This Land is Whose Land?
Apparently, it belongs to any group of white, armed rednecks who care to occupy it. On Jan. 2nd a group of them moved into the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, near Burns, OR. They were led by Ammon Bundy, along with his brother Ryan. If the name is familiar, they are the spawn of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, center of another armed standoff in March-April 2014. Cliven has been freeloading on public lands, refusing to pay grazing fees for over twenty years. The Bureau of Land Management had come to confiscate his cattle, but eventually backed off. As they say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
If you needed an example of white privilege, this is it on steroids. We all know that if these guys had been Muslim-Americans, African-Americans, or even Native Americans, they would all be dead Americans. There were about twenty or so militiamen, and they had come to protest the arrest two local ranchers, and the tyranny of government in general. The ranchers are Dwight Hammond, Jr., and his son Steven. They had served part of a sentence for arson on federal land, then were released. The U.S. Attorney for Oregon overruled the judge, since the crime earned a minimum five years. They had poached a bunch of deer, took what they could, and left the carcasses, then set a fire to cover their asses. The fire burned over 140 acres. The Hammonds surrendered themselves in Burns on Jan. 5th, adding that whoever these militia people were, they didn’t represent them.
The group settled into the administration buildings and began issuing demands. They wanted bottled water, cigarettes, snacks, and blankets. A bunch of people sent them sex toys. And oh, the Hammonds must be released. And the wildlife refuge, which had been “seized by the government,” be turned back over to, well, the people. The Northern Paiutes, the original inhabitants, said, “Who? You mean us?” No, he did not mean them. It should go back to “local control,” a euphemism for development. That translates as more fracking wells and open pit mines, or at least more leases for oil and gas drilling.
Since there are guns involved here, let’s do a quick background check. The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent conservationist (and Republican, to boot). It was never seized until Jan. 2nd. It covers 188,000 acres, and is the home of over 300 bird species. At the moment, it being winter, the only avian life were a flock of journalists surrounding a bunch of bird-brains. National sanctuaries, parks, and monuments are only a part of the federal, or public, lands. The government controls over 600 million acres, about a quarter of the total acreage. That percentage is much larger in the less populated West. After the Homestead Act of 1862, much of the land bypassed by the settlers was claimed by the government. These lands have been set aside, held in trust, “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.” That land is our land. We get to hunt and fish on it. We can graze our cattle on it and unless you’re Cliven Bundy, pay only a fraction of the fees that we would on private land.
So who the hell are these philistines, anyway, occupying our land by force of arms? They are heavy with the patriot militia types, many of them part of the sovereign citizens movement, refusing to recognize the legitimacy or authority of the federal government. They’re mostly wearing camo fatigues, adorned with the obligatory patches: Liberty or Death, In God We Trust, Don’t Tread on Me, We the People. There’s also a healthy dose of Mormonism, or some perversion of it (who knows more about perverted sects than the Mormons?). Throw God, guns, the flag, and the Constitution into a blender and hit “pulse.” One of them said, “It’s the Constitution. That’s what we’re up here for, the Constitution.” “God wants us here,” said another, “there’s a sense that’s beckoning and it comes from heaven. We’re doing what’s right, we’re doing what the founding fathers would do because we’re inspired by God also.” This ignores the fact that most of the founding fathers weren’t Christian, but Unitarians or deists, but never mind. They all seemed to have a pocket Constitution, but I have found no trace that any of them have read it.
Besides the Bundys, there are other spokesmen for the group. I don’t know how they choose their alpha males, smell each others’ asses or something, One of them is Arizona rancher LaVoy Finicum, age 54. His Facebook page is “One Cowboy’s Stand for Freedom.” We can see him on one video, “rifling” through boxes of sacred Paiute artifacts and documents, which further pissed off the Northern Paiutes. He told a reporter from The Nation that they were greeted upon their arrival by a great golden eagle, spreading its wings as it took off from a fence post. Wow. No unicorns farting rainbows? Hell no, son, this is the West, dammit, eagles, wolves, and bears (and billions of prairie dogs).
Denouement — The FBI and Oregon State Police quietly waited for weeks without making a move. No one wanted another Ruby Ridge or Waco. The opportunity came Jan. 26th when the leadership was on its way to a meeting of some kind in John Day, sixty miles away. They ran into a roadblock. Shots were fired, and one of the militants was killed, another injured. The dead man was LaVoy Finicum. “He was on his knees with his arms up,” blubbered one alleged militant witness, “and they murdered him.” FBI aerial video shows a different story. A white SUV rams into a snow bank, and out comes Finicum, arms out wide. Not up in the air but spread wide, just like that eagle he talked about. He turns around to see another officer, starts to reach for his jacket, loses his footing, and spreads his arms again for balance. Then he again reaches for the inside of his coat and they drop him. Inside the coat was the loaded pistol he never got to. Only days before he’d said they wouldn’t take him alive, and I guess he was right. Six were arrested, including the Bundys.
A few days later, Ammon Bundy’s wife, Lisa, made a video asking the occupiers to go home. “You’ve made your point,” she said. I disagree, Mrs. Bundy; I think they’ve made my point. Back in Burns, the Bundy boys and their buddies were behind bars, behind held without bail (I just love alliteration). On Monday, February 1st, a couple dozen supporters showed up at the courthouse in Burns to protest, but were met by 400-500 citizens (population: 2800) shouting “Go Home! Go Home!” At this point there were still four extremists back at the wildlife “compound.” Two days later a federal grand jury indicted 16 in all on several counts of conspiracy, including using threats and intimidation to maintain their illegal occupation. The remaining four holdouts are among the indicted.
I mentioned white privilege earlier. Carrie and Mary Dann are Shoshonis, nearly 70 and 80, respectively. They spent their life on traditional Shoshoni land, breaking horses, running cattle, mending their own fences. The land has been under dispute for decades, like much land in the West, but the government considers it theirs (that is to say, ours). In 2002, 40 armed agents from the BLM, with helicopters, swooped in and confiscated 232 cattle. The sisters were fined $3 million for “willful trespass.” No white men with guns came to save them. (Note: Mary Dann died in 2005).
Has there been government abuse and misuse of federal lands? Of course, and conflicts over land go back a hundred years and more. I can think of no better example than the giveaway of some of the sacred Apache Tears land to an Australian mining company. But these militia types are not misled or misinformed, they’re delusional. Those lands belong to all of us, not just white privileged men with guns. Us, as in We the People. And they’re treading on them. I suggest that they go back to playing their war games in the woods. But please, for the sake of us all, use live ammo.