Alexander Reid Ross
The Malheur Rebellion took overnight control of all screen time throughout social media, and conversations about it quickly became pervasive. I felt compelled to go to the site and try to gain some perspective. I contacted Ben Jones, and we decided to go down together to get a sense of the people involved in the occupation to learn how to further organize against them. Although we were only in Burns for something like two days, taking only one trip to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, we spoke to a number of people, both community members and militiamen, and got a better feeling for how to approach the ridiculous and horrific scene.
What surprised us most was the fact that we spent twenty minutes walking through the Malheur Wildlife Refuge where the Bundys are currently holed up with a number of patriot movement volunteers. We saw no police, no feds, and no security. Perhaps it was our scamoflage, but it was profoundly puzzling for the two of us to walk around in a right-wing insurrection in broad daylight without any kind of alarms going off. However, according to recent reports, a new “security detail” has arrived “carrying rifles and sidearms and clad in military attire and bulletproof vests.” The Bundys were in a meeting, so we did not interview them, perhaps for the better. As Charlotte Roderique from the Burns Paiute tribe declared that morning, it was senseless “to dignify them” with that sort of attention.
Not that John Ritzheimer and Blaine Cooper deserve attention, either. However, we wanted a closer understanding what kind of people they were, who was in Burns, and how we can organize to stop them. What struck us as Ritzheimer went through his dogmatic rap about Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution was that his presentation of “liberating the land” for the use of the “local community,” the construction of the argument and even the precision of the rhetoric, seemed incredibly close to leftist discourse.
Besides that, their mission remains locked into the context of white supremacism, of “liberating land” for the ranchers and miners to carry on their business without regulations, restrictions, or accountability. For this purpose, they are met by their cohorts from Idaho, Montana, Arizona, and Alaska. One unique thing about this issue is that it is not Oregonians, but Threepers (Three Percenters) from other states.
The Threepers believe erroneously that only 3 percent of the original colonists participated in the 1776 Revolution. They see themselves as upholders of the revolution, rather than revolutionaries. There is an important truth to the rhetoric that cloaks the large distance between Left and Right.
The Right remains faithful to its reactionary credo, while the Left remains inherently progressive-not merely at face value, but on a deeper sense of emergent communities struggling to liberate themselves from a racist and colonial situation. That situation lies on one side of a disparate gap between rebellion and revolution. Whereas the Right seeks a rebellion against the federal government and a restoration of the original deal-the constitution as they interpret it-the Left seeks revolutionary transformation of the settler state premised on the rights of individual private property according to the productivist dogma of “Wise Use” and “waste.”
In this sense, the populist ideology of “land and liberty” fails completely, because it bears the traditional values of the Constitution, going back to the standard life, liberty, and the pursuit of property. The ideology of anti-government and anti-police also fails, because it establishes not community defense but armed paramilitaries and assault forces that go against the interests of local communities. Anarchists value the land for different reasons; we appreciate the land in itself, for itself, and seek to defend it from the interests of capitalist exploitation. Like most of the Burns community, we uphold everyday people’s rights to maintain their way of life against psychotic militiamen and federal intervention.
After interviewing some six different militiamen, we noticed a few general trends.
- The militiamen did not come from the local communities; they came largely from Arizona, California, Idaho, and Montana. With this in mind, it is difficult to locate an “Oregon Patriot Movement” as an agent in this “standoff.”
- Outside of a few people, the reality there is not really a militaristic professionalism, in spite of the fact that many of those there have arms and perhaps even come from that background (or are pretending to do so).
- The militiamen also claim to be standing up for the ranchers, but aren’t all really ranchers. Ritzheimer told us he doesn’t know the first thing about ranching, but he wants ranchers who have “harmonized” with the land to have a bigger say than college graduates at the BLM. While this is certainly populist talk, to repeat, the populist movement does not actually seem genuine. Instead, it appears that the militia continually taps into a growing marginal fringe.
While at the compound and in Burns, we noticed at least three basic personality types coming from the small, but growing, fringe. Their commonalities are that they seem truly “ready to die.” They are believers, but their commitment also locates them, to some extent, on the apparently informal loose chain of command.
The Predator: John Trudell, the famous Native poet and activist, used to speak about a “predator spirit” that exists in the colonial context of the US. The Predator is single minded, hateful, ruthless, cold, efficient, and fanatical. He is certain of his task, he has made up his mind, and acted on his convictions. He inspires others by nature of his austere discipline, and the “top dog” way that he takes others on his team down a notch, either through reprimand or a jocular insult.
The True Believer: These guys look dotingly to the Predator for condescending appreciation. They are wide-eyed devotees, and their autonomous capacities are questionable. Although they seem almost naive and emotional, they commit some of the most atrocious acts, simply out of the desire to be appreciated and even loved. For their acts, they are equipped by top dogs to look and feel like part of the hierarchy.
The Low-Bagger: Just like any movement, the white supremacist movement has its low-baggers. These guys are the militiamen who come from all over, and are largely disorganized. They are attracted to the anti-authoritarian appeal of some aspects of the militia movement, and are more into booze, pot, and women than they are militant discipline and brutality. However, ideologically, they are not “true believers” so much as they are skeptics and often wingnut conspiracy theorists who can think their way around justifying attacks against the state and minorities in some, though not all, instances.
“Low bagger” is generally a term for a kind of traveler who contribute to activities where needed. For small movements with limited local support, low-bagging can be extremely helpful and even crucial. The low baggers who are part of the militia movement seem to have relatively low commitment to the “cause,” and are more drawn to the lifestyle of danger and rebellion. It is tempting to suggest that the Left could be winning them over. However, the question becomes not “do we want to court low-commitment members of the Right,” but “is it possible to cut the cord between them and the militias, and attempt to show them the errors of conspiratorial thinking of white supremacism and the corporate private property ideology?”
To do this, it seems important to continue to sharpen distinctions between us and the Patriot movement. This does not mean debating them or giving too much attention to their causes. It means allying with Black people and other communities of color, as well as Indigenous peoples and other disenfranchised people struggling for collective liberation, including rural white opponents and potential-opponents of militia activity.
Though the “anti-authoritarian” streak is strong in the militias, and the rebellious broken hierarchies are awkwardly personality driven and non-militaristic, the militias’ power is reinforced by the institutional repression that backs them up. In particular, that support comes from the white supremacy of the government that would ruthlessly destroy similar dissent from communities of color. It also comes from the media, which offers them control over the stream of images, giving them full attention and preferable treatment by covering up their cracks and hypocrisies, rather than focus equal attention on other key problems (such as the awful methane leak in California). By fighting against institutional repression, we might also be able to create space for honest discussions of reactionary activity and how to confront it.
The Patriot movement’s twisting of the narrative toward “white civil rights” and anti-oppression directed toward the “abolishment” of the BLM is also important to fight-even while we continue to propose the kind of response that anarchist thinker Shawn Wilbur has been writing about, such as alternative approaches to land management. In my recent anthology, Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab, I observed the rising conflict of extremes after the housing market crash, and compiled a number of essays by leading thinkers and organizers such as Keisha-Khan Perry, Noam Chomsky, and Vandana Shiva contemplating alternative approaches to land grabs, federal land management and “market based solutions.” These contributors call for solidarity, an end to extractive and exploitative economies, and what Javier Sethness-Castro calls ” ecological self-management .” There must be an “abolition,” but this general abolition must extend to the abolition of prisons, deportations, and capitalism, in favor of not just land redistribution by a central authority, but autonomous autogestion, producing for one another in the spirit of mutual aid.
The militiamen use the term “abolishment” intentionally as though it was connected to the abolition of slavery; it fits into their vocabulary of pseudo-anti-oppression and anti-authoritarianism. However, the error here is important, in that it attempts to ignore the unjust inequalities in treatment that give white people greater privileges over non-white people, despite the universal claims of civil rights. The narrative of “white rights” and “reverse racism” is only a dressed up version of “white power” that the media prefers. Strong opposition to these terms of discourse is important to provide an adequate reframing of the discussions taking place in society.
Serious work is happening on the ground by the Rural Organizing Project (ROP), which organizes against militias, mapping it out strategically, and organizing with local communities, we need to take these factors into account. The 1,001 opinions on the internet remain important, but the fact remains: the opinions on the ground matter the most, and the local base for militias doesn’t exist in Burns, and their dissent is given expression thanks in part to groups like ROP. Militias require outside assistance to maintain these kinds of occupations, which means they are still parachute-type situations that rely on low baggers who bring all kinds of problems to their group, such as fist-fights, binge drinking, and lies. Accountability to the local community seems important to the militias on the surface, but really the point is to gain attention and to do what the left calls “raising consciousness” in order to spread their movement. Their hope is that eventually, once they occupy one place, others will begin to occupy areas in their regions. In reality, they are disempowering the local community.
In many of these problems, the Left can recognize some of its own embarrassing realities, and learn from their mistakes instead of simply ridiculing them while repeating the same errors. Without a base of support from the community, and because they are propped up by institutional oppression, this hope for a spread of their actions is cast in a kind of faith in a spiritual awakening. Rizheimer told us that more people from Burns did not join them, because they are afraid. In spite of the fact that neither the community nor local law enforcement supports them, they have a psychological complex of success-they have accomplished a foothold in a longer narrative that stretches back not just to the Sugar Pine mine and the Bundy Ranch, but the anti-immigrant movement in Arizona, and other extremist interventions in mainstream political life. The narrative goes back to Ruby Ridge, Waco, and even the 1979 Sagebrush Rebellion. It is, then, an inter-generational movement with something like an “activist” mentality.
As we left the compound, we saw two younger people sitting by a fire. One looked like a back-woods low bagger and the other, a young woman with hair dyed blue. Were they journalists, or were they fringe Cascadian bioregionalists unsure as to whether or not they supported insurrection by any means against the federal government? In either case, the symbolic effect rang true, because we have seen too many comrades publicly consider supporting the ranchers and vigilantes.
We need the Cascadians, moderates, and anti-statists of every variety to come out directly against the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation and all other occupations motivated by colonial narratives lodged in racism and the interests of capital. We also need to be respectfully and responsibly introspective about the small ways in which we perpetuate what Joel Olson called “white democracy” in everyday life. The racists, Islamophobes, and lunatics involved are clearly manipulating our rhetoric for the use of big business and private interests. Their hope-to bring down the government by enshrining the corporate state even further through the sacralization of the patriot movement and its would-be martyrdom-remains the enemy of all we stand for.
While we empathize with many people in Burns who distrust of the FBI, police, and federal government, we also agree with their higher levels of animosity toward the Bundys for bringing those forces to bear in their community. We believe that the far right is ultimately not the government’s responsibility to deal with. Antifascists must organize to stop the spread of the far right with local communities, because no one else will.
Special thanks to Ben Jones for his crucial contributions to this essay. Also, if you are interested in supporting the local community of Burns, Oregon, contact the Rural Organizing Project, which has been doing excellent work throughout Oregon for many years.
This commentary was originally posted at the It’s Going Down blog.