White men with guns stealing land? Outrageous. But on New Year's Day in subfreezing Burns, Oregon, locals were on edge as armed men from around the West, calling themselves a "militia," descended on the remote cattle town, ready to seize the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Led by Ammon Bundy, son of infamous anti-government Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, they made clear their intent to turn the refuge headquarters into a refuge for so-called "patriots" who seek to ignore federal laws and regulations. Bundy's crew is willing to use violence against any enforcement officer who attempts to retake the refuge, to "kill and be killed, if necessary" and has stated their intention to remain there for years. No worries, though. Not a single law enforcement vehicle was spotted.
Having decided that they're the victims here, the occupation began after a protest in Burns against the resentencing of Dwight and Steven Hammond, ranchers in Harney County, Oregon, who face five years in prison over setting fire to more than 100 acres of federal property between 2001 and 2006. The land is a bird sanctuary, established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908. Oh, the oppression!
For those who claim that white privilege doesn't exist, look no further. None of these armed men are Syrian refugees. They are not Eric Garner, choked to death in Staten Island, New York, for selling cigarettes; they are not Antonio Zambrano-Montes, shot in the back in Pasco, Washington, for throwing rocks; and they are not Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old holding a toy gun whose life was ended by a Cleveland police officer. We keep circling the same drain — no justice, no peace... unless you are also armed with white skin.
This illegal occupation is part of a broader mission to make the federal government turn over land to ranchers, so they can exercise their right to pillage it with logging and mining. They have been branded with the hashtag #VanillaISIS on Twitter, because nobody else is calling this for what it is: domestic terrorism. The takeover is an armed rebellion to fight back against what's incomprehensibly perceived as tyranny. There's nothing tyrannical about the Endangered Species Act, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Land Management. Or the twice-elected President of the United States, for that matter. Tyranny has become the new, cringeworthy word for ill-informed manipulators who profit off of fear.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina and Duke University recently asked 382 police and sheriff's departments nationwide to rank the biggest threats from right-wing extremism; 74 percent listed anti-government-inspired violence. The results also found that you are seven times more likely to be killed by a right-wing extremist than a Muslim terrorist.
At an event last June at Central Valley High School in Spokane Valley, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich criticized right-wing constitutionalists, whose brand of strict interpretation of the Constitution leads them to ignore modern laws.
"We've become a nation of 'We don't have to,'" he said. "We don't have to obey the laws. We don't have to obey anything we don't agree with."
Law enforcement will be under pressure to act in eastern Oregon, because the Bundys' April 2014 confrontation with law enforcement in Nevada was an inspiration for this movement. The federal Bureau of Land Management, with guns trained on them, retreated from that confrontation and has yet to publicly act against the Bundys to collect more than $1 million in unpaid grazing fees. Haunting shadows that can lead to martyrdom are apparent; Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was motivated by his hatred of the federal government and angered by its handling of the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff and the Waco siege in 1993. After 168 people, including 19 children, were killed in Oklahoma City, early news reports assumed the perpetrator was a Muslim militant. Only McVeigh's capture silenced the speculation. We don't like to think about our history of homegrown psychosis, which is why we need to watch what's happening in Burns closely, while hoping it moves towards a peaceful conclusion.
"The war has just begun," Ammon Bundy said after his family won the Nevada standoff. It's the same story of how the West was won: White men with guns. ♦
Paul Dillon, a Center for Justice board member, manages public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho.