What’s behind the Oregon takeover?

When news first hit the web on Sunday of the armed occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by 150 armed men, I was certain coverage of it was going to be impossible to escape. It was going to be another one of those days, or couple of days, stuck to television and Twitter, watching a live feed from a helicopter circling a soon to be war zone.

I remembered Eric Dorner. I didn’t think I was going to have time to even write this article because what possible excuse could the government give for not acting forthwith to neutralize potential gunmen in a federal building?

Then I saw the culprits and decided to go to brunch. This is gonna take a while.

Ammon Bundy, the son of cattle rancher Cliven Bundy who similarly faced down the federal government at his ranch in Nevada for a month in 2014, had ostensibly arrived on the scene in Oregon like buckaroo Batman to fight for justice for Dwight and Steven Hammond. The Hammonds had just had their sentences upped to five years in federal prison for their 2012 convictions of arson on Federal land.

A judge who felt the minimums were too harsh had initially sentenced the pair to three months and a year-and-a-day, respectively. Subsequently, the federal government appealed and had the sentences raised to their mandatory minimums under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (the passage of which occurred in the shadow of the Oklahoma City bombing).

The right to protest a perceived injustice is sacred, but it appears as though Bundy’s posse (which includes two of his brothers and assorted Bundy Ranch veterans) have arrived in sparse Harney County with insurrection on their mind.

Harney Sheriff Dave Ward said in a statement: “These men came to Harney County claiming to be a part of militia groups supporting local ranchers, when in reality these men had alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the county and federal governments in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.”

As you’ll see, “spark” may be the wrong word. The embers of this movement have long smoldered in the dust of the American West.

This land is your land? This land is my land?

The Bundy family’s latest tango with the federal government is the most recent flare up of a decades-long movement which began as the Sagebush Rebellion. It was a response to a law signed by President Ford called the Federal Land Policy and Management Act that placed under federal ownership lands that were long open to homesteading which itself had amounted to the theft of Native American lands. Tight controls were instituted to avoid massive local and private sell-offs that would threaten the land’s integrity, but had built-in leasing options for any developers willing to pay the fees.

Ranchers who found themselves relegated to caretaker status were unhappy with having to pay grazing fees on lands seemingly controlled by bureaucrats 2,500 miles away, but they were not alone in their dismay. The moneyed developers and industrialists who’d love the ability to mine or drill without answering to any authority had found themselves an odd bedfellow in the rural West.

The saplings of the rebellion found purchase in the business-friendly Reagan administration. Reagan proudly declared himself a “Sagebrush Rebel” in a speech in early 1980, then went on to appoint a friend of the Sagebrush Rebellion, James G. Watt, as Secretary of the Interior. Watt was a lifelong Republican and a secretary to the Natural Resources Committee and Environmental Pollution Advisory Panel of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. With his appointment, it was said that the Sagebrush Rebellion had been quelled.

The appointment did significant damage to gains made by the environmental movement. In Watt’s three year tenure he stopped accepting private lands for conservation and the area of land leased to coal mining quintupled. In 1983, after a series of offensive racial statements, Watt resigned in disgrace. His replacements during the Reagan era were not nearly as radical.

Unforgiving desert, verdant astroturf

In the late 1980s, corporate money poured into the rural West to bolster faux grassroots activism (a practice known as “astroturfing”). Signs and slogans supporting the expropriation of public land, paid for by industry but in the name of your average worker, began appearing in scarcely populated counties. The discontent of the Sagebrush Rebels had been co-opted, transmuted, and grown into a so-called “wise use” movement.

The phrase “wise use” was co-opted from the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service and turned into the slogan for a movement he surely would have opposed. In 1988, writer and free market activist Ron Arnold organized a conference in Las Vegas where the attendees hammered out 25 anti-environmental, pro-business points of action to be acted upon at the state and local levels. Many of these were later taken up by the American Legislative Exchange Council, (ALEC, a radical conservative legislation mill).

Oil, gas, and mineral organizations would stoke the flames of discontent among the common folks of the western frontier, like the Bundys, and move them to action on their agenda. Astroturf organizations would frequently borrow the framing of environmental organizations, saying things like “resource extraction is natural” and provides an “enhancement of the environment.”  For example, an executive of Burson-Marsteller, a PR firm hired by tobacco companies to sow doubt as to the lethality of cigarettes in the 90s, founded the B.C. Forest Alliance, which has the advantage of sounding “green” but promotes the material interests of the logging industry.

This is nothing unheard of, so far. Astroturfing isn’t the exclusive domain of right-wing ideologues nor does it typically lead to armed confrontation. In the rural West, however, these benign political tactics meet a violent tendency.

Organizational cousins

The self-styled “patriot militias,” like Bundy’s, are the modern tip-of-the-spear for the kind of radical interests I’ve described thus far. They’re the brash, sun-hardened face of the fringe conservative movements whom wealthy Tea Party backers managed to astroturf into action in 2010. In the rural West they often share membership with racially motivated hate groups.

In Oregon, these groups have an extensive history. Oregon originally was founded as a “white utopia” with some of the most racially biased laws outside of the South. The effects of these exclusionary laws and a century worth of effective white organizing continue to reverberate. In the 1980s, the state was a hub of neo-Nazi activity including the high profile, racially motivated murder of Mulugeta Seraw by skinheads.

Since the election of Barack Obama, the number of patriot groups in the U.S. has risen. The patriot groups that have sprung up with the election of the first Black president have tried to distance themselves from that kind of overt racial terror, but still maintain (with varying degrees of subtlety) white supremacist members.

The Rural Organizing Project, a social justice organization based in Oregon, seeks to fight against well-embedded right wing ideologies. They identify the appeal of these groups to working class people as a product of “producerist rhetoric” which upholds “concrete labor like farming or manufacturing”. It also scapegoats minority groups, both “marginalized or elite”- such as “the undeserving poor” or “international bankers”, with all their coded racial implications.

Once again we see the co-opting and corruption of progressive buzzwords and ideas to serve the reactionary agenda. In this case, the dignity of productive labor becomes the dignity of white, Christian productive labor.

Men in Bundy’s posse have always been quick to decry public allegations of white supremacy, but you only need remember that public officials’ support of the 2014 Bundy standoff petered out with the revelation that Cliven Bundy had espoused rhetoric about how African Americans “had it better” under the institution of slavery. The whole movement is so steeped in the history of racism that some of its members can’t even recognize it when they hear it.

Nowhere to go but away

Bundy and his posse are still holed up at the bird sanctuary in Oregon. There is little reported support from the locals and the images coming out of their encampment show scarce material resources. The group issued a request for supplies including “snacks” and “energy drinks.” The latest rumblings from the federal government side of the conflict are that officials may shut off utilities and the FBI could be planning a raid.

Given that some of Bundy’s comrades have recorded earnest videos to their families where they state their intention to die for their cause, it’s probably unwise to treat their futile act of armed rebellion with an echo of the humorously dismissive tone I’ve seen throughout progressive media.

At the end of the day, we have to realize their humanity and how it’s been led astray by interests that would corrupt the beauty and natural stability of the West, and buy the hard labor of their children and widows at the lowest price possible.

Poverty out West is a real problem. Harney County has a poverty level around 20 percent. Additionally, the federal government isn’t always fair when it comes to land. For evidence of that we can look to the Native American experience (how they relate to this situation is a whole other article).  These issues exist and are worth addressing, but too many of those capable of addressing the issues have been blinded by right wing ideology. 

Photo: AP


Patrick J. Foote
Patrick J. Foote

Patrick Foote writes occasionally for People's World. At the University of Central Florida, he worked with the Student Labor Action Project organizing around the intersection of student and worker issues. He would go on to work in the labor movement in such organizations as Central Florida Jobs with Justice, AFSCME Council 79, and OUR Walmart.