Patriots versus the state?

January 12, 2016

The right-wingers who have taken over federal property in eastern Oregon claim to be fighting a tyrannical government, but their outrage is selective, writes Eric Ruder.

THE ONGOING occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon raises a thicket of political questions significantly more important than the squabbling collection of anti-government protesters and right-wing militia members at the heart of the standoff.

The standoff began after the federal government ordered two ranchers--73-year-old Dwight Hammond and his 46-year-old son Steven--to serve the federally mandated minimum sentence of five years for their arson convictions in 2012 for setting two fires on their ranch, one in 2001 and one in 2006.

The first fire, which the Hammonds say was aimed at killing off an invasive plant species on their land, spread out of control and charred 139 acres of federal land. The second fire, intended to prevent a wildfire that began on federal land from reaching their property and their store of winter feed, damaged one acre of federal land.

In 2012, a federal judge sentenced the Dwight Hammond to three months and his son to one year, arguing that the five-year mandatory minimum would "shock the conscience" and violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishment." The Hammonds served these sentences and were released.

Militia members near the entrance to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Center
Militia members near the entrance to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Center

But the Department of Justice appealed the judge's sentencing and won, meaning that the Hammonds would have to return to prison to serve the rest of the five-year mandatory terms. These harsh sentences were the spark for right-wing militias to call for the occupation of the wildlife refuge--though the Hammond family didn't welcome the support.

In any case, Ammon Bundy, the leader of the Malheur takeover--and also the son of Cliven Bundy, who made headlines over his own 2014 standoff with federal agents at his Nevada ranch, as well as his benign view of slavery--seemed content to let the issue of the Hammonds' sentences fall by the wayside in order to focus on what he and his cohorts clearly consider the real crime: the federal government's control of vast areas of Western land.

The so-called Patriot movement spearheading the occupation has relatively little local support. But that likely has as much to do with the locals' anxieties about getting caught in the crossfire of a shoot-out as it does apathy about the issues involved, which strike deeply in eastern Oregon.

AMONG LIBERALS, progressives and the left, the response to the Oregon occupation has run the gamut.

On the one hand, there's an understandable outrage at the double standard in the media's distorted coverage and government's timid treatment of the right-wing protesters--which at times has spilled over into calls for a crackdown by law enforcement.

On the other hand, there's been a tendency among some to regard the Malheur occupiers, based on their anger at government repression and federal mandatory minimum sentences, as a potential ally of those on the left who also oppose the state leviathan.

But in a standoff between right-wing militias and the state, the left should resist the temptation to reduce the matter to taking one side against the other.

For example, the kid-gloves treatment of the Oregon occupiers by the media and by law enforcement--in stark contrast to the repression directed at unarmed Occupy Wall Street protesters or the military hardware used to suppress protests in Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore--has been endlessly referenced on social media. It is, indeed, outrageous.

But wishing for law enforcement to crush the protest, as the federal government did during the siege of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, in 1993, not only creates martyrs out of the right-wingers, but will inevitably strengthen the legitimacy of the state when it comes to crushing the left. (Who remembers the 1985 attack by Philadelphia police on the Black counterculture group MOVE?)

The double standard applied to the Oregon protesters is absolutely a reflection of the racism embedded in U.S. law enforcement at all levels. But perhaps even more crucial to explaining the authorities' polite and patient treatment of the protesters is not their whiteness, but their "right-ness"--that is, the reactionary political views they share with an influential wing of the Republican Party.

Consider, for example, the response to a 2009 report by the Department of Homeland Security's Extremism and Radicalization Branch suggesting that a growing anti-government movement oriented on recruiting military veterans returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan could "lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone-wolf extremists."

Then-House Minority Leader John Boehner ranted against this particular line in the report, calling it an unfair characterization of legitimate criticisms of "the direction Washington Democrats are taking our nation." The tirades of Boehner, other Republicans and right-wing media outlets compelled then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to retract the report, issue an apology to military veterans, and quietly dismantle the Extremism and Radicalization Branch, according to the New York Times.

The Republican offensive against what would otherwise have been a largely ignored report stands in stark contrast to Barack Obama's behavior after FBI Director James Comey gave a speech last October blaming an alleged spike in crime on the increased scrutiny of law enforcement--known as the "Ferguson effect"--as a consequence of the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Did Obama fire Comey? Or at least issue a public rebuke of his utterly unfair characterization? Nope, his administration announced that the president supported the FBI director.

A FULL appraisal of the political issues at play in eastern Oregon should start from an understanding of the Hammond family and the nature of its dispute with the government.

The federal judge who refused to impose the mandatory minimum sentence of five years in 2012 may have been right that such a sentence should "shock the conscience"--but Forrest Cameron, the manager of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge back in the 1990s, might beg to differ.

That's because Dwight Hammond repeatedly threatened Cameron, other wildlife enforcement officials and their families with violence over an eight-year period, according to radical journalists Jeffrey St. Clair and James Ridgeway, whose articles on right-wing movements in the West 20 years focused on the very same rancher in the headlines today.

The conflict began when the Malheur refuge, in order to safeguard wetlands used by migratory birds, refused to renew a grazing permit for Hammond's cattle. Cameron's wife received "one call threatening to wrap the Camerons' 12-year-old boy in a shroud of barbed wire and stuff him down a well," wrote St. Clair and Ridgeway.

Dwight Hammond started his ranch about 50 years ago on 7,000 acres of land. Today, Hammond Ranches covers about 12,000 acres, and the Hammond family is wealthy and successful. Family members serve as members of school boards, industry groups and various "nonprofits."

The fires set by the Hammonds in 2001 and 2006 didn't destroy massive amounts of federal land, but it has also been alleged that the arsons were committed to destroy evidence of deer poaching.

According to a report in the Oregonian, one key witness for the government was a Hammond family member who was a teenager when the fires were set. According to the teen's testimony, he was told by his relatives to take a box of matches and "light up the whole country on fire." The teen also told federal agents that "he feared when Steven Hammond learned he had talked to police, that Steven would come to his front door and kill him."

So whatever the injustice of the mandatory minimum sentences imposed on the Hammonds--and to be clear, mandatory minimum sentences are an affront to justice--it's also true that this is merely the latest episode in a decades-long string of confrontations caused by the Hammond's provocative behavior.

AT THE heart of the Hammonds' grievances against the federal government--like the militias' complaints--lies a festering hypocrisy: The same ranchers who claim to detest Big Government also benefit handsomely from Big Government.

For example, the Hammonds leased 26,420 acres of land from the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for summer grazing--until the government refused to renew the lease due to the arson convictions. Tens of thousands of ranchers across the West lease BLM land each year, usually at very cheap rates. If the BLM stopped providing land at cut-rate prices, it would bankrupt some ranchers--only the most prosperous ones who could buy their own land or afford the higher rates would survive.

But leased land at cheap rates is just the beginning. The government also provides water, roads, fences and other infrastructure that ranchers depend on for their livelihoods.

And many of the militia types protesting in eastern Oregon today have no problem with mandatory minimums when they're applied to "drug dealers"--coded language for Black and Latino people--or Muslims accused of connections to terrorism. Jon Ritzheimer, one of Malheur occupiers, made headlines when he organized an armed anti-Muslim protest outside a Phoenix mosque last May.

To be sure, the federal government changes regulations and policies regarding various parcels of land from time to time, and this can cause hardship for ranchers, not to mention the cowboys and ranch hands employed by them. Just as changes in government policy can have devastating effects on social services--such as the federal government's 2013 decision to cut timber payments to Oregon, which resulted in deep cuts to the state's 911 emergency services.

But these realities can't serve as a justification for imagining that the left can have solidarity with the "anti-government sentiment" of the Oregon occupiers. Their rationale for challenging the federal government is wedded to an agenda of land privatization, the "free" market and opposition to environmental regulation.

For the left, our solidarity should be directed not at wealthy right-wing ranchers, but at working people mired in rural poverty. For years, dating back to the mid-1990s, unemployment in Oregon has outpaced national joblessness.

Ranch hands--like those employed by the Hammonds, the Bundys and other major operators to feed, brand, herd and otherwise care for cattle--typically make less than $25,000 a year. They, along with the government workers who deliver the mail, supervise federal lands, teach the kids of the ranchers and the ranch hands, provide emergency services and build the roads--that's who truly deserves our solidarity.

The Rural Organizing Project (ROP), a progressive group dedicated to organizing in the vast stretches of land outside Oregon's few urban areas, has provided ongoing accounts of the militia occupation of the wildlife refuge. Its approach is based on social justice, inclusive of groups--such as workers and the LGBT community--often marginalized by the wealthy landowners who dominate the politics of rural communities.

As ROP volunteer Mike Edera puts it in his firsthand account of what's unfolding at the eastern Oregon occupation:

[W]ho is the real opposition to the militia challenge in rural communities? Right now, the fight is between the established good-old-boy network that has developed a working relationship with federal land managers and an upstart elite that would like to overthrow environmental protections for the benefit of landowners. But who speaks for the majority of folks who are not landowners, who have no voice in the community? And where are the legitimate claims of sovereign Native Nations, whose lands have been so encroached by the ranching and mining industry, and whose accounts have been so criminally mismanaged by the Bureau of Indian Affairs?

Edera and the ROP are putting forward a left alternative that stands for better living standards for working people and the oppressed. For anyone who wants to see a real challenge to the tyranny of the federal government, there can be no common ground with right-wing militias committed to bigotry, violence and unrestrained private profit from public lands.

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