“Domestic Terrorism” and the Master’s Tools

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” ~ Audre Lorde

The Bundy’s and the BLM

Angry White Men with Guns™ have occupied commonly held land, claiming once again, public space for their private use. And generally that is the history of this entire settler colony (and much of the world), but today’s headlines refer to the Bundy brothers , who with fellow militia members, have laid siege to the federal Malheur Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon.

The immediate impetus for this action was ostensibly protest of the federal sentencing of local ranchers, Dwight and Steve Hammond, who returned to prison Monday. The Hammonds were convicted of two arsons on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land; one was designed to cover up evidence of deer poaching on government land, the second they claimed was to create an back-burn against impending wildfires. The Hammonds were sentenced under the enhanced arson provision of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. In one of this stories’ many ironies, this provision was added largely in response to radical environmental groups like Earth Liberation Front – deemed eco-terrorists by the FBI – who were using fires to destroy the property of capitalist industries who profited from environmental destruction.

But the Bundy occupation has been disavowed by both locals and the Hammonds, and frankly the case seems just a ruse to pursue their on-going efforts to privately profit from publicly held lands. Their target of the moment is again the BLM. Their father Cliven came to national attention after an armed stand-off over his failure to pay more than $1 million in fines and fees for grazing his cattle on publicly held, BLM managed land.

Burning irony #2: the BLM has long been criticized for allowing private interests to profit heavily from the use of public lands. Cattle ranchers – like the Bundys and Hammonds – have been major beneficiaries of this practice. A recent study, Costs & Consequences: Real Price of Grazing on Public Lands, by the Center for Biological Diversity, documented what critics have long know: grazing on public lands is more or less free. The BLM charges ranchers $1.69 per animal unit (e.g. one cow and a calf) for one month of grazing. This is 93% less than the market rate.

Beyond this, the environmental costs are immeasurable. Endless rancher demands for more cattle grazing on public lands threatens ecosystems, endangered species, and is the impetus for on-going battles over Yellowstone bison, free- ranging wild horses and burros, and the wolf. Far from being the ‘enemy”, the BLM has arguably been a hand-maiden to cattle ranching interests -offering low cost leases, and rounding up, corralling and sometimes slaughtering the indigenous inhabitants of these regions.

But like the Sagebrush Rebellion before it, the current resistance is not satisfied with the BLM’s largess. Lurking just behind the anti-government political rhetoric is the real motive – unfettered capitalism and the “right” of the Bundy’s and other Angry White Men with Guns™ like them to privatize everything. This is the illogic that underlies on-going destruction of the social and natural commons both macro and micro, evidenced in enclosure, settler colonialism, the right libertarianism of the Kochs and their ilk, and the trophy hunting crimes of the Walter Palmers of the world.

But What Do We Call Them?

Entitled and odious, Yes. But are these “terrorists”? That is the response that liberals are lobbying the government for, and, certainly, there is some satisfaction in seeking equal opportunity labeling. The rhetorical question has been raised by trite headlines – “What if the Oregon Protesters Were Black or Muslim? Debate Ensues” and both past and present tell us the answer. But the Oregon protesters are not Black or Muslim, and one must consider the long term implications of insisting that be they be labeled too with the worst the state has to offer. One response – Margaret Corvid at Jacobin – notes this:

The response from many progressives has been loud: clamoring for the world to call the Oregon gunmen terrorists. And while that term is a fraught one, it is essential for us to raise our voices, contrasting how the state and media treat these gunmen with how they treat the black women, children, and men gunned down by police, or the protesters that fight against police violence. Similarly, rebuking media who call the Oregon gunmen “protesters” offers an important corrective to widespread Islamophobia in the press.

But what we must not do is call for the police to move in with the tear gas and rubber bullets of Ferguson and Baltimore, or the live rounds of MOVE or Wounded Knee, because equal injustice is not justice done.

Yes racialized double standard pervade the story of the Oregon occupation ( in fact pervade nearly all of American life), but to say so does not immediately lead one to the conclusion that the Bundys and company must be labeled as “terrorists”. This brings us to another yet of ironies as observed by Jedediah Purdy of The New Yorker:

Quite understandably, the sight of armed white men laying claim to public land when black children are shot for brandishing toy guns has drawn the discussion of the Malheur occupation to race, but much of what has been said is too simple. The deaths of Western separatists in standoffs with federal agents in the nineteen-nineties at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, show that there is no clear-cut white immunity. But the occupiers’ sense of dispossession is fraught with racial and other ironies. Harney County was largely Paiute land until the Civil War, and later settler pressure and violence eroded the tribe’s claim to lands that were nominally reserved to it…

American vigilantism is never racially innocent. Its two parents are self-mobilization on the frontier, usually against Native Americans at a time when homesteading was reserved to whites, and the racial terror of the Ku Klux Klan in the South during and after Reconstruction. It is too much to call the occupiers “domestic terrorists,” as the Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh or the Klan were, but it is also obtuse to ignore the special comfort that certain white men have using guns as props in their acts of not-quite-civil disobedience. After all, guns were how they acquired their special sense of entitlement to public lands in the first place.

Finally, to call the Bundy’s terrorists, to call the full power of the state against them, is but a fleeting satisfaction that brings with it significant blow-back. The power of the state always – despite a few exceptions – is deployed in the protection of both whiteness and property. The “terror” frame – like the “hate” frame ( see Kay Whitlock’s seminal work from “In a Time of Broken Bones” through Considering Hate) reifies the notion of violence as the work of individual extremists versus systems, and calls on the inherent violence of state policing and punishment to solve the issue. In an era where “terror” and “terrorists” are terms typically applied to those at the margins, the acceptance and promotion of the term and related anti-terror tactics will not be readily applied to other Angry White Men with Guns™. No, any precedent set will be applied to the next Occupation of Wall Street or Wounded Knee or the Fourth Precinct or a public highway by the left.

The “domestic terror” frame has already been honed and developed here with reference to those who resist the endless exploitation of people, animals, the earth by capitalism and the state power which upholds this. Stop fighting the power with the frames they invented. Stop asking for “justice” from the system that is killing us.

Stop calling for an expansion of the master’s tools.

Call instead for their abolition. Imagine instead another frame.