The Bundy Militia Occupation: Terrorism, Patriotism, Colonialism and Racism in America

In the wake of the Bundy Militia occupation of a federal building in Oregon at the start of 2016, US Uncut published the piece ‘Don’t Call Them Patriots. They’re Terrorists Occupying Sacred Native American Land’. While an important piece on double standards in labelling, white privilege and native rights and marginalisation (historically and today, including in this very case), like many other pieces and tweets (eg #whiteterrorism) that immediately follow examples of right-wing extremism and terrorism, it uses the issue of labelling as a hook and starting point that can obscure the serious issues that underpin or accompany it. In this blog post, I will critically address the issue of labelling as highlighted in this piece, but also more widely where it becomes a substitute for an analysis of racism and political violence. Although that is not the case in this piece, even if the two parts are not effectively brought together. Yes, you can call them ‘terrorists’ – if they plot or commit acts of terrorism (which militias do), otherwise it is just ideological point scoring that does nothing to address Islamophobia, anti-Muslim hate and the suspicion, profiling and securitisation of Muslims, nor native land rights or socio-economic conditions. But the opposition between ‘patriots’ and ‘terrorists’ does not make sense. ‘Patriots’ is the term used for/by right-wing anti-federal government movements since the 1980s/90s (many in the Pacific Northwest, including Oregon, along with white separatists). As is ‘Militia’, which is the historical term and form such groups take (since the Revolution and in their current form from the 1990s). These are not labels which obscure meaning or represent positive descriptions, so it was odd when Tell Mama tweeted: ‘Militia? Kind word for people insurrecting against the State?’). Do those who challenge the use of ‘patriot’ (or ‘militia’) in favour of ‘terrorist’ want to preserve some positive meaning of ‘patriotism’ (a true benevolent kind misrepresented by right-wingers?), I suspect not, as it’s not a racial or religious identity or community that is being misrepresented and most anti-racists and those on the left have a healthy suspicion of the term and those who claim it. Do they want to perpetuate the use of the term ‘terrorist’ despite its ideological and often racist usage? I suspect not. No, they are attempting to both counter discourses and representations (as well as treatment) of Muslims as terrorists and the lack of such labelling and treatment of white ‘terrorists’ as a product of racism and white privilege (and the relationship between them). In addition to this, highlighting the apparent relative lack of caution demonstrated by law enforcement when it is Black people who armed or unarmed (eg in the case of a Black Lives Matter protest or the shooting of Tamir Rice). Yes, there is whiteness inscribed in the militias’ politics, ideology, resentment and anger, and white privilege in the apparent caution in the official reaction, in not being labelled terrorist/terrorism from the get go (but that is always wrong) and in the failure to call all white people to apologise and explain, but this is more specific than white privilege, it is right-wing white privilege. This is something extended by the right-wing press who are the ones not calling the right ‘terrorists’ and’extremists’, but calling all Muslims this (although they are pretty comfortable calling white environmentalist, anti-war and anti-globalisation activists ‘terrorists’) and extended by the federal government in terms of labelling and action because: A. right-wing anti-federal sentiment lies with voting constituencies (white populist anger, anti-tax, pro-gun, anti-welfare, pro-free market, etc.) and lobbies (re taxes and gun rights) that they feel that they cannot ignore even if only because antagonising them may mean votes for the GOP if a Democrat or for more radical right-wingers if a centrist Republican (Black Lives and votes don’t seem to matter). It is worth remembering that the second amendment worshipped by gun rights activists contains that little bit about citizen militias being allowed to combat government tyranny … albeit a misinterpretation: ‘A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed’; And B. The last time the federal government (in the form of the ATF and FBI) went in hot, with Ruby Ridge in 1992 and Waco in 1993, people died, it led to the growth of the militia movement and eventually the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, on the anniversary of Waco. It allegedly bred extremism and terrorism. For those who insist on saying ‘they never call it terrorism when white people do it’, post-Oklahoma, the government held five subcommittee hearings on: Combating Domestic Terrorism, The Militia Movement in the United State, The Nature and Threat of Violent Anti-Government Groups in America and, knowing the relationship between the growth of the militia movement, the bombings and the government’s actions at Ruby Ridge and Waco, they also held hearings on: The Federal Raid on Ruby Ridge, ID. And The Activities of Federal Law Enforcement Agencies Toward the Branch Davidians. The bombing also provided Congress with the impetus to pass the 1995 Antiterrorism bill, which became the Antiterrorism and Effective Death penalty Act of 1996. It was this Act that Dwight and Steve Hammond were charged and convicted under for setting fires on federal land, and it is this case that is being protested by the Bundy Militia (in addition to their longer history of opposition to the federal government). This history and the legacy of Ruby Ridge are discussed the Southern Poverty Law Center’s article ‘Ruby Ridge Carved a Niche in History’ published August 2012, but reposted and retweeted in the context of the Bundy occupation. The Bundy occupation, it has been alleged, is also an attempt to create another Ruby Ridge or Waco type confrontation with the federal government and mobilise the wider movement.

As I said in my Open Democracy piece ‘White Terror’ (also here at Word Press) following the #Black Lives Matter and Planned Parenthood attacks in 2015, it may be more effective to challenge racism (re Islamophobia, anti-Black violence and Native rights and legacies of colonialism) AND the racialisation of terrorism and violence. Where this piece in US Uncut differs is that it offers as an analysis of native issues and, connected to this, a concluding suggestion: ‘The Bundy militia occupying the Maiheur National Wildlife Refuge should seriously reconsider their use of the word “tyranny,” and how the land they’re claiming as theirs rightfully belongs to the indigenous tribes that armed white men illegally stole centuries ago.  If they really want justice, they should dedicate their cause to helping Native Americans have their stolen land returned’. There are several problems or issues with this. One problem is that such a militia anti-federal ideology is built on a white setter frontier manifest destiny ideology that constructs antagonisms: white man vs nature and American white settler/revolutionary vs British elite/colonist, that displaces and erases the native presence (except for that which can be appropriated by the settler or his stand-in that allows him to construct himself – yes, a man – as the ideal subject:  rational but not elite European and at one with nature, but not savage and sub-human like they see – through their racist colonial eyes and discourses – native aboriginal populations. Another problem is that such an argument makes the assumption that this is a movement that really opposes tyranny and supports rights, as opposed to being right-wing, privileged, possibly racist (even if just in terms of their white privilege and negation of native history, oppression and rights) and self-interested. No, it’s not just ideological mis-recognition, not all social movements are inherently progressive, just in need of some correction and clarification on the issues. Sure, the original revolution era militias were anti-colonial, but by no means anti-racist considering the context, not to mention the legacy in the 1990s and today. The final problem or question (although there are more), is whether we should be encouraging right-wing militias to fight for native rights or focusing on native peoples activism. Calling right-wing militias ‘terrorists’ may not help those who do not have white privilege and are labelled ‘terrorists’ from the get go, and it certainly will not help getting the militias on side in this fight (if that is the misguided objective). Challenging the use of the term and its racialisation – as well as connecting it to wider, historical and structural forms of racism and injustice – may have a better chance of challenging racism and injustice in and beyond the war on terror and protecting activists who challenge racism and are labelled ‘terrorists’ for it, thereby denying them their agency, opportunity, legitimacy and freedom (eg AIM or #Black Lives Matter).