Commentary Religion

Progressives Must Not Dismiss the Oregon Militia Standoff as Irrelevant

Andrea Plaid

These anti-government groups, quite a few of whom have deep ideological ties with white supremacist organizations and individuals, should alarm the left. Their philosophies often have foundations of racism, colonialism, and restriction of reproductive rights—and their numbers are growing.

As the standoff in Oregon this month devolved into disparate messaging about the armed militia’s philosophy—and a shootout with state police that resulted in several arrests, including that of leader Ammon Bundy and his brother Ryan, and one death—the group became the butt of jokes for many on the left, even as the rest of the members vowed to continue illegally occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

However, progressives must not make the mistake of dismissing militias and the people who support them as irrelevant, particularly where their reproductive agendas are concerned. These anti-government groups, quite a few of whom have deep ideological ties with white supremacist organizations and individuals, should alarm the left. Their philosophies often have foundations of racism, colonialism, and restriction of reproductive rights—and their numbers are growing.

The standoff in Oregon, according to Leonard Zeskind, president of the Institute for Research and Education of Human Rights (IREHR), follows the right-wing tradition of militias organizing against racial equity and for land grabs. The Bundy group has already demonstrated a colonialist attitude through its insistence that the land be returned to its “rightful owners”—not the Paiute tribe whose ancestral lands encompass the refuge, but white settlers—and its treatment of Native artifacts.

Zeskind explained at Slate:

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It’s not just a small uptick. IREHR has recorded a massive increase. We are paying closer attention to the growing militia phenomenon. There has been a decided white reactionary response to anti-racist activism by black folks and white folks and brown folks and people of all colors opposed to police violence. They have turned to the militias. … the militia phenomenon should be regarded as a mass movement. It’s not a million people. But it has a wide level of support, much wider than a couple of dozen cranks in Oregon. 

Zeskind continued:

[S]ince 2009, we have had a growing Tea Party movement. The Tea Party movement has done things like take over the anti-immigrant movement. … And some Tea Partiers are joining militias. … What has brought about a growth in the white nationalist movement is that they have figured out a new approach, in the age of Obama. Obama disoriented them because so many white people voted for Obama. And the Tea Party initially supplanted them in a certain way. The Tea Party is not all white nationalists. But the rise of anti-racist activities has given the racists a new focus.

This obsession with “reclaiming” the land has a long history, one that is also bound up in keeping the white race “pure,” especially when it comes to white women.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) started on the antebellum frontier as well as the postbellum South, both of which became contested lands between the newly freed Black people and white people who tried to claim (and dispute) the promised 40 acres, as well as push west of the Mississippi to homestead. In fact, as Matt Novak reported at Gizmodo, when Oregon entered the Union in 1859, its constitution stated it would be a “No Black People” state, which included forbidding them from owning land.

Deeply tied to the idea of securing the land for white people was—and still is—the notion of white women’s purity. The KKK has held this idea since the 1860s, believing that white women would benefit from at the time “the Southern racial state, without which they would be raped and brutalized by [Black] men.” To its members’ way of thinking, it was a white man’s duty—more specifically, a Klansman’s duty—to aggressively protect white women’s virtue.

As the Klan membership declined in the 1960s, the organization allied itself with racist anti-government militias such as Posse Comitatus, an anti-Semitic group that holds the notion that it doesn’t need to obey federal policies, and the first racist skinhead groups under the religious aegis of Christian Identity. Another far-right wing writer, Martin A. Larson claimed back in 1967 that Black people will become “tax burdens”; thus, white people are under no obligation to pay their taxes.

The Internet allowed the faster spread of the radical racists’ message, also helping to create an individualization of the rhetoric, meaning people didn’t need to belong to a formal affiliation to claim and act upon the philosophies. The most recent example is Dylann Roof, arrested for the slaying of nine Black churchgoers who welcomed him into their prayer meeting in 2015. According to a survivor of the shooting, Roof who reportedly stated, “You all rape women and you’re taking over the country.”

Even so, groups still linger—as in the case of Cliven Bundy, the father of Ammon and Ryan Bundy, who was also involved in a government standoff involving hundreds in 2014. The elder Bundy has spoken on how Black people would be better off in slavery (again) instead of public assistance (and then blamed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the ensuing backlash).

The racism undergirding white nationalists’ philosophies about keeping land “safe” for women, in turn, frequently extends into their attitudes toward gender and reproduction. According to these groups, white women’s duty is a simple one: Give birth and rear more white “warriors” to protect and maintain the country, in addition to maintaining the “purity” of themselves and of the white race.

For radical racists, particularly those who adhere to fundamentalist Christian ideals, white women should further the cause by being mothers (giving birth to as many babies as possible to combat the declining white birth rates), homemakers, and homeschoolers while the men are the warriors. As one female white supremacist stated in an interview with ABC News:

Children, they are what drives us to better ourselves and our people. It takes a very strong and deeply committed woman to be a part of the cause. She has to be a mother, partner, and warrior all in one … She must understand that this is not a game nor is it for the faint of heart … It is about securing the existence of our race and a future for white children.

That “future for white children,” in other words, means advocating against abortion rights for some groups while encouraging them for others.

According to racial justice advocate Jessie Daniels, who has studied and written extensively on the subject:

For white supremacists, the decline in the number of white births is directly tied to their fear of a decline in white dominance in the U.S. In this worldview, fewer white births is due to two factors. First, they contend there are fewer white women … who are willing to become pregnant and give birth to white children. Second, they believe that white women are quick to have abortions (or easily persuaded to do so) and are nonchalant about them afterwards.

Journalist Laura Flanders reported back in 1995 that anti-choicers and white supremacists shared people like John Burt, a former Klansman who was the regional director of the Army of God and who was connected to the murder of abortion provider David Gunn in 1993, and tactics, including forming armed militias.

Sex itself also breaks down by an aggressively traditional gender order. A male white supremacist commented on an online forum:

White women expect [dominance] from us and have HIGH subconscious barriers to let only an alpha white male through … Sex is the outward communication of acceptance of the other’s genetic fitness and possible child bearing of his genes. This because white men were always aggressive in a good kind of way.

Or not, according to Kathleen Blee, who did research on women in radical racist groups. In an interview with the SPLC, she said “domestic violence is quite widespread in [these] groups” and, more concerning, the consequences are often more severe because victims can’t report the violence to anyone inside or outside of the groups.

Even as too few white feminists write that they do not want to be used as the impetus for racial violence, according to the uber-masculinist ethos that pervades those particular racist groups, such white women are, at best, confused about their role in the racial scheme—as in they shouldn’t make any common cause with people of color. At worst, they are seen as “race traitors,” who, according to the radical racists’ hyperviolent thinking, will be severely punished during and after the ever-imminent “race war,” out of which white people will emerge victorious.

The Bundy militia standoff is another grasp for a way of life built on the crumbling foundation of white supremacy. As encouraging as it is to read people of color and white people challenging how law enforcement—from federal to local—are treating these armed men, many on the white left still treat them as a joke, sending them dildos and referring to them in dismissive terms. This is to progressives’ detriment. These men are the latest synecdoche for a longstanding struggle for wanting “their” country back, where America is an all-white nation, white men are strong, and white women are pure and purely for procreation.

Because whether or not the white left believes in them, the radical racists believe in white people. The Bundy militias and Dylann Roof, to name a few, are the domestically terrorizing proof of that.

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