Right now, the country is caught up in the conversation about gun violence, gun control and foreign terrorism. The white militias across the U.S. are taken for granted if they don’t do something immediately dangerous.
What on earth is happening in Oregon?
Political scientist Judy Garber explains what’s going on with the protesters occupying a remote wildlife preserve and why, so far, they’ve been largely left alone.
By BRIDGET STIRLING
When a group of armed men opposed to public land ownership, led by Ammon Bundy, took over a remote federal wildlife refuge building in Oregon on January 2, 2016, people were alarmed, but also confused. For many outside the United States, the situation made no sense. Why would a group protesting what they see as government suppression of private property rights commandeer a little-used office without evident strategic purpose?
Judy Garber, associate professor of in the University of Alberta's Department of Political Science, is an expert on U.S. politics and the political use of public space. She’s been following the media coverage of the occupation—at least what there is of it.
“There’s not as much of a conversation as there should be,” she notes. Pulling out her phone, she browses a feed from a major U.S. newspaper. In the actual news section, the coverage is minimal, with most of the related stories falling under the opinion section. “Right now, the country is caught up in the conversation about gun violence, gun control and foreign terrorism. The white militias across the U.S. are taken for granted if they don’t do something immediately dangerous.”
Unlike in the past, when militia occupations have grabbed big headlines, the attention of the American public is currently focused more on other themes, especially with President Barack Obama’s newly announced gun control measures. And in the context of big policy and ideological discussions about guns and violence by police and citizens, the occupation hasn’t attracted much interest from the average American. “It’s bad timing.”
Part of the reason for the lack of serious anxiety about the incident in the U.S. is the nature of this occupation.
'A puny threat'
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is 48 kilometres from the nearest city, Burns, Oregon, which has a population of about 2,800 people. And though it is a federal facility, the building is used for environmental education programs, visitor services and research office space, as well as a small museum.
The men occupying the building have firearms, but they haven’t taken any hostages, no children are present and, at least so far, nobody has shot anyone. Along with that, they seem to be poorly equipped and ill prepared for a lengthy occupation; satirical news shows are mocking the group for putting calls out over social media for supplies such as snacks, energy drinks and gear.
“It’s kind of a puny threat,” Garber says, explaining why federal officials haven’t mounted a raid or otherwise attempted to remove the men from the facility. She lists a number of factors that usually lead to a government response to these incidents in the U.S.: beyond guns or explosives being involved, governments act when the protest is judged to be too disruptive to the society at large, begins making a mockery of state power or endangers women and children. Unless these factors come into play, government may not perceive much immediate threat.
The lack of threat is part of the reason for inaction, but Garber says other factors also affect whether governments respond. “Institutionally, structurally, the police aspect of the state is wired to react with alarm to people already seen as threatening,” she explains. “Were these Muslims, other minority cultural groups, undocumented immigrants—I assume the response would be different.”
Garber says there is often a double standard to how the U.S. government responds. Urban standoffs, for example, are sure to get a reaction. Since the 1970s, police have breached and destroyed various compounds of a Philadelphia black liberation group, resulting in many deaths, including that of a police officer.
That doesn’t mean that white militias always get a pass when it comes to armed occupations. Garber mentions notable examples at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, where confrontation with white militia groups led to fatalities in the early 1990s. However, in both of those incidents, more complex circumstances such as the presence of children, direct threats against others, reports of weapons stockpiles and other elements played a role. Violence also occurs more often when groups are highly isolated: “The bigger the walls they erect, the more unknowns, the more likely the clash.”
Whose property is it anyway?
She also notes incidents in Canada and the U.S. where Indigenous communities had standoff conflicts with authorities—some of which, including Ipperwash and Oka, resulted in deaths. At the root of many of these conflicts is a dispute over who has control of land.
“It’s about challenging the regime of land ownership, private and public. Who owns property, who else has rights and who has the authority to decide.”
In the case of militia groups, there’s an appeal to the idea that natural law and the U.S. constitution prioritize private property rights. “They connect their rights to what they claim they didn’t surrender or mistakenly surrendered.” These groups tend to believe that their interpretations of the Constitution and other founding documents, along with their religious beliefs, take priority over legislation. (Similar groups in Canada, such as the Freemen on the Land, tend to look to the Magna Carta and British maritime law.)
The interpretation of U.S. law by the courts has fed into this belief that their rights are sacrosanct. Garber says that recent readings of the Constitution’s Second Amendment by the U.S. Supreme Court feed militia members’ views that they have the right to defend what they see as their property with guns, even when that property happens to be federal land. Adding into this is a tendency in the U.S. to see private property as sacrosanct, as supported by the Fifth Amendment. “The structure already supports what they’re looking for.”
Still, groups such as the Bundys are dissatisfied. “They want to be completely out of reach of the long arm of the state.” She notes that the current tone in right-wing U.S. politics at least somewhat supports their view and that, in particular, many Republican presidential candidates are feeding into this sentiment.
In some ways, militia groups are reacting to the same sense of inequality that has spurred other movements in recent years. Though she strongly disagrees with their tactics and attitudes, Garber says militia members may be acting in response to income inequality in the U.S.: “They see themselves as disenfranchised in the structure of wealth and power in the hands of the few. And they are angry about losing some of their white, patriarchal privilege through social and political change.”
But when it comes to whether this kind of tactic is effective, Garber is unequivocal. “Do these acts get people what they want? Never.”