Trying to exploit rural anger

February 3, 2016

The occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon by a group of right-wing anti-government protesters has dragged on for more than a month, even after the arrest of a dozen of the group's members, including leader Ammon Bundy, and the death of one protester following a confrontation with federal officials in late January. With at least four people still occupying the wildlife refuge, authorities have taken a generally cautious approach to arresting or otherwise trying to force the group out.

Framed as a battle over ranching and land rights, the "patriots" who spearheaded the occupation have garnered little local support--and their focus on defending the right to private property with bigotry and violence should make anyone suspicious of their commitment to opposing government overreach.

Jessica Campbell has been involved with the Rural Organizing Project (ROP) since 2005, including five years serving on the ROP Board of Directors and the five since 2011 on the group's staff. She has been working on the ground in Burns, Oregon, since the right-wing group began occupying the wildlife refuge and has been herself a target of intimidation and harassment by right-wing militias and patriot groups for her work with the ROP. She spoke to Wael Elasady at the end of January about the occupation of Malheur and what the politics of the protesters represent.

COULD YOU start off by talking about the occupiers at the Malheur Refuge?

THE OCCUPIERS up in the refuge are a very interesting mix. There's the Bundys, who are far-right Mormons and have a religious angle and a religious ideology that's at play right now--as well as a whole bunch of other folks who have come in from this general call which went out nationally.

John Ritzheimer is a great example. He organized Islamophobic and racist rallies time and time again across the country, including in nearby Medford, which we counterprotested. There are folks out there who are veterans, who believe that the wars that they were sent to go fight were wrong. And there are folks who believe that the federal government is going to put people in "FEMA camps," and they believe that they are taking a real stand.

Then there are those who aren't at the occupation site, but flocked to the town of Burns, and that's something that the media's really missing. There's this crew called the "Pacific Patriots Network," which is largely made up of "3 Percenters" and "Oath Keepers." There are, I've heard and read, up to 200 of them in town, who are armed to the teeth. You can see them standing outside the bars, fully armed, with their assault rifles on their backs, wearing their 3 Percenter gear and just hanging out in town.

Hundreds stand up against the militias in Harney County
Hundreds stand up against the militias in Harney County

It's to the point where there are no hotel rooms in Burns because there are so many folks from these militia groups coming in from all across the country. The situation in the town is really tense. The reservation has closed its roads off because they're worried about retribution. Folks in the community are driving two-and-a-half hours away to Bend to shop, because they don't want to go to the Safeway, which is where people keep getting arrested, and the occupiers and different militia groups are shopping all the time.

HAVE YOU been able to attend any of the town hall-type meetings in Burns? What have they been like?

YES. THE first one I attended was on January 6, and that's that big one where everyone was raising their hands. There were at least 500 people there.

This meeting was in response to Ammon Bundy saying, "If the community wants us to go, we will leave." At the meeting, the question was asked, "Raise your hand if you want these people to go." I did not see a single hand down. I'm sure they were there, but I didn't see any.

I went to another one--it was the second to last one, held at the high school. It's the one that [right-wing radio host] Pete Santilli got kicked out of, which was pretty interesting--just to watch the entire audience be thrilled that this really divisive character was getting booted after interrupting people. It was like people had had enough.

It's very clear from the follow-up meeting that folks were told to just tolerate this and try to get on with their lives. But then, [at the follow-up meeting on January 19], it's really clear that with people chanting "Go, go, go" at the Bundys and the other occupiers in the audience, they're just...they're done.

People are so fed up that there's no more being neighborly. There's no more turning a blind eye to it. People are just done.

THAT'S INTERESTING because the Bundys present themselves as representing the plight of rural communities--that they're challenging tyranny, they're bringing a spotlight to issues that rural areas are facing, and so on. Could you talk a little bit about what interests you think they do represent, if any?

THEY DO a lot of talking about representing the "real" rural Oregonian experience and speaking to rural Oregonians' suffering because of the economic situation in eastern Oregon in particular.

And from the very beginning, there's been a whole heck of a lot of ranchers out there who are calling BS on the fact that: a) Ammon Bundy isn't a rancher; and b) a lot of those people aren't ranchers. Then there's the fact that a lot of ranchers worked really hard to get that refuge put in place, and ranchers who have permits to graze on the refuge property.

There's a lot that this kind of mish-mash of folks represent. Certainly there's a lot of wanting to privatize. That really is kind of the bottom line--the privatization of public land. The Bundys have been super-open about that since the beginning. They want this land turned over to the county--they want it turned over to private hands.

They were suggesting turning it over to this "Committee of Safety" that they tried setting up, which was a totally undemocratic process of basically creating a front group. And even the front group asked them to leave.

There are also other ideologies at work. I already talked about John Ritzheimer and Islamophobia. And there's a number of other folks up there who are there based on thinly veiled white nationalism, to be totally frank.

And calling it out for what it is, I think, is part of the job of those of us on the left. They don't actually necessarily say things that are explicitly racist a lot of times, but there's a lot of implicit racism in what they're doing. Certainly they're recruiting in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. This is how some of the backlash to the movement for Black lives is manifesting in Oregon, for sure.

CAN YOU talk a little bit more about that? Are you saying that the growth of militias is, in some ways, a backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement?

SCOT NAKAGAWA, a brilliant guy, refers to it often as "eroding white privilege," and I actually think that's a really juicy way to talk about it and think about it.

Certainly there's a lot of folks right now who are working class and poor who are really struggling. There's a lot of vets who are coming back from wars who don't know why they were fighting them and don't have access to real resources--certainly in eastern Oregon, where it's a real struggle to find even the most basic of mental health resources.

There are a lot of folks who are angry about this, and this is a movement that really recruits people based on that anger--which is righteous anger. No one should have to struggle to feed their families the way so many folks are. It makes for a really good entry point.

Then, add to it the last few months with the Confederate flag coming down off the Capitol in Charleston. There was the shooting in Charleston [by Dylann Roof]; there's all the stuff around [immigrant rights and the expansion of the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program]; marriage equality coming down from the Supreme Court.

There are just all of these things happening in rapid succession, on top of a Black liberation movement that is being rekindled and built as we just kind of sit here in rural Oregon and continue to have resources defunded and destabilized.

That is being used as a way to recruit these people who are confused about what's going on. They feel like they don't have rights necessarily--feel like they certainly don't have privilege--and then they are watching this stuff unfold. There is the dynamic of people feeling like other folks getting access to real rights means that they are losing theirs.

For a lot of folks, they are losing basic access to law enforcement and public safety and schools and libraries and health care--and there's a lot of ways that people really are not having their basic needs really met.

It's just that the cause and effect don't line up. You're being fed a scapegoat, which of course, is often people of color, queers, Muslims, women, young folks, welfare recipients--you name it, and they're a scapegoat of this movement.

The other thing I think is really worth holding up is that in Josephine County, when we were working there in April, it was just so clear that the militia movement was growing because of the lack of funded county sheriffs.

The sheriff's department not only is law enforcement, but it's also disaster response. So if there are natural or manmade disasters, you're kind of on your own in a lot of places. In Josephine County, it was to the point where there was one deputy on call five days a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. You could call 911, and you wouldn't even get a person at some points in the night.

We work closely with a lot of the folks who work in women's rights and in domestic violence shelters. There was a woman who I spoke to down in Josephine County who said that she had accompanied to court a woman who was going to get a restraining order against an abusive ex. And the judge told her that he would give the restraining order, but because there were no police, he wanted to know if she had a gun.

It's pretty desperate situations, and what was being pushed was the form of a militia. First of all, it's like a "community watch" infrastructure, but it's called a "militia." And that's an entry point into this larger movement and this larger ideology, which is much, much deeper than just being connected to your neighbors.

They're getting people at such a basic level of being able to try to keep each other safe. This needs to be taken really seriously by everyone across the country--certainly our failed political leadership, and definitely the left.

WHEN AN economic crisis hits like this, it's often the left that's able to provide an alternative to what the right offers, which is scapegoating and racism. Could you tell us a little bit about what the Rural Organizing Project does and how it fits into the picture?

THE RURAL Organizing Project at our heart and soul is a network of over 50 autonomous groups that are largely all-volunteer across the state in a majority of Oregon's counties. Our role historically has been of one of a convener--of pulling these groups together to figure out how to share resources, share analysis and create collective impact across the state. And also to provide some isolation-breaking space for rural progressives.

Our role in all of this started in April, when we were called in by locals who were saying, "We don't know quite what's going on, but we know that there's been a national call for a militia to show up in Josephine County. We don't know what to do--we need help."

We got to work pulling in national allies, trying to figure out exactly what was going on, to provide some historical analysis and then also be able to really address the issue. There were a lot of folks who just wanted to dismiss it as a "bunch of wackos."

That has really laid the groundwork well for ROP to continue to be a group that has these "feelers." We have hundreds of folks, if not thousands of folks, across the state who are paying attention to what's going on in their communities.

In October, after the [Umpqua Community College] shooting in Douglas County, the Oath Keepers and 3 Percenters organized an anti-Obama rally, and folks in that community were very quick to jump on the phone with ROP to say, "Hey, we see this and also we need more context." And we were able to say, "Here's what we know and let's talk about Posse Comitatus and how that's playing into what's going on right now, because it really is kind of the reinvention of it." It's a totally wackier situation when you also add the Bundys.

So our role in Harney County is to talk about what's going on, to provide some context and information locally between folks who are very interested in what's going on on the ground. They hear "Committee of Safety" and think, "Huh, I really don't know what that is and I'm not sure when the county set that up." And we're able to say, "Actually, the county did not set that up--Ammon Bundy hand-selected the people who are on that." That's really a powerful role of just information sharing.

We now have a statewide day of action called on [January 30]. A lot of what we do is we are a conduit out to the rest of the state, and the rest of the country in a way, being able to echo what the local community is saying.

A lot of the media sources are trying to keep their stations alive, and so they're painting this as a "conflict," when it isn't. There's not a lot of conflict. There are certainly a couple of supporters of the Bundys who live in Harney County, but it isn't a 50-50 split. It's not even an 80-20 split. It's not even a 90-10 split. Being able to really echo that for the rest of the state is key.

AND HAS there been some success with that?

YES. JOSEPHINE County was a really good example. What we did was a press conference. That doesn't sound very exciting, because it isn't an exciting tactic. But the fact is that the majority of the community was completely silent as this thing was unfolding around a gold mine.

Folks felt scared to speak out, and we were able to get people together in numbers--they felt safe in numbers. We had the retired dean of the community college, faith leaders, longtime residents and teachers all standing there and saying, "We have very real problems that we need to address as a county, like the fact that we don't have 24-hour 911 dispatch, and the fact that we are being distracted by these people who are just here to fundraise. Enough--go somewhere else and make your point."

Folks are fed up and speaking out in Harney County. Folks are fed up in Grant County. Ammon Bundy was supposed to go out there tonight. We'll see how that plays out. People don't want this, and that's just really fundamental. These things cannot flourish if the community is very vocal and very organized about saying, "No, you do not speak for us."

That's been one of the things that has allowed this to go on so long. Unfortunately, the threats and intimidation have been so significant that a lot of folks who would be coming out of the woodwork in numbers are genuinely afraid for their safety--for their physical safety and the safety of their children and their families.

WHAT DO these threats look like?

SHERIFF WARD spoke about his wife's tires getting slashed. People were getting followed around; his parents were getting followed around. People were getting hollered at in town.

I believe it was The Oregonian that did an article about what the high school students were experiencing. Multiple high school students were getting followed by dark SUVs. Folks were having photos taken of their homes and their homes were being monitored. The sheriff spoke about this as well--it was happening to his deputies.

I've gotten it, too. People showed up to my rural house in the middle of the night--it's not on Google Maps. The lug nuts on my car were loosened. So these people are pretty serious about trying to shut down any kind of dissent, and it's to the point where we've heard a lot of rumors--and some of them are substantiated--that some federal employees have been evacuated because of real threats to their safety, and there's some real potential to follow through.

There were a couple of people out at the Bundy ranch who went and murdered people. They're attracting everyone who seems to agree with this ideology, so who knows who they're bringing into town. There's some real threat there when you bring legitimately mentally ill people, who don't have access to resources, into town and whip them into a frenzy about who the enemy is.

Oftentimes, the "enemies" are this sheriff and the local county commissioner and the superintendent and federal employees, even though 40 percent of the population of Harney County is employed by some kind of government body, whether it's local or federal. So it's kind of like: you're just going to threaten 40 percent of the community? But that's what's happening.

COULD YOU talk about the ROP's relationship with the Burns Paiute tribe, whose ancestral lands encompass the Malheur Refuge?

WE HAVE been really, really proud of being able to help echo what the tribe has been saying.

This comes right on the heels of the 137th anniversary of them being forcibly marched off of their land, which I'm sure the Bundys did not anticipate when they set this up and when they chose this timing. I'm sure it was all about the Hammond family. But nonetheless, I think that that irony has not been lost on a lot of communities of color.

We've been trying to ask: What are the real issues in Harney County? What are the issues facing the Native community?

Part of what we're doing is funneling people who have reached out, wanting to help, toward different options and different ideas that include action. There's the hospital, for example, where we're pointing out the fact that there are lots of people who don't have access to health care, and wouldn't it be great if we were actually focusing on some solutions around that?

Similarly, the Paiute are doing some fundraising around buildings and other infrastructure for their programs and youth programs, and we've been directing people there and asking them to donate toward that effort--both as a way of taking action, but also as a way of really showing solidarity in a way that really respects the autonomy of the folks there. So that's been really exciting, and we're really proud to be able to participate in those ways.

COULD YOU say what you think it's going to take to stem the growing support for right-wing militias in communities?

THERE ARE some really fundamentally basic needs in rural communities that are going unmet, and quite frankly, we have a whole lot of failed political leaders who are continuing to ignore the fact that rural communities have been systematically dismantled, destabilized and defunded for years.

In Harney County, I sat in on a town meeting where they were talking about how they had to get their own water truck out to stop a fire that was going to encroach on their land. Can you imagine?

Not only do you have to be your own police, you have to be your own firefighters, you have to be your own doctors, your own therapists. You have to grow your own food in some places. In some places, the communications infrastructure is so non-existent that you're reliant on mail--physical mail--and then post offices are getting slashed across the country as well.

Funding 911 dispatch--as a bottom line, you should reach a human being when you call 911--is a very basic thing that creates actual security. Actually funding disaster response. We were in the situation where we had high-voltage power lines and trees down in our driveway, and we live extremely rural. It took almost two weeks for them to move the power lines.

The whole time they're telling us, "Don't go over the power lines, don't go near the power lines." Well, that doesn't work when you don't have power and you run off of a well. You run out of water.

There are just basic infrastructure needs there. Schools that teach, libraries, health facilities--there are some really basic fundamental things that if we were to get the Oregon legislature even to have a clue and put their brains together, we'd be able to create some decent solutions. Long term, what we really need are economic engines that aren't reliant on natural resource extraction. That's the bottom line. And that requires investment too, so that's the other piece. And that's a longer-term solution.

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