Letters from the West

Malheur Refuge occupation ending shows rural-urban divide

The messy-but-not-bloody ending to the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge gave the nation a peak at the growing radical anti-government movement.

Final-occupier-out David Fry’s lack-of-medication rantings got a larger audience than usual for one of the many bizarre far right internet radio and video streaming channels that have cropped up. The ease of access to technology to spread a message worldwide has not only allowed Radical Islamic groups like ISIS access to a wide audience. Now ideologies espousing an alternative reading of the Constitution, questionable histories about the founding of the United States or the common-law myth that a county sheriff has the highest authority in government are thriving.

For many Americans, their view of rural life comes from reality shows like Duck Dynasty. So the crazy antics of Jon Ritzheimer, who did a video displaying the sex toys the occupiers had been sent, and of Fry and Sean and Sandy Anderson in the final streaming YouTube video, fit their storyline. But for many rural westerners, the sad narrative of how the Hammonds were sent back to prison because of the mandatory minimum sentence for arson under anti-terrorist law overshadowed most of the behavior of occupiers.

They saw the occupation of the refuge as the moral equivalent of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Occupy protesters who sat on the lawn of the old Ada County Courthouse in 2012. Many ignored the Malheur occupiers’ threats and their clear message that if the government moved in to remove them, they would defend themselves with the weapons they had stockpiled.

Finicum’s shooting by an Oregon State Police trooper became the rural white version of the Ferguson, Mo., shooting of Michael Brown. The FBI video appeared to show Lavoy Finicum go for the loaded pistol he carried after he had evaded police and almost run down an FBI agent.

But people who generally supported the aims of the occupiers saw the video differently and called Finicum’s death murder, just as African-Americans considered Brown’s death indefensible.

The end of this occupation will not curb the growth of the militia movement, as the Oklahoma City bombing of the federal building in 1995 that left 168 people dead did. Many of the militia that came to Burns left without charges and with even more commitment to their beliefs.

Cliven Bundy’s arrest for the 2014 Nevada confrontation where dozens of militia men aimed their rifles at federal law enforcement officials returns some focus to that event, which left many in the movement emboldened.

Law enforcement also comes away with lessons. The FBI decision to back off and allow the occupiers free mobility will be debated in Oregon for a long time. But with just one life lost, the decision turned out less bloody than had officers assaulted the headquarters. Already, the Department of Justice is considering going to Congress to extend a law used for international extremist groups to domestic ones.

Officials now can charge individuals who support groups that present a “clear and present danger” to the United States like ISIS. They want the same power for domestic groups they see the same way.

Groups that appears to have participated in the Burns occupation, such as the Pacific Patriot Network, could get such a tag. But already the law has prosecutors convicting Muslim American teenagers, who express support for ISIS during their vulnerable social stage.

Idaho Republican Rep. Judy Boyle, of Midvale, who visited the refuge twice and expressed support for the Hammonds, privately encouraged Idaho ranchers to stay away so they would not end up in trouble with the law. She worries that changing the terrorism law to include domestic groups threatens to make speaking out against the government illegal.

If the occupation gets people on the right and the left to talk about where we draw the line for rural ranchers, and for Muslim American youth, it might have an ironic outcome.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker