guns must automatically be racist and should therefore be ignored or maligned. We have even seen a dangerous trend on social media and from some journalists calling for the federal government to use force against these people and create another Waco — a troubling notion from those who traditionally advocate against government violence and suppression of dissent.
But what about the right-wing? What do they want you to think?
The corporate right-wing media (and again, even some of the alternative/independent media) has a knee-jerk reaction (and erection) for white men with guns who wave U.S. flags and decry the evils of Obama. The right-wing also says this a fight against government tyranny — that they are tired of the federal government encroaching on land these ranchers have held for generations. And you know what? They have a point.
The federal government owns the majority of the land in the Western United States through national parks, refuges, and other protected areas. For years, ranchers complained that the Feds were slowly stealing land in the name of protecting the environment (research: Sagebrush Rebellion). Still, supporters of the 2nd Amendment and those who question the morality and necessity of the federal government should not blindly support the Oregon standoff simply because these men have guns and talk about revolution. It does seem hypocritical for Ammon Bundy to talk about how much he hates the Feds while taking government handouts. Further, the militia’s claims they are fighting to put the land back into the hands of the rightful owner, the Hammonds, beg the question:
Who Owns the Land?
The area currently known as the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was once known as the Malheur Reservation. Established in 1872 by President Grant, the reservation was created to house several indigenous tribes and bands of people, including the Northern Paiute in eastern Oregon. Many of the tribes the federal government encouraged to move refused because of a lack of connection to the alternative land, as well as sparse resources there.
Jacqueline Keeler, a writer and activist of Dineh and Yankton Dakota heritage, recently talked with Democracy Now about the Paiute tribe’s treaty rights to the land currently occupied by the militia:
“This is the 137th anniversary of when 500 Paiutes were loaded onto wagons and walked, under heavy armed guard, from their — from the lands where the Bundys are right now holding it and to the Yakama Reservation in Washington state, some 300 miles, knee-deep in snow. And they were forced to march, shackled two by two,” she said.
Keeler also discussed how the lands were systematically taken away from native communities:
“But with incursions from white settlers, they basically pressured the federal government to open it up to settlement. And so, in 1876, President Grant did that. And then, after there was an uprising with the Bannock Indian War in 1878, due to issues of starvation and deprivation in the middle of winter again, the Bannock and the Paiute rose up, and then that’s when they were force-marched out of the area and lost most of the land. I mean, they actually were allowed to return five years later, but they didn’t really have a land base. So they were working for local ranchers and—until 1928, when the Egan Land Company gave the Burns Paiute 10 acres of land just outside the city. And the land was an old city dump, which the Indians cleaned and drilled a well to make ready for houses.”
Charlotte Rodrique, the chairwoman of the federally recognized Burns Paiute Tribe, said the Paiute never voluntarily gave up their land, but rather, were forced out. “There was never an agreement that we were giving up this land. We were dragged out of here,” Rodrique told Reuters.
Selena Sam, a member of the tribe’s council, was also critical of the government’s continuing encroachment into native lands. “The government has become increasingly bureaucratic about allowing the tribe to catch trout, bass and perch in the rivers lacing the mountains and hunt elk and deer in the woods,” Sam told Reuters.
It seems whether you are indigenous to this land or a rancher with land claims, the federal government will consistently flout your concerns.
One last point I feel the need to make is the possibility (and reality) of agent provocateurs within various “revolutionary” or militia movements. I rarely waste my time speculating on various reports that claim to have exposed prominent activists or radio show hosts, but the reality is that the federal government is known for operating programs that seek to infiltrate, disinform, and destroy activist movements (Research: COINTELPRO). We would be doing ourselves a disservice not to look at events like the Oregon Standoff with a critical eye — while remaining equally skeptical toward suspicions of infiltration.
Regardless, I personally find it odd (and disrespectful) to fly your banner of revolution in the name of a family like the Hammonds when they have already conceded and are cooperating with the federal government. It’s just bad business to hijack one issue in order to grow your own campaign. Another curious point is that all major media are covering this story. I don’t need to remind you that the vast majority of media outlets are controlled by a handful of corporations. If media companies and the people who own them (and partner with the U.S. government) did not want you talking about this, it would not be on every major news outlet.
My last — and I feel biggest — area of concern is related to three men who are being championed in the media as “spokesman” or “leaders” of this militia: Blaine Cooper, Jon Ritzheimer, and Pete Santilli.
I will start with Santilli because his credibility is easily called into question upon closer inspection. Santilli is a radio show host who has been the subject of controversy several times, including over suspicion of theft of funds related to the failed Truckers Ride for the Constitution action in 2013. However, the biggest issue with Santilli is the accusation (and supporting evidence leaked by Anonymous) that he was actually working as an FBI informant during the Truckers incident. Others dispute the accusations, rendering Santilli’s reputation murky, at best. Examine the links and judge for yourself.
Blaine Cooper is well-known on social media for his efforts to expose drug cartels crossing the U.S. border, as well as for his bigotry and hatred towards Muslims. Cooper and Ritzheimer run a website called Rogue Infidel, which claims to lead the fight against Islam. The tagline reads, “It’s time for the world to wake up and recognize that Islam is attempting to dominate us all.”
On Wednesday, the Washington Post ran a story titled, “The ‘unhinged’ Oregon protester that the FBI has been tracking for months”. The Post wrote:
“Last year, after two Phoenix residents carrying assault rifles were killed by police outside a Muhammed cartoon-drawing contest in suburban Dallas, Ritzheimer began making and selling T-shirts bearing a profanity-laced denunciation of Islam. In May, he organized a protest that drew about 250 mostly armed anti-Muslim demonstrators to a Phoenix mosque.
“Ritzheimer — who carried a 9mm Glock 26 at the May protest — called it a patriotic sign of resistance against what he deemed the tyranny of Islam in the United States.”
These two men are not only promoting a false divide and conquer narrative — they are bigots. Three of the prominent figures of this particular militia movement are bigots and at least one is a possible FBI informant. Again, however, I suggest caution when assuming all white men who enjoy firearms and espouse revolutionary ideology are simply racists or bigots (or infiltrators, for that matter). It’s always a mistake to collectivize individuals.
We should remember that these type of views are the ones the corporate media loves to latch onto and promote, as if all anti-government activists are bigots and hypocrites. This narrative allows those on the left to feel comfortable knowing they are right to oppose the militia because “it’s just a bunch of racist white men with guns.” Again, this viewpoint ignores the nuance of the situation and only serves to divide the people and empower the ruling class. Whether the current situation in Oregon is manufactured or a genuine protest, it is undoubtedly pitting Americans against each other.
There are absolutely legitimate reasons to oppose the federal government. Mass surveillance, wars of aggression, the growing police state, loss of civil liberties, the abuse and genocide of native communities — the list goes on and on. Activists on the left and the right should stop allowing emotions to guide the conversation and take the time to research these complex situations as they unfold.
Through self-reflection and a rational examination of the facts, all those fighting for liberation and justice can work together to expose potential government agents who aim to slow our progress and create unnecessary animosity. If we allow the corporate media, politicians, and gatekeepers to shape and form our opinions, we are unwittingly becoming sock puppets for the very people who wish to dominate all those who value freedom.