Whenever a large group of middle-class white people in their 40s gather and complain about their lives not being easy enough, I’m reminded of a child throwing a temper tantrum on Christmas morning because their parents bought them the wrong color iPhone. And just as it’s best to ignore the kid until he gets tired and starts playing with his new toy anyway while you contemplate your failures as a parent, you can usually wait these sorts of things out until they go back home. Really, none of these people are even remotely prepared to stage a revolution. If you don’t believe me, ask the Tea Party.
It’s looking like that’s going to have to be the case with the militia that has occupied buildings on an Oregon wildlife refuge. If you haven’t been paying attention, Ammon and Ryan Bundy have formed a militia that came to the aid of the Hammonds, two ranchers convicted in 2012 of setting fire to public land adjacent to their property in the ironically named town of Burns, Oregon.
The two had already served time, but were ordered to go back to prison because they had not served the mandatory minimum for the terrorism statute under which they had been convicted.
This, along with a general displeasure toward federal land use popular among western conservatives, attracted the Bundy brothers, who brought a few of their friends and a lot of guns and decided to camp out in the temporarily unoccupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
When I say “a few friends” I actually mean “the roaming band of right-wing militiamen who travel around the States picking fights with the government over federal land use.” No, I’m not kidding.
One might say that this is a laughably childish and ineffective way of airing one’s grievances if it wasn’t so goddamn terrifying. Swelling their ranks are a motley crew of ranchers, mostly from out of state, who are sympathetic to their cause and presumably have a wealth of free time and weird ideas about how democracy works.
If the name “Bundy” rings a bell, that’s because the brothers are the sons of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who took part in another armed standoff in 2014 after he grazed his cattle on federal land but didn’t feel the need to pay the attendant fees. The federal government backed down, but not before a video of Bundy voicing some interesting views about “the Negro” surfaced online. At any rate, his sons seem to have made it their business to fix the problems they see in the way the federal government uses its power. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but going straight for the armed standoff route isn’t a highly advisable or sustainable model.
But aside from some generalized bitching about “tyranny” and other such stock phrases, it’s hard to get a clear picture of what their cause is. The Hammonds went on record saying they didn’t want anything to do with the militia before reporting to court for sentencing, so it’s not like they accomplished much there.
While watching the videos the group put online I heard soundbites about the “voice of the people” being ignored by the tyrannical federal government, but the irony is that the citizens of Burns have outright refused to join them, in spite of many sharing their views about land use. In fact, they’ve been pretty vocal about asking them to leave. Schools were closed for a time, people have been working from home, and many are afraid to leave their houses.
So what, really, do these people think they’re going to accomplish? Their main beef seems to be with the Bureau of Land Management in Washington. This is a sentiment shared by many in the Western states, where the federal government owns a lot of land and regulates its use pretty harshly. Many feel that the government-mandated environmental regulations hurt rural businesses like mining, logging and ranching.
I’m inclined to say that this regulation is for the greater good. I don’t claim to fully understand the issue, but it seems like preserving the planet should be pretty high on our list of important projects, considering we only have the one. The ranchers who’ve rallied around the Bundys certainly don’t seem to be in danger of losing their way of life if they can safely take weeks off from work to go take part in an armed standoff.
Furthermore, I’m not sure that these people know what the word tyranny even means. They claim to live under an oppressive government, and yet they have been allowed to run roughshod over this county while the Fed twiddles its thumbs for fear of turning this into another Waco.
If we lived under such an oppressive government the entire complex they’re occupying would have been reduced to smoldering ash by a drone strike before anyone heard of it in the first place. This is not to say that there are no oppressive or unfair or outright corrupt power structures in our country, it’s just that none of them target middle-class white people.
Much has been made of the government’s perceived leniency on this issue. As I mentioned earlier, federal law enforcement tends to handle these sorts of situations because of how quickly they can go south. The Branch-Davidian standoff in Waco is a frequently-cited example of what happens when you mishandle an armed standoff with a group of die-hards. Seeing the cops treat these people like Black Lives Matter protesters get treated is a tempting idea, but it turns out it’s a little more complicated than that.
Not only have the cowboys and self-styled liberators brought their guns, some of them have also brought their families. A recent New York Times article featured a little girl, apparently one of many children who have been brought by their families to learn about freedom and land rights. It becomes easier to understand the government’s reluctance to crack down when any action carries the possibility of injuring or killing innocents.
The fact that some of these people have brought children seems to indicate a peculiar mindset on the part of the occupiers. Presumably they are ready to kill and die for their cause, as evidenced by their many weapons currently trained on federal law enforcement. But they’ve also brought their wives and children.
Does this mean that they’re prepared to sacrifice the lives of their loved ones as well as their own? Do the women and children create a shield of potential collateral around them? Are the lives of children really an acceptable price to pay in the name of a land dispute? Perhaps the occupiers think so, but somehow I suspect that something else may be at work here. I think that, when it comes right down to it, none of these people have really thought these things through in their entirety.
Deep, deep down, many of these people don’t understand the potential consequences of their actions. Sure, they do a lot of grandstanding about the nature of freedom and how it’s better to die on one’s feet yada yada, but I don’t think they actually expect that to happen. In order to drag one’s child and spouse into what one claims to believe to be a potential battleground you either have to be a complete, irredeemable fanatic or impossibly naive about the nature of an armed standoff. I’m inclined to think it’s the latter, given their belief that they are oppressed while it’s obvious to everyone else that they’re being handled with the utmost delicacy so as not to startle the fragile occupiers.
In the end, the issue at stake here isn’t about federal land use, or mandatory minimums, or even whether or not it’s okay to occupy federal land. It’s not even an issue about whether or not these people are being treated too nicely, since I won’t presume to tell the Department of Justice how best to handle an armed standoff. The issue in question is whether or not a pseudo-insurgency like this has any power at all to effect social change. And they don’t. It’s no secret that the Oregon militia is pretty widely mocked, as evidenced by the Bundy brothers erotic fanfiction springing up on Twitter and the packages of sex toys they keep receiving from mischievous people with too much time on their hands.
Their problem is that, in modern times, you don’t really get to construct your own narrative. The Oregon militia may think of itself as a second-wave American Revolution, but if no one else thinks so then it doesn’t matter what they say or do. They simply won’t be taken seriously until they actually start shooting, which I sincerely doubt most of these people have the balls to do. And even if they do start shooting they’re not guaranteed to gain much support. Sure, some die-hards might join up, but they would probably just alienate the general public even more than they already have. And despite their claim to want to reform land use laws, not one single policy suggestion or reform idea has been suggested. It’s almost like they didn’t actually think this thing through.
These are people who think you can solve any problem by pointing enough guns at it, which isn’t actually that great of a persuasion tactic in that as soon as you relax you’re going to lose all the ground you’ve taken and suddenly have to deal with the consequences of your actions.
No, in the end the feds are gonna put on kid gloves, gently coax the occupiers out like they’re scared puppies in a rainstorm, and then club them all to death with subpoenas. Because as it turns out, our country has nonviolent institutions that deal with these exact situations so that we don’t have to worry about an armed insurrection every time some asshole doesn’t feel like paying his taxes.