Ammon Bundy pictured in 2014. Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Contrary to the impression you may get from media coverage, the occupation of the Oregon Malheur Wildlife Refuge is not led by ranchers who are tired of being pushed around by the federal government. Instead, the armed occupiers are self-selected militants from the Patriot movement’s paramilitary network—known for invading rural communities and staging armed protests that distract from local attempts to fix real economic problems.
These paramilitary groups work by latching onto local events and manipulating them to serve a general political ideology. The case of Dwight and Steven Hammond elicited widespread community support, but there was no local interest in staging an armed resistance to the court’s decision to return them to prison. Nonetheless, Patriot movement activists including the Bundys and members of the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers held an armed march in Burns, Oregon. Then Ammon Bundy and a handful of allies drove to the Malheur Refuge buildings to make their political stand. They used the movement’s usual bait-and-switch strategy: a protest against an unpopular prison sentence turned into a call to privatize federal land.
Understanding the larger context and scope of the Patriot movement is important if we are to make sense of this story. While the current standoff has made national headlines, similar actions in other areas have gone comparatively unnoticed over the past few years. In Josephine County, Oregon, Patriot movement activists established armed camps during a dispute between miners and the Bureau of Land Management. Other incidents have cropped up in Montana, Utah, and Nevada.
The “muscle” behind the Bundys' newly-named Citizens for Constitutional Freedom is the Patriot movement, which itself is the successor to the militia movement of the 1990s. The militia movement has its roots in the 1970s antisemitic, white supremacist group Posse Comitatus, and featured racists, conspiracy theorists, gun rights advocates, members of the Christian right, anti-choice activists, and right-wing libertarians. Although it made a lot of headway in the early 1990s, it didn’t become well-known publicly until the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. The movement largely faded after 2000, but made a remarkably quick comeback with the election of Barack Obama in 2008—with a whole new set of players and a revised strategy.
The Oath Keepers, for example, formed in 2009 as a membership-based organization of current and former police, military, and first responders, and swore to “defend the Constitution.” Based on right-wing social and economic views similar to those of the John Birch Society, the Oath Keepers oppose most federal land ownership as well as restrictions on private use. They circulate many conspiracy theories and actively recruit standing law enforcement to their sister group, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.
The Three Percenters were founded in 2008 as a more decentralized version of the 1990s militia. They swear armed resistance against any gun control measures, but otherwise have a similar ideology to the Oath Keepers. A Three Percenters flag has been seen flying above the occupation in Oregon.
Members of both groups helped organize the armed march in Oregon, although it is unclear if their activists are currently inside the occupation. However, these groups are the backbone of the larger Patriot movement, whose activists are the ones participating in and supporting the occupation.
There has been a lot of discussion lately about whether the occupation in Oregon amounts to terrorism. While no one has been attacked (yet), violence is clearly a threat. The press has used the term terrorism to describe far more mild political actions, and police regularly crack down on social movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, crushing large demonstrations with mass arrests and deploying riot police after minor infractions.
Numerous radical environmental activists—convicted of destroying property, but who never injured or killed anyone—have been sentenced under the 1996 terrorism act; in an unusual case, the act is also being applied to the Hammonds.
Many of us who watch the far right have long believed that after Ruby 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 an obvious racial disparity in how law enforcement treats U.S. citizens it deems terrorists. But the solution is not to expand the already-wanton use of this act even further. Rural Oregon is fraught with economic problems. Sentencing local ranchers under the terrorism enhancement is problematic, just as it is when applied to entrapped Muslims. In Burns, this has inflamed the already struggling community, and played into the hands of the paramilitaries who are actively seeking to exploit dissent. Instead of applying the term “terrorism” to the paramilitaries, it would be more productive to call for a reevaulation of all the sentences affected by the 1996 act—whether they are for Muslims, radical environmentalists, or right-wing ranchers.
Spencer Sunshine is an associate fellow at Political Research Associates.