Imagine a bearded, heavily armed man, appearing on a television broadcast, speaking on behalf of a heavily-armed militia group that has just occupied several government buildings. He vows to not only occupy the existing ground which his group has seized, but calls upon like-minded individuals to join his movement in a crusade against the tyranny of the US government. The appeals to people of similar mind go out through social media, and the militia group gains publicity for their cause. The bearded man, brandishing a gun, pledges to fight off all attempts by the federal government to subdue him and his group. There is however, one catch – the armed man in the video is not Muslim, but a white American ultra-rightist advocate, Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy and wealthy cattle rancher in Oregon.
Having seized government buildings and property in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Bundy’s movement, the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, has protested what they see as the tyranny of the federal government – in this case, the Bureau of Land Management. While the immediate cause for this armed sedition is the reimprisonment of two ranchers, Dwight and Steve Hammond, on arson charges, the roots of the Oregon crisis go much deeper. The Oregon cattle ranchers rail against the oppression of the federal government, and refuse to pay minimal taxes for the land on which their cattle grazes. Before getting to the wider political and social issues raised by the Oregon standoff, let us make a number of initial observations.
The Bundys themselves, being cattle ranchers in Oregon, are recipients of various forms of government support which enables them to maintain their wealth. The hypocrisy of claiming to be a victim of government tyranny, all the while parasitising the various state-supported programs that make possible the acquisition of wealth from cattle ranching, are plain to see. Amanda Girard, writes in an article called “5 Taxpayer Handouts the Bundys Receive While Railing Against Government “Tyranny”, elaborates five ways the Bundys are generously supported by government assistance. For instance, she writes that:
The US government charges 93 percent less for cattle grazing than private landowners
One of the biggest gripes from cattle ranchers like Cliven Bundy and other Western cattlemen is that the federal government is bleeding ranchers dry with overpriced cattle grazing fees. But the opposite is true — in 2012, it cost roughly $1.35 a month for each cow to graze on federal land, as opposed to the average $20 per month charged by private landowners for cattle grazing.
The fact above alone is enough to expose the hypocrisy of the cattle ranchers’ incessant claims of government oppression by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Girard lists other ways the Bundys receive state support which can be read in her article.
Numerous writers and journalists have pointed out the stark contrast between the softly-softly approach of the federal authorities towards this particular act of armed sedition, and the heavy-handed, militarised response of the federal government towards those of African-American and Muslim background who have carried out protests against the repressive nature of state authorities. Indeed, the introductory paragraph of the current article was taken from a thoughtful and evocative piece by Wahajat Ali, writing in The Guardian that “If the Oregon militiamen were Muslim or black, they’d probably be dead by now”. The initial description of a bearded and armed fanatic making pronouncements on social media for the violent overthrow of the federal government immediately bring to mind the usual context in this era of the ‘war on terror’ – the Muslim enemy, the bearded extremist religious leaders from the Islamic community, or one of many other ubiquitous images of a so-called radicalised Muslim expressing hateful rhetoric. As Ali explains in his article:
Of course they’re not “terrorists”: Bundy and his followers are just your average angry white “freedom fighters”, who use weapons and ammunition to protect the US constitution and American values from the government and other Americans who want them to abide by federal laws like everyone else.
But if Bundy and his followers were like the 38% of Americans who aren’t white, people across America wouldn’t be watching this surreal, dangerous episode unfold and wondering what they could do to be labeled a “militia” when occupying a federal area with guns instead of “terrorists”, “thugs”, “extremists” or “gangs”.
Ali makes the compelling case that extremism comes in different forms, colours and varieties, and racial profiling does nothing to make the country safer, but only to whip up hysteria based on simplistic stereotypes. It is also easy to see the hypocrisy of the corporate-media in the way they have reported on this Oregon standoff, and the kid-gloves with which the Oregon ultra-right fanatics have been handled by the authorities, even though they are openly brandishing their weapons. As one Sikh lawyer and human rights activist Arjun Sethi, stated in a tweet published in the Common Dreams magazine:
No National Guard. No discussion of terrorism. No police violence. No television news coverage. They must be white. #OregonUnderAttack
A world of difference
One cannot imagine the authorities taking such a muted approach to the protests by Black Lives Matter activists, or towards members of the Islamic community who are routinely smeared as terrorist sympathisers in the wake of domestic shootings. The relative inaction of law enforcement institutions, and the reticence of the media to describe the Oregon militia men as terrorists, stands in stark contrast to a similar episode of armed sedition – the 1967 Black Panther occupation of the California State Capitol building. To be sure, there is a world of difference between the former Black Panther Party and the ultra-rightist militias. The Black Panthers, established primarily as a defensive response to police racism, integrated themselves into their local communities, fought for different reasons to the ultra-right militia, and achieved vastly different goals.
In the 1960s, the Black Panthers utilised the existing laws of the state to police their own communities, protect African Americans against abuses by the police force, and carried their arms openly in full compliance with the law at the time. A California congressman, Don Mulford, promoted a change in the California law to ban the open-carry laws of the state – with the support of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and then California governor, Ronald Reagan. Apparently the open-carry law, allowing citizens to lawfully possess weapons did not apply to African American ‘good guys’.
In protest against this Mulford Law, 30 Black Panther activists entered the State Capitol building. They entered the building lawfully, lodged their complaints, and left the building without incident. The response of the authorities was to crack down on the Black Panthers, using infiltration, police violence, and a media scare campaign. The Black Panthers were routinely slandered as a bunch of mindless thugs, intent on accruing personal wealth and motivated by greed rather than a particular ideology. The FBI launched a full-scale counter operation to break up and suppress the Black Panthers. Named Cointelpro – the Counter Intelligence Program – the authorities used their available and overwhelming resources to violently suppress the Black Panthers and deliver a telling strike against rising black nationalism. Black civil rights groups were discredited, disrupted and broken down.
The next episode
This episode demonstrates the vastly different approaches that the authorities take with regard to race. Intersecting with race, the Oregon standoff highlights how the capitalist state treats the land and resources it occupies. It is no secret that large energy multinationals are viewing public lands as a resource to be exploited. The Oregon militia and associated cattle ranchers are the products of the seizure and privatisation of public lands, and the use of those natural resources for private profit. The festering hypocrisy of the Oregon militia – that cattle ranchers decrying the tyranny of big government are the beneficiaries of government subsidies – is not the only issue here. The government certainly provides the water, fences, roads, infrastructure and amenities upon which the ranchers wealth depends, that much is true. However, the federal government has also provided for the profits of agribusiness, mining, logging and commercial interests on land that is traditionally owned by the First Nations of the Americas, the indigenous people. The sovereignty of the indigenous nations has been undermined, their land stolen, the Paiute Nation forcibly removed to make way for the private control of public lands.
In times of economic crisis, with masses of people alienated from a decaying capitalist system, the appeal of ultra-right groups comes into focus. The proliferation of right-wing militias comes at a time when the federal government is working for a minority group – the ultra-wealthy one percent. The super-wealthy class at the top of the financial aristocracy has not only preserved its wealth, but has been handed billions in handouts over the course of the last six-seven years in the form of quantitative easing. Meanwhile, the working conditions and living standards of the vast majority have plummeted.
With the active suppression of popular forms of protest, the grievances of the population can be directed, rather than upwards against the ruling class, but outwards against racial and ethnic minority groups. Posing as victims of government tyranny, the right-wing domestic terrorist militias express their outrage precisely at those institutions of government that protect public and social services – the health care, education, and environmental arms of the state.
These issues, and the political appeal of ultra-right groups and their ability to reach a wider audience, are subjects to be explored in the next article. Stay tuned.