In case you missed it, a “militia” of armed white “patriots” has “taken control” of a building in a Federal Wildlife Reserve in southeast Oregon. I use all of these terms loosely — the building was apparently locked and empty, and thus far there has been no real violence. However, the subtext is pretty obvious — the threat of violence is still violence, and the ranchers have apparently made some demands. Is this terrorism? Or is this the action of an oppressed people against a tyrannical government?
I first want to dismiss out of hand the comparisons of this event with other protests. Anyone trying to equate this to the Occupy movement, or Black Lives Matter, or even the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore is being either disingenuous or blind to questions of both privilege and consequence. The situations are not comparable. On the one side, you have various groups victimized by centuries of systemic oppression finally pushing back and demanding equal treatment, or acting out their rage and impotence in the face of the legal murder of some of their own. On the other, you have members of a privileged class planning and executing the violent takeover of government property in the name of imposing their own interpretation of the Constitution on the government whose job it is to enforce that Constitution. The former tends towards nonviolent resistance, the latter make their play armed to the teeth. The two are not comparable in scope or in motivation, and I’m being as charitable as I can in each case.
The narrative at work here is so absurd I’m actually having some trouble discussing it objectively. The fundamental argument of the Bundy Militia seems to be that the government has no right to own land, particularly land which the members of the militia would rather use for raising cattle. I, personally, find this argument to be asinine. One of the primary purposes of government is to protect the commons, which is precisely what federal land is meant to be. This is a Wildlife Preserve, for Gaia’s sake, and there are too few of them as it is. Moreover, cattle raising is environmentally destructive and profoundly wasteful in a region which has few enough resources as it is. Thus, I have personal bias, here; I find the ranchers’ position to be without merit.
But what about the stated cause-in-fact of this event, the sentencing of the Hammonds to five years in prison for arson? An unjust sentence is an unjust sentence no matter the color of the guilty party. That being said, setting a fire to cover up some illegal poaching seems worth a five-year prison sentence, particularly when you end up burning 130+ acres of federal property. The second fire they set, the one to protect their own lands from an encroaching wildfire, seems more justified — but why did they burn federal lands rather than the borders of their own? And why didn’t they check with local firefighting agencies to make sure they weren’t threatening any firefighters with their actions? That is, at the very least, negligence. Also, laws regarding what can and cannot be done with the commons is part of protecting those commons, and in a lawful society, if you disobey a just law, you must be prepared to pay the penalty. And indeed, the Hammonds seem to be — they’ve actively denounced the Bundy Militia’s actions.
But let’s say the Hammonds did support this pseudo-insurrection. Have they appealed their conviction? Not as far as I’m aware. Are they therefore out of options? No. And that’s key — violence can only be justified as a last resort, and only to prevent a greater injustice.
All of this, of course, has its root in Clive Bundy’s twenty-year use of federal land to graze his cattle, for which he owes $1 million in back fees. Two years ago, the federal government took his cattle, sparking an armed protest involving many of the same people who are currently “occupying” a vacant federal building in Oregon. Again, I’m biased in saying that, in my not-legal opinion, he absolutely owes those fines for his use of the commons. But let’s say that he’s right, that the government can’t legally own that property and therefore he doesn’t owe anything. Has this argument been made in court? Indeed, has it been heard in the Supreme Court? Because they’re the ones we’ve agreed to let decide questions about Constitutionality. The answer is no — the feds came, and he skipped right to violence.
The true thugs are those who resort to intimidation and violence at the slightest provocation, without attempting to pursue more peaceful resolutions to their grievances. We have systems in place explicitly for the resolution of such grievances, and while they aren’t perfect (far from it), it is the duty of anyone who reaps the benefits of the systems to work with the systems first. Only when those systems fail to deliver justice is it acceptable to even contemplate violence.
Of course, the government bears a significant portion of the blame, here. I don’t understand why they didn’t take Bundy and his gang down hard the first time they pulled this shit, but whatever the reason it is a proximate cause of this latest bit of silliness. The looming question, of course, is why we haven’t sent in the drones already — but the answer to that question really isn’t hard to suss out.
In my opinion, Y’all Qaeda (thank you, Twitter) is a bunch of entitled, bigheaded white boys playing cowboy with the US government. They should be surrounded and starved into surrender, then taken into custody and tried for sedition. Likewise, it’s past time to bring Cliven Bundy up on charges for refusing to pay the fees that he owes. This affront to US sovereignty must not stand, but there is no need to resort to violence to resolve it. Not unless they shoot first.
It is necessary for a populace to be ready to revolt against an oppressive, tyrannical government, in order to keep that government honest. But we aren’t there yet, and there are still opportunities to see to it we never get there. The Oregon situation is just another death-throe of white privilege, a bunch of ignorant louts with guns and bugs up their asses but no legitimate gripe trying to throw their weight around. They aren’t patriots of any country I would associate with, and they must be dealt with firmly but justly by the real authorities, just as would be any other group that threatened violence against Americans and officers of the law. Any other response is an overreaction, or tacit reinforcement of existing structures of white privilege by a government that is supposed to be color-blind.