MilitiasOregon siege: the U.S. militia movement is resurgent – and evolving

By Crawford Gribben

Published 6 January 2016

For several days now, a small group of armed men have occupied an office of the National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon, 300 miles from Portland. There is of course a long history of distrust towards the federal government in America, one of which the militias of recent decades are acutely aware. Drawing on anti-Communist organizations of the 1950s and the paranoia of the Cold War, militia culture grew towards a fever pitch in the 1980s and 1990s. The popularity of this newly radicalized “paranoid style,” however, came to a sudden halt on the second anniversary of the burning of the Waco compound (April 1993), when Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in what was then the most significant terrorist incident in American history, killing 168 people. The new coalition of anti-government activists, as represented by the people who seized the buildings in Oregon, is broad and ideologically diverse, and its principal spokesmen explicitly repudiate racism. Some of its leaders promote the goal of a theocratic society: The invasion of the wildlife sanctuary may also demonstrate the power of social media to do for American militia culture what Facebook and Twitter contributed to the Arab Spring.

For several days now, a small group of armed men have occupied an office of the National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon, 300 miles from Portland. They are demanding the “return” of land from the federal government to the American people, and leniency for two ranchers convicted of arson on federal lands.

By chance or by design, the siege overlapped with President Obama’s announcement of a sweeping executive order to restrict the unlicensed sale of guns and enforce background checks for gun buyers — measures widely decried by gun ownership advocates on the right.

The Oregon protesters are led by the sons of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who in March and April 2014 precipitated an extended stand-off with federal agents over unpaid grazing fees on federally owned land. That episode drew the approval of prominent conservative pundits, which in turn encouraged scores of protesters to rally to Bundy’s defense, and identified his clan as martyrs and ideologues in the re-birth of America’s anti-government militia culture.

Shortly after the occupation of the wildlife center, Cliven’s son Ammon Bundy, the spokesman of the militia, set up a new Twitter account (now suspended). Identifying his group as #CitizensforConstitutionalFreedom, he began laying out his principles.

He argued that “It’s up to us, We the People, to restore and defend the Constitution,” and emphasizes that as “peaceful people” his supporters have “not put anyone in danger” — “unlike other protest [sic] that have taken place in this country over the last year and a half.”

But these pronouncements aside, he’s given very little further detail on his aims, identifying no obvious exit strategy. And with his call for other militias to join the rising, Ammon Bundy may have initiated one of the thorniest domestic challenges of President Obama’s final year in office.

So where did the militia movement come from – and why has it suddenly come back?