5 Things You Need to Know about Oregon’s Militia Movement
While the news of the Bundy gang forcefully taking over a federal building in Oregon may come as a surprise to some, the occupation is part of a larger pattern for those who have studied far-right political movements. Here are five points that provide a greater context for why this is happening, who the occupiers are, and who actually supports their radical viewpoints.
1. It’s actually a land grab — with guns
Despite the talk about supporting the Hammond family in Burns, Oregon, the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters is actually part of a long-standing campaign by radical right-wingers to dismantle federal land ownership in the West. Some elected officials are working through mainstream channels to get lands transferred to state or county governments, or to allow them equal say over their use. But the Malheur takeover seems to be an attempt to spread a tactic of armed federal land takeovers. These armed groups are part of the “Patriot movement”—the successor to the 1990s militia movement—which has seen a rebirth since the election of Barack Obama in 2008.
2. The paramilitaries are powered by conspiracy theories
“Agenda 21” was denounced in at least one sign at the march in Burns that preceded the takeover. Agenda 21 is a non-binding UN resolution recommending sustainable ecological development. But it’s been turned into a conspiracy theory by the right, which sees a sinister global socialist agenda in things as small as building a local park. Patriot movement activists don’t see what’s happening to Dwight and Steven Hammond as an unusual-but-unfair legal case. Instead, they are portraying it as part of a socialist agenda to seize rural private land and drive predominantly white farmers into the cities. There, they believe the government will detain right-wing activists, seize privately held guns, turn the cities into concentration camps, and allow the UN (or China) to invade.
3. The ‘Patriot’ movement is a child of the White Power movement
Many of the tactics and talking points being used were popularized in the 1970s by the white supremacist group Posse Comitatus. This group promoted the “Christian Patriot” movement, advocated the formation of “Citizens Militias,” helped forge an idiosyncratic reading of the Constitution, said the county sheriff was the highest elected official that should be obeyed, and opposed federal environmental restrictions.
Over the years, these ideas took on a life of their own, even though few of the activists using these ideas today are ideological white supremacists. For example, they still try to recruit county sheriffs; the sheriff in Harney County (where Burns is located) was asked to provide sanctuary for the Hammonds from the federal government. He refused.
Activists such as Cliven Bundy’s son, Ammon Bundy (who is leading the Malheur occupation), claim that what is happening to the Hammonds is unconstitutional. This view of the Constitution is based on a position promoted by Posse Comitatus. They held that the Constitution could be interpreted by individual right-wing activists in a way that allowed them to have more jurisdiction than federal courts do. The Sovereign Citizens are the best-known movement that promotes these crank legal theories today. For example, Pete Santilli, who livestreamed the Burns march and went to the Malheur takeover, promotes these ideas.
4. Federal government policies have allowed this situation to happen
Although there is no written federal rule that is publicly known, those who study the radical right largely believe that the federal government has a policy not to directly confront armed right-wing groups. The disastrous handling of the Waco and Ruby Ridge sieges in the early 1990s apparently convinced the feds to take a softer approach. This seemed to have paid off when the Sovereign Citizens at the “Justus Township” surrendered peacefully in 1996. But after 9/11, even as the feds have cracked down hard on all kinds of radical political activity (for example, many eco-saboteurs who never killed or injured anyone were sentenced under terrorism laws), the radical right has received almost a complete pass.
The April 2014 standoff at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch—when Patriot movement activists came to the aid of a radical right-wing rancher who refused to pay his fees for grazing on public land and trained rifles on federal agents—was taken as a green light for similar actions. The federal government has not prosecuted Cliven Bundy or his allies for anything that happened there. This has apparently convinced the Bundy family (three of whom reportedly are at Malheur) that the feds will acquiesce to armed takeovers.
5. There is widespread opposition to the Malheur takeover
The takeover attempt is not popular with many in Oregon. When a convoy of Patriot movement activists heading to Burns left from Bend, Oregon on Saturday, they were met with counter-protesters from the community. In Burns, many in the town have objected to the presence of the “Bundy militia.”
The Patriot movement groups are aware of this. A number of Patriot movement activists denounced any support of the Hammonds beforehand. The Oath Keepers, a national group, refused to come to the march, saying the Hammonds had not asked for help. Furthermore, the group said that Oregon members who helped organize the protest would be reprimanded. And, although details are not known, it appears that the vast majority of activists who are taking over Malheur are largely out-of-staters from Nevada and Arizona. While they hope to rally widespread support, that doesn’t seem to be happening.