The FBI and the Oregon State Police have arrested most of the leaders of the three-and-a-half-week armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. At least two militia members were shot during a highway traffic stop that turned into a shoot-out Tuesday night, and one militia leader – Robert “LaVoy” Finicum – was killed.
From its start, the Malheur occupation highlighted the social and political fault lines within the United States, drawing sharply conflicting reactions ranging from mockery to hero worship to criticisms of the capitalist and colonial underpinnings of the militia’s tactics and aims. Reactions to the shoot-out have also revealed even more fault lines, including divisions within the left, as some celebrate the downfall of the far-right-wing occupiers and others question how any progressive could ever celebrate the shooting of a civilian by the police.
Get our free emails
As the Malheur occupation fades into history, there are many insights on the US social and political landscape to be distilled both from this episode and from the national conversations it has sparked. One underreported aspect of the affair is what it revealed about the nature of the partial but significant overlaps between neo-Nazis and anti-federal-government activists like the Bundys.
The occupiers had been demanding the abolition of the federal government as we know it, using a set of rationales that were originally derived from racist movements. Some of the occupiers were known to spout anti-Semitic or Islamophobic conspiracy theories, while another denied that slavery existed. And so it should not have surprised anyone that neo-Nazis and other organized racists have applauded the occupation.
Instead of wearing a swastika and burning a cross, they were wrapped in the American flag and waving the Constitution.
Until their arrest, Ammon and Ryan Bundy (sons of deadbeat rancher Cliven Bundy) were leaders of the occupation of the refuge’s headquarters outside of Burns, Oregon, which had gone on since January 2. They had two demands: to remove control of the bird sanctuary (previously Indigenous-held land) from the federal government’s hands so that ranchers could use it for private gain without current environmental and other restrictions; and release two members of the Hammond family, local ranchers serving sentences for arson on public land.
Many of the ideas and political forms that Ammon Bundy and his friends used were derived from the 1970s white supremacist group Posse Comitatus. It promoted the formation of militias, developed a fictitious parallel legal world based on an idiosyncratic reading of the US Constitution, and rejected the authority of federal and state governments – claiming that the county sheriff was the highest legitimate elected official. But while Ammon Bundy and the others directly around him had many of the same ideas, they were careful not to use Posse Comitatus’ bigoted language.
This was not true of many of the Bundys’ followers at the refuge. Jon Ritzheimer, who was also arrested Tuesday night, is a famous Islamophobic organizer, known for his vicious rhetoric. Blaine Cooper once wrapped a Koran in bacon and set it on fire. Brand Thornton and David Fry are reported to hold anti-Semitic ideas. Ryan Payne (also arrested on Tuesday) believes that slavery didn’t exist. Rance Harris is said to have neo-Nazi tattoos like “88” – the alphanumeric code for “Heil Hitler.” And together they collectively offended the Burns Paiute Tribe (whose land used to include the refuge), by – among other things – breaking into an area where the tribe’s artifacts are stored.
So flirtatious overtures from neo-Nazis to the Bundy gang should not have surprised anyone.
At the beginning of the occupation, Andrew Anglin, publisher of the popular neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, wrote that, despite his relative disinterest in cattle-grazing laws, “when I see working class White men in a confrontation with the federal government, I simply assume that the federal government is wrong and the working men are right. Clearly, that is the case in this situation.” The next day he added, “I’m warming up to their issues a bit more. They do seem like good guys” – even though he wished they were “protesting these new Obama gun control measures.”
John Friend, a Holocaust denier, made a special trip to the Malheur refuge, where he interviewed several of the occupiers. He also wrote a glowing report about the armed occupation for the American Free Press, an anti-Semitic, white nationalist newspaper, which is one of the remaining parts of the Willis Carto empire. (Among his other achievements, Carto helped popularize Holocaust denial in the United States.)
The Traditionalist Youth Network, the reigning US youth group for nerdy 20-somethings who are into racism, took to Twitter to support the Bundy militia. They declared the Bundy action to be “civil disobedience” (the whole armed part apparently being neither here nor there), and claimed that leftists, who normally “romanticize” civil disobedience, “totally lose their shit (TERRORISM! ANARCHY!) when some white people do it.”
Taki’s Magazine is a home for folks whose views are largely in line with those of the Republican Party, except the party just isn’t bigoted enough for them. It ran a full propaganda push for the Bundy rebellion by Gavin McInnes, a cofounder of Vice magazine (though now gone), and contributor to the xenophobic, white nationalist website VDARE. Falsely claiming that the wildlife refuge was stolen from ranchers, McInnes called the Hammonds’ mandatory minimum arson sentences “an incredibly cut-and-dried example of the government oppressing the people because they want our stuff.” McInnes claims the liberal media hates the Bundy gang because they are white men who do “exactly what the Constitution says we should do.” (Somehow in my civics class I missed the amendment that specifies citizens’ obligation to get guns and occupy publicly owned bird sanctuaries. I’ll have to read it again.)
Hunter Wallace, writing for the popular white nationalist Occidental Dissent website, supported the Bundys’ attack on public lands. Complaining of “environmentalism run amok” – we can only assume their fantasy all-white world will have no need for polar ice caps – they attack the “truly insane levels” of Western federal land ownership, and “the extremes to which radical Greens in the Obama administration have discredited environmentalism,” by wanting to “block the Keystone Pipeline” and “halt drilling in the Arctic.” I certainly hope they are investing all of their movement’s funds in low-lying Pacific Island real estate.
Last, commentators on the famous neo-Nazi Stormfront website weighed in on the Bundy gang. As part of a long thread, some cheered them on to a military victory over the government. One comment, by “charlie894,” said, “Hopefully those men are super well prepared and can surprise the hell out of the gov[ernment] lackeys.” Meanwhile, “Volodyamyr” claimed the Hammonds’ arson convictions were a government plot to get the “large deposits of gold, silver and other metals” in the area that “Obama would rather … go to the Jews and our enemies instead of domestic industry. In other words, the Judeo-Bolsheviks want to push these people off their land, rape it for these metals, and leave a contaminated wasteland.”
The last comment in the thread was perhaps the most insightful. Recognizing their attraction as well as their differences, “Troy” says: “This is not the great white racial revolution. Is their cause righteous, from our point of view? Maybe. Probably.” Bemoaning the Bundys’ lack of explicit biological racism and possible commitment to some kind of egalitarianism and/or Christian Zionism, Troy nonetheless said, “We should all be glad of anything that threatens/angers/humiliates ZOG” (the “Zionist Occupied Government,” an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory), because it will help bring down the United States.
The irony is that the desire to incite a radical right-wing revolution that brings down the US government as we know it seemed to be the Bundy militia’s goal as well – only, instead of wearing a swastika and burning a cross, they tried doing it wrapped in the American flag and waving the US Constitution.