Here Today, Oregon Tomorrow
By Bob Buzzanco
Mural image via Freedom Road Socialist Organization
On June 5th, 1967, Reies Lopez Tijerina and about 20 armed compatriots in the Alianza Federal de las Mercedes (Federal Land Grant Alliance) attacked the Rio Arriba County courthose in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico to liberate 11 Alianza members believed to be held there. Those in custody had been arrested and charged for threatening to seize a 600,000 acre Tierra Amarilla “land grant” (indigenous lands which were originally Chicano-held during the Spanish colonial period) and make a citizen’s arrest of the county attorney (as it turned out, the 11 prisoners and the DA were not at the courthouse).
During the raid, a state officer and jailer received wounds and the National Guard, with tanks and helicopters, led a manhunt for Tijerina and the others, including two hostages they had taken, and captured them in quick order. Tijerina stood trial, defending himself, and was acquitted, but was then found guilty of charges relating to the raid at a second trial. Tijerina became something of a folk hero to Chicano activists and other 1960s-era radicals and was lauded in ballads like Corrido de Rio Arriba. Still, the raid at Rio Arriba was never broadly-known at the time and is less so today. Had Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Real News Network, Daily Kos, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and various other alternative media existed in 1967, it’s likely Tijerina’s exploits would have received 24/7 publicity and he and the Alianza would have become even bigger folk heroes among leftists and some liberals.
Fast forward to January 2023 in Oregon, where a dozen or so right-wing militia members have occupied an empty wildlife refuge in Malheur National Forest. They’re part of a land-rights movement among ranchers and farmers in the west who want the federal government to cede its control over “public” lands. The state controls about a million square miles, mostly in the west, including 85 percent of Nevada, 66 percent of Utah, over 60 percent of Alaska and Idaho, and over half of Oregon. These areas are of great value, not surprisingly, because of the resources they contain—including gas, oil, ores, water, and grazing lands. And that’s the crux of the issue that’s probably less well-known than any other part of the Oregon fiasco (and will be discussed separately).
The Oregon occupiers represent a portion of a larger movement of anti-government forces in the west who are generally found in a handful of extremist groups like Posse Comitatus and Agenda 21,right-wing conspiracy wingnuts like Alex Jones, and about a dozen state representatives in the west, most notably Utah legislator Ken Ivory. As movements go, it’s pretty minor-league stuff, though it certainly has the capacity to cause trouble, as the Cliven Bundy standoff in 2023 and the current Oregon situation show. As a threat to the state or the public at large, it’s pretty close to zero.
And they were not wrong. Historically the state has indeed had a “double standard” in the way it handles what are perceived as threats. It attacks certain groups and ignores others. This “double standard” is about 400 years old, and the outrage over it, while certainly not wrong, falls into the “rain is wet” category. It didn’t just begin, and if anything, it’s not as onerous as it once was. Not that long ago, white southern vigilantes could lynch or murder a young black boy like Emmett Till without being convicted, or the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company would face no criminal consequences and would only have to pay $75 to the families of each of the 146 women who died in the factory fire they caused due to their negligence, while receiving a $60,000 insurance benefit for the property destroyed. (That’s not to suggest that we have equal justice today, but Dylann Roof will almost certainly be convicted of mass murder and probably receive a death sentence and Don Blankenship was convicted of conspiracy to ignore safety standards in a mining accident in which 38 miners died. Neither are terribly laudable, but it’s reasonable to assume that neither would have suffered such consequences, if any at all, in the 1950s).Yet, if one listens to and reads the liberal media, Armageddon is nigh. Since the occupation began, liberal and/or left commentators have demanded government action, invoking the “double standard” in the way the state treats white, conservative groups compared to the armed responses in places like Ferguson. Others have invoked the MOVE bombings of 1985, in which 11 African Americans were killed (in a city, incidentally, that had an African American mayor). A significant segment of the talks given or articles written simply aver that the government would have immediately taken violent actions if the occupiers were Muslims, Arabs, African Americans, or some other group outside the mainstream of power. Coming just days after the Cleveland decision to no-bill the officer who murdered 12-year old Tamir Rice, many compared the two situations. Indeed, the examples of government indiscretion in the way it treats different groups were countless.
Outrage over Tamir Rice and protests against the cops and DA who sanctioned his assassination are necessary and should continue, but their connections to the events in Oregon, which various liberals have pointed out frequently, aren’t as clear. The left and liberals have a tendency to throw buckshot in their allegations, bringing in all kinds of episodes and people who’ve suffered at the hands of the ruling class to argue the double standard. To be sure, there’s a vast difference between the state responses in, say, Ferguson and Baltimore and Oregon, but is that really the point? Is there really a correlation between the cops killing a 12 year-old kid in an urban area that a racist police force considers hostile territory . . . and a bunch of white guys playing dimestore cowboy in the woods of Oregon?
The sights in Ferguson and other areas where African Americans took the streets were surely frightening, a militarization aimed at a minority group in an urban setting. But it was also consistent with the way a capitalist ruling class operates. Blacks are considered a potential threat by police forces (which, after all, were organized to protect ruling class property and, as part of that mission in the south, to enforce slave codes and capture runaway slaves) so there’s a ruling-class logic to the outlandish and chilling show of force in Ferguson and Baltimore. African Americans have good reason to despise the white oligarchy, and the ruling class knows that. Blacks pose a real political threat, even if they’re in the streets causing mayhem without any real political organization among those in rebellion. Blacks have legitimate grievances, and the cops and mayors and governors know it, and urban areas are contained accordingly. It’s wrong, it’s racist, and it’s how the ruling class operates. To be shocked by that is to expect the ruling class tonot act like the ruling class. Similarly, official repression of Muslims and Arabs is firmly within the American tradition of hostility against groups which are perceived to be an enemy of the oligarchy’s interests (see my post “Violence Is As American As Cherry Pie”: Here and There.”) The majority of American believes that the typical Arab or Muslim in the U.S. is not a terrorist, but it’s surely in ruling-class interests to perpetuate fears of those entire groups as a mechanism for control.
Decrying the “double standard” and calling for coercive state action against conservative groups, though cathartic (can you imagine how the Oregon 15 would react if a drone buzzed them overhead!) would reinforce the state’s use of violence, like it employed in Ferguson, against Muslims, and as a way to intimidate groups with ideas and agenda outside the ruling class consensus. If “the people” are ever going to get the cops to stop assassinating poor people, especially people of color, and stop profiling based on race or ethnicity at traffic stops or airports, or actually indict and convict police or mine operators who callously kill, they’re probably not going to do it successfully by insisting that the state use violence against groups on the other side of the political spectrum, like the Oregon occupiers, a motley collection of political extremists who didn’t really think out what they were doing and took over an isolated building where they don’t threaten anyone and lack outside support and, if not already, will surely regret their actions soon enough.
Honestly, it’s insulting to the protesters in Ferguson and Baltimore and elsewhere to compare them to these political wingnuts. Blacks, as noted, pose a genuine political dilemma for the state and when they rebel, the state perceives a threat and acts accordingly. Sadly, the harsh responses are a sign that they matter and constitute a real opposition to the ruling class. It feels good, and isn’t without any merit, to demand that Obama “drop a bomb on them” (a sentiment I’ve seen on social media that probably isn’t a majority view, but isn’t isolated either) but blowing up and maybe killing 15 people, no matter how odious their views may be, doesn’t bring back a 12 year-old kid in Cleveland holding a toy gun in the sights of an ignorant, violent, racist cop . . . More state violence, as MLK always pointed out, isn’t the solution to already-existing violence.
It’s also useful to examine the idea that the state only uses force against racial or ethnic groups that lie outside the mainstream, which has been a consistent left interpretation for the past week. America’s ruling class is majority white, to be sure, but it’s a ruling class because it controls the economy, the means of production, the banks, the services, and, hence, the state. The oligarchy in the U.S. has never hesitated to attack and use violence against any group perceived as a threat to its economic interests. Indentured servants, white men and women from England, preceded slaves as plantation labor in the American colonies and were treated the same. Poor white farmers in both the north and south were burdened by rents and debts and when they took collective action were often crushed using cops and militia. In the period from the Civil War to around World War II the ruling class killed untold numbers of whites—Knights of Labor, Mining union members, Socialists, Anarchists, Wobblies, West Virginia miners, and on and on. The ruling class can be absolutely colorblind when it wants to eliminate some group that gets in its way.
Class, more than any other factor, is the key determinant in the way elites respond to the actions of various groups. The land-use activists in Oregon, whom I consider yahoos too, aren’t threatening any real interests. The “movement” they represent is relatively small and contained. Most importantly, the major mining companies, coal operators, oil and gas interests and other corporate and financial entities aren’t supportive of the Bundy types. They understand, unlike the protestors in Oregon, that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) represents their interests and regulates public lands to their benefit.
And what does Reies Tijerina have to do with any of this? The Alianza was protesting the same thing as the Oregon group, federal control over land they believed should be transferred to private owners. In Tijerina’s case, his grievances were based on the historical legacy of conquest and colonialism and thus to many of us was a legitimate, indeed noble, attack on the state. Many of the young Chicanos of the era were motivated by the events in Rio Arriba in 1967 more than by Cesar Chavez and the UFW movement, because it took direct action against the agents of their repression.
Do the Oregon protesters have the same goal and deserve the same accolades? Not to me and probably everyone I know. There’s a huge gap between Tijerina and Bundy (though they’d probably agree on more things, especially the role of certain ethnic/religious groups in American life, than one would comfortably like to consider). One was defending the rights of indigenous people who had land robbed from them, and the other wants the government to cede public lands to private economic interests.
I learned long ago, however, that what the left believes and analyzes usually is a minority view and usually doesn’t matter. There are plenty of people who see Bundy and the Oregon group the way young Chicanos saw Tijerina—as heroic resisters to an oppressive state. Even more, they can see your invocation of Tijerina and raise you a Ruby Ridge. Some thoughtful libertarians have also pointed out that the situation precipitating the Oregon takeover, the arrest and conviction of the Hammonds for arson, speaks to the issue of mandatory sentencing guidelines, which the left has decried for years. So how we view the “other” side, whether we support them, whether we want the state to acquiesce or crush them, is all a matter of our ideological perceptions and our reading of history, and therein lies the dilemma.
The ruling class controls resources and land, and it controls opinions and controls the past . . . and the purpose of the left is to challenge it on all those levels, not demand it expand and embellish its power by attacking even groups we despise. You can’t go to the state and ask it to rescue you, or smite your enemies, when it is the agent of your own repression and has antithetical interests. It makes sense to get upset over what happened in Oregon, but in the end it’s a distraction. You don’t stop the repression of people’s movements by demanding that the state repress movements opposed to yours. If you want to stop police repression, then organize and resist against the cops (like BLM is doing); demanding state action and decrying a centuries-old “double standard” plays into ruling class hands because it keeps good people from doing good work.
Snarky tweets, Facebook invective, and loud demands for the state to do something in Oregon may release frustrations, but in the end don’t release any of us from the control of the ruling class. The key thing that many of us—white, black, male, female, Christian, Muslim, African Americans in Ferguson and Whites in the western land-use movement—have in common is that we don’t have power and control in capitalist America. We have more in common with each other—though it’s often hard to see—than we do with the wealthy and affluent aristocrats who control the political economy. Finding common links isn’t a bad place to start.
Bob Buzzanco is a historian and activist who has written dozens of books and articles on foreign policy, the Vietnam War, the economy, American protest, and other topics. He writes at afflictthecomfortable.org and he can be reached at Twitter at @BobBuzzanco.
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