David Koresh, We Understand: Warnings from Waco About Today’s Police State

The Branch Davidians were a bunch of weird people who just wanted to be left the fuck alone. The buzzing hivemind of the mainstream maelstrom will scream otherwise on every conceivable platform that they have at their disposal but that really is what Waco all comes down to at the end of the day. As the 30th anniversary of the federal government’s deadliest massacre in the post-Manifest Destiny era slowly creeps towards us, every Hollywood producer and their creepy cousin seems to be cashing in on highly stylized excuses for why a bunch of loopy bible thumpers were just begging to be burned alive. “It was a terrible mistake” is a common refrain. But it wasn’t. It was something far more sinister and somebody who isn’t just another right-wing ideologue needs to fucking say it out loud. Waco was a deliberate act of mass murder perpetrated by a growing police state and there are no excuses for killing children.

It started with a no-knock raid, and it ended in a massacre. In the early mid-nineties, the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had found itself in dire straits with politicians openly discussing slashing their bloated budget and even merging them with another federal office. As if that wasn’t bad enough, 60 Minutes was in the production stages of a story covering the ATF’s long hidden history of rampant sexual harassment amongst its ranks. The agency badly needed a ratings-friendly PR stunt to validate their continued existence and they hit the jackpot when they stumbled over David Koresh. A sex-crazed gun nut who looked like the lead singer of a heavy metal cover band, Dick Wolf couldn’t have cast a better villain himself and David’s followers were just kooky enough for the feds to kick around for the cameras while still looking like the good guys again. It was perfect.

The only problem with this made-for-tv narrative was that the Davidians never really hurt anybody. They were a tiny splinter sect of about 100 Seventh Day Adventists prepping for the end times on a desolate compound known as the Mount Carmel Ranch in the scrublands outside of Waco, Texas. They were small-time players on the local gun-show circuit, but they were also generally considered to be harmless eccentrics by the local community, and they had a long history of compliance with local law enforcement to boot. This fact was made painfully obvious to the feds during the early stages of the case against the group for non-violent weapons violations when David Koresh told the ATF’s star informant that the federal government was more than welcome to come by the ranch and check on his paperwork and inventory.

The ATF declined the offer. They also declined to arrest Koresh on one of his routine jogs or trips to the local Guitar Center. That’s because the ATF wasn’t interested in a peaceful resolution. They wanted a high-octane publicity stunt that they could play on repeat like an infomercial devoted to their bottomless budget. This is also why they tipped off the local media and declined to call off their big raid even after they learned that the media had inadvertently leaked the news to Koresh through a local postal worker who also happened to be David’s brother-in-law. All the ATF wanted was a blockbuster showdown so they could show the whole country how fucking macho they were. They even held dress rehearsals for the raid with the US Army Special Forces at Fort Hood. But when zero day finally came these swaggering cowboys bit off more than thew could chew.

The initial raid at Waco began at 9 A.M. on February 28, 1993, with National Guard helicopters carrying ATF agents circling the Mount Carmel compound as an attempted diversion from their ground assault. This was launched simultaneously with unmarked pickup trucks hauling covered cattle trailers that concealed another 76 heavily armed agents. A wild hour-long gun battle ensued which only ended when the Davidians held their fire to allow the badly battered ATF cowboys to retreat with their tails between their legs. Once the smoke cleared, two Davidians lay dead and another five, including Koresh, were wounded but not before they claimed 24 ATF casualties, four of them fatal, making February 28th the worst day in the history of federal law enforcement measured by casualties. It was a humiliating blow, not just to the ATF but for the entire police state. Goliath had stepped to David and David rained hell.

There has been a lot of contention over the years as to who exactly fired first with both sides crying wolf, but the front door that the agents claimed the Davidians opened fire on them through and that David Koresh claimed he was holding open when the ATF shot him was mysteriously missing from the wreckage of the compound after the siege along with any trace of illegally modified firearms. What wasn’t missing however were the bullet holes in the ceiling of Mount Carmel with splinters of wood punched inward, proving that the ATF had taken to sniping at the Davidians from their military choppers. But regardless of who fired first, the Davidians were as good as dead the moment that they successfully fought off a heavily armed federal raid on live television. The FBI took over and a hotly publicized 51-day siege ensued.

After quibbling over early concessions in the negotiating process, David Koresh allowed 23 of his followers to leave the compound during the first week but the Davidians good faith was only met with all the adults released being immediately arrested and their children being taken into government custody. Further negotiations fell through when the Davidians refused to hand over more of their children to the same gestapo in exchange for the milk that they only needed for those same children. The federal government responded by cutting the power to the compound and blasting a bunch of bullet-riddled millenarians with blinding floodlights and blistering high-decibel loudspeakers rattling their windows with bugle calls, Tibetan chants and Nancy Sinatra singing these boots are made for walking and they’re going to walk all over you 24/7.

The media did their part too with their non-stop campaign to demonize David Koresh and his followers as the second coming of Jonestown with absolutely zero criticism whatsoever for the heavy-handed military tactics that federal law enforcement in this country would soon become famous for in the ensuing decades. One of the few people in the media who refused to play ball was Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes who went ahead with his expose on the ATF’s dirty laundry and ended the episode by informing his audience that nearly every ATF whistleblower who he had spoken to believed that the initial raid was nothing but a crass and reckless attempt by the agency to improve their tarnished image. In a sick way it worked. The rest of the media had dutifully rallied around these bruised chauvinists and fed the public a steady diet of propaganda informing them that the Davidians had already essentially committed ritual suicide before the second raid had even begun.

Attorney General Janet Reno signed off on judgement day with accusations of child abuse on the compound that she would later admit were totally baseless. At 6:00 AM on April 19, 1993, the FBI stormed Mount Carmel with battle tanks specifically equipped with giant booms designed to punch massive holes in the compound and pipe in downright dangerous amounts of CS Gas. The feds broadcast messages over their loudspeakers announcing that “this raid is over.” By 6:47, field agents began firing deadly 40mm tear gas cannisters known as ferret rounds from grenade launchers into the windows. A total of 389 of these rounds would be fired that day despite the fact that the tanks had already provided more than enough gas to kill an army of elephants. By 12:00 PM a fire had broken out and the FBI began blocking fire trucks from putting out the blaze. Mount Carmel was soon engulfed in flames as the whole world watched. By the end of the day, 76 Davidians were dead, including 27 children and two pregnant women. Most died from smoke inhalation, but twenty bodies were found with gunshot wounds and the feds celebrated their victory by raising an ATF flag over their charred remains. Mission accomplished.

And they couldn’t have done it without their willing accomplices in the mainstream media who cried ritual suicide before the wreckage had even ceased smoldering. However, of the nine Davidians who actually managed to escape the blaze alive, not one has ever reported any discussion amongst their late embattled comrades on committing such an extreme act and many have noted that David Koresh himself had strictly forbid suicide of any kind as a mortal sin in keeping with traditional Seventh Day Adventist teachings. Numerous experts, including former FBI agents have testified over the years that aerial forward infrared footage taken by the government during the final siege clearly shows agents firing gunshots into the compound and the Justice Department even seized evidence being withheld by the FBI from their investigations indicating that the use of pyrotechnic rounds on a building pumped full of combustible gasses had in fact been authorized from on high.

With the exception of a few contrarian renegades like Russell Means, Ramsey Clark and Gore Vidal, nobody to the left of the far-right seemed to really give a shit. Bill Clinton seemed to sum up the pervasive popular opinion when he refused Janet Reno’s resignation “because some religious fanatics murdered themselves.” Investigations plagued by accusations of corruption and federal infighting all came to the same conclusion that the dead Davidians were asking for it and most of America simply shrugged its shoulders and said, “So what? Who cares about a bunch of dead zealots in hillbilly country?” But then came the tanks of Ferguson and the unmarked federal posses in Portland. Then came Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Freddie Gray.

Nobody wants to connect the dots, but it is all fucking connected. The left didn’t give a fuck about Waco because they were just a bunch of creepy Jesus freaks, and the right doesn’t care about Black Lives Matter because they are just a bunch of uppity ghetto communists but to the police state, we are all the same goddamn enemy so why shouldn’t we all fight back together? Waco was a giant flaming warning about the terrifying capabilities of an unfettered police state in a partisan circus and its victims were far too diverse to fit evenly on the right or the left. People always seem to forget that nearly half of the Branch Davidians slaughtered that day in April were Black. This was a distinctly biracial sect of societal outcasts that the government just figured that they could mow over because they were weird, because they were ‘other’, and these ‘others’ were brutally murdered in cold blood before a live studio audience because they had the nerve to defend themselves.

The most powerful image in my mind’s eye from the Waco siege was that of a banner unfurled over the facade of Mount Carmal by the wounded but unbowed Davidians that boldly read “Rodney King, we understand!” The forever siege of America’s massive tyrannical police state will never end until transgender Stonewall casualties like me are willing to march through the streets of Nashville with signs that boldly read “David Koresh, we understand!” We are all in this siege together because in the gun sights of the powerful, we are all Branch Davidians. It’s time we locked arms and started acting like it.

Nicky Reid is an agoraphobic anarcho-genderqueer gonzo blogger from Central Pennsylvania and assistant editor for Attack the System. You can find her online at Exile in Happy Valley.