Why Are Racists So Obsessed With Grazing Rights?

Ammon Bundy and his merry band of racists are just the latest iteration of a fight that's been going on since Manifest Destiny — and before.
Publish date:
January 5, 2016
racism, Oregon, terrorism

The year in white supremacist terrorism is off with a bang in Oregon, where a small group of terrorists is determinedly hunkered down in the Malhuer Wildlife Refuge, claiming to be defending the rights of two farmers who were just convicted of committing arson on federal land. The action — handily hashtagged #OregonUnderAttack — is attracting considerable attention because the story behind it is so bizarre and complicated, and because of the racist overtones in the handling of the situation.

When a group of armed white men are occupying a federal building and threatening to defend it to the death with almost no reaction from authorities, that's a clear illustration of racist double standards in law enforcement, but the real racist roots lie even deeper than that.

Welcome to the rabbit hole of white supremacy, "patriot" groups, the U.S. right wing, and an ultimate scheme to seize control of much of the West from the federal government, a legacy that stretches back to the Civil War and in fact even further, because Manifest Destiny laid the groundwork for what has become a movement of escalating violence in the West. It's also a movement that's explicitly by and for white people who are upholding the notion that whites should occupy the sole positions of power and control in a new dominion free of government interference.

Were the men involved in this domestic terrorism — seizing a government facility, carrying arms, and threatening to assault law enforcement who attempt to take it back is terrorism — people of color, mentally ill, and/or Muslim, the feds would have stormed the building long ago in a hail of gunfire. Likely tools such as flashbangs, smoke bombs, and nerve gas would have been used, and the probability that anyone would emerge alive would be slim. Instead of a weekend of headlines with deceptively peaceful language, the media would have been screaming about domestic terrorism — and this is clearly, patently racist, as Janell Ross states at the Washington Post, noting the dualistic language used to discuss situations involving Muslims and/or people of color versus white people.

At Salon, Chauncey DeVega wrote that: "African-American protesters in Ferguson were met with lethal rounds from police, faced down by snipers, were bludgeoned with nightsticks, shot with rubber and wooden bullets, spied upon by drones, and shown the full range of power that is capable of being summoned by America’s hyper-militarized police forces. The protesters in Ferguson were also confronted by the National Guard — a step that the governor of Oregon has so far not taken in order to neutralize the estimated 150 armed white men who are making terrorist threats and engaging in armed insurrection in his state."

Law enforcement have opted to take a hands-off approach, effectively starving the parties involved out, and some may be surprised to learn that this in fact an unstated policy after prominent failures like Waco and Ruby Ridge. White lives, as conservatives are found of saying on Twitter, matter more than others, evidently — and agencies like the FBI and ATF know that they will be held to a greater degree of accountability for killing armed white terrorists than 12-year-old boys with toys, or Black men with cigarettes, or Black youth with Skittles, or mentally ill Black women who don't understand directions from police because they're in mental health crisis.

The reasons for this aren't about law enforcement strategy or minimizing casualties, or even about wanting to avoid creating martyrs, but about the potential "optics" of accurately labeling a white militia as a terrorist group. While law enforcement agencies said they were establishing a command post yesterday, it's a rather delayed action.

A brief history of white militia movements

As long as America has been America, racists have been around, and that was deeply codified around the slave trade, which whites justified by claiming that Black men and women were subhuman, a different species, people who couldn't feel pain and emotion like white people could.

In addition to treating members of the Black community as property, the nascent country had an aggressively expansionist and racist attitude towards the Native community — just last week, we marked the 125 year anniversary of Wounded Knee. Meanwhile, Asian-Americans were kept at bay with legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act. This kind of codified racism didn't stop with the Civil Rights Movement, either.

Oregon itself was founded as a white supremacist paradise, explicitly excluding Black people from the new state (and explaining why it has a statistically very low Black population). The state actually made it illegal to work or live in Oregon if you were Black. These policies endured after the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th and 14th Amendments. Oregon wasn't alone in maintaining racist views — this was and still is a country of sundown towns, segregation, "no coloreds allowed," pay inequality, disproportionate incarceration, and other acts of both institutional and social racism, whether plainly stated or slyly implied.

White supremacist groups, however, occupy a very special place in the American landscape, embracing the same nativism that led Europeans to consider North America their "manifest destiny." 19th century social commentators believed that the United States and its people — by which they meant white Europeans — had a special mission to settle the continent, bringing the light not just of European "civilization" to North America but to specifically promote the perceived cultural superiority of the brand new nation.

After all, the United States had flung off the shackles of European colonialism — no authorities and commentators, of course, recognized the deep hypocrisy in declaring themselves to be a unique society free of colonial influence while also oppressing the people who had already lived in North America, and were trying to throw off some colonialism of their own. Manifest destiny encouraged a centering of whiteness and rapid Westward expansion, with the government offering land grants for anyone willing to settle, as long, of course, as that person was white. (And as Laura Ingalls Wilder fans may recall, indigenous people were very much regarded as the enemy.)

White groups like the "patriot" organization that's currently occupying the wildlife refuge in Oregon believe that they are entitled to the West, that in fact they must fight for the West and wrest back control from the government, and that they are on a sacred mission reflecting the true spirit of America as well as Christian duty.

"We have written into our national mythology that it’s the fundamental right of Americans to get what they believe is their due by violence," writes Arthur Chu at Salon. "Historically, that right has been restricted to people whose existence as Americans was seen as legitimate, i.e. white people, and exercised against people whose existence was not, i.e. everyone else."

The idea that white is not just right, but morally superior and ordained by God, is codified into our very laws and culture, with the conservative right believing that the federal government has no authority, promoting a states' rights philosophy but also arguing that even individual states impose too much regulation. The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies numerous white "militias" accurately as hate groups, and studies show that these organizations pose the biggest domestic terrorism threat in the United States — let's not forget that the Oklahoma City Bombing was perpetrated by a white extremist terrorist. Timothy McVeigh believed he was a warrior for freedom and the American way, like other "patriots" (such as the Oath Keepers).

In this case, the farmers involved, Dwight and Steven Hammond, were due to report to prison in California yesterday. They aren't interested in "support" from the militia, which is an outside group attempting to agitate in a community that doesn't want them there. In fact, the community is so terrorized that it's closing schools and residents are hunkering down at home to avoid getting caught in crossfire, while the sheriff is being threatened for refusing to join the "constitutional sheriffs" movement, which promotes unfettered gun ownership and selective enforcement of the law.

Groups like these travel to promote their views, projecting them on communities that don't want them there and arguing that they're defending freedom. Along the way, they hope to gain followers, and acrimonious disputes over land rights are one way they appeal to conservatives.

The great battle over grazing rights

The notion of a "commons" — publicly owned land available for all to use — is ancient in the West, and it's reflected in the history of America as well, where town commons were used for cattle, sheep, and other grazing animals. Urbanization changed the structure and use of the commons, but it didn't in the West, where in addition to offering land grants to farmers willing to settle and push out Native Americans, the government also seized control of vast tracts of land and then leased them out to farmers who wanted grazing rights.

This land is publicly owned and operated by the Bureau of Land Management, which controls 264 million acres, primarily in the Western states, to this day. Farmers who wish to use it must pay licensing fees to allow their cattle to graze, and if they don't, the BLM can round up their herds. Ranchers still fixated on the mirage of Manifest Destiny think this land is their God-given right to use (literally), and some, like Cliven Bundy, have refused to pay grazing fees. They also believe that this land isn't the property of the federal government.

If the Bundy name sounds familiar, it should — three of his sons are coordinating the terrorist lockdown in Oregon, and he himself was involved in a similar action in 2014 after refusing to pay grazing fees, claiming the BLM had no authority over him. As with other terrorist situations involving white extremists, it was "peacefully resolved," and he was briefly a posterchild for nativist movements as well as right-wing politicians until he went too far even for them, stating openly that the Black community would be "better off as slaves."

Before he did, though, he successfully reclaimed his cattle from the BLM, which returned them in a state of fear after terrorists flocked to his ranch to "defend" it, fully armed and raring to go. The move opened up the possibility that groups like the Bundys will take heart and stretch further afield, as they just did in Oregon when they descended on a community that doesn't want them and fervently wishes they would go away.

Bundy is part of a long tradition that insists farmers should have precedence on public lands, even when it compromises their environmental integrity through practices like overgrazing or allowing cattle to trample riverbanks, which contributes to erosion and watershed damage. These farmers believe that their need should supercede any other, ignoring the fact that the BLM is responsible for stewarding the recreational use of public lands as well as their economic use and cultural value, and that it needs to consider the health and welfare of everyone, not just ranchers and their bank accounts.

One thing the BLM does, for example, is manage public lands to reduce the risk of forest fires and get them under control when they do break out, something the Malhuer Wildlife Refuge facility actually does on a routine basis in a state that's prone to hellacious wildfires (not helped by the arsons that triggered this latest round of bold protest against an allegedly tyrannical government).

Saying they're "ready to get shot," the men have claimed that they're there to save Burns, Oregon from the abuse of the federal government, and to "restore the constitution." Residents of the town seem to feel they don't need saving, and local law enforcement aren't big fans of the "local control" the terrorists say they're fighting for.

These kinds of justifications for terrorism, of course, wouldn't be tolerated coming from other groups, but in the case of white supremacists, law enforcement are taking a wait and see approach — which just emboldens the constantly bubbling movement convinced that it's hard done by and is performing a vital public service by terrorizing communities and engaging in "civil disobedience" like setting fires and grazing cattle with no environmental oversight.