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Jan 11, 16

Interview with Spencer Sunshine on the Oregon Militia Occupation

Originally posted to It’s Going Down

The current Patriot Movement grows out of white-power influenced militias of the 1970s. While the current crop has attempted to distance themselves from White nationalism, it is still is made up of far-Right Islamophobes, conspiracy-theorists, anti-immigration activists, and others that straddle the fence between the Tea Party and White nationalism. Such groups often have a pull within the white working and middle classes, and represent an armed cadre of (largely) ex-service men and former police officers, willing to take action. With the ‘success’ of the Bundy Ranch standoff under their belts and now the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon, we wanted to know more about the Patriot Movement and the current showdown. Sitting down with Spencer Sunshine, a longtime anti-fascist writer who has tracked and written about the far-Right, we asked him to explain what is happening and how the far-Right is mobilizing. 

IGD: What is the relationship between the Bundys, the 3%ers, and other far-Right militia groups and formations? Why do you feel that the Oath Keepers have decided to stay out but others have come in?

It’s hard to know exactly who is inside the armed camp—recently christened Citizens for Constitutional Freedom—especially since people can, astoundingly, come and go freely (some of the paramilitaries are actually staying in hotels in town). So here’s what I can make out.

In general, they are all part of the same political milieu, which is pretty disorganized and factional. Often it is not clear where the lines start and end between, say the right-wing of the Republican Party; more grassroots-oriented groups like the Tea Party, various Constitutionalists and conspiracy theorists, and Christian Rightists; and the what I consider to be the formal Patriot movement groups (Oath Keepers, 3%ers, militias, and Sovereign Citizens).

Since this question always comes up, I think that today the Patriot movement is self-consciously trying to police a line between themselves and the ideological white nationalists. This is ironic since the Patriot movement is essentially based on the template set up by the 1970s antisemitic, white supremacist group Posse Comitatus, which advocated many of the ideological and organizational forms used by the Patriot groups today.

Researcher JJ MacNab describes the occupiers as a mixture of “Mormon land rights guys looking for muscle and militants looking for an excuse to engage the feds.” Ammon Bundy and LaVoy Finicum, and at least one other person apparently follow a political brand of radical-right Mormonism associated with the writings of Ezra Taft Benson and Cleon Skousen, both supporters of the John Birch Society [a far-Right and anti-communist group].

Those of us watching Oregon’s Patriot movement were aware something might happen in Burns well beforehand as there had been lots of discussion about it in their networks. The Bundy Ranch conflict was a huge shot in the arm to the Patriot groups. The movement has been trying to spark a conflict to replicate it, and in at least two instances established armed camps where miners were in conflict with federal authorities; this happened in Josephine County, Oregon in April 2015 and in Lincoln, Montana during the summer. The Patriot movement is huge in Oregon and Idaho, so even though the Bundys were from out of state, there is a large base of potential support.

Some of the movement are more aggressive and seeking a fight, while others—expecting a dictatorship to be established by our Muslim socialist overlords any minute now—are taking a more defensive posture. The Oath Keepers, the most legitimate and above-ground of the groups, try hard to keep up the pretense of legality (standing police officers are members, after all), and are trying to mainstream.

Oregon Oath Keepers helped organize the Saturday, January 2 rally and march through Burns (from which the occupation split off), but the just beforehand the Oath Keepers’ national leadership decided they wanted nothing to do with the march, and threatened to expel the local members who were organizing it. Their justification was that the Hammond family—who had been on the fence about having armed support—finally decided publicly against it. The Oath Keepers felt they did not want to go where they were not welcome, and probably also thought it would be a hard sell to the cops in their organization. Their leader, disbarred lawyer Stewart Rhodes, has told Bundy:

We oppose what you have chosen to do by occupying the wildlife preserve there in Oregon, specifically because it is not being done with the consent of the locals or at their request, without the request of the Hammond family, without even their knowledge of what you were going to do, until you did it, and because it is not in direct defense of anyone.  The right way to go would have been to respect the right of the locals on the Committee of Safety to call the shots, decide what needs to be done, and to actually let them be in charge of all outside volunteers, including you.

Nonetheless, individual Oath Keepers were at the march, including Richard Mack, who is on the board of the organization and also leads their sister organization, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Police Officers Association. We know that leadership of the Oregon Oath Keepers (who communicate regularly with Stewart Rhodes and receive significant resourcing from Oath Keepers national) are in Burns, visiting the refuge and giving interviews to right-wing media about the occupation. It’s my guess that many of them think the ideas of the occupiers are sound, but are just worried that their tactics will delegitimize their movement. A colleague of mine thinks they are now interested in getting a piece of the action (media, funding), but don’t want to appear to be hypocrites who are only interested in headlines and fundraising.

The Harney County Committee of Safety, by the way, is a local group formed under the Bundys’ influence in November; the Bundys visited the community several times leading up to the occupation and set up this group as a front. Once the Committee got word of the proposed occupation by the Bundys and the threats and intimidation pointed at the Sheriff and his wife and parents, they turned on Bundy, opposing him publicly. At the town meeting called by Harney County Sheriff Ward on January 7, Tim Smith stood alongside his five fellow Committee members and introduced themselves to the crowd of several hundred locals—who responded with hollers of, “Who are you?”

He said that he was appointed at the time of the first Bundy meeting in town a couple months ago to “change the way the county is controlled.” Committee members were nominated and selected—they aren’t volunteers, he bragged. The Committee earlier that day went to the refuge and delivered a letter asking the occupiers to leave; three members had signed it, but three declined. Right-wing media is now rife with chatter about grand juries and other jargon about Sovereign Citizen “legal” procedures. (The Sovereigns have a whole, made-up parallel legal system, which is descended from Posse Comitatus. They create their own courts, for example, and have been known the threaten to execute those they “convict.”) I think much more will come out about the Committee later.

Mike Vanderboegh, the co-founder of the 3%ers (and, strangely, a former Marxist-Leninist), has also condemned the occupation. But the 3%ers are decentralized—anyone can identify as one, and there are numerous, overlapping local and regional groups—so he is merely a high-profile ideologue. We’ve heard that a number of individual Three Percenters have been in the occupation, despite the fact that a number of local Three Percenter groups who helped organized the march have disavowed the occupation (although internally they are beginning to line back up behind the Bundys —he’s one of them, after all). The FB profile of Malheur occupier and virulent Islamophobe Jon Ritzheimer—who previously organized armed marches outside of mosques, including the misleadingly titled “Global Rally for Humanity” that took place in many cities across the country—has Three Percenter symbols. Currently,  a Three Percenter flag has been seen flying over the occupied buildings.

Basically, Bundy couldn’t get local buy-in for his action, and didn’t tell the other groups what he was going to do beforehand. The Oregon groups are definitely trying to expand their large grassroots movement and probably saw this tactic as too alienating and a potential liability—especially as the day before the march, the Idaho 3%ers promised the community they would only take nonviolent action and that civil disobedience would not be a component of their action. Seeing that the Bundys and friends are still alive and in the media every day, the 3%ers and individual Oath Keepers are now trying to get back in on the action. The went to the refuge to try and be a buffer between the Bundy group and the any potential feds, but were sent away by Bundy. They then marched on the courthouse in Burns displayed their “troops” around town. The feds have humored them, too.

IGD: What are the internal class dynamics on the ground in Burns? Between not only the leadership of the militias and the rank and file but also within the townspeople and the ranchers the militias are trying to support.

I’m not in Burns so I can’t speak to this. One person who attended the march described the class character this way:

….this was not a crowd of rural ‘producers’.  The strategy might be about opening up Federal lands, but this movement didn’t make its living off the land.  The real ranchers were off watching from a distance in their Muck boots, their trucks with sheep dogs and tools and welding rigs in the flatbeds. Also on the outskirts of the crowd, a group of young Native people watched the rally intently, with no sign of wanting to participate, and no acknowledgement from the rally organizers. The protesters were wearing ‘tacticool’ clothing, carrying $500-1000 worth of hardware on their belts, and driving late model, clean full size pickups, often with custom militia decals.

So who are these people?  Clearly middle-class, and mostly male.  My guess would be that the majority were ‘movement’ people, people who got their information, community, and world view from the increasingly diversifying and multiplying internet right-wing media culture.  In this sense, they were the mirror opposites of the people who turn out for climate change marches and anti-globalization rallies, etc., only better-off economically.  They were activists whose personal bacon was not directly in the fire, and they were there for ideological reasons.

All reports state that most of the community doesn’t want the Bundy’s there; there were no Burns residents in the occupation, and only a handful of Oregonians. A large public town meeting was held on January 6, where the vast majority of locals present expressed their wish that the occupiers should leave. When asked to raise their hands if they wanted the occupiers to leave, only a handful of the 400 attendees didn’t raise their hands. The Oregon Farm Bureau and the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association have condemned the occupation.

However, in the last couple days, there are also reports that the individuals from the area are beginning to wonder if the national media attention will help the Hammonds or their issues with the BLM, and get them on the radar of political leadership who have, by in large, failed their county.

IGD: How big a deal is the sentencing of the two ranchers in Burns? Is this out of the ordinary for the government to come down on them like this and is this why the militias have responded in this showing of force? What does this also say about the size and influence of the militias in Oregon and the surrounding areas?

I think the Hammonds have been cynically used by the Patriot movement paramilitaries. But their legal case is very odd, and in particular their sentencing under the terrorism enhancement has helped whip up a frenzy among the Patriot movement activists, as one of their typical beliefs is that the federal government is about to round up the militias for being “terrorists” as a prelude to dictatorship.

As far back as 1994, the national media was reporting on the conflict between the Hammonds and federal officials over grazing rights on federal land; the family apparently made a number of death threats and have been arrested numerous times, usually with the charges reduced or dismissed. And this is not the first time they have garnered outside political support; in 1994, a public rally was held for them which included Wise Use activists (an astroturf anti-environmentalist movement).

The two Hammonds were convicted of two arsons (and had a different story for each fire) on federal land; according to the authorities, one was to cover up a poaching incident, and one was for setting an illegal backfire. They agreed to a five-year sentence to avoid further charges, but the judge gave them much, much shorter terms. The prosecution appealed the sentence, during which the Hammonds did their time and were released. The courts finally held the original sentence the judge gave was not legal, as five years was a mandatory minimum under the 1996 terrorism act for arson on federal property (this is the same sentencing enhancer that was applied to most of the Green Scare prisoners). So now the Hammonds have gone back to prison to serve the rest of the mandatory minimum sentence.

It’s unclear why the Hammonds were treated this way—perhaps their decades of conflict with federal authorities had been a sore spot for the feds, and they were harboring a grudge. But, again, that’s just speculation.

I don’t know about the specifics of the Hammond’s politics—as I said, it’s a muddy political milieu—but in the last few months they have been courted by the 3%ers and the Bundy’s. Oregon and Idaho are criss-crossed with Oath Keeper, 3%er, and militia groups, and so while the occupiers are from out of state, they can draw on thousands of activists in the region.

The majority of the rally was planned by the Idaho 3%ers under the auspices of the Pacific Patriots Network, formed after the April occupation in Josephine County, which served as the networking place for them to get organized. They were able to bring out 300 people for the march and rally, but note that even the Oregon groups were not from Burns or Harney County, and were not called in by the family, who have denounced the occupation. Many people from Burns who originally intended to participate, or to even watch from the sidelines from curiosity, chose to boycott the event because of the blatant disrespect toward the Hammonds’ publicly stated wishes.

The Patriot groups are just using the Hammonds to further their own agenda.

IGD: Based on the YouTube statements of some of the militia members, some have a martyr complex in regards to what they’re engaged in and see this as the start of the potential overthrow of the federal government. How does possible direct confrontation play into this? How should Anti-Fascists respond to the growth of far-Right anti-federal government groups without falling into liberal trappings?

Ammon Bundy said the occupation was the “point of the spear” of their movement to privatize (or otherwise remove restrictions on) the use of federal land for mining, logging, and ranching. It’s no doubt that for many, if not most, of the folks occupying the refuge this (as well as the Hammonds’ sentence) is just a single element of their larger political ideology, and they hope to launch a “second American revolution.”

The movement’s beliefs are a grab bag of toxic politics which commonly include: opposition to any restrictions on gun ownership; anti-immigrant xenophobia and Islamophobia; unrestricted use of private and public land; legal strategies of right-wing decentralization; a commitment to completely unregulated capitalism; various conspiracy theories about how our supposedly socialist government is planning to allow the UN or China to invade; climate change denial and anti-environmentalism—and of course an implicit racism.

I am astounded by how the authorities have treated them. Of course making them martyrs is a bad idea. But I am not sure of what to make of the fact that the authorities haven’t established a corridor around the occupied buildings (currently supplies, more paramilitaries, and curious folks from the community can come right in, through their checkpoints on public roads), nor cut the heat or power. The sheriff and his family, his deputies, and the deputies’ families are being followed around, their tires slashed, and their homes monitored—all without repercussion. So the Patriot movement really is the the dominate armed force in the community. Almost everyone recognizes that what has happened to the militia is some special treatment for white right-wingers. If this was black radicals, Islamists, or even white environmentalists—the compound would have already been stormed, if not bombed.

This action comes on the heels of there never being any prosecution for the Bundy ranch standoff, where Patriot movement activists pointed weapons at federal agents. Even long afterward, no one was arrested, and Cliven Bundy has never paid grazing fees for his use of public land. So these folks clearly feel they can get away with waving guns around to get their way.

How activists involved in autonomous radical political movements should react to all of this is far too complex to answer here, although it is well worth serious consideration. I know that some antifa folks are already trying to decide what approach to take if Trump is elected.

The Patriot movement groups are often getting footholds in areas where antifa and other radicals are almost entirely non-existent, and where the communities are in economic distress. There are Oath Keepers and 3%ers in New York City, but they don’t have much political gravity. In the West, however, they tend to get their clawhold in areas with high federal land ownership; Oregon for example is 53% federal land, and in Harney County (where the Mahleur refuge is) it is 75%.

The radical rightists are offering false hope; for example, they claim they will bring rural wealth back through logging, but industry automation means the mass of old logging jobs will never come back—even if every last tree on public land is cut down! They have also started to establish dual power structures, such as right-wing militias in place of non-existent 911 service in areas where county governments are defunded.

To counter this, I would say that antifascists will need to work in larger coalitions with a variety of non-radicals to develop community-based opposition—and concrete alternatives. There is no reason this needs to be “liberal” in the sense of campaigning for Democratic Party politicians, or calling for police intervention. That said it might not be “radical” in the sense that it is designed as a front group to draw people into more radical politics; sometime we just have to engage in self-defense, lest things get far, far worse.

Compromises will have to be made. If we want the community to reject the Patriot paramilitaries’ overtures, radical antifa may find themselves working with moderate—or even conservative—ranchers who are also anti-militia, but who want help in influencing their ranching community. This is going to be a challenge to activists, especially those used to living in the big cities where you never have to work with people who don’t belong to your specific ideological tendency. However, those anti-militia ranchers aren’t going to stop ranching just because you don’t work with them—but they may loose this battle unless they get outside support. A community run by Patriot movement activists and militias—a real possibility in some areas—is an intolerable answer. As one sign said, “No Bundy Caliphate in Harney County.”

IGD: How can people follow your work and what resources can people check out to learn more?

Folks can check out my webpage here and follow me on twitter here. I am an associate fellow at the think tank Political Research Associates, and we produce research on a variety of right-wing movements for social movements and struggles.

For the Malheur armed occupation, I’m looking at daily coverage from the Oregonian, Oregon Public Broadcasting, and Rawstory. High Country News and the Center for Western Priorities are worth looking at for in-depth coverage of rural Western issues. And I’m following twitter hashtags such as #BurnsOregon, #OregonUnderAttack, #OregonStandoff, #OregonMilitia, and #Bundymilitia.”

IGD: Thanks Spencer!


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