What went wrong?
Scope CreepWhen pursuing a political objective, it’s imperative to clearly define one’s objectives and explicitly lay out a proposed roadmap to achieving those objectives. If there were achievable and concrete demands, I haven’t seen them. I saw a flurry of disjointed social media with no central theme, complaining vaguely about tyranny, constitutionalism, the overarching tension between land management and ranching interests, anti-Islam, and from time to time, the proximate issue; the ranchers imprisoned for lighting fires on their leased property.
It costs little money and requires little time and effort to create a centralized web presence for an activist objective which can help define political goals. While the supporters can be motivated by and talking about a broad range of issues, it’s imperative that the stunt itself maintain a laser-like focus. The closest Ammon Bundy ever got to formulating something like a demand was for the family being prosecuted to be straight-up released and for more land to be freed up. With framing like this, it was just a matter of how the project would fail, not if it would fail.
The federal government’s not going to just stop on a dime to appease a handful of angry protesters, …at least not White ones. A more thoughtful approach would have been a demand for specific elected officials to meet with them to address the sentencing of the ranchers. A band of embattled ranchers who just want to have their grievances heard is more effective than a band of militia types crowing about “tyranny” to the general public. And after that demand, you make another incremental demand.
With the proper media hustling and a persuasive delivery of their case, they could have put the government on the spot for the unfair sentencing. The affected family had (wisely) chosen not to support this project, but that can be rhetorically skirted. But the Bundy family were fighting in the way that they’re familiar with rather than in the way that’s likely to win. The American government is militarily invincible yet profoundly vulnerable to the right kind of public moral pressure.
FramingYou’ve got to make the best of the human resources you’ve got to work with. To some extent, it was a foregone conclusion that the hostile media framing would be of a dangerous gun-wielding militia of angry White men who want to overthrow the federal government. While the media wasn’t going to do them any favors, they did themselves no favors either in consistently and repeatedly confirming that narrative in their interviews and social media outreach. They spoke in the imagery and lexicon of the militia movement to the outside world, which was alienating to the general public whose fate they depended on.
This mirrors an internal debate within our own movement over how to manage framing and presentation. To insist that everybody refrain from developing a subcultural mythos and affect chokes off the subculture. For a subculture to become a movement, it must dynamically and organically learn to code switch between ingroup and outgroup interaction. It’s not about deception or even what’s said, but how it’s said. It’s about taking a step back to analyze the interaction and arrive at a lexicon and framing that communicates what needs to be communicated with minimal alienation and triggering.
Whether or not Lavoy Finicum was reaching for a weapon, Finicum and his associates assisted in creating a frame which allowed the federal government to shoot him without the general public being offended or surprised. It’s not as if the FBI wouldn’t have already been concerned that these men were not to be presumed to be unarmed. Had they insisted that they were engaging in a nonviolent demonstration and explained that their firearms on their person were just part of their Country Western lifestyle, they would’ve created space for a counter-narrative to be produced in opposition to the media’s narrative that a gang of anti-government radicals were itching for a gunfight.
Popular SupportWhen an Islamic jihadi blows something up, tens of millions of his allies around the world cheer for him. When a White Advocate or Militia Patriot deign to do even mild-mannered occupation stuff, the sort of project the #BlackLivesMatter folks routinely engage in, there is little if any popular support. Insurgencies and rebellions against the prevailing order require sympathizers with the vanguard among the general population in order to achieve political relevance.
Whether or not the Oregon Standoff could have been a good idea, the failure to persuasively build and present their case to the American public doomed the project from the start. This sort of magical thinking prevails in right-wing circles. Every political activist would like to think that the general public is just itching to boil over into revolt over whatever their issue is, if only there were a flashpoint of some kind. Unless there’s been a wealth of effort already invested, and the timing and framing are just right, the general public will shrug.
Public sympathy is a bit like a bank account, and the Bundy Family overdrafted their account.
ConclusionMy aim here is to learn from the incident so both my own movement and the Patriot movement can be more effective in the future. I’m not anti-Bundy, though I’m not part of that movement. I’m sympathetic to them. There’s definitely an overlap of concerns. But my struggle’s against the displacement and disenfranchisement of my ethnic folk, not against “big government.” I had hoped to be actively supportive of the project, but refrained from publicly discussing it after it became clear to me that the government was playing it smart and the Bundy Family was not.
A potential opportunity to rally the American public against the outrageous abuse of “anti-terrorism” legislation has been lost, and the national conversation’s now about how to deal with the threat of gun-toting anti-government radicals. To the credit of the Patriot movement, several of its leading voices have been consistently critical of the project, and even predicted that it would most likely prove disastrous in exactly the way that it’s proven disastrous.
My prayers are with Mr. Finicum’s family, with the men remaining in the government building, and with the Bundy brothers. We owe it to them all to think long and hard about the incident to ensure that future right-wing activist efforts can achieve the security and success which eluded this one.