Another kind of Occupation: What do you mean “we”?

Occupation of public spaces to advance a political agenda is nothing new to us, nor to anyone who watched Occupy flash across American politics in 2011. The ongoing Occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon is a little different. Most notably, these occupiers are brandishing weapons (beyond moral commitment) and threatening a more vigorous and violent resistance to removal.

This occupation grew out of a rally protesting the jailing of Dwight and Steven Hammond, who set fire to public lands next to their ranch. They say they meant to protect their land from invasive species; federal prosecutors say they meant to cover up the illegal slaughter of deer. Last Saturday, the Hammonds’ last weekend before returning to prison, protesters showed up, took over a park welcome center and promised to stay. The Hammonds have announced they want no part of the protest, and have turned themselves in, but these Occupiers are still committed.

Calling themselves “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom,” and often pointing to pocket Constitutions, the protesters have been clear that they have larger aims than standing up for the Hammonds.  It is, according to Ammon Bundy–probably the most visible protester, about protecting the Constitution and protecting the people from the government.  Vox reports:

We’re out here because the people have been abused long enough, really…Their lands and their resources have been taken from them — to the point where it’s putting them literally in poverty. And this facility here [the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters] has been a tool into doing that. It is the people’s facility, owned by the people. And it has been provided for us to be able to come together and unite, and making a hard stand against this overreach, this taking of the people’s land and resources.

Ammon Bundy and at least one brother, have staged such an occupation before, in support of their father, Cliven Bundy, and his long campaign to avoid paying fees to the federal government for grazing his cattle on public lands. But dad is sitting this one out. And while the Bundy brothers are not alone, they haven’t generated much local support for their effort. So who are the people?

Activists routinely claim to be acting for a larger group. Occupy Wall Street meant to speak for the 99 percent, and the Tea Party for regular Americans. Politicians virtually always define their policies as supporting a vaguely defined middle-class–or working Americans. Even the founding fathers announced their commitments in the preamble to the Constitution.

Of course, the drafters of the Constitution weren’t just like the people they claimed to represent: much wealthier, much better educated, and of course, no women, Native people, or slaves participated in the deliberations.

When we talk about “the people,” we always imagine people who will agree with us–or at least, should agree with us. We learn to be careful about those who would claim to look out for the people.

But the claim was about the public good. Surfing the language of the Declaration of Independence, the idea was that “governments are instituted among men” to secure rights, that, in effect, the government holds lands for all of us, builds roads, looks out for the quality of air and water, licenses the airwaves, and inspects meat. All of it costs money, which the government prints and takes in taxes. And all of it can be a huge inconvenience.

Far from rural Oregon, my life would be easier if I didn’t have to file tax returns, pay to park at the beach, and observe traffic laws. The ranchers would have an easier time if they didn’t have to pay grazing fees or observe restrictions of any kind on their activity. It’s an incredibly understandable–if juvenile–politics: to take whatever advantage we can of government, hoping that others won’t do the same–and to protest any incursions on our autonomy at the same time. (Recent reports have made much of the fact that Ammon Bundy has benefited from rather large subsidized federal loans.)

One measure of success is the extent to which outsiders rally to the cause and imitate the claims and tactics. Thus far, that hasn’t happened–at least not much. The Republican presidential hopefuls, all champions of state rights against the federal government, have distanced themselves from these Occupiers, even if acknowledging sympathy with some of their aims. They were all more careful here than they were with the initial Bundy protest.

But how long can they stay? Comparing how authorities treat these white men with guns with how police treat young unarmed black men are all over the internet, but it’s a little misplaced. (See Jamelle Bouie at Slate.)

These Occupiers have thus far refused to respond to calls to stand down, even from Ted Cruz. The FBI, far better armed and trained, than this militia, could surely evict them, but at what cost? Remember, the mostly urban occupations of 2011 stayed in far more visible locations for around 10 weeks.

How would the people respond?

 

 

 

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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