State Abandonment and Militia Revolt
White Occupation, Native Land, and Black Lives
“Hands Up . . . Don’t Shoot!” “Hands Up . . . Don’t Shoot!” The call and response echoed across a tense crowd of a few hundred people gathered on a cold Saturday in January. The gathering crowd raised their arms above their heads in surrender, repeating the ubiquitous pose struck by Black Lives Matter protesters across the country in the wake of the 2015 killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Like many of the demonstrations connected to the Movement for Black Lives, this gathering unfolded amid deep economic crisis; unemployment in the surrounding region stood at nearly 20 percent, and the main industries that had once supported life and possibility a generation ago were long in decline. And also, like the Black Lives Matter actions, the protest was organized in the aftermath of a civilian shooting by police and in opposition to a lengthy prison sentence recently handed down to two local residents because of federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines.
This protest, however, did not unfold in Chicago, St. Louis, or New York, but in a town of less than two thousand people in sparsely populated eastern Oregon, 125 miles from the Idaho border. The participants were almost entirely white. They were gathered in front of the Harney County Courthouse in Burns, Oregon, in early February 2016 to protest the killing of LaVoy Finicum at the hands of state police. Finicum, an Arizona rancher, had played a central role in the occupation of the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge the month before. The protest, led by an Arizona-based activist named Ammon Bundy, centered nominally on the federal sentences recently given to local ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven for setting fires (in an effort to control weeds) on their cattle ranch that spread to neighboring federal land. Bundy and the other occupiers framed the occupation as a confrontation with federal authorities over control of rural land and resources, and the occupation soon drew right-wing activists from militia and patriot groups from across the western United States. Finicum was a part of a group that had left the occupation at the refuge to meet with local supporters when their convoy was stopped by police, resulting in a confrontation and shoot-out. A week later, another group of Finicum supporters would organize a “Rural Lives Matter” protest in the town of Halfway, Oregon (population two hundred) to “learn how America was to be governed by principled local government—NOT FEDERAL OVERREACH.”
We anchor this chapter in the story of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge takeover and its broader political and economic contexts and resonances to consider the relationship between the crises unfolding in largely white areas like rural Oregon and those shaping life in predominantly Black communities, such as Ferguson, Missouri, that have given rise to quite different forms of political mobilization. In what ways do the underlying conditions that shape both of these formations converge, even as their social and political visions differ so dramatically? More specifically, what might the protesters in Oregon learn from their counterparts in Ferguson and elsewhere if they are to address their own conditions of precarity? How might a different modality of racial transposition take place here that could draw from the long-standing political insights, strategies, and analyses forged in the crucibles of antiracist struggles?
As we explain, unmistakable currents of deeply gendered white-settler violence and appropriation were apparent throughout the forty-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The occupation’s leadership and core supporters articulate a revanchist white producerism: an effort to regenerate social, political, and economic life through a re-creation of settler occupation and violence. But we need not presume that the self-styled militia groups that orchestrated the occupation stand in for all possible forms of political identification and social vision for rural Oregonians who are white. The labor of race here is complicated and contradictory. The “Hands Up . . . Don’t Shoot” chant and “All Lives Matter” invocation can be accurately understood as a crass appropriation of a central signifier to Black Lives Matter, an appropriation that erases the very particular ways that state violence targets Black life. In the context of the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore, this form of rhetorical hijacking often uses the “All Lives Matter” (or in other cases “Blue Lives Matter”) chant to portray Black Lives Matter protesters as parochial and anti-democratic, their interests antithetical to the greater good. These invocations also obscure the very specific Black feminist critique developed by the three originators of the Black Lives Matter hashtag—Alicia Garza, Patrice Kahn-Cullers, and Opal Tometi—in the aftermath of the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012.
At the same time, if we draw our focus beyond the occupation’s leadership and consider the broader context of state abandonment and the impact of neoliberal restructuring on rural communities, we might see some articulations between the crisis in eastern Oregon and the campaigns against state violence invoked by the “Hands Up . . . Don’t Shoot” cries.
Robin Kelley has framed this contradiction in similar terms in considering the deployment of the cry that “All Lives Matter” in the context of extensive state violence against Black communities. “‘All Lives Matter’ is heard and felt as a belittling or decentering of anti-Black racism,” he writes. “It trades on postracial myths of equivalency in suffering. On the other hand, sometimes we react to ‘All Lives Matter’ with such hostility that it stands in as an unambiguous expression of anti-Black racism. Can we salvage these words? Don’t we want to build a world in which every life is valuable, cherished and sustained? Are we not seeking a world that recognizes multiple sites of dispossession and recognizes that state violence inside US borders is inseparable from US militarism around the world?”
The economic and political crisis in rural Oregon seems to constitute a “site of dispossession” for multiple groups: the Native communities whose lands, resources, and sovereignty are subject to constant attack and appropriation; workers from the Global South, particularly rural Mexico, whose labor has been central to many industries in the state, including agriculture, food processing, and forestry; and white-majority communities facing growing economic insecurity, unemployment, and state abandonment. Following Kelley, we should not assume any equivalency of suffering or loss between such groups. The descendants of the settlers do not occupy the same position as the descendants of the indigenous groups who were dispossessed of land and life. But possibilities for political identification and shared action do not stem only from equivalent circumstances or statuses. They come also from shared aspirations and desires, and from a common understanding of relations of power that foreclose life.
The Malheur Occupation
The occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early 2016, headed by Ammon Bundy, must be understood through the commitments and histories of a highly masculinized white-producerist and settler-colonial worldview. The Bundy family, led by Ammon’s father, Cliven, had for decades battled with the federal Bureau of Land Management over modest fees Cliven was required to pay in order to graze his cattle on public lands, culminating in an armed standoff at their Nevada ranch in 2014. Right-wing militia activists flocked to the Bundy family’s property during that confrontation, relishing the opportunity to stare down federal officials in the name of local authority and property rights. During the Obama presidency in particular, right-wing formations contrasted their producerist ethics to the immoral excesses of the redistributive state. Addressing supporters at his ranch during that standoff, Cliven made these connections clear: “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro. . . . 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.”
While many of Cliven Bundy’s high-profile supporters, including Kentucky senator Rand Paul, condemned those comments, Bundy’s remarks were inextricably tied to a racialized producerist worldview that has long required anti-Black demonization and the ongoing erasure of Native peoples. The Bundy family, which traces its ranching ties in Nevada to the 1870s, imagine and describe themselves as the sole claimants to the land, a possession they must continually defend from unwarranted federal arrogation. Here, centuries-long conditions of national expansion, imperial violence, and settler conquest must be disavowed in order to conjure and venerate an autonomous and self-determined subject who makes his living, following Locke, by mixing his labor with the land. This mythology, and the forgetting it requires, continues to permeate discourses of “property rights” in the western United States and places profound constraints on the capacity of many people—Native and non-Native alike—to realize any viable responses to the conditions of precarity they now face.
Indeed, the same political histories of white producerism and settler colonialism in the conflict on the Bundy ranch shaped the contours of the Malheur occupation and foreclosed far more oppositional and transformational possibilities. Ammon Bundy’s entry point into eastern Oregon in late 2015 was the pending federal sentencing of Dwight and Steven Hammond. The conviction required the Hammonds to be sentenced under the mandatory minimum guidelines of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The judge, however, initially ruled that the required five-year sentences would be too punitive, rejecting the prosecutor’s contention that arson on federal land constituted an act of domestic terrorism. But federal prosecutors persisted, and another judge eventually issued a new sentence that adhered to the five-year mandatory minimum.
Although the Hammonds had an uneven reputation in the surrounding community for their repeated clashes with the Bureau of Land Management, the length of the new sentences galvanized many supporters to their side, from organized groups including the Oregon Farm Bureau and the ranchers association to hundreds of the Hammonds’ neighbors in eastern Oregon. This was the opening that Ammon Bundy and his followers exploited. Bundy and a small number of supporters relocated to the Burns area in early December 2015, hoping to align the Hammonds, the local residents, and even the Harney County sheriff in a confrontation against federal authorities, hoping that the Hammonds might be granted a kind of sanctuary or asylum by local law enforcement. Such a demand captured the main commitments of the broader “sovereign citizen” movement, a loosely organized network of local activists and organizations who largely reject the authority of federal law. Related groups like the far-right Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which has counted at least six elected Oregon County sheriffs as members and contends that its sheriffs serve as “the last line of defense standing between the overreaching government and your Constitutionally guaranteed rights.” This vision of a brave but besieged white populace declaring its independence from a corrupt state has direct ties to racist formations like Posse Comitatus that were active in the region in the 1980s and 1990s.
Other self-styled militia and patriot groups began descending on Burns as well, answering Ammon Bundy’s call to defend the Hammonds from an unlawful federal prosecution. In a video message to supporters the week before the occupation began, a solemn Bundy linked the unjust prosecution and criminal sentences facing the Hammonds to the larger economic crisis besieging the region, arguing that both were tied to the federal government’s usurpation of control over land and resources. The rallies organized by the Bundys and their supporters, devoted to “taking back America county by county,” linked a suffering populace—“Rural Lives Matter”—to the alleged encroachment by the federal government on “principled local government.”
On January 3, 2016, after joining a march of hundreds of local Hammonds supporters in their hometown of Burns, Ammon Bundy broke off with a group of roughly two dozen armed protesters to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge twenty-six miles away, thus initiating a forty-day standoff. Few local residents joined the occupiers, and many, including the Hammonds, rejected their protest altogether. The refuge itself, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, had no connection to the Hammonds’ case, the Bureau of Land Management, or the constellation of forces aligned with the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act under which they were sentenced. Indeed, the decision to occupy a public bird sanctuary as a response to a draconian criminal sentencing decision and the broader climate of economic decline facing Harney County reveals a great deal about the constraints of the white-producerist politics championed by Bundy and his allies.
The seizure of the refuge was meant to symbolize and unleash a heroic stand against the chief adversary of the occupiers: an oppressive state alleged to have abandoned its subordination to the populace. In this narrative, the armed white men who led the takeover were singularly possessed with the bravery, determination, and insight needed to bring the state to its knees and free the virtuous populace from its command. But from another perspective, the protesters at the refuge in particular and the Hammonds and their supporters in general were latecomers to the struggle against the harsh sentencing practices that would send the father-and-son duo away for so long. The kind of mandatory minimums under which the Hammonds were sentenced had long wreaked havoc on Black and brown communities since they were first adopted in the 1970s in the name of fighting drug abuse and street crime. Since the early 1990s, Oregon voters had also approved a series of ballot measures mandating higher minimum sentences for a wide variety of criminal offenses, effectively doubling the state’s prison population in the subsequent fifteen years. What the Hammonds faced in 2015 had been happening to millions of people across the country over the past forty years and to many thousands of people in the state.
Indeed, it was the same predatory and aggressive criminal justice practices—also culminating in a civilian shooting by police—that spurred the large-scale protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in particular and within the Movement for Black Lives in general. Black political organizers had long recognized that an unrelenting system of mass incarceration could not and would not distinguish between the type and seriousness of offenses as it reproduced and expanded its reach and authority. This is not to argue that policing practices in Burns or elsewhere in Oregon resembled the militaristic and intensive forms of policing that Black residents in Ferguson had long endured. They did not. But to point out a relationship here does not require one to insist upon an equivalence. Instead, we argue that social movements in many other parts of the country had noted for decades what the Bundys had only recently discovered. Organizers of the Movement for Black Lives had already rendered a sophisticated and prescient analysis of the bellicose modes of surveillance, militarization, and warehousing that characterized the twenty-first-century criminal justice system. While their framework focused on the impacts of this system on Black communities and Black life, and its imbrication with a long history of anti-Black racism, the Hammonds case in particular and the rise of mass incarceration in the predominantly white state of Oregon in general has demonstrated that whiteness provides an uneven protection from the same state violence. Indeed, there were organizations in Oregon, including the statewide Partnership for Safety and Justice, that had been foregrounding these connections for many years and advocating for precisely the kind of reforms that would have restricted the sentencing practices that ensnared the Hammonds. Yet the white-producerist vision, which is deeply invested in a sovereign subject heroically reclaiming his autonomy, is incapable of tracing such connections and interdependences. Rather than seek out allies or investigate the history and structure of such practices, they took over a birding site with assault rifles.
In the midst of the Malheur occupation, many commentators observed that the popular outrage in response to the Hammonds’ sentence could not be separated from the larger economic decline and crisis facing the region. As Bundy emphasized in his video message to supporters, in the early 1970s, Harney County had boasted the highest per capita income in Oregon. Forty years later, the county, a vast expanse of high desert twice as large as Connecticut but with a population of only eight thousand, had one of the highest unemployment rates in the state (it approached 17 percent during the recession in 2009). Nearly two-thirds of the county’s children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. From Bundy’s perspective, the occupation was also meant to protest and indict the role of the federal government in denying the people of Harney County their way of life and access to “their land and resources.”
What Bundy’s account omitted was that the collapse of the local economy, centered in large part on the closing of several timber mills in the area, was tied to the broader decline of the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest. While many blame environmental regulations and increased government oversight for the decline in timber production, the historian Steven Beda has shown that these forces did not play a decisive role in the industry’s decline. Beda demonstrates that a much broader constellation of events and conditions, including shifts in global timber markets, the short-term-profit imperatives of companies that purchased tracts of timber-rich lands, and the uneven patterns of economic and political development between urban and rural areas across the Northwest, played a much larger role. While formidable unions like the International Woodworkers of America had once given labor a potent voice in the industry, their gradual decline in the mid-twentieth century left timber workers increasingly defenseless against these forces. Easing environmental regulations would do little to restore the jobs and economic activity generated by timber production a generation ago. Indeed, Harney County’s economic crisis had resulted not from the public ownership of forestlands but from private ownership and control, along with the market forces within which all private ownership must operate. Chuck Willer of the Coast Range Association describes these contemporary conditions as “Wall Street forestry” because of the high concentration of corporate holdings of forestry lands in Oregon through real estate investment trusts that are taxed at lower levels. Willer concludes that the lower tax rates paid by these holding companies, secured in part through a broader lowering of property-tax rates in the mid-1990s supported by the timber industry, reduced revenues to rural counties already in the throes of fiscal crisis. Transferring the land from public to private ownership, as the Bundys and many of their supporters demanded, would not address these dynamics.
Also missing in Ammon Bundy’s account was any mention of the employment sector that was almost singularly responsible for protecting Harney County from a much deeper crisis: public-sector employment. Some 45 percent of jobs in the county are with state and local government—the largest share in all of Oregon. Moreover, federal public employment has remained relatively stable even as private-sector employment has continued to decline since the Great Recession. These patterns hold true for almost all of the timber-dependent counties in eastern and southern Oregon; the same government that is the object of the occupiers’ resentment is one of the only bulwarks providing some protection from the ravages of the market. It has primarily been cuts to state and local government, fueled by property-tax limitations and job losses, that have hurt rural economies.
If the Bundys and the other occupiers wanted to have a discussion about the federal government’s role in appropriating and managing lands, and the dispossessions that can ensue, they could have bypassed the wildlife refuge and headed to the aging trailers housing the offices of the nearby Burns Paiute Tribe, located just thirty miles from the refuge’s visitor center. The Malheur refuge itself is located on the ancestral lands of the Paiute Tribe. Following the 1878 Bannock War, the Paiute people were forcibly removed by the federal government, which seized 1.5 million acres of ancestral homelands from the tribe. Nearly a third of that land is now under private ownership. In the late 1960s, after a decades-long legal battle, individual tribal members received checks for $743.20 as compensation. The tribe eventually won back a sliver of the land (about 760 acres) that today constitutes the Burns Paiute reservation.
When Ammon Bundy insisted during the standoff that “the land titles need to be transferred back to the people,” he was recapitulating the long process of settler dispossession and disavowal, a dynamic that Burns Paiute leaders were quick to challenge. Tribal chair Charlotte Rodrique explained at a press conference shortly after the occupation began that “this is still our land no matter who’s living on it.” The tribal leadership also noted the glaring disparities in the ways the state responded to the Malheur refuge takeover and the long history of violence that has faced Native people in the region. Tribal council member Jarvis Kennedy asked, “I wonder if it was a bunch of natives that went out there and overtook that, or any federal land, would they let us come into town and get supplies and re-up?” He noted, “They didn’t ask anybody, we don’t want them here.”
Tribal governments in the Northwest have a long history of advocacy to “decolonize the land,” thinking in sophisticated ways about how to balance economic activity, ecological sustenance and restoration, and tribal sovereignty (including traditional tribal land-use practices) under conditions of large-scale federal land ownership. Groups like the Burns Paiute Natural Resources Department hold much of this knowledge, analysis, and capacity. In addition, as geographer Peter Walker points out in his ethnographic account of the occupation, much of the local resistance to the Bundy-led takeover was made possible because of a long history of collaboration between local communities and public agencies around these same questions. But the producerist framework championed by the occupiers could not countenance or imagine such relationships of reciprocity. They were not dependent on anyone.
Producerist Rage and Neoliberal Abandonment
While the occupation of the Malheur Refuge was a violent and extreme confrontation with federal authorities over questions of property ownership and state violence, the action was in many ways quite consistent with a dominant political vision rooted in white-settler producerism that continues to shape political identifications in the region today. For example, in Oregon’s Josephine County, another sprawling expanse of forestland in the southwestern corner of the state facing a major economic crisis, a militia group initiated a similar confrontation with federal authorities. As in many timber-dependent economies in the state, for much of the twentieth century, a portion of revenues of timber harvests funded public services in Josephine County. In 1975 the county had twenty-two timber mills. The last closed in 2013. For a time the federal government made up for the losses by providing payments directly to counties affected by declines in timber revenue in order to pay for schools and basic services, particularly public safety. That funding steadily declined during the last ten years, from $14 million in 2007–8 to less than $2 million by 2014–15. The same trends have taken place in every timber-dependent county in Oregon. Large rural counties with sparse populations, high levels of unemployment and underemployment, and a diminished tax base cannot meet basic funding needs, especially for public safety. In the early 1990s, Oregon voters passed a series of ballot measures to amend the state constitution to severely limit local property-tax rates. Josephine County voters, like many others in the state, have rejected more than a dozen tax measures to raise property taxes in order to pay for basic services.
As a result, 911 service across much of the county is spotty at best. In 2013, years of budget cuts left the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office with a single deputy to respond to general calls across the entire county; a few years earlier there had been twenty-two. Patrol service takes place for only eight hours a day, five days a week, and it is only during those times that the sheriff’s office can respond to life-threatening emergencies. In 2012 the sheriff’s office offered residents the grim advice that “if you know you are in a potentially volatile situation (for example, you are a protected person in a restraining order that you believe the respondent may violate), you may want to consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services.”
The sheriff’s office closed its major crimes unit. The records division was also closed; residents who wish to report crimes can go online and log the information themselves, but only for the purposes of record keeping. No investigation or response will follow. As reported burglaries and theft cases increased by more than 70 percent, applications in the county for concealed handguns rose 50 percent. In early 2013 the Grants Pass Daily Courier reported that a laid-off deputy was organizing an armed citizen group in order to respond to burglaries and other crimes; several armed civilian patrols began operating that year across the county, in addition to a citizen task force that the sheriff’s office has trained to investigate crimes.
In May 2007, all four public libraries in Josephine County were closed due to lack of funding. They eventually reopened as privately run public libraries, relying primarily on a volunteer staff and contributions from members. Since then several mental health and transportation programs have been privatized or eliminated. A youth shelter and counseling center also closed.
Grover Norquist famously explained, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” As much as anywhere in the country, in Josephine County the local state at least thrashes about in the tub, appearing to gasp its last. The only revenue source keeping the sherriff’s office open now is the federal government.
In April 2015, when the Bureau of Land Management questioned a claim by a miner at the Sugar Pine Mine, leaders of a local militia group, the Josephine County Oath Keepers, raced into action. They framed the bureau’s actions as a constitutional abrogation, insisting that the agency was preparing to burn the miners’ equipment without a hearing, a charge the agency repeatedly denied. The local bureau office had to be temporarily closed because of mounting death threats; like elsewhere in the West, federal employees in routine jobs began to fear for their lives.
The Josephine County Oath Keepers chapter was started in 2013 by a former national guardsman and aviator named Joseph Rice, and it seeks to distance itself from the white nationalist militia formations of the 1990s. As one member told a reporter from Vice magazine, “We’re not toothless rednecks. We don’t do the Aryan shit—that’s the complete opposite of what we want. That’s not freedom. That’s not equality. We’ve done classes on everything from small-animal butchering to sewing. We’re just out to help each other out, help people out.” Indeed, a significant portion of the group’s ongoing work attempts to respond to vulnerabilities produced by state abandonment, using such projects to cultivate an anti-statist politics. The group runs regular emergency preparedness trainings for members and volunteers, has formed a sophisticated short-wave radio communications network to reach deep into rural regions of the county, has organized members to build wheelchair ramps at homes, and has organized repairs at the local county fairgrounds and a local elementary school. In other communities such “community service” activities have little political significance; in Josephine County they are meant to serve also as a critique of state dependence and to invoke a vision of frontier autonomy and self-determination. Many people in eastern and southern Oregon who are not members of these militias nonetheless have expressed sympathy for movement aims, or express anger toward what they see as arrogant federal bureaucrats who have undue influence over their lives.
Here, then, is the great paradox of state abandonment for rural Oregon in a moment of deep economic crisis. As rural counties and communities become ever more dependent on the federal and state governments redistributing income their way, organized antigovernment currents only sharpen and multiply. The extraction economies that shaped the legacy of these regions no longer require the labor of those living there, and the government does little to address their precarious situation. Meanwhile, real estate values and many employment sectors in the Portland metropolitan area prosper. The depth and impact of the economic shifts and governmental neglect in places like Josephine County is unprecedented. To read the rise of paramilitary activity at this moment as solely an expression of white nationalism risks missing the ways that changing political and economic conditions during the last thirty years have provided such fertile ground for paramilitary and other patriot movement organizing.
Again, these conditions are long familiar to aggrieved Black and brown populations in rural and urban areas alike. The conditions of unemployment, crisis, and abandonment that have come to Josephine County in the last thirty years have been well known to the people of Ferguson, Baltimore, and Flint for more than a generation. And in those places, popular efforts to redress those conditions have turned to demands on the state as well as private actors. In Ferguson, for example, protesters linked the rise in police violence and the precarity and crisis that gripped the city to the ways that large corporations, such as locally based Emerson Electronics, continue to extract public subsidies for private enrichment, offering few economic benefits to the surrounding community. Demands from Black community and labor organizations in Ferguson and elsewhere insist that the state has a responsibility to address these conditions by helping to generate living wage jobs, fund public services, and address police violence. The broad platform of the national Movement for Black Lives addresses the specificity of anti-Black racism and state violence, but it also presses wide-ranging demands for the right of workers to organize, increased regulations over banks and large-scale financial institutions, large-scale investment in public-employment projects, robust environmental protections, and an explicit call to address economic predation and inequality. These policies, if realized, would do far more to ensure that “All Lives Matter” in rural Oregon than any demand advanced by those who seized a bird refuge.
Yet in the predominantly white communities of rural Oregon beset by many of the same problems, the Bundys, militia groups, and other forces speaking in producerist tones advance much different demands. Long abandoned by private elites and devastated by market forces, they rage against the very state that supplies the resources that keep their communities economically viable.
So what accounts for the appeal of this anti-statist rage? In a very basic sense, the assertion that the federal government dictates the terms of life for people in white rural communities is a claim about citizens not having control over governance in any meaningful sense. The other side of this perception of political powerlessness is the increasingly obvious reality that this same state does not protect these people, does not buoy them, does not offer the prospect of moving them out of a spiral of economic decline.
Militia groups and their supporters generally disdain the idea of being dependent on the state. Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein offered perhaps the greatest insights about fears of dependence in this way. For her, distress about dependence reflects deeper insecurities about one’s own safety and viability if support is withdrawn. “Dependence is felt to be dangerous because it involves the possibility of privation,” she writes. It is not difficult to imagine such fear in the context of a state that appears to offer nothing that could help people live sustainable lives—nor provides the opportunity for them to influence state action. In the frontier imaginary, land is a source of freedom insofar as it provides direct livelihood through its exploitation. Seen this way, federal control of land is in direct violation of the liberty of individuals and local communities. Thus we see the call for federal deeds to be voided, private owners to take over federal property, and federal grazing permits to be vacated. An armed takeover of a public bird sanctuary epitomizes these dynamics.
The enemies and threats invoked by the militia movement are not those of white nationalists. The rhetoric used to build their movement in southern and eastern Oregon asserts neither race nor racial animus as a basis of struggle. Yet is there something here that connects anti-statism to both race and empire for the militias? First, the very frontier narrative of autonomy, freedom, and defense of land secured through violence reenacts and is made meaningful through a lens of conquest over and against indigenous inhabitants. Second, the militia organizations active in Oregon—the Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, and patriot organizations—present themselves as formations made up largely of military veterans whose role is to protect against internal and external threats to the nation.
The state in the militia imaginary is thus demonic precisely when it is seen to take land from local individual citizens and communities for its own purposes or when it is seen to cause dependency. The era of the contemporary militia movement began symbolically with 9/11 (an invasion from without) and was continued by the election of a Black Democratic president (an alien threat from within). For the militias, perceived foreign and domestic threats are woven into a singular demonic entity that seeks to destroy the freedom, security, and traditions of western ranchers, miners, and loggers. Racial and gendered fantasies of independence and of a demonic state are co-constituted through a story of rights-bearing individuals endangered by public goods in the form of the Bureau of Land Management and its agents.
The legacies of white supremacy, the frontier, and Lockean beliefs in individual agency act as boundary conditions within which the Malheur occupiers and their militia supporters act. Yet as we see here, the historical specificity of increasing abandonment of a growing number of white people, particularly in marginalized rural areas, complicates the contention that white nationalism alone motivates the political disruptions and formations witnessed in these areas.
The deployment of the “Hands Up . . . Don’t Shoot!” cry by Finicum supporters in Harney County following his death exemplifies these contradictions. On the one hand, the appropriation of the chant fails in every way to engage the deep history of Black political organizing, analysis, and struggle that gave rise to these words. In this way, it captures the myopic and often deliberate process of disavowal and repudiation of Black life that continually structures white political identity. On the other hand, the attempt to make visible some feeling of collective suffering and distress through a signifier so closely associated with Black insurgency at least hints at another possibility.
The oppressive state as governing signifier in the militia movement encourages interpretive frames that make militias analogous to contemporary Black protests against police killings. Dismissing the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” chant or “Rural Lives Matter” meme as merely an attempt to mau-mau those who protest anti-Black violence fails to come to terms with the profound sense of fear and loss animating this movement—and to see that the threat to possessive individualism and perceived liberal sovereignty is itself at such an intense register that it overwhelms racial terms in any direct sense.
The possibilities of identification between Black protest and militia supporters themselves are enhanced by the lived reality that both see state violence as a fundamental issue. When asked about the parallel, Ammon Bundy told CNN that there were “probably similarities” between his movement and Black Lives Matter. This equivalential chain was rendered more concrete when Portland Black Lives Matter joined the militia movement in opposing a Democrat-sponsored bill in the Oregon state legislature written in the wake of LaVoy Finicum’s killing that would shield police officers who kill civilians from having their names released.
At the same time, right-wing anti-regulatory and anti-environmentalist interests vie for the allegiance of the denizens of the rural West and the militia movement in particular. In a surprising gesture in July 2018, President Trump signed an official clemency order for the pardon of Dwight and Steven Hammond. The move signaled support for the Malheur takeover from the highest political office in the United States and established a strong link between Trumpism and the militia movement. The person perhaps most responsible for the pardon was an Indiana multimillionaire who made his fortune distributing automotive oil products, Forrest Lucas. A close friend of Vice President Mike Pence, Lucas is also the founder of Protect the Harvest, an organization dedicated to “working to protect your right to hunt, fish, farm, eat meat, and own pets.” The nonprofit works to dismantle environmental rules and oppose laws against the mistreatment of livestock through a large and complex lobby with close ties to other members of the Trump administration, including Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. Lucas’s organization marries settler-colonial fantasies of frontier independence to a pro-business deregulatory agenda, as was done in the Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s and the “wise use” movement in the 1980s and 1990s. The pardoning of the Hammonds, however, was the first time a president intervened directly by pardoning federal convictions.
The Malheur occupation and the rise of militias more generally in Oregon have demonstrated the contradictory ways in which white political identity becomes mobilized, inhabited, contested, and transformed in the context of crisis and abandonment. As we have argued, the more people in rural Oregon are abandoned by the state, the greater the possibility for anti-statist sentiment to grow. The more people are forced out of the social contract (dwindling resources for schools, infrastructure, etc.), the more they are forced to try to be self-reliant. This path is easier to take than making demands on the state, because such demands are experienced as dangerous dependency—and as a diminution of freedom.
The potential for racialized violence in a climate increasingly shaped by militant anti-statist rhetoric and organization in Oregon should not be underestimated. Oregon has a long history of white violence, exclusion, and land dispossession. At the same time, the depth and impact of neoliberal and state abandonment in places like Josephine County is unprecedented. To read the rise of militia activity at this moment as only an expression of unreconstructed white nationalism risks missing the ways that these conditions provide ground for the development of contradictory forms of white political identity, which may in turn generate new assemblages.
Beyond White Producerism
In this book we have continually returned to the point that white economic decline is not the same as Black and brown economic decline, and that the negative relationship to state power in white communities is not the same as that in Black and brown communities. To stick with our Oregon example for a moment longer: while the residents of Josephine County have lost state support for basic services, the residents of Ferguson are systematically preyed upon by the local state. Rural Oregonians quarrel with a federal Bureau of Land Management that is seen to put clean rivers before the well-being of gold miners, while residents of Flint were left unprotected from water contamination. The Malheur occupiers took over a federal wildlife refuge and held it for six weeks before federal agents began arrests and forced removals. Undocumented members of communities all over the United States are subject to sudden sweeps, arrests, detention, and deportation by federal agents at any time, any place.
In general terms there is a vast economic gap between the richest Americans and everyone else, and the increase in repressive state power and control affects everyone. The intensification of both of these phenomena in the United States in the last half century was made possible to a great extent through a racialized discourse that demonized public provision, wealth redistribution, and regulation, and promoted ever more severe forms of state surveillance, repression, and incarceration. In other words, the increasing economic precarity, vulnerability to state repression, drug and alcohol abuse, emotional distress, and shrinking life expectancy of a growing number of white Americans is causally linked to the racialized legacy of U.S. politics since the 1960s, making them only its most recent victim.
For decades, liberal political commentators have puzzled over why working-class white Americans acted against their economic interests by voting for Republicans. Such was the source of fascination with Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg’s “Reagan Democrats,” white union members in the Rust Belt. It is also the question posed by Thomas Frank’s 2004 best-seller What’s the Matter with Kansas? The conceit that economic interests are somehow prior to politics as opposed to being a product of it left such commentators unable to grapple with the many elements at play in political identity—among them racial status, gender, religious faith, and a sense of having political influence on the decisions governing one’s life and community. In any case, Frank’s question seems almost quaint today, when a majority of whites who voted in the 2016 presidential election chose not merely an economic conservative who is willing to play the race card but an openly racist, authoritarian nationalist.
However, the instability produced by the neoliberal reorganization of the state and the economy opens the door to diverse political possibilities, as evidenced by the Movement for Black Lives, the immigrant rights struggle, Native American resistance, a newly radicalized feminist movement, and LGBTQ militancy. The economic dislocation and growing sense of political powerlessness expressed by white Americans need not gain expression in far-right politics. Indeed, people classified as white have always resisted class rule and state repression and have joined larger movements for freedom. But as W. E. B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, and many others have observed, it is precisely the deeply held investments in whiteness that make it least possible for an emancipatory politics among white Americans.
Expressed politically, whiteness in the United States has linked individualism, autonomy, property, and the work ethic and contrasted them negatively with dependence, poverty, and idleness. This set of contrasts has not merely been assigned to racialized subjects over time. It has produced racial meaning itself. As we have tried to demonstrate in this book, these qualities can be assigned to new racial subjects to stabilize the dominant political and economic order and stave off fundamental political change. Thus political investments in whiteness not only increasingly fail to protect white subjects but also curtail broader visions of freedom expressed as interdependence, care, economic equality, and time spent pleasurably and meaningfully.