No sooner had the group taken control of the tiny town than various branches of law enforcement – from local police to the U.S. Marshalls – arrived fully armed and fully prepared for combat. The group expressed anger towards the federal government and decried a system of oppression and brutality. But both the federal government and the police viewed them as mere renegades whose goal was destruction, not revitalization of a battered community. The day after the siege began both entities exchanged gunfire. Seventy-one days later it ended.
The 1973 occupation of the small South Dakota hamlet of Wounded Knee by the American Indian Movement (AIM) startled most other Americans and garnered international attention. It really shouldn’t have surprised anyone, but many non-Indians believed then their Native American counterparts were content to live in isolation on land carved out just for them. Who outside the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation knew things were so bad? The history of Wounded Knee had already been written in blood. In December of 1890, a violent clash between the Oglala Sioux nation and U.S. federal troops left some 150 Indian people dead. That cataclysm was fresh in the minds of AIM members, including co-founders Russell Means and Dennis Banks, when they overwhelmed Wounded Knee on February 27, 1973. Things hadn’t changed much for the residents of Wounded Knee or all of Pine Ridge, for that matter, in the period since the 1890 event. Poverty, sickness and infant mortality were high, while employment and opportunities were low. The U.S. federal government had failed the entire community. But it didn’t fail to react to the sudden occupation by AIM. If you study that fiasco from the vantage point of AIM and residents of Pine Ridge, you should get an understanding of their angst and the long brutal relationship Native American communities have had with the federal government. If you look at it from the U.S. Marshalls’ view, it was a military success – albeit one that lasted too long for their liking.
AIM members literally readied themselves for battle when they overran Wounded Knee in 1973, exacerbating the fears of many White conservatives: Indians with guns.
I thought about the 1973 Wounded Knee quagmire, when a group of anti-government activists seized a federal building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon two weeks ago. They’re protesting the treatment of two local men, Dwight Hammond and his son, Steve, by the federal government. The Hammonds had been charged with starting two fires – in 2001 and 2006 – on their farmland that ultimately encroached upon federal territory. The Hammond property has been in their family for generations, but it interlocks with publicly-owned territory managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The government allows Hammond-owned livestock to graze on the federal land. The Hammonds claimed they set both fires on their land strictly as a clearing method and had informed the government in advance. But U.S. officials deny receiving any such notification and claim the family was trying to cover up evidence of illegal deer hunting. The 2001 fire burned 139 acres of BLM land, while the 2006 blaze burned only an acre. Dwight and Steve Hammond were arrested and charged with destruction of federal property and sentenced to three months and 366 days, respectively, in prison in 2013. A series of appeals resulted in early releases for both men. But the government recently backtracked and ordered the men to serve more prison time. By the time they peacefully turned themselves in to authorities, the occupation of Malheur had begun.
The rebellious group’s leaders are the sons of another land owner, Nevada’s Cliven Bundy, who was the crux of a federal dispute two years ago that resulted in another standoff. Bundy, a wealthy cattle rancher, had been using federal land in Nevada to feed his livestock. The government allows people to do that, but the farmers must pay fees. Bundy hadn’t paid his share of fees since 1993, and in 1998, a judge ordered him to remove his cattle from federal land. He refused and in March of 2014, federal officials tried to seize some of his livestock. In no time, a large contingent of supporters descended upon the Nevada ranch, armed and ready to fight. The government backed off and returned the cattle to Bundy without further incident. Bundy apparently still hasn’t paid his fees. Shortly after that incident concluded, Bundy showed his true colors (pun intended) when – recalling his experience driving past a Las Vegas housing project – he said, “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro. [A]nd in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do. And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do? They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
Looking at the 2014 Bundy Ranch standoff and the current Oregon mess, two facts are obvious: the protestors in both situations are White and that the federal government hasn’t fired a shot. At least they haven’t done so yet in Oregon, and I doubt they will. Unlike the 1973 Wounded Knee standoff, the government has been patient.
Oregon protestor, Jon Ritzheimer, displays a family picture on his phone and a copy of the Constitution to the media at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters. He needs bottled water and Ramen noodles, too.
What would happen if a group of Indians took over the Malheur site and demanded the U.S. federal government stay away for good because it had been Indian land for thousands of years and should remain that way? How would the government react if a group of Mexican-Americans descended upon the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas and ordered the state and federal governments to cease making it a tourist attraction? What if a group of African-American Chicago residents, tired of rampant poverty and police abuses, overwhelmed city hall and demanded the mayor and police chief resign? Can anyone honestly see the U.S. federal government reacting with patience and diplomacy if any of these scenarios actually occurred? If you do, I have a box of gold bullion I’d like to sell you for USD 100.00 a bar; just give me the money (cash only) and I’ll ship it to you postage paid.
The people at Malheur are just a few members of a larger anti-government contingent here in the U.S. While the state of Oregon overall has a reputation as a bastion of liberal ideology, its eastern sectors are much more rural and conservative. The same holds true for its northern neighbor, Washington. For its southern neighbor, California, the northern half is the rural, conservative portion with strong anti-government sentiments. (On more than one occasion some northern California residents have launched concerted efforts to secede from the rest of the state; most recently in 2014.)
There have always been anti-government insurgents in the United States. From 19th century abolitionists to 1960s-era Black Panthers, various groups have organized and protested against what they view as an oppressive regime. The modern-day militia movement spawned from anxiety over tumultuous civil rights protests. Blacks, Hispanics, Indians, women and gays and lesbians form the bulk of their frustration (fear?), as they call for a rebirth of core American values. The militia movement is comprised mostly of devout Christians of European extraction. Publicly they trumpet their concerns about a federal government out of control, but many of their actions shout White supremacy. Any would-be social cataclysms are the stuff of pure hysteria. In other words, these clowns are conjuring up shit that hasn’t even happened.
The U.S. federal government, however, isn’t so left-wing. Cliven Bundy’s oldest son, Ammon Bundy, leads the Oregon militia and has promised his fellow Americans that “we are not terrorists.” The crop of loudmouths seeking the U.S. presidential nomination in the Republican Party have denounced President Obama for not using such terms as “Islamic terrorists” or “Muslim militants.” But they haven’t applied similar monikers to Bundy’s gang in Oregon or to the young White man who shot and killed 9 Black people after a Bible study session in a Charleston, South Carolina church last year. They were quick to slap the terrorist label onto a Muslim couple who ambushed a Christmas party in San Bernardino, California last month, killing 14 and injuring 22. But they offered their usual “thoughts and prayers” after a mentally deranged man opened fire in a Lafayette, Louisiana move theatre last summer, killing 2 and injuring several others, before taking his own life. The Lafayette killer allegedly praised the Charleston killer in a written screed that displays the “angry White male” syndrome in all its raging effervescence. More importantly, both men had purchased their guns illegally.
In 1968, thousands of law enforcement personnel swarmed into Chicago in advance of the Democratic National Convention. Emotions were still raw for many after the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy. Police swiftly targeted unarmed protestors; part of their paranoia over rumors that leftists planned to spike the city’s water supply with LSD. Mayor Richard J. Daley had the Illinois National Guard in place, as convention participants arrived. The sight of police beating the crap out of unarmed protestors, while business proceeded as usual in the convention center horrified most Americans.
In November of 1969, 89 AIM activists sneaked onto Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay and demanded the federal government turn it over to them, so they could convert it into a Native American cultural center. The island had sat mostly untouched, since the government closed the Alcatraz federal prison six years earlier. The AIM occupiers claimed they had rights to the rocky island under the terms of an 1868 government treaty allowing Native Americans to appropriate any unused federal land. And, of course, we all know how great a job the U.S. government has done in honoring those treaties. Officials tried in vain to get the occupants to give up peacefully. Increasingly squalid living conditions and some infighting, however, led to AIM’s complete desertion of Alcatraz by April 1971. Perhaps it was AIM’s reluctance to give up immediately that led to the government’s more virulent response to the Wounded Knee occupation.
The federal government had kept a close watch on Martin Luther King, almost from the moment he became known for his peaceful resistance against American apartheid. The government did the same with the Black Panthers, but they went further and tried infiltrating the group. In 1967 then-California governor Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act, which barred citizens from publicly displaying firearms. It was the closest thing to gun control the future conservative icon ever did, but it was a direct response to Black Panther activities; they had begun patrolling many all-Black neighborhoods to fight crime and stand against police brutality.
The government also kept track of civil rights activist César Chávez who led a series of farm worker strikes in California, beginning in 1962. Documents in the archives of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) prove they had him and his followers under surveillance. He, too, was a target of Reagan who bore a dislike of organized labor. Reagan appealed to White conservatives in his first run for the presidency by promising to do as much as he could to return America to its pre-1960s period; before all the non-Whites had the audacity to demand equality, voting rights and other such anarchist claims.
The whole world was watching the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago:
Fights even broke out inside the convention hall, proving how nasty politics and media can be.
In contrast, the government reacted slowly to the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s, which naturally corresponded with the rise of Black civil rights. Despite frequent lynchings, church bombings and other violent acts, the FBI didn’t even consider infiltrating the Klan until after the disappearance of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964.
Although conservative voices slam government overreach with such things as the Affordable Care Act, the feds have treated mostly-White anti-government groups with care. Two 1990s-era events – Ruby Ridge and Waco, Texas – are often cited by conservatives as hallmarks of government gone awry, but actually show just the opposite. In August of 1992, a standoff erupted between government agents and a family of White separatists, headed by Randy Weaver, in Ruby Ridge; a mountainous region of northern Idaho where many fellow White separatists had established themselves. The siege resulted in the deaths of one federal agent and Weaver’s wife, Vicky, and son, Sammy. The FBI had the Weavers and family friend Kevin Harrison under surveillance for months; in their native Iowa, they had ties to White supremacist groups that the government suspected were responsible for a series of bank robberies throughout the mid-West, beginning in the 1980s. Authorities didn’t believe the Weavers were tied directly to the robberies, but that they served as a conduit for firearms trafficking. Randy Weaver had been charged with selling two sawed-off shotguns and was scheduled to appear in court. When he didn’t, the family and Harrison came under greater scrutiny. While still in Iowa, the Weavers allegedly sent their kids to school wearing Nazi armbands.
Conservatives equally slammed the government over its response to the Branch Davidian siege in Waco in the spring of 1993. As with the Weavers, the feds believed the group was stockpiling weapons and ammunition, which ultimately proved true. Moreover, Branch Davidian leader David Koresh was suspected of child molestation. When agents approached the Davidian compound, they were met with a hail of gunfire. A lengthy standoff ensued whereupon the government tore into the compound with military-style precision; killing 76 people, including 23 children.
However, social conservatives haven’t been so quick to condemn the actions of law enforcement during the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia. Established in 1972, MOVE (much like their White counterparts) is an anti-government group whose members all adopted the surname “Africa,” in symbolic protest of the Atlantic slave trade that stripped millions of Africans of their identities. The group came under federal surveillance from the moment of their inception. In the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, May 13, 1985 (Mother’s Day), police literally dropped a bomb of C4 explosives on one portion of a section of row houses in West Philadelphia. The resulting conflagration killed 6 adults and 5 children, injured several others and destroyed 61 residences. Like the Weavers and Branch Davidians, MOVE members were no angels. They had more people living in one house than city rules allowed; windows were covered with plywood; and they blasted the neighborhood with loud music and vociferous protests. Police also suspected – rightfully – that the group possessed a large cache of weapons and ammunition.
Aftermath of the 1985 MOVE disaster.
Still, in a recent editorial, Jesse Walker questioned the legitimacy of denouncing the Oregon protestors as “terrorists.”
“The occupiers do have guns, and they have said they’re willing to use them if the cops come storming in,” Walker opines. “Yet they have no hostages, they haven’t fired at anyone, and if they do fire, they will almost certainly not aim at a civilian but at someone professionally charged with removing them from the premises. You can call that a lot of things, but it’s absurd to call it terrorism.”
In typical right-wing fashion, Walker goes on to point to the Ruby Ridge and Waco affairs as reasons the government is taking a cautious approach with the Oregon group. Anyone who views Randy Weaver and David Koresh as heroic figures isn’t just misguided; they’re assholes. One of them was Timothy McVeigh, mastermind of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which he said was revenge for Waco. McVeigh was videotaped near the Branch Davidian compound during the standoff holding a sign asking observers if they felt their religion met government approval.
White supremacists and serial pedophiles are essentially terrorists. What else should they be called? People with “emotional issues”? While many White conservatives still refer to Ruby Ridge and Waco with anxiety, many Blacks view the MOVE bombing more as a blatant example of the usual police brutality. But I haven’t heard any African-Americans refer to MOVE members as heroes.
My tweet to Jesse Walker after reading his editorial last week.
More recently, the Occupy Wall Street movement was practically halted before it gained any real traction. The group of racially diverse upstarts launched reasonable protests against the same government as others; theirs, however, were directed towards the affluent bankers and hedge fund managers who almost destroyed the U.S. economy and plunged the nation into the worst recessionary period since the Great Depression. The protestors were mainly peaceful and non-violent, yet police from New York to San Francisco plowed into them with mace and batons. Scouring the news about Tea Party rallies – where racist diatribes and threats of violent insurrection are common – I can’t find one incident where police even tried to stop them.
I don’t know what will happen next with the Oregon standoff. Malheur is primarily a bird sanctuary, so I hope no avians are harmed. The interlopers have put out a call for much-needed supplies, such as bottled water and toiletries. In a strange sort of way, I support their frustration in that I have no faith in the U.S. government to do anything right. The years since 2001 have pretty much proven that. Along with bottled water and deodorant, I’d provide a copy of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which the group surely has. But, my copies would highlight this essential passage:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Even though the term “men” can now be easily translated to “people,” I want them and their supporters to understand they are no more deserving of this thing called the “American Dream” than anyone else. We all possess that inalienable right to “life” and “liberty” – whether we drink bottled water or not.