It has become a familiar scene: a cluster of armed “patriots” gathered at a rural locale in the West, protesting federal land-use policies and disputing the legitimacy of the government back in Washington, while nearby, law enforcement officers act stunned into submission.
That all unfolded again this past week in Burns, Ore., as a group of activists with guns seized a federal building on a wildlife refuge and demanded freedom for a couple of ranchers convicted of arson and sentenced to mandatory minimum prison terms, in what they claim is another example of extreme federal overreach.
The local school district shut down, since it couldn’t guarantee the safety of children traveling to and from school. Burns residents expressed agitation and exasperation with the standoff, since most, if not all, of the participants appear to live outside Harney County. The sheriff requested that the two dozen or so men holed up at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge pack up and leave town.
If the news from Oregon seemed like deja vu all over again, that’s because it was: At the head of the protest were Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. Back in April 2014, Cliven grabbed headlines by holding Bureau of Land Management officials at bay in an armed standoff on his ranch in which bloodshed was, by all accounts, only narrowly averted.
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So why do federal officials once again find themselves in this position – awkwardly wringing their hands in hopes that the radicals’ demands and willpower will erode with a little time and cold weather? And facing the same cast of characters who humiliated law enforcement officials less than two years ago?
The answer, to a large extent, lies in that Nevada canyon where Bundy’s compatriots aimed their weapons at the federal agents and police officers who were there to enforce a court order requiring the confiscation of the ranch’s cattle, after Bundy refused for years to pay federal grazing fees for using public lands. When those guns were brandished, multiple violations of federal and state law occurred: It is a felony to point a weapon at a law enforcement officer and a federal felony to take aim at a U.S. government agent.
And yet there were no arrests that day. Moreover, despite the FBI’s assumption shortly afterward of the investigation into weapons use at the Bundy ranch — along with vows to hold the people responsible for the standoff fully accountable – no meaningful action has yet been taken against anyone involved.
That includes, of course, Cliven Bundy himself (who still hasn’t paid the fees and fines he owes the government) and his sons – who have now turned up in Oregon, threatening again to take over public lands, in defiance of the local community and the wishes of the people on whose behalf they’re ostensibly protesting, all in pursuit of their campaign to destroy the federal government’s ability to administer land policies.
Bundy explained his rationale, such as it is, in a press release shortly before the occupation began: “The United States Justice Department has NO jurisdiction or authority within the State of Oregon, County of Harney over this type of ranch management. These lands are not under U.S. treaties or commerce, they are not article 4 territories, and Congress does not have unlimited power.”
The men leading the protest believe in an arcane interpretation of the Constitution that radically limits the reach and scope of the federal government – in their alternate universe, the county sheriff is the highest authority, while the feds are limited to regulating overseas trade and waging war. Derived from the racist swamplands of far-right extremism, their version of “constitutionalism” reflects a paranoid culture in which government officials are believed to be trading away Americans’ freedom on behalf of a nefarious New World Order that seeks to enslave all mankind.
If federal law enforcement authorities had taken their roles as stewards of the rule of law seriously, many of these players would be facing justice in federal courts right now, instead of opportunistically raising hell out in poverty-stricken rural areas. Certainly, there is no small irony in the fact that the tepid response from federal authorities demonstrates how little resemblance they have to the tyrannical thugs the Bundys say they are. But it also shows how just that accusation, when wielded by white conservatives, can cause federal law enforcement to back down.
Ever since their April 2014 standoff, Bundy and his associated “patriots” in such movements as the far-right Oath Keepers have been attempting to force further armed showdowns over Western land policies. Last spring, they tried to organize a confrontation with BLM officials in southwestern Oregon over mining rights, but that effort eventually fizzled out. Another attempted showdown in Montana with the U.S. Forest Service, also over mining rights, wound up being overshadowed by the massive forest fires that hit the state this summer.
None of that should have been possible: There should have been a number of arrests after the nonsense at the Bundy ranch. That there were none not only emboldened these right-wing radicals – and encouraged them to believe that their bizarre misinterpretation of the Constitution has some legitimacy – but, in the case of the Bundy brothers, directly empowered them to carry on as they did before.
“We believe these armed extremists have been emboldened by what they saw as a clear victory at the Cliven Bundy ranch and the fact that no one was held accountable for taking up arms against agents of the federal government,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project.
The failure of federal law enforcement to adequately respond to this kind of threatening behavior has also become a source of low morale in agencies the Bundys and their ilk like to demonize, such as the BLM and the Forest Service. This is particularly the case among federal field employees, who, according to those I’ve spoken with, are encountering increasing incidents of radicalized (and armed) “patriots” claiming that the agencies have no jurisdiction on federal lands.
That’s not to suggest that federal law enforcement should respond immediately with tactical units and guns blazing. That approach was attempted in the 1990s at two armed standoffs with far-right extremists – at Ruby Ridge in northern Idaho and at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas – to disastrous effect. Those incidents inspired a fresh wave of far-right radicalism (including the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995) and were seen by many on the right as omens of looming government oppression.
It’s understandable that federal law enforcement might be reluctant to act precipitously after those disasters. A failure to act in any way whatsoever, though, just invites more of the same and certain escalation, as the Oregon standoff demonstrates.
The brass back in Washington and agents in field offices throughout the West should look back to a different, less infamous siege from 20 years ago, one that offers a more helpful model for responding to these situations. In 1996, a group calling itself the Montana Freemen – which operated a number of money-making scams and made armed threats against county officials in Jordan, Mont. – similarly defied the federal government in an attempt to create its own homeland out on the prairie.
It took 81 days to wait them out, during the harsh Montana winter and into the muddy Montana spring, but rather than rush in, as in Waco and Ruby Ridge, FBI negotiators eventually persuaded all the people inside the Freemen compound to surrender peacefully. Several of the chief perpetrators wound up doing extensive federal prison time for a variety of bank, wire and mail fraud charges, as well as for making threats against county and federal officials.
There can be a middle ground between the bloodshed of Ruby Ridge and Waco and the tacit acceptance of what’s going on in Burns. We know from how the FBI handled the Freemen that federal authorities are perfectly capable of bringing extremists who brandish weapons and threaten government employees to justice without creating martyrs or worsening the situation. Somehow, in the intervening 20 years – and amid the changes in administrations along the way, not to mention personnel and law enforcement philosophies - that lesson got lost.
David Neiwert, an author and freelance investigative journalist based in Seattle, is a correspondent for the Southern Poverty Law Center.