Thursday, January 7, 2016

Terrorists or Yahoos Oregon Standoff Raises Questions—Part I

Aamon Bundy, leader of the armed band who boldly sized a Bird Sanctuary.

Well we are sliding into nearly a week of the now infamous Malheur National Wildlife Refuge take over by a gaggle of dudes with military style weapons and hunting rifles.  The national media has covered the event with semi-seriousness while the highly polarized social media and blog-o-sphere is divided between paeans of praise for the stalwart patriots and scathing ridicule of the clownish operation and the self-dramatizing heroes-of-the-movie-in-their-own-minds strutting their way around daring someone to knock the chip off their shoulders.
Oh, and there has been an equal divide on what to do about them ranging from ignore-them-and-they-will-go-away-when-they-get-bored-and-cold to a full scale military attack on armed insurrectionists.

Whooping cranes usually cause all of the excitement at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

For their part the Feds seemed to be content to lay back and see what unfolds.  They made no overt move to seal off the bird sanctuary headquarters claimed by the boys as their potential Alamo for several days.  A few Federal Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Agents stayed mostly discretely in the background.  Harney County Sheriff’s deputies were the most visible law enforcement on the roads leading to the remote sanctuary building.  The FBI was called in, but has been reluctant to act in haste.  Just yesterday it was announced that roads will be sealed, power turned off, and telephone lines cut.  Rumors that that arrest warrants for at least five self-proclaimed leaders including sons of Clive Bundy, the Nevada rancher who provoked another armed standoff over federal grazing rights earlier this year, have been circulating but are unconfirmed.
Despite outward appearances, I am sure that the FBI has quietly been both on the ground and assembling intelligence by monitoring patriot and militia social media chatter, e-mail, and cell phones.  Through use of high technology like heat detection they probably have a precise figure on how many are actually in or around the captured building—something that the media has offered wildly different estimates of.  Some reports early in the week put the figure as high as 150 surely a huge exaggeration which counted supporters loitering publicly near-by.  Others put the figure as low as a dozen or so.  The most recent vague estimates given by the Sheriff’s office are less than 20.
Some of those looked impressively military posing for pictures at the start of the occupation in complete camo uniforms complete with body armor vests and assault rifles.  Bundy and his pals, however, showed up in cowboy hats, Levis, and boots like they were auditioning for Brokeback Mountain.  Despite a lot of dramatic chest thumping about “staying as long as it takes” and being “ready to die” it is questionable just how effective a fighting force they would be or how well planned their operation really was.
That was called into question and opened to ridicule when an early communication went out begging for snacks to be sent to a mail address of an off-site supporter. 
Like a lot of right-wing zealots the supposedly fearless freedom warriors have very thin skins and easily bruised feelings.  For instance, they don’t like to be called terrorists.  A lot of the right-wing media and other patriot organizations which officially denounce or try to distance themselves from the action none-the-less echo the denial of terrorism.  The group was “driven to it” by a power mad government even if they chose an unfortunate way of acting out, according to the widely parroted response.  Their armed occupation has been compared to civil rights sit-ins as a form of protest that should be respected ignoring the fact that the tradition of non-violent civil disobedience does not include being armed.  The squatters are even lauded for conducting a peaceful protest because they haven’t shot anyone yet, just threatened to.

John Ritzheimer, an Arizonan who recently staged an armed demonstration in front of a Mosque, was one of the outsiders who responded to Bundyy's call for Patriot volunteers.  He was widely mocked for posting this melodramatic "good bye" to his family.
But widespread mockery seems to have stung more.  Not only did a hundred Facebook memes bloom inspired by appeal for snacks, but the emotional video posted on-line by Arizona zealot John Ritzheimer bidding his family goodbye because he expected a martyr’s death was lampooned as a pitiful echo of those made by suicide bombers.  He was even asked if he expected to find “100 cousins” in paradise instead of the 100 virgins promised a dead jihadist.
That was only the tip of the iceberg mocking the gunmen as rubes and yokels.  They collected disparaging new names as fast as snarky commentators could typeY’all Qaeda, Vanilla ISIS, Hee Hawdists, Yokel Haram, Talibundy, and Meal Team Six were just a sampling of the knee slapping monikers hung on them.  And apparently the boys really, really don’t like it at all.  They feel disrespected.  They rage against the “liberal elites” who slander them.
The whole thing would be ridiculous and funny if it was not so explosively dangerous.  The Bundys and the likes of Ritzheimer come out of a cultural tradition in which honor is a fragile thing that can be lost at the slightest slur unless it is vigorously—and even physicallydefended.  It is the culture that gave duels, feuds, and wars.  We have seen how cultural resentment at perceived slights has helped move many poor and working class whites to barely suppressed rage and support for the lies of the Tea Party, authoritarian charlatans like Donald Trump, and racist thugs like the Klan and patriot militias.  If these guys feel belittled enough, the urge to lash out might become irresistible.

One of the many social media memes ridiculing the gunmen.

A more serious criticism—although one not without its own mockery—comes from the claim that the occupiers want to somehow regain land rights to open grazing, logging, and mining that was somehow stripped from them by Federal bureaucrats and an unconstitutional government.  This is despite the generous grazing subsidies already offered on Federal land and various loans and benefit programs that the Bundys and others have been documented as taking advantage of.  Essentially they are demanding more free stuff and greater privilege. 
But the land was not just whisked out from under the noses of the locals like the father and son who were convicted of arson for starting forest fires to cover up their illegal poaching, the alleged cause célèbre which inspired the seizure.  Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was established way back in 1902 by none other than Republican President Theodore Roosevelt to save migratory waterfowl populations threatened by plume hunting for ladies’ hats.  Not only did the preservation succeed in that goal, the Refuge has become one of the richest avian and wildlife environments in the northern United States and a crown jewel of the whole system.  It is also an important local employer and the engine of a booming birder and eco-tourism economy.

Some of the Northern Paiute eventually returned to live near Burns, Oregon although they had no remaining land rights.  This group was photographed there in the early 20th Century.

Of course Roosevelt preserved for public use lands which had already been stolen from their original inhabitants.  In some sort of karmic serendipity January 5 was the 137th anniversary of when 500 Northern Paiutes were expelled from the land in shackles and forced to march more than 300 miles through deep snow to the Yakima Reservation in Washington in 1878.  So if anyone has right to claim the Refuge as “our land,” it is the surviving Paiute.
As the Feds gin up to take greater action, only three scenarios seem possible—the occupiers get cold, hungry, bored, and discouraged and try to find some face saving excuse to end the farce soon; they settle in for a long siege and are forced into an humiliating surrender when they are absolutely spent and exhausted; or a combination of short fuses and miscalculations on either side leads to deadly confrontation.
Exactly how dangerous are these guys?  They remind me of old and crystallized dynamite.  They could remain inert and essentially harmless indefinitely.  Or the slightest jar could set off the highly unstable explosives at any minute.
The event has raised many questions of fairness.  Many have pointed out that if the protestors were Black, Brown, or Red or if they were Islamic they would have immediately been declared terrorists and already have been subject to overwhelming and violent force.  Some pooh-pooh that idea and say that the Feds have only been prudent in so far trying to end the stand-off without casualties.  Both points of view seem valid.
Perhaps it would be useful to do a quick review of the history of the use of military force against protestors armed and otherwise in this country.  For this purpose we will ignore actions by local police, sheriff’s deputies, and state police which have been too numerous to list, especially against strikers and minorities who have been labeled as rioters.  We will limit our review to major deployments and use of state militia or National Guard or Federal Troops.
Come back tomorrow for Part II and that historic review.

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