08 Jan 2016

How do we talk about: Cliven Bundy and his troupe of “rebels”

One of the biggest news pieces this past week was the self-organised ‘militia’ that took over a government-owned wildlife refuge in Oregon.  It has garnered attention worldwide because it is confusing, hilarious, annoying, and, to some, terrifying.  It seems everyone is participating in the debate over whether Bundy and his ‘militia’ should be called ‘militiamen’ or ‘terrorists.’  For those of you living under a rock this week, Cliven Bundy (can we talk about how Cool Hand Luke that sounds?) and other local ranchers have taken up arms and are occupying a Wildlife Refuge building in Oregon.  No one has been shot and there is no call for violence, which is understandably confusing since they’re all brandishing guns.

This call to arms was prompted by a father and son who were ordered to return to jail to serve a longer sentence.  Like much of their community, they are ranchers.  They were concerned that species living in the recently expanded wildlife refuge posed a threat to their ranch.  Although the pair had already served a prison sentence for committing arson on protected federal land, the sentence was too short according to law, hence their call to return.  The wildlife refuge, however, has been a source of frustration for ranchers who have been caught in their own disputes over allowing their cattle to graze on the land.  This proved to be the last straw for local ranchers and they decided to take matters into their own hands through occupying the wildlife refuge–armed.

This is where things get a bit murky.  The ranchers view their action as patriotic and very much in the spirit of American values: rising against a tyrannical government that was taking land (under protection) at the ranchers’ expense (at least that’s how they feel).  From the outside, it looks like a bunch of rogue cowboys making excuses to ‘terrorise’ in the name of anarchy.  But before our dear overseas friends start making declarations for or against them, I’d like to present some considerations.

The first is that our constitution and bill of rights guarantee the right to bear arms and the right to rebel.  These rights were written into our political makeup because we had just ended the Revolutionary War and still high on the thrill of success.  It was a vow to maintain an empowered electorate.  The Boston Tea Party might be a bit fuzzy in your memories, but its part of our origin story.  In the middle of the night, American rebels boarded a British ship and dumped tons of tea into Boston Harbor in protest against paying exorbitant taxes without representation.  Cliven Bundy and his militia/terrorist organisation view their action as upholding and embodying this spirit of patriotism, born of a love of freedom and courage to confront tyranny.  In this sense they are right…ish.  Except the Bundy’s were recalled to prison lawfully and peacefully.  And we have electricity, the women’s vote, cars, the internet, gay marriage, Kylie Jenner’s lips, etc.

It’s 2016, not 1776.  Bundy’s troupe, like most of America’s right-wing, seems to have cherry-picked which passages of our founding documents to engage while neglecting other equally important passages like this one: “The Congress shall have the Power To…provide for organizing , arming, and disciplining, the Militia and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively…according to the discipline prescribed by Congress…”  Yes, we have the right to bear arms and yes, we have the right to rebel, BUT at the discretion of Congress.  We already have such militias, they’re called the National Guard.  It recruits volunteer soldiers that report for training one weekend once a month.  They are deployed in emergency situations like Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 and as reinforcements in the case of the outbreak of a major war.  That every citizen has the right to bear arms to one day form a militia and overthrow tyrannical powers is not actually the truth, but American enablers politicians lead us to believe otherwise, bald eagles and fireworks flying behind them.  This is what made Barack Obama cry on national television a few days ago.

Cliven Bundy’s ‘militia’ aren’t actually legally empowered to be identified as such, but they’re also (vaguely) legally protected against being called ‘terrorists.’  The way our laws open themselves up to interpretation paired with nightmares like open-carry laws (yes, even in federal buildings and hospitals in some states), leaves us steeped in ocean-deep debate over whether this form of “rebellion” is acceptable in 2016.  The executive orders of President Obama to strengthen gun control measures barely scratches the surface in curbing gun violence, but what can you do with a Republican dominated Congress?  Not much.

A lot of people have been taking this story as an opportunity to show-off just how so-not-racist they are.  The memes and political cartoons criticising those using race to predetermine who is called a ‘terrorist’ are all being produced and circulated in vain.  At least in this instance.  The reason why people have been conservative with employing the word ‘terrorist’ is because while they are carrying guns, there have not been any actual threats made on human life besides holding guns, which are legal.  But Americans definitely shouldn’t call them ‘militamen,’ because they are not Oregon’s National Guard.

Does America have a gun problem? Yes.  Does America have a racism problem? Absolutely.  The Wildlife Refuge occupation raises a lot of important issues about the role of guns and how they’ve been mistakenly linked to America’s patriotic identity, not about racism.  Don’t be mistaken, this is not a defense of the ranchers.  Their behaviour is embarassing and deplorable and not in the spirit of American patriotism.  Call these ranchers what you like, but just be mindful of why.