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The Many Hypocrisies of the Oregon Standoff

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When an environmentalist takes action to defend a forest in the United States, she risks being labeled a “terrorist.” When an armed right-wing militia member commandeers a forest for his personal profit, he is “standing up to tyranny.” The Oregon standoff that began over the weekend demonstrates this hypocrisy, and not only that hypocrisy.

Nor is it only law enforcement and the “justice” system that treats a case such as this differently; the corporate media does as well. Start with what the sheriff of Harney County, the remote southeastern Oregon region where the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters is located, said:

“These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers, when in reality these men had alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.”

Let’s set aside the laughable idea that a handful of right-wing freeloaders peddling extremist ideologies could be taken seriously. That they have zero chance of sparking anything resembling a mass movement doesn’t negate the seriousness of the standoff. Imagine that a group of African-Americans took up arms and took over a government facility, with an intention of sparking rebellion. How long do you think they would last before every police force that could squeeze itself into the action would storm them with guns blazing and bombs roaring?

Remember the Philadelphia police bombing of the MOVE organization in 1985? Eleven people died and 61 homes were destroyed. Or, more recently, Tamir Rice? A 12-year-old waving a toy gun was killed within two seconds of police arriving; police shot him dead without bothering to demand the toy gun be dropped. Tamir was one of1,134 people killed by police in the U.S. in 2015, tragically illustrating that young Black men are nine times more likely to be shot by police than other United Statesians.

Yet in the Oregon takeover, police seem content to wait. This is not a suggestion to storm the refuge headquarters; a peaceful solution should be found. But the contrast with how a White armed group is treated is sharp.

Convicted of two arsons, but they were “accidents”

The militia members purportedly are “defending” father and son ranchers sentenced for two separate arsons of public lands. The corporate media has been portraying these arsons as some unfortunate accident, when the reality is quite different. The New York Times accepts the ranchers’ explanation as fact, publishing this account on January 4:

“Dwight and Steven [Hammond] were convicted of lighting fires, in 2001 and 2006, that they said were efforts to protect their property from wildfires and invasive plant species. The fire in 2001 accidentally spread to about 140 acres of government land, documents show. In 2006, a burn ban was in effect while firefighters battled blazes started by a lightning storm on a hot day in August. Steven Hammond had started a ‘back burn’ to prevent the blaze from destroying the family’s winter feed for its cattle.”

Oh, gosh, so they were a little overzealous in protecting their ranch, what’s the big deal? So the Times would have us believe. The reality, however, is much more serious, as even a few minutes of investigation reveals. The 2001 fire, a jury found, was set to conceal the illegal slaughter of deer on Bureau of Land Management property. Here is the government account of this incident:

“Witnesses at trial, including a relative of the Hammonds, testified the arson occurred shortly after Steven Hammond and his hunting party illegally slaughtered several deer on BLM property. Jurors were told that Steven Hammond handed out ‘Strike Anywhere’ matches with instructions that they be lit and dropped on the ground because they were going to ‘light up the whole country on fire.’ One witness testified that he barely escaped the eight to ten foot high flames caused by the arson. The fire consumed 139 acres of public land and destroyed all evidence of the game violations.  … Dwight and Steven Hammond told one of their relatives to keep his mouth shut and that nobody needed to know about the fire.”

That relative was the elder Hammond’s grandson, then an adolescent who testified that his uncle gave him matches to start the fire. He found himself surrounded by the fire after being separated from his family, saving himself by sheltering in a creek. In the 2006 fire that also resulted in a conviction for arson, firefighters had to take measures to save themselves from the illegal fires, which were set in defiance of a ban put in place because of the hot and dry weather. The government’s sentencing memorandum gives this account:

“[F]ire fighter Brett Dunten, using a diagram he had drawn, testified that about 10:00 pm on August 22, 2006, there were three spot fires below the rim of Krumbo Butte. The spot fires were 300 to 500 yards from the main fire and more than a mile from the Hammond Ranch property. There were no fires between the main fire and the spot fires.” [citations omitted]

Allegations of child abuse

The grandson, a ThinkProgress article reports, had good reason to “keep his mouth shut” out of fear of his family. He later told a sheriff’s deputy that he had been abused multiple times, being punished by blows, forced to eat cans full of chewing tobacco, being driven 10 miles away and forced to walk home, and after carving two letters into himself with a paper clip having the letters removed with sandpaper.

These are the people that at least some right-wingers are hailing as persecuted heroes and whom the corporate media is sanitizing.

The standoff was prompted, its participants say, by the Hammonds’ imminent return to jail. Although the crimes for which they were convicted require a five-year minimum prison term, a right-wing judge sentenced them to far less. An appeals court overturned the trial judge’s sentence, ordering the Hammonds back to jail to serve out five-year terms. Here again hypocrisy must be noted. Even at five years, for arsons that put other people in jeopardy of their lives, the Hammonds’ sentence contrasts strongly with that of sentences handed down to environmentalists.

Take the notorious case of Jeff “Free” Luers, who was sentenced to 23 years in prison for setting fire to three light trucks at an Oregon automobile dealer. Unlike the Hammonds, Mr. Luers took care to commit his arson at a time and in a manner that would cause no physical harm to anyone. Two of the three vehicles were so lightly damaged that they were eventually able to be sold by the dealership. But Mr. Luers committed his 2001 arson for political reasons: To bring attention to global warming, then an issue not so much in the public eye.

It was a poor idea and bad tactics, yes. But it nonetheless was much less severe than what the Hammonds did, yet he received a stiffer punishment, ultimately serving 10 years after an appeals court reduced his sentence. As his lawyer, Lauren Regan, told Democracy Now after he was freed:

“[The sentence] was clearly imposed to send a message. And as Jeff mentioned, even in the federal system, the crime of arson normally carries about a two-year prison sentence. So the fact that this particular act of economic sabotage created very little monetary damage, but yet he, you know, got over ten times what someone who would have committed an arson for a greed purpose would have received, definitely drew the attention of the global community. … [I]t really is sort of a war of ideology in a lot of ways. If the government wants to brand you as a terrorist based on your beliefs or based on your ethical principles, there’s really no way for you to defend yourself of that. And it definitely — you know, from the beginning of the Green Scare, the government has really taken this campaign to the media.”

Corporate origins of environmentalism as “terrorism”

The term “eco-terrorist” was invented by a corporate lobbyist who advocates opening millions of acres of federal land to commercial development and logging. Kyle J. Bohrer of Beloit College, in his paper “ ‘Ecoterrorism’ in the United States: Industry Involvement in Group Prosecution,” elaborates on that, writing:

“Although radical environmentalists engage in illegal activity, they have never killed anyone or specifically targeted individuals with intent to physically harm them. Yet, radical right-wing organizations that have systematically killed doctors that perform abortions have never been labeled as terroristic.”

Now let us look at the ideology animating the militia members’ takeover. The Guardian, quoting Ammon Bundy (son of the infamous Nevada free-riding rancher Clive Bundy, to whom we will return), provided this account:

“ ‘This will become a base place for patriots from all over the country,’ [Bundy] said, inviting like-minded people to bring their weapons and join up. ‘We’re the point of the spear that’s going to bring confidence and strength to the rest of the people.’ He and [Blaine] Cooper blamed the government for the steady decline of family ranching — a slow fall driven by drought, industrial cattle farms, the rise of synthetic textiles and myriad other forces. They also blamed government for the general malaise of many working class Americans, especially in rural areas where coal, oil, manufacturing and agriculture jobs have disappeared over the last 30 years.

‘The government has beat us and oppressed us and took everything from us,’ Cooper told reporters.”

The Guardian report later added this droll observation:

“[Bundy’s] assertion that ‘this refuge rightfully belongs to the people.’ although ripped from conservative rhetoric, is vague enough that it could mean almost anything. Open rights to graze, mine and log the refuge — whether for Harney County residents or every American taxpayer —could mean either a communist utopia of shared wilderness or a free-for-all of capitalist consumption.”

One strongly doubts that the militia members had in mind a communist utopia, or any desire to share the land with others. What seems to have escaped their attention is that it is private corporations, not the government, that have been cutting jobs and shipping jobs overseas. Although it is true that “free trade” agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership are making it easier for multi-national capital to move production, governments are doing so at the behest of the corporations that dominate capitalist societies. Governments are reduced to granting ever more subsidies and giveaways to keep jobs from being moved, and thus are at the mercy themselves of capitalists.

Energy companies are eyeing public lands

The rhetoric that these militia members spout is no different, even if delivered in a different manner, than corporate ideology that seeks the sale of public lands on the cheap. As just one example, a Koch brothers-backed outfit calling itself the Property and Environment Research Center is advocating selling national parks. The group argues that restrictions on timber and energy development should be removed to make public lands more profitable before being sold. They are far from alone in such unpopular advocacy.

What those who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge advocate is not an abstract “freedom” from “government tyranny” but a concrete desire to use public lands for their own profit without paying for the privilege. Clive Bundy is the rancher who was involved in an armed standoff with federal agents in 2014 after the agents attempted to seize some of his cattle for not paying grazing fees. Bundy owes $1.2 million in penalties for ignoring fines and court orders after grazing his cattle on public land for more than two decades.

What we have here is the petit bourgeois version of capitalist ideology, wanting to take from everybody else while paying as little as possible. Freeloading ranchers like Bundy are no different, except in scale, from corporations that don’t pay taxes and demand subsidies.

Neoliberalism equates “freedom” with individualism, but as a specific form of individualism that is shorn of responsibility. “Freedom” for industrialists and financiers is freedom to rule over, control and exploit others; “justice” is the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists. This is the freedom loftily extolled by the corporate media, and this is the basis of the freedom right-wing militias and their supporters say they want.

Once again, can it be imagined if a Person of Color instigated an armed standoff with police that the result would be, “Oh well, he doesn’t want to pay, let’s go home then.” By refusing to enforce the law against people like Bundy, these militias with their demented phantasmagorical delusions have only been encouraged. The continual shrieking that the government and corporate media is somehow a left-wing cabal can only bring an amused smile to our faces.

Finally, it should be noted that forests in southeast Oregon are in strong need of protection. Most people’s perception of Oregon is of a lush, green land amply watered, but that is only true along the Pacific coast and in the Cascades. The southeast of Oregon is actually a desert, and forests are widely dispersed in highland clusters. For those who enjoy desert scenery, the region has its own beauty. I once spent a night in Burns, the Harney County seat and the area’s main town. In my experience, Burns is one of the friendliest towns I have ever been in, and the townspeople shouldn’t be tarred with the actions of a handful of fanatics who are mostly from out of the state.

On arriving in Burns, on my way to Seattle, I talked to the waiter in a restaurant, and mentioned that I had driven up via Route 395. She winced a bit, saying gently that I “didn’t see us at our nicest.” I replied that, on the contrary, I had really enjoyed the desert scenery and that it was just what I hoping to see, causing her to reply in turn that “I guess you don’t know what you have.” What also stuck in my memory is that she mentioned, in the same tone someone in a city might use to note a two-block walk to the grocery, that her son had been driving that day to Bend, the nearest city, to do his shopping — a four-hour round trip. We are talking remote here, and I suspect many in Burns are not happy that a militia takeover is what is giving the town its 15 minutes of fame.

The rest of us ought not to be happy at yet another expression of greed, especially one not only armed but wrapped in multiple layers of corporate-inspired hypocrisy.

Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog and has been an activist with several groups. His book, It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, is available from Zero Books.

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