The liberal response to right-wing militias; an abolitionist’s perspective

You may have noticed the trending story of the right-wing militia that has “taken over” the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Below I’ll post a brief summary of recent events from one of the first reports. Before any of that, just keep in mind that all of this is in the larger context of the Bundy standoff of 2014 and an ongoing conflict between the Bureau of Land Management and militias associated with a ranching family in Nevada. They are being called the “Bundy Militia,” although their ranks are made up of militia randoms and individuals from around the United States.

Update at 9:15 p.m.: Statement from Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward: “After the peaceful rally was completed today, a group of outside militants drove to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, where they seized and occupied the refuge headquarters. A collective effort from multiple agencies is currently working on a solution. For the time being please stay away from that area. More information will be provided as it becomes available. Please maintain a peaceful and united front and allow us to work through this situation.”

The Bundy family of Nevada joined with hard-core militiamen Saturday to take over the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, vowing to occupy the remote federal outpost 50 miles southeast of Burns for years.

The occupation came shortly after an estimated 300 marchers — militia and local citizens both — paraded through Burns to protest the prosecution of two Harney County ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond, who are to report to prison on Monday.

Among the occupiers is Ammon Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, and two of his brothers. Militia members at the refuge claimed they had as many as 100 supporters with them. The refuge, federal property managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was closed and unoccupied for the holiday weekend.

In phone interviews from inside the occupied building Saturday night, Ammon Bundy and his brother, Ryan Bundy, said they are not looking to hurt anyone. But they would not rule out violence if police tried to remove them, they said.

“The facility has been the tool to do all the tyranny that has been placed upon the Hammonds,” Ammon Bundy said.

Militia ideology and liberal ideology are not so different, after all

This kind of right-wing militia may be best described as constitutionalist. By this I mean that they believe: that what they are doing is legal or lawful, insofar as is sanctioned or in accord with the United States Constitution, the “highest law of the land” as they put it. They don’t oppose the Constitution itself, nor the United States as a state or nation, but rather oppose specific legal interpretations and applications of the Constitution, as well as various branches of the state (the federal elements specifically). They believe in a constitution as they perceive it.

This is as valid as any belief in a constitution. All constitutionalism is as-perceived. A text doesn’t interpret and apply itself. The difference between the interpretation of the Constitution by right-wing militias and that of the United States Supreme Court, in reality, boils down to power. The former lacks the power to enforce (or ignore) the Constitution, while the latter wields the full power of the state: police, economy, military and prisons. This is the only important difference, as both the right-wing militia and the state believe they are acting in a lawful (Constitutional) way. They think that they are adhering to the “supreme law” (the US Constitution), that they are working for the people, for the United States, and so on.

The ideology of a constitutionalist right-wing militia and the status quo is so similar, it’s almost identical. This is predictable; the USA was built on these kinds of militias. It was militia members who became the first law enforcers and the first slave catchers. They’ve always had a role, perceived positively, within the common American ideology. We pay them homage as “Founding Fathers” and “patriots” out of one side of our mouths, these early American revolutionaries, then denounce moderns who get into the exact same shenanigans. Why? Because they’re no longer perfectly aligned with the structures of state power that exist today. I’m reminded of what Henry Thoreau and Voltairine de Cleyre said about this double standard:

To the average American of today, the Revolution means the series of battles fought by the patriot army with the armies of England. The millions of school children who attend our public schools are taught to draw maps of the siege of Boston and the siege of Yorktown, to know the general plan of the several campaigns, to quote the number of prisoners of war surrendered with Burgoyne; they are required to remember the date when Washington crossed the Delaware on the ice; they are told to “Remember Paoli,” to repeat “Molly Stark’s a widow,” to call General Wayne “Mad Anthony Wayne,” and to execrate Benedict Arnold; they know that the Declaration of Independence was signed on the Fourth of July, 1776, and the Treaty of Paris in 1783; and then they think they have learned the Revolution — blessed be George Washington! They have no idea why it should have been called a “revolution” instead of the “English War,” or any similar title: it’s the name of it, that’s all. And name-worship, both in child and man, has acquired such mastery of them, that the name “American Revolution” is held sacred, though it means to them nothing more than successful force, while the name “Revolution” applied to a further possibility, is a spectre detested and abhorred.

Such is the spirit of government-provided schools. Ask any child what he knows about Shays’ rebellion, and he will answer, “Oh, some of the farmers couldn’t pay their taxes, and Shays led a rebellion against the court-house at Worcester, so they could burn up the deeds; and when Washington heard of it he sent over an army quick and taught ’em a good lesson” — “And what was the result of it?” “The result? Why — why — the result was — Oh yes, I remember — the result was they saw the need of a strong federal government to collect the taxes and pay the debts.”

Voltairine de Cleyre, Anarchism and American Traditions

All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is not the case now.

Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

The mainstream, the plain legal consensus, is going to clearly identify the militia occupation of this building as illegal. And, no doubt, it violates multiple laws from the local to the federal level. But this is not the way right-wing militias view themselves. They don’t portray themselves as people consciously engaging in civil disobedience. (I should digress to say that they could; civil disobedience, despite some degree of popular misconception, is not necessarily nonviolent.) They don’t claim that they are violating unjust laws, nor that they are rebelling against the state. They believe that they are acting in the ultimate purity of the American state. They are in accord with its most supreme law, the Constitution itself. The real lawbreakers, to the militia, are various “rogue” agencies within the state itself. The Bureau of Land Management, in this specific case.

We’re not the real criminals, they say, with a nod at the US Constitution as their trump card. This is why you find so many ex-military and police in these militias, individuals who have previously made oaths to the US Constitution specifically. In fact, we even have militias such as the Oathkeepers who are made up exclusively of law enforcement and military veterans.

Militia ideology, the ideology of the American status quo, and our radical ideologies

From this point we can begin to analyze the relationship right-wing militias have, ideologically, with the non-radical status quo and also with our own radical political beliefs. We’ve just done it, in part, by comparing the militia perception of the Constitution with the Constitutional perception of the status quo. We’ve seen that they are practically the same. The former, the militia, believes it is the truly lawful, the latter, the state and the status quo, also believe they are lawful. They’re merely competing within the same game, trying to win. Both are also defending property, which we will get into more below.

There is no distinction between American liberals and American conservatives here: both are a part of the latter category. They are what I am calling the American status quo. I realize that in the narrow scope of American political discourse conservatives and liberals, or alternately Republicans and Democrats, present themselves as being miles apart, opposite poles of the political spectrum. In fact, placed on a conventional political spectrum of Western politics they are nearly identical and lean right. This is an important point to keep in mind, too, as you watch the militia movement grow in the United States. These are not “conservatives,” even if many use that label to describe themselves. Specifically, they are not the dominant “neoconservatives” of American politics. They are one small facet of a growing “alternative right” movement, a subcategory also known as a “patriot” movement. They’ve become as discontent with the status quo as radicals have, except they have reactionary rather than radical reasons for that discontent.

In this immediate incident we see division between the militia and mainstream conservative ranks. The occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was not a part of the original protest. An assortment of local conservatives and militia intended to protest the five-year incarceration of two men accused of starting a fire. A group from within that protest splintered. This split and subsequent occupation does appear to have been planned ahead of time, per Ammon Bundy’s comments. I suspect the splinter group desired to use the protest to springboard their occupation of the Refuge building, and/or recruit from an immediate group of armed, right-wing reactionaries and conservatives.

This plan was not really successful. We could say it backfired. Part of the original protest condemned the occupying militia’s action. Local attempts to recruit from among “ranchers, loggers, and miners” have largely been rebuffed. Basically, you’ve got Ammon Bundy walking into these small towns, firearm worn on his hip, and asking people to join him. And they’re refusing. His audience is, of course, mainstream conservative. These are small town bastions of conservatism. And the young Bundy is receiving the exact same response he would receive if he walked into San Francisco or New York City and gave his pitch. The actual conservative response to this militia occupation is no different from the liberal response.

You can see this, too, if you glance through the comments sections of the news or news aggregating websites, like this massive Reddit thread. The rhetoric toward this militia occupation, from American liberals, mirrors the sentiments you’d find in conservative comments on a black “thug,” a radical environmental protest, or crime in general. Let me be specific:

The shared assumption of liberals and conservatives is that the Bureau of Land Management “owns” this land. It is alternately called “federal land” or “government land.” This is the way it is referred to by liberals and conservatives; it’s the way that it is reported by American media across the board. Thus, it is taken for granted that the American state “owns” this land at all. This is often cloaked as vicarious or proxy ownership, “the people” own the land, through the government of course, but “the people” nonetheless. This is also a myth that both liberals and conservatives subscribe to, that it is “the people” and not the state who really own it.

The solution is typical liberal-conservative as well: prisons. The recent protest used the fact that two men were sentenced for an arson for too few years. They got two years, but the federal minimum was five. A judge “had to” send them back to prison for the remaining time. Where are the abolitionist voices here? There are none, of course, because neither liberals nor conservatives are abolitionists. The same people who would tout prison “reform” – I’m talking about liberals now – the same group that has latched on to mass incarceration, marijuana legalization, and other assorted prison and crime related reformist issues, becomes the most vociferous in demanding a swift government response.

Because yes, it’s largely liberals, not conservatives, in these comments. The conservatives and reactionaries, in turn, creep out of the comments on liberal-issues-articles. And the liberals are defending the prison-industrial complex, the law, the belief that these two men should be sent back to prison. Just as conservatives do in their own form of anti-liberal discourse. Moreover, that their alleged crime – killing an elk or starting a fire to cover it up – was especially severe. And don’t get them started on the response to the militia occupation. Where’s Trump when you need him? Why don’t they build a big fence around the area and call it Bundy Maximum Security Prison? Drone-strike these “yee-hawdists.” Jokes, clearly, but expressing real sentiments. From liberals. The American so-called “left.” Those are statements almost verbatim I found in multiple comments across multiple websites, by the way.

That’s the paradigm: lock them up. Throw away the key. Add more years on to their sentences. Support federal mandatory minimum sentences. Build more prisons. Liberals unequivocally respond this way to certain demographics of crime: the right-wing militia in this case is an example. Similarly, we see conservatives respond exactly the same way to other demographics of crime: the “thug,” the property criminal, the activist. Prison and police are the solution, endorsed by liberals and conservatives alike. The only dispute is who really belongs in prison.

How about terrorism? You would think that by now the word terrorism would be equivalent to the word bullshit. If not bullshit, it should be code for government oppression. Now go back to the thread I posted and count how many liberals (and let’s be fair, conservatives, whoever – the American political status quo as I called them) are calling this an act of “terrorism.” What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. “Terrorism” is a shibboleth. Liberals have learned that they can wield this word against conservatives the same way that conservatives have used it against minorities, foreigners, political dissidents, and environmental activists.

But what’s the desired result? What are you trying to accomplish by calling someone a terrorist in a liberal or conservative context exactly? Or let’s say an American context, or a Western political context? Well, you’re saying they should be treated like a terrorist. And in recent American history, this means they should be arrested. They should be infiltrated by undercover police. Moreover, they should even be tortured. Perhaps they should be sent to a secret prison, Guantanamo Bay style. How about shot on sight? At the very least, they should be subject to state influence and intrusion, surveillance, and interference in every aspect of their lives from that point forward. When liberals and conservatives call someone a “terrorist” it’s as if they are trying to cast a spell, an incantation, to call down the forces of the state upon their enemies: the NSA, Homeland Security, no-fly lists, the FBI, local police and jails. You know the power of that word.

Punching which way?

It’s not typical that liberals are aware of the concept of “punching up, not down.” Even many radicals seem to forget this. And, fair enough, it is no moral imperative. It’s even a controversial idea. I’m not fully sold on it myself. In a conflict, or on the sidelines, you don’t side with the oppressor. You side with the oppressed. You don’t side with the one who has power, but with the one who has less power, in the conflict. And if you are the one who has power, you use it to rip people from the hierarchy above you, not to stomp on the heads of those below you. This is the idea. Personally, despite not being fully sold, I find it a good rule of thumb.

But when you see a right-wing militia, or let’s say a fascist political organization, come up against the state and the cops, what do you do? Who do you side with? Most of us (lets say radicals, or anarchists, or abolitionists) would probably like to say nobody. We’d like to pretend we can remain neutral, on the sidelines, eating popcorn, completely removed from this conflict, in equal opposition to both, or some position that frees us from this dilemma. In fact, Sartre, Camus, or Zinn had the right idea: you can’t be neutral. You’re already not; we’re already not. Even our very inaction is an action. And, unfortunately, inaction usually benefits the powerful.

(But inaction is understandable nonetheless. What I can’t understand is how someone who identifies as an anarchist can also say put these terrorists in prison. And yes, I’ve seen this. And this is despicable to me. Demanding imprisonment is akin to calling for retaliatory rape or retaliatory enslavement.)

This does not mean we should support right-wing militias just because they are the little guys. (In fact, next to most of us, they’re still the big guys.) But make no mistake, next to the United States these militias are the little guys. They are tiny. And they are standing up to a big guy that has historically been a very bad guy, too.

Let’s get specific again, this time on the Bureau of Land Management. Ever since the first Bundy standoff, liberals have depicted this organization and its role as protecting federal land. There was a dispute over Bundy’s cattle damaging the natural habitat of the desert tortoise. Meanwhile, conservatives said fuck the tortoise, Bundy’s cows aren’t doing shit. As a radical environmentalist presented with this information, where do you fall? It wasn’t surprising to see many fellow radicals, be they indigenous activists or ELF-types, lining up with the liberals and condemning Bundy.

Capitalists don’t freeload in a capitalist state

It’s as if we were all roped in by the narrow range of liberal-conservative discourse in the media. We forgot that the Bureau of Land Management’s job is not desert tortoise protection. At least, not in any significant way. Kind of like how human protection is not the actual job of the police. The purpose of the Bureau of Land Management is the economic and physical administration of federal lands.

Now, let me be clear. Most of those federal lands are not nature preserves. They’re not held benevolently. Even a large part of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is not an actual refuge, but used for commercial and recreational purposes. These lands are not being administered by the indigenous people who were there first. (Those people haven’t “gone away,” either, by the way.) A dictatorship of the proletariat is not using them for our collective benefit. A revolutionary vanguard party doesn’t hold them in situ until we can use them in an environmentally-friendly or egalitarian way. They’re not made up of local collectives, communes, or federated anarchist communities.

Those are lands owned by a capitalist state. They’re fully controlled by a capitalist state. They are leased to capitalist corporations, for profit. When they’re not leased to big capitalist corporations, they’re leased to small capitalists, even individual families of wealth, people like the Bundy family from our story, for the purposes of ranching, mining, logging, or other commercial endeavors, such as the construction of for-profit solar farms. The largest corporations that use these federal lands, by the way, are the corporate group of Koch pipeline industries.

Even state socialists need to recognize this fact. Maybe you think the state has a role, or prisons have a role, or the police have a role. Fine. But the fact is, the actual states, prisons, and police are capitalist states, prisons and police.

Pipelines, I mentioned. Now that may sound familiar. Because if you’ve been following radical environmentalist and indigenous struggles over the last year pipelines have come up a lot. We’ve seen people arrested and even killed by the police for protesting pipelines. We’ve seen sabotage and civil disobedience, people chaining their heads to the pipelines and having their arms broken. And we’ve seen conservatives respond to these activists in the exact same way liberals responded to the first Bundy standoff, as well as this current occupation of the Refuge building. With disdain, dismissal, calling them crazy, extremist, or terrorist. And, of course, the solution: put them all in prison. Call in the police. Get the National Guard on it. State violence, militarism, handcuffs, the new slavery.

I don’t wish prison on my worst enemies

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to put Cliven Bundy in prison. I don’t want to see Ammon Bundy in prison. I don’t want to see the two people who did “just” two years do the full five years, regardless of how many elk they killed or how many fires they started. I don’t care if they are the far right-wing. They’ve still fallen quite short of the levels of brutality and evil that constitute the prison and police system itself. They’re probably not nice people; they’re probably nasty and greedy, and racist and all of those things everyone says. And yet, so are prisons. In fact, prisons are all of those things and more. They are nasty, racist, inhuman, fascist, authoritarian and perhaps the most despicable institutions that exist in the entire world today. This is not even hyperbole or exaggeration.

The liberals who jump on the cop-and-prison train disgust and frighten me. They frighten me more than right-wing militias do. This is because they have power. Not in and of themselves as liberal individuals, necessarily, but in representing the status quo and the ideology of the dominant power structures. You follow the law, or you get brutalized by the criminal justice system. Literally brutalized. They’re at the very top punching down. And down here is us. We’re the people who get put in prisons. You could be arrested at an anti-pipeline protest in Oregon and find yourself sharing a bunk with Ammon Bundy or one of his racist militia members. This doesn’t make us the same. It does not mean we are in the same group or the same team. Frankly, we’re still enemies with them. But we’re enemies down here at the bottom and we just happen to share common enemies up there at the top.

I don’t believe that is sufficient for an alliance – can you imagine an anarchist group teaming up with neo-Nazis to take down a police station? I sure can’t. But it should make us think more about where we’re throwing blows. I don’t find radicals lining up behind liberals any more reasonable than I would find anarchists and fascists teaming up. I’m not calling for the abolition of prisons – or let’s take the newly popular liberal position, major sentencing reform, prison reform, police reform, reformist reform – and then demanding my enemies be locked up in prisons. Because the law, or because it’s an issue personal to me, they’re the bad guys, or because smash fascism. It’s not only hypocritical and inconsistent, it’s counter-productive. It puts us further from our goals, be they abolition (in my case) or even the placating criminal justice reforms of liberals.

Look, there are people in prison right now doing ten years for breaking into homes to sleep at night. Homeless people going into abandoned buildings and warehouses. The mentally ill breaking into apartments so they don’t freeze, literally, to death in Detroit or Chicago. And for what? Because they violated someone’s private property. A property owner who probably was not even there.

And now we have this group of right-wing ideologues, these quasi-fascists or constitutionalists, probably racists but not quite neo-Nazis, however we wish to categorize them. They live in the middle of the desert. This is a desert, folks. The closest living people are miles away. But all of this empty land is owned by the government, the state, or “the people.” Well, let me tell you this: supposedly I’m “the people” and I haven’t seen anything come from my so-called ownership of this land. I don’t possess it. I can’t use it. It isn’t even anywhere near me. It’s being leased to corporations at the exclusion of the indigenous people. Either I’m a bad absentee owner of this land, or I don’t really own it at all. That’s land owned by the government, the state. And this right-wing militia is going to occupy a building that is routinely left abandoned for half of the year.

I can find an abundance of objection to the nature of this militia, their goals, their ideology. There are plenty of valid reasons to hate them, to designate them as my enemies. But I have a hard time finding reasons to be mad that they’ve occupied an unused building in the middle of a desert.

The law and property

In fact, imagine it: a group like the Ku Klux Klan. Now, I’m not saying these constitutionalists are like the KKK. I believe I understand the various militia ideologies quite well, suffice to say they are distinct. But imagine the KKK, I use this as an example because the Klan is and was notorious. Yet, it’s a group that was and still is tolerated. It’s not the past, my friends, the Klan still exists. It’s bigger than this militia. It can spread hatred, it can perpetuate racism. It can call for a race war. The Klan can funnel money into local politics and even infiltrate police stations. I’m not talking about 1960, I’m talking about 2015. But even without lynchings, even without the violence, the Klan can and does add to the suffering of human beings in ways we can’t even begin to quantify.

But if the KKK suddenly took over an abandoned building in the desert – look the fuck out! They’ve just crossed a line. We’re happy to tolerate all forms of evil, but only up to the point that they don’t violate the most sacred tenets of power – the law and property. It is only legalism and ownership that get the full support of the state via the police and courts. Not only that, but they also get the near-universal support of political consensus, liberal and conservative.

They get a support so near to universal that you even start to see radicals, socialists, anarchists – people who might have identified as abolitionists themselves – rallying behind liberals and saying “put those fuckers in jail.”

Because that’s what it comes down to in the end, for the Bundy Militia, for liberals, conservatives, and for unfortunate radicals who fall on the wrong side of this issue: property. No one was advocating that these militias be imprisoned merely for existing, or for spreading hatred, or being racist, or reactionary. The radical left in the USA has done nothing consistent – such as build its own militia movement – to counter this in any significant way. American anti-fascism is practically nonexistent. These militias are culturally and legally tolerated – like the Ku Klux Klan – by everyone until they start fucking with property. “Public” property, property of “the people,” “government” and “federal” property, “property” leased to Koch Industries or Ammon Bundy’s “hereditary” property.

If I can’t count on the capitalist state, who can I count on?

If you want to do something significant, consistent with your socialist/anarchist/radical beliefs, and effective let me conclude with this word of advice: get a gun. The Bundy Militia should be an example to you, not a demon. The so-called progressive media has been solely focusing on the double standard. If they were black, if they were Muslim, if they were anarchists. (They’re not wrong – all this is true – but they offer no solutions beyond complaint.) None of them are saying: arm yourselves, oppressed people. Few have pointed out the fact that what the Bundy Militia has done, as a tactic, worked. It worked the first time in 2014 and it is working right now. Even if they are all massacred by the FBI it will have worked.

Pick up a gun, radicals. Form a militia. Americans are in a unique position insofar as both are legal. You don’t even have to commit a crime (if you don’t want to). Join the Huey P. Newton Gun Club. And don’t forget Newton himself, his life and the Black Panthers. Read Revolutionary Suicide. Try to grasp that the capitalist state is not a vehicle to protect you, the desert tortoise, or the land in Oregon. If you don’t want groups like the Bundy Militia to occupy these lands – or worse, the actual capitalist state that already controls them – then you need to be the one who occupies them.

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