What progressives can learn from the militia occupation in Oregon

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

By Kelley Weigel, Executive Director, Western States Center, and a member of the Strong Families community

It’s day 26 of the standoff between the federal government and armed militants occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon – and it’s clear the occupation isn’t packing up and heading home anytime soon.

This is a complex story that has been surfacing for months. Yet I’ve watched progressives either dismiss the militia as another publicity tactic for right wing extremists, or rush to defend the wildlife preserve. Missing in all of this?  The people of Harney County and the Burns Paiute Tribe, people whose home is a place many can't find on a map.  People who, in spite of asking the militia to leave, have instead been faced with threats and intimidation, silence from the federal government, and the media’s focus on birds than the people themselves.  People whose anger and distrust is being swept up in the “silent majority” of Donald Trump’s campaign instead of being channeled into proactive change making with progressive organizations. 

What’s actually happening in Harney County 

Like many rural places, Harney County’s economy was built on resource extraction—the logging industry. When forest sustainability began to inform our country’s forest management practices, Harney County saw losses in jobs and then saw its tax base erode. Between decades of anti-tax rhetoric and state and federal policy changes that have placed the largest burden of taxes on the working class, the end result is that one in four Harney County residents lives below the poverty level. Schools, roads, and public spaces are under-resourced. There are times when you call 911 and no one answers, because emergency services are so short-staffed that they can’t answer calls.  So it’s easy to understand the distrust – and anger – some Harney County residents feel towards the government.  

We might do well to remember that this is by design. The anti-tax work of Grover Norquist from the 1980s that wanted to “shrink government down to a size so you can drown it in the bathtub” has been at work across the county. Tax revenues in Harney County are approximately 25% less now than they were in the 1990s due to anti-tax successes. Now the Militia takes it to a whole new level where they do not even recognize the authority of the federal government. How easy is it to dismantle federal structures when you just decide they don’t exist?

Enter the Hammonds. In 2010, Harney County ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond were indicted for setting fire to federal lands.  The Hammonds were indicted under the Federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which carries a mandatory minimum of five years.  The judge, however, found that cruel and unusual punishment – so Dwight Hammond was only sentenced to three months and Steve Hammond one year. 

But in an unprecedented step, the U.S. Attorney appealed the sentence, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Hammonds did have to serve the remainder of the five year mandatory minimum, instantly prompting cries of federal overreach and legal malpractice.  Dwight and Steve Hammond have not fought this decision and surrendered themselves to serve out these sentences.

The Hammonds are part of the story but they are not the only story . . . 

We are rural America

Strong Families carries the values that all people, everywhere, should have the rights, recognition, and resources they need to thrive…wherever you live. There are amazing Strong Families partners that have been organizing in rural communities for years. We know that rural families, low-income families, and families of color are deeply affected by public policy – state and federal.  But at the same time, they’re too frequently left out of the conversation. (This is particularly true of indigenous and Native folks, including the Paiute Tribe, who are the rightful owners of the wildlife refuge land in question. The absurdity of the militia claiming “sovereign citizenship” when so few outside Native communities understand Tribal Sovereignty is another area for exploration.)

We also know from our work in three rural New Mexico counties, in Oregon, and in Montana that when we elevate the work of local organizations, listen to rural communities’ needs, and invest in the leadership of rural people, transformative change is possible.

The Right’s response
That’s not the tactic the Right adopted in Harney County.  On January 2nd, hundreds marched on Harney County to address the Hammonds’ incarceration. This was no spontaneous uprising – militiamen have organized similar movements for the past twenty years, most recently at the Sugar Pine Mine in Josephine County, OR, in April (much, much more as highlighted in a recent segment from Rachel Maddow and Spencer Sunshine’s piece on Oregon’s militia movement).  

They position themselves as the alternative to government in an era where public education, emergency response, law enforcement, and healthcare have been cut.

As they speak to the realities of day to day suffering facing rural communities, anti-government activists are  bringing people into their movement – a movement that dogmatically (and at times violently) defends the rights of straight, white, cis men over all others. They’re painting a vision of what life can be like when the federal government finally gets out of the way – a life they say is better for us.  They just neglect to mention who us is.  

Their tactics are hurtful but speak to the real issues that rural Oregonians need addressed.  And so even after they’ve slashed opponents’ tires, tailed the sheriff and his parents around town, and threatened federal employees with kidnapping, some in Harney County may wonder who has their backs, the militia or the government.

The challenge to progressives

As progressives, we’re used to doing a lot with limited resources, though we are often in cities, where we have many supporters in a small geographic area.  But ignoring the rural margins comes at a cost – and we’re seeing that in Harney County.  Our organizing must speak to and benefit all of us, not just those who live within our organizing “hubs.”

There are organizations doing incredible (if underappreciated) work organizing rural communities – I implore you to support the work of Rural Organizing Project, Tewa Women United, Montana Women Vote, and organizations in your state that are paying attention to the lives of rural families.  But for those of us in organizations not supporting the leadership of rural people, we need to start making those connections.  Rural communities are looking for solutions to the crisis of dwindling funding and crumbling infrastructure.

We are a country bound together by rural and urban issues.  The organized Right sees this – and we can too. Just as we do in larger cities, progressive organizations can play a powerful role in demystifying the levers of power and helping communities agitate for change.  But that starts with identifying that we don’t do enough work supporting our rural neighbors…and making a commitment to do better.

Rural land rights struggles go straight to the heart of who we are as a community demanding dignity for all families.  And regardless of where we live, we can show solidarity by amplifying the voices of the majority of Harney County residents, who are calling foul on the occupation and asking the militia to leave.  We can stand with the Burns Paiute Tribe to reclaim the refuge land, their ancestral home. 

We can share updates from Rural Organizing Project’s Facebook page, which has been doing a stellar job documenting the crisis in Harney County. They’re planning a Day of Action across Oregon this Saturday, January 30th and have plenty of creative ways to participate, regardless of where you live.

We can read and disseminate resources like the Organizing Action Kit ROP recently published with Showing Up for Racial Justice. The kit has background information, tips on how having transformative conversations, and more.

And we can research the organizations and individuals doing grassroots organizing and empowerment work in rural parts of our own states – and ask how we can help them.
Because if we aren’t organizing these communities, we shouldn’t be surprised when the militant Right swoops in to fill that void. 

Western States Center supports movement building community organizing across the West and is a member of Strong Families. You can read more about the militia takeover in Harney County at Western States Center’s blog.

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