I've been to eastern Oregon; it's a harsh, forsaken place -- a wide scrubland filled with pronghorn, mule deer, broad fault-block mountains, and leftover lava floes from the Miocene epoch. Black-tailed jackrabbits dart in the sagebrush while prairie falcon survey from their nests, eyeing rodents beneath the gnarled western juniper. I was surprised to find sunflower here, the crags reveal blossoms from May to August. In the early Nineteenth Century, Lewis and Clark gathered bouquets of the wooly variety for their studies.
In 1992, I infiltrated the neo-fascist Oregon Citizens Alliance and listened to Lon Mabon preach hatred during the long days and nights of Ballot Measure 9. To this day, I don't know why I put myself in harm's way. I shaved my head, wore skinhead clothes, and wrote about it in my black-bound journals. I hoped to publish these pages, but I never did. I also never forgot the hatred I saw written on that cold, arid steppe.
Militia groups have been active in the Northwest for decades. What they want is an overthrow of federal authority and a return to old-school traditional family values. Like ISIS, they want a reformed way of life few members ever personally experienced. It's a strange ideal of the land belonging to the people, which it never did -- in eastern Oregon the land belongs to no one but the coyote and rattlesnake.
White European pioneers plundered Northern Paiute bands to create a dystopian range without spiritual tissue. Equally, today's militiamen need an enemy like a drunk needs liquor. These foes -- government officials, native tribes, groups like the ROP, or the Bureau of Land Management -- far right groups pursue with religious fervor. The white men of the high desert still pine for a wilderness they can burn with impunity. So it's high time we drive these invasive species out.
But I remember Ruby Ridge, and I remember the subsequent Oklahoma City bombing that resulted in the death of 168 innocent Americans. I remember Waco too. Watching the slaughter on television, wondering why a group of children should pay the price for the Branch Davidian arsenal and a zealot like David Koresh. There were no answers, only flames and the smell of burning flesh--tanks and concrete walls choked with thick black smoke. We cannot repeat this mistake.
When Black Lives Matter and the white militia in Oregon both fight for the same thing -- an end to mandatory minimums -- it should be a unifying moment. But it isn't. Both sides are polarized -- the Bundy clan with their snack-free militia, the left with their bitter rhetoric about race, and neither side's tactics pierce the shell of the real problem, nor reduce mandatory minimums -- a truly damnable practice.
Liberals and conservatives should view this as a bridge moment. Instead, we zoom right past it. We talk about race and disparity -- all true, if they were black or Muslim, the white Bundy militiamen now occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge would be treated differently -- but at what point do we go for the gold and pass on the obvious lead?
Republicans and Democrats should be challenging elected officials to reform the prison industrial complex, yet bias on both sides feeds political dysfunction. This is a perfect example of why we are where we are today -- immobile, deadlocked in America, incapable of forward motion.
The American right and left divide serves no one. It's a construct that pays for political campaigns and the ubiquitous media machine. While the political class gains power, the people serve real time -- listening to our extreme propaganda, parsing everything into simplistic terms, trying to swallow indigestible tidbits and half-truths.
Now, the horrible Bundy clan takes center stage. Their lack of preparedness mirrors their inexperience and their sham pursuit. Blink and it will go dark as the eastern Oregon night, also without power. Like the gnarled and crippled juniper, the Bundy's are an invasive species and should be run out.
None of this is worth shedding blood -- like screaming "background check!" at a red state gun show then watching as sales quadruple. I pray it doesn't end with American bodies carted off in black neoprene bags. The Obama administration should deescalate the crisis and grant clemency to everyone serving absurdly long prison time. No matter if this moment comes in black or white, the time for reform is long past due.
As for the left, we should recognize a bridge moment when we see one. Our reactionary and willful ignorance about rural American life is crippling progress. As we move further and further away from the working class, and fail to find common ground with the right, we clip our own wings. Prison reform will take greater effort than a mouse-click and a public share.
I remember walking away from one of those right-wing rallies and staring out at the bleak, dead parking lot as a row of American trucks rolled onto the highway. All at once it felt like everyone was headed in the wrong direction; red taillights winking back at me. I flicked a cold cigarette into the earth and watched it burn out--the same color as the horizon, or a bomb blast, an orange slit backdrop to fear. I wondered them as I do now, listening to the Bundy militia, if geography and isolation have something to do with right wing fever. Thinking differently this time--empty our prisons and let the juniper burn instead.