March 29, 2016
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A deadly shootout in an Idaho cabin. A siege on a cult compound in Waco, Texas. A bombing in Oklahoma City. A gruesome roadside shooting in West Memphis, Arkansas. A deliberate plane crash in Austin, Texas. A headline-hogging protest on a Nevada ranch. These events—either fueled by or contributing to anti-government sentiment—led up to the violent standoff near Burns, Oregon.
Several armed militiamen seized the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in early January, threatening violence towards anyone who sought to remove them. On January 28, militiaman Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was gunned down and killed by a police SWAT team when he allegedly prepared to shoot the officers during a traffic stop. This resulted in several arrests and caused most of the occupiers to surrender. On February 11, the standoff ended when David Fry, the final occupier, was coaxed out of the building. The militiamen controlled the building for forty-one days, according to NPR.
The “protest” in Burns began in opposition to the sentencing of Dwight and Steve Hammond, an Oregon rancher and his son, to prison for setting fire to federal land, both in 2001 and 2006. Both times, the Hammonds testified that the fires were started on their own property, but later spread to federal land, destroying over 100 acres. Despite these claims, they were charged with arson; on federal land, this crime is considered terrorism.
This incensed ranchers across the nation, including Ammon Bundy of Nevada, who is led the protest. Bundy told CNN, “I want to emphasize that the American people are wondering why they can’t seem to get ahead or why everything is costing more and you are getting less, and that is because the federal government is taking and using the land and resources.”
Although the standoff in Oregon can be tied to these recent events, incidences of anti-government violence have been fueling the movement for decades. One of the first inflammatory incidents occurred in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992. When US marshals swept in to arrest Randall Weaver—a “white separatist,” according to History.com—at his cabin for selling two illegal sawed-off shotguns, Randall’s 14 year-old son, Sammy, was fatally shot after opening fire at the officers, who had killed his dog. The young boy’s death prompted a tense standoff that endured for over a week and resulted in the death of Randall’s wife, Vicki Weaver.
This event proved explosive because it was a visible, bloody clash between a citizen and agents of federal government that resulted in the deaths of a woman and her child. Many believed that Lon Horiuchi, the FBI agent who killed Vicki Weaver (supposedly by accident), should not have been authorized to fire; this spurred arguments about the use of deadly force by the FBI and sparked a growing distrust in the federal government.
Less than a year later, at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas—the site of a major cult—a bloody confrontation culminated in the deaths of over 70 people, including many women and children. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) raided the compound to seize, as CBS News reported, “a large cache of high-powered weapons” and confirm suspicions that the group possessed “explosives and the parts to manufacture machine guns illegally.”
The agents were met with gunfire, resulting in 10 immediate deaths and sparking a standoff that endured for 51 days and ended when the compound burned down and brought dozens of Branch Davidians down with it. The fire was reportedly started by the cult members to dispose of bodies after a mass suicide, but “anti-government conspiracy theorists,” as CBS described them, allege that the the government caused the blaze. Other recent evidence, including infrared footage, appears to show shots being fired
into the compound, prompting many to believe that the FBI killed or incapacitated many Branch Davidians before the blaze.
Later, in 1995, Timothy McVeigh
detonated a bomb outside a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168, including 19 children from a daycare facility. According to History.com, this was the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil until 9/11. As a result, the anti-government movement seeped from the background into the foreground of America’s attention. The bomber and former soldier’s views, after already being shaped by a suspicion of gun control, were reportedly radicalized by the incidents at Ruby Ridge and Waco. Terry Nichols, McVeigh’s friend and “co-conspirator,” received life in prison for helping carry out the attack, while McVeigh was executed via lethal injection.
The far-right, anti-government views harbored by McVeigh and Nichols were echoed by Andrew Joseph “Joe” Stack III of Austin, Texas in a manifesto posted shortly before he set fire to his home and deliberately crashed a plane into the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) building of Austin in 2010. According to ABC News, Stack identified himself as being a “sovereign citizen,” meaning that he was part of a “a secretive and dangerous subculture which believes American laws don’t apply to them.” Stack was killed in the crash, along with IRS manager Vernon Hunter.
Also aligned with the sovereign citizen movement were Jerry and Joseph Kane, a father-and-son pair that gunned down two police officers in 2010 alongside a highway in West Memphis, Arkansas. Joe, Jerry Kane’s 16-year old son, murdered the two policemen with an AK-47 while his father was being interrogated by the police outside their minivan. The gruesome incident was captured on an officer’s dash cam. After fleeing the scene, both men were killed in a confrontation with law enforcement.
Later, in 2014, protests at the ranch of the Bundy family—the same family that led the Oregon occupation—not only made headlines, but also inspired a radical couple to go on a shooting rampage at a Walmart and a “pizza buffet” in Las Vegas. According to the Washington Post, Cliven Bundy—the family’s “patriarch”—owed $1 million to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) after illegally allowing his cows to graze on federal land for decades without paying the required fees. The land had been siphoned off in order to protect several endangered species. His anti-government resistance resonated with a multitude of ranchers and other conservatives that resent the government’s control of the territory. A fellow rancher told the Washington Post, “I think Cliven is taking a stand not only for family ranchers, but also for every freedom-loving American, for everyone.” As a result, many supporters flocked to the Bundy Ranch, many armed, in order to defend it from possible government intervention. Cliven Bundy was supported by several conservative congressmen until he made highly controversial statements about African-Americans being “better off as slaves.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) claims that the anti-government movement has been burgeoning in recent years due to factors such as “changing demographics driven by immigration, the struggling economy and the election of the first African-American president.”