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The problem with calling the Bundy militia terrorists

A group of roughly 30 militiamen in rural eastern Oregon occupied a vacant Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, visitor center on Saturday at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. While initial reports suggested there were as many 150 armed militia members inside the government building, more recent estimates place that figure somewhere between 20 and 30. Leading up efforts are two sons of famed anti-government rancher Cliven Bundy.

A group that included militia members had gathered in nearby Burns, Oregon on Sunday afternoon to protest the sentencing of Dwight Hammond and his son Steve Hammond for arson on BLM property. As Rolling Stone explained, the pair are expected to report on Monday for their five-year sentence, which protesters and militia members argue represents a form of government “tyranny.” Notably, a lawyer for the family has said they reject the militia’s support.

Randy Bundy told a reporter with The Oregonian that the militia was ready to “kill and be killed,” and prepared to remain inside of BLM premises indefinitely. Ammon Bundy, Randy’s brother, stated that the group, “Would not rule out violence if law enforcement tries to remove them.”

The occupiers have invited “patriots” from around the country to join them — guns and all — and hope the visitor center will serve as a base of militia operations for years to come. “We’re planning on staying here for years, absolutely,” one Bundy brother said in a video released yesterday. “This is not a decision we’ve made at the last minute.”

A local paper, the Willamette Week, reported that militia members have been trickling into the region for weeks. Among them was 32-year-old John Ritzheimer, who bid farewell to his family in a Youtube video before joining the Malheur occupation, citing that he wants to “die a free man.”

Ritzheimer, a former Marine, has made headlines before. This fall, he planned armed protests against New York mosques, and has issued a series of violent statements and threats against Muslims, President Obama and members of the federal government. In a video from November, he declared, “Fuck you Muslims. We’re gonna stop at virtually every mosque along the way, flip them off and tell them to get the fuck out,” proceeding to cock his handgun on camera.

Land resource management has been a key issue for conservative ranchers since Cliven Bundy’s stand-off with federal forces in the spring of 2014, when he threatened to go to war with the government so that he could continue to graze his cattle on government land in Nevada. While most of today’s GOP presidential candidates supported Cliven Bundy’s efforts, they have been mum so far on this weekend’s events. Donald Trump has said of Bundy that, “I like his spirit, his spunk,” and Bundy himself is a Trump supporter. Given the similarity between their actions, one might suspect that the Bundy apples don’t fall far from the tree. At an armed demonstration outside of a Phoenix mosque in October, Ritzheimer said, “Let Donald Trump build something beautiful.”

Noting the mainstream press coverage of the occupation, progressives have pointed out the fact that neither authorities nor the media have described the occupation as an act of terrorism. The National Guard and federal authorities have been conspicuously absent, in stark contrast to the largely nonviolent uprisings against systemic racism in Baltimore and Ferguson. Like “thug” or “illegal immigrant,” though, terrorist is an ugly word that — at least since 9/11 — comes as a package deal with racist overtones. Each term is also connected to a well-funded, well-armed program of state violence that criminalizes communities of color. In light of all this, should the goal of progressives be to create a more inclusive definition of terrorism?

Of course, it doesn’t take much creative imagination to predict what the authorities’ response would have been had the occupiers been anything other than white — not to mention the words that would be used to describe those efforts. Still, whether the Oregon occupiers are actually terrorists is beside the point — mostly because there is no objective definition of terrorism. It might best be defined as any form of organized violence considered illegitimate in the eyes of the state, the media and the public. (States, it’s worth noting, are defined in many policy circles and academic disciplines by their monopoly on the legitimate use of force.)

The Black Panther Party and American Indian Movement, or AIM, each planned and executed armed occupations of federal property in the California State Capitol in Sacramento and Alcatraz Prison, respectively. Both were targeted aggressively by federal authorities. Neither, however, was primarily a militia. And while members of AIM and the Panthers expressed a range of opinions on the use of guns and nonviolence more generally, the majority of their work was dedicated to building a movement for the liberation of oppressed people. However, due to contemporary press coverage and some shoddily written history, many Americans’ enduring memory of both groups are those that involve guns — which is undoubtedly a consequence of taking up armed resistance against the government.

Although the Bundys, Ritzheimer and company might well see their white, middle-class brethren as an oppressed group, their claims are rooted in the same nostalgic nationalism that defines Trump’s call to “Make America great again.” Troublingly, Trump’s campaign has served as a meeting and mobilizing point for all stripes of right-wing extremists, Minutemen and ordinary (white) Americans lacking alternative narratives to understand their worsening economic circumstances. Forces that in years past could be written off as fringe elements (think Branch Davidians or abortion clinic bombers) can now find voice in an increasingly mainstream political movement. Trump supporters have already assaulted a Latino man in Boston and beaten up a Black Lives Matter protester. His policy proposals include banning Muslim immigration, and rounding up and deporting all of this country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants and their U.S. born, citizen children. Both state and vigilante violence lurk at the heart of Trump’s appeal among his supporters. If the Bundys’ militia haven’t been welcomed with open arms yet, they might well become Trump’s next cause célèbre.

Regardless of how the situation in Oregon is resolved, Trump’s campaign is continuing to rise, and enjoys hearty support among militiamen throughout the country. The Bundys’ actions should be understood not only as part of a long history of right-wing violence, but of a political project that’s actively vying for state power — and stands a real chance of winning the reins to a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. If the goal of any egalitarian movement is to bring about a more deeply peaceful world, it’ll be up to movements to define a greater, nonviolent America and the path to it.