When the full story of the 6 January storming of the US Capitol building is told, historians will have to make sense of what might seem an odd footnote. The two most prominent rightwing militia groups that participated in the mob onslaught on Congress – the Three Percenters, based in Idaho, and the Oath Keepers, based in Nevada – cut their teeth in obscure corners of the American west, where for close to a decade they have threatened violence against federal employees and institutions that steward the nation’s public lands.
“The mob violence that swarmed the halls of the Capitol building and other government offices flows from a series of smaller armed insurrections by domestic terrorists across the west,” says Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit that advocates for environmental regulation of public lands.
Time after time in Idaho, Nevada and Utah, the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers, paramilitary organizations formed in the wake of Barack Obama’s election in 2008, have come to the rescue of ranchers, miners and loggers who have violated federal environmental regulations on the public domain but who the militias said were innocent commoners oppressed by a vicious state apparatus.
Brandishing arms and threatening their use against federal officials, the militias have enjoyed spectacular successes – with the Capitol only the latest example.
The Three Percenters and Oath Keepers came to public attention in 2014, when they encamped with the notorious anti-government rancher Cliven Bundy. The recalcitrant old cowboy refused to remove his trespassing cattle from public lands around his 160-acre spread in Bunkerville, Nevada.
Holed up in his ranch house, Bundy issued a statement decrying “federal tyranny” and vowed “to do whatever it takes” to protect his “property”, meaning the public land he was utilizing.
He put out a call for militia units. The Three Percenters and Oath Keepers, with other loosely affiliated citizens, arrived from across the nation with assault rifles and Gadsden flags – the ones with the coiled snake that says “Don’t Tread on Me” (and which were also seen on 6 January in the halls of Congress). In a sprawl of tents and guard posts ringing Bundy’s ranch, the militiamen established Liberty Camp. They spoke of Bundy as a modern-day hero of the west, a true-grit cowboy, defiant and free.
Soon a crowd of Bundyites numbering in the hundreds shut down a freeway in both directions, their rifles trained on federal officers gathered behind a line of SUVs. The standoff continued for two hours – until the government backed down.
By the morning of 13 April, officials announced that due to “threats to public safety” it would immediately cease the removal of Bundy’s cattle herd.
Two years later, the Bundy clan, with Cliven’s son Ammon Bundy in the lead, famously stormed and occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, holding it at gunpoint for 40 days, again in protest of federal environmental regulations and the alleged oppression of local ranchers.
With Ammon were members of the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers, armed to the teeth. Federal law enforcement treated them with kid gloves, while Ammon promised a violent response if authorities attempted to remove his crew. The FBI stood back, afraid, and waited Ammon out. Federal authorities allowed the Bundyite militiamen to come and go from the refuge as they pleased, arguing–as government officials would later explain–that any confrontation would lead to bloodshed. The occupiers were even allowed to receive mail.
Meanwhile, federal employees who worked at Malheur and lived in the nearby town of Burns were being stalked. Having got hold of their street addresses, Ammon’s militiamen – wandering in and out of the government facility they had occupied at gunpoint – went door to door issuing threats to the employees, telling them not to return to the refuge. Burns became a terrorized town. At least one Malheur employee was targeted for kidnapping. The refuge’s seventeen employees, traumatized, fled the area, living at government expense in hotels across the state for weeks, a relocation effort that cost taxpayers $2m.
The question lingered of how law enforcement might have acted at Malheur if it had been seized by Black Panthers. Or, more appropriately, by militiamen representing the native and historically oppressed Paiutes.
The siege ended in the death of one occupier, and the arrests of a dozen perpetrators, but in the end, not one member of the Bundy clan was successfully prosecuted, and only a few associates of the militia groups that backed them went to jail.
Today, on the public lands around Bunkerville, Cliven Bundy’s cows continue to roam freely, trampling the fragile desert landscape, and he has yet to pay the fines he owes. Cliven won – with the help of the same militiamen who stormed the Capitol.
As Molvar of Western Watersheds Project observed: “The rarity of arrests and indictments, and the botched prosecutions, that followed in the wake of these acts of terrorism in the west sent a message that law enforcement will turn a blind eye to ‘alt-right’ lawlessness by overwhelmingly white perpetrators.”
In this analysis, years of selective law enforcement have privileged politically-motivated crimes from the extreme right against government agencies, public lands and public property. And this has enabled and empowered militant rightwingers like the Bundys, the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers to act with impunity.
Cheerleading the attack on the Capitol from afar, Cliven Bundy had this to say: “At Bundy Ranch, we had a job to do, go get it done, and We the People went forward and finished the job.”
He added: “Today President Trump had hundreds of thousands of people and he pointed the way – pointed towards Congress and nodded his head go get the job done.”