Tuesday, January 5, 2016

“Captain Moroni” and “Y’all-Qaeda”: Why the Armed Standoff in Oregon Is Being Mishandled—or, Rather, Not Handled at All

Back in spring of 2014, I wrote in this space about the armed confrontation in southern Nevada led by the extremist Mormon rancher Cliven Bundy.  He was in serious arrears for grazing fees on federal land and hit upon the idea that he didn’t have to pay them at all because his family had become owners of the land through “pre-emptive rights and beneficial use” (similar, ironically, to arguments used by radical leftists against absentee landlords in Latin American land-reform movements).  Federal agents arrived to confiscate his cattle in accordance with the law, but he and hundreds of armed supporters, including snipers and wielders of automatic weapons, stood their ground until finally the feds backed off.  Bundy never did have to pay those grazing fees.  I warned at the time that this would embolden future libertarian and anti-government militants.  And just last week I opined in my annual round-up article “Ten Separatist Movements to Watch in 2016” that the rise of the Republican Party’s far-right extremist frontrunner for the presidential nomination, Donald Trump, would further inspire anti-government demonstrations and siege situations.  I was not pessimistic enough to think that I would be proven correct so soon, but events in Oregon this week have brought not just anti-government militancy, but the Bundy family in particular, back into the news.

Cliven Bundy in Nevada in 2014
On January 2nd, a group of armed militiamen led by three of Bundy’s fourteen (!) children took over a complex of administrative buildings on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon, near the town of Burns.  The events began with the imprisonment of two Oregon ranchers, Dwight and Steve Hammond, charged with arson on federal lands that are administered by the United States federal government’s Bureau of Land Management (B.L.M.).  The Hammonds and their supporters claimed to be managing invasive plants with the burns; others say they set fires to destroy evidence of their illegal poaching; but no one disputes that they broke the law, and, as laws go, arson is a serious one.  The charges against them came under anti-terrorism provisions as well, since the Hammonds had repeatedly threatened authorities with violence.

The Bundy family took up the Hammonds’ cause and publicized it among the vast network of local right-wing extremist militias that have proliferated over the past several decades in rural America, but especially whenever Democrats are in the White House.  Last month they organized a “Committee of Safety” (using language from the American Revolution), which they proclaimed as a “a governmental body established by the people in the absence of the ability of the existing government to provide for the needs and protection of civilized society.”

Some Three-Percenters with their flag (not a scene from this week’s standoff)
Ammon and Ryan Bundy, accompanied by members of the anti-government “Three-Percenters” militia (including Jon Ritzheimer, a celebrity in the militia world who rails against Muslims and had been kicked out of the Oath Keepers hate group in Arizona), took over several buildings on the wildlife preserve and set up roadblocks.  The occupiers of the buildings, calling themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, claimed initially they numbered 150 people, later revised to 20 or 25, but that has not been confirmed.  There are possibly “no more than a dozen” of them, according to one reporter.

Ammon and Ryan Bundy
It is also unclear what role the Bundy family’s conservative Mormonism may play in the ideological stew of white supremacism, anarcho-libertarianism, firearms fetishism, and good-ol’-boy frontier mentality that informs this mini-movement.  One activist in the occupied building who spoke to the media identified himself only as “Captain Moroni, from Utah.”  Some observers think that this nom de guerre is a “dogwhistle” directed at Mormons who will recognize the reference to the figure of the same name in the Book of Mormon who rallied the Nephites (a fictional ancient tribe, supposedly a remnant of the Lost Tribes of Israel who migrated to the New World) against the corrupt King Amalickiah under a flag called the “Title of Liberty.”  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has already issued a statement saying that “this armed occupation can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis.”  But what else would they say?  And even Cliven Bundy told media that the current occupation is “not exactly what I thought should happen.”

Captain Moroni with the Title of Liberty flag, from an L.D.S. illustration
The standoff is ongoing, and it is clearly about more than just the Hammonds (who began their sentence yesterday in a Los Angeles prison).  Ammon Bundy says the protesters will not leave until “the federal government ... give[s] up its unconstitutional presence in this county.”  They also point out that they are against the whole idea of federal wildlife refuges.  In the words of David M. Ward, sheriff of Harney County, where the standoff is occurring, “These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers, when in reality these men had alternative motives, to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.”

A scene from the 2014 Nevada standoff.  Note t-shirt with “baker’s apostrophe.”
In fact, “standoff” is hardly an appropriate word for the situation, since there is no visible physical response by law enforcement to the occupation whatsoever.  It is not clear who, if anyone, and at what level, is issuing “stand down” orders, but authorities are giving the occupied buildings a very wide berth, despite state police command centers far away in Burns and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s claims that they are on the case.

A special Oregon version of the Gadsden (“Don’t Tread on Me”) flag
on display in Harney County this week
Given how heavily armed the occupiers are, this is quite astonishing, and more than one observer has pointed out that if, say, radical Muslims or Black nationalists were occupying those buildings, all of Harney County would be a glowing crater by now.  When the Black nationalist organization MOVE was involved in a similar standoff in Philadelphia in 1985, the city government bombed the neighborhood, destroying 65 homes and killing eleven people, including five children.  When anti-government members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) set up an armed encampment at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973, President Richard Nixon sent in the army—the only time the U.S. military has been deployed against U.S. citizens on U.S. territory since the Civil War.  Some also wonder why the media is so hesitant to call the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom (dubbed by social-media wags as “Y’all-Qaeda” or “Vanilla ISIS” and as “yee-haw-dists”) a terrorist group, and wonder if the term terrorist, as it is actually used, has more to do with people’s skin color or religion than with how armed and dangerous they are.

Philadelphia, 1985: what happens to armed protest encampments if you’re black
The White House said yesterday that President Barack Obama was monitoring the situation and that “this is a local law enforcement matter.”  In fact, that statement is not correct.  Crimes committed on federal property are a federal matter, but the federal government has decided not to enforce the law itself—just as it declined to do a year and half ago at Bundy’s ranch in Nevada.  As Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center (S.P.L.C.), an organization which monitors militias and hate groups, put it, the Bundys in 2014 “were emboldened by their ability to run federal officials off at the point of a gun.  Now, a year and half later, there have been no prosecutions whatsoever.  Pointing a gun at a federal officer is a crime.”  Clearly, the Obama administration fears a confrontation that could spin out of control, like the ones at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1993 (three dead) and at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, in 1994 (86 dead, including children).  Those events became recruiting bonanzas for the increasingly widespread and angry right-wing militia movement across the U.S.

The Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, in 1994
Certainly, it is true that leaving the occupiers alone, not allowing anyone else in, and waiting for them to run out of food and surrender is among the more peaceful ways to end the conflict.  If nothing else, there aren’t even any police visible to shoot at.

Is that a Nazi salute, or is he just showing people where the port-a-potties are?
On the other hand, the message the authorities are sending militias is that they have more or less free rein to take over federal facilities without opposition.  Believe me, they will take us up that invitation.

[Thanks to Jeremy Appleton and Anna Reynolds for alerting me to sources consulted for this article.]

[You can read more about right-wing militias, the American Indian Movement, Black nationalists, and other sovereignty and independence movements both famous and obscure in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]


  1. This type of comparisons you used are what is called cherry-picking and false analogy. In what way exactly is the 1985 Philadelphia bombing similat to the current event? The fact that both involved armed groups? Well, there are hundreds of armed group. The dissimilarities are more numerous, to point out the most relevant one: 1 happen in a major urban center; the other in a remote location dozens of miles from any residential area. That alone, is legit reason for different law enforcement response. A better comparison: Waco; but that undermines your point, doesn´t it? That's called bias.

    Wounded Knee incident? It was attempted coup against the Tribe president. It lasted for months before the government stormed. In Oregon, after few hours folks were yelling "racist double stadard". Oh, and Nixon was president, not Obama, so it is not quite double standard and more like different standards from different people.

    Want a cross-racial comparison? How about the recent armed protests by black panthers? The few media that even bother to report were calling them armed protesters, just like the Oregon guys. And the police did not bother them. Do you want us to believe that they would have overreacted had the panthers walked into a building in the middle of the forest instead?

    This kind of thinking - which seems to be a consensus in certain circles - is primarily proof of bias and group thinking, nothing more.

    1. You destroyed your own point. One the MOVE organization wasn't occupying Federal land. Two, YES, they were in a residential area where thousands of people lived and the government BOMBED them. A totally ridiculous and egregious response given the circumstances. Finally, being armed and protesting are both legal actions. Taking over Federal land is not. The Black Panthers were doing nothing wrong.

  2. You may have a point. I notice you're reluctant to endorse the "militia," to pick a word. So, do I care? Government is still one of the crown jewels of civilization. Or maybe we should just let any group of "men with guns," take what they want. And call it "freedom."


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