Standoffs and the Far Right: What Changed After Oklahoma City?

About Spencer Sunshine

Aerial view of Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building after bombing, 1995. Photo: Leonard Brakebill, Oklahoma Air National Guard.

Twenty-three years ago, on April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh detonated a powerful homemade truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The death toll reached 168, and about 850 were injured. McVeigh’s act was retribution against the federal government for its attacks on the paramilitary Far Right. Looking back, the bombing apparently forced changes in how armed Far Right insurgents are treated by the federal government—a change which may have led to the hands-off policy against armed encampments led by the Bundy family in Nevada in 2014, and Oregon in 2016. Today, the Bundys walk free. One of them, Ryan Bundy, has announced he will run for Nevada governor. But do they owe their freedom, celebrity, and success to McVeigh’s murderous attack?

McVeigh was aided by Terry Nichols; both were members of the then-burgeoning militia movement, which advocated forming locally based paramilitary units to combat what were wild conspiracy theories about encroaching federal government power. In particular, the bombing was revenge for the federal attack on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas on the same day—April 19—two years earlier. There, a federal raid and siege on this religious group left 80 sect members, and four federal agents, dead. (McVeigh himself had gone to Waco to witness the events.) The militia movement was also inspired by anger over the 1992 Ruby Ridge incident, where two family members of a fugitive White supremacist were killed by federal agents, as well as the 1993 Brady Bill which enacted stricter gun laws. And on the same day of the Oklahoma City bombing, Richard Snell—a White supremacist involved in the paramilitary-style group The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord—was executed for murder in Arkansas.

While internal documents have never been made public which directly confirm this, it is widely thought that the Oklahoma City bombing led to a change in federal policy when dealing with armed Far Right actions. Certainly their practices changed from forceful engagement to kid glove treatment, which was evident in the 1996 standoff at the Justus Township in Montana. There, the armed militants followed Sovereign Citizen-style beliefs—which are based on an interpretation of the U.S. Constitution that claims most federal laws and regulations can be ignored. At this standoff, federal agents surrounded the compound, but waited 81 days before convincing them to surrender. No other major armed conflicts arose before the 1990s militia movement wound down by 2001.

The Patriot movement is a Far Right movement which follows an idiosyncratic reading of the U.S. Constitution; they claim it prohibits almost the entire structure of the current U.S. federal government. It is best known for its tactics of forming militias and other paramilitaries. According to Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons, it started in the 1950s and in the 1990s spun off an “armed wing”—the militia movement. The Patriot movement has gone through a number of phases over the decades, and has been influenced in fundamental ways by the White Nationalist movement. Open calls on the right for “civil war” became common starting in late 2008, and a new wave of paramilitary groups—including the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters—arose. These calls for mass armed action finally took form in 2014 when Cliven Bundy put a call-out for help in resisting a roundup of his cattle.

Cliven Bundy adheres to a version of Patriot movement politics which is mixed in with a special strain of politicized, Far Right Mormonism that is part of the Patriot movement. After many years of dispute, federal agents came to impound his cattle in April 2014. That’s when Bundy put the call out to Patriot movement paramilitaries, who held the federal agents off at gunpoint. They eventually retreated without making any arrests.

This standoff was actually the first time the Patriot movement strategy of armed confrontation with the federal government worked, though it had been preached for decades. It was followed by two smaller armed encampments, in which armed Patriot movement activists gathered at Sugar Pine Mine in Oregon, and White Hope Mine in Montana, to back miners in disputes with federal government agencies.

On January 2, 2016, the next major standoff occurred when a small group of men, led by Cliven Bundy’s sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy, as well as LaVoy Finicum, started an armed occupation of the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside of Burns, Oregon. For the first several days, the militants did not attract many followers, and had only a small amount of food. In the bitter cold, it would have been easy for authorities to blockade the road leading to the buildings, cut the heat—and internet, which they used to spread their message—and wait for their surrender. But the federal authorities didn’t. Instead, they allowed the Bundys’ followers (and media) to drive directly to the buildings, and even accept FedEx and other deliveries. Some takeover supporters were there during the day but partied and slept in the nearby town at night. The leaders were even able to leave the state, and give public presentations in nearby towns, and return unmolested. Only at the very end, when the leaders attempted to go to the next county but were arrested en route— and one killed—were steps taken to isolate the last holdouts who insisted on remaining. (For more background on the Patriot movement and the armed camps, see the Political Research Associates and Rural Organizing Project report, Up in Arms: A Guide to Oregon’s Patriot Movement.)

Ammon Bundy (at microphone) and Jon RItzheimer (left) at a Malheur Refuge occupation press conference. (Photograph courtesy of Spencer Sunshine)

Tom Kubic, a former FBI agent involved in the Justus Township standoff, told Time that what may have motivated the authorities to take this approach: “You don’t want to do anything precipitous that would heighten the degree of confrontation.” At least, it seems, if the armed militants are mostly White and Far Right.

Comparisons with federal policy against other political factions are difficult. Islamists and neo-Nazis have not carried out armed occupations in the United States. Other movements that had engaged in armed occupations in the 1960s and ‘70s—including Communists, Black nationalists, and Native American radicals—had moved away from armed struggle. And heavy-handed policing strategies in dealing with much more mild forms of protest, such as street demonstrations and blockades, have convinced leftists and people of color nationalists that state repression would be quite severe if armed action was involved. For example, even unarmed occupations like the 2016 Standing Rock protests were met with significant force from law enforcement.

Despite their well-documented crimes, crime indeed did pay for the Bundy family. At the Malheur Refuge trial, the family members were acquitted, and the Bundy Ranch trial ended with a dismissal in January 2018. (A small number of people were convicted in connection with the armed actions, but most received fairly limited sentences.)

Since then, the family has emerged as something of folk heroes for the movement. So much so, that in March 2018, Ryan Bundy announced that he intends to run for Nevada governor—barely two years after he helped lead an armed takeover of a federal facility. One of the gunmen who pointed weapons at federal agents at the Bundy Ranch, Eric “EJ” Parker, addressed the Idaho legislature in January 2018 and received a standing ovation.

The fact that the Bundy family, Parker, and the other veterans of the standoff are free—and even alive—to reap their accolades can be traced back to altered federal protocols on how to deal with armed, largely white, Far Right occupations following the bombings planned and executed by McVeigh and Nichols. Without this change, Cliven Bundy’s poorly organized, but heavily armed, supporters would not have had their victory. And the armed occupiers of the Malheur Refuge headquarters would not have gotten through the first week—much less 41 days—without heat and internet. These Far Right triumphs were paid for with the blood of 168 dead in Oklahoma City.

What in McVeigh’s day were militia talking points are now heard in Congress.The Patriot movement’s politics, once marginal, can be found in the mainstream of the Republican Party. The call to abolish the Fourteenth Amendment (which made freed slaves citizens by granting birthright citizenship), was once limited to committed racists who picked from the Constitution like a buffet.  Now it can be heard by Congressmen, such as Steve King (R-IA), and, in 2015, from Donald Trump’s lips. In February 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, “The office of sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement.” In the wake of the Malheur takeover, Congressional bills were introduced to transfer public lands enforcement to county sheriffs. The Republican Party’s national platform denounces Agenda 21; this nonbinding United Nations resolution encouraging sustainable development is the subject of many right-wing conspiracy theories that claim the UN is about to destroy the United States’ national sovereignty. David Clark, the former Milwaukee County sheriff who is close to the Patriot movement, was considered for a Homeland Security appointment by Trump.

Nichols is serving a life sentence, while McVeigh was executed on June 11, 2001 for his role in what was then the deadliest domestic terrorist attack in U.S. history. A few months later it would be overshadowed by the 9/11 attacks. Today, McVeigh and Nichols are often portrayed as angry cranks—but their ideas in the mainstream and the tactics have had a lasting effect. But did they succeed in their goals of getting the federal government to give a long leash to armed Far Right radicals? In looking at how the authorities responded to the Bundys’ actions, it seems that McVeigh and Nichols did indeed achieve their goals.

Spencer Sunshine, Ph.D. (associate fellow) researches the Patriot movement, unorthodox fascist currents, left/right crossover movements, and left-wing antisemitism. He is the lead author of the 2016 report Up In Arms: A Guide to Oregon’s Patriot Movement, which is a collaboration between PRA and Oregon’s Rural Organizing Project. Follow him on Twitter at @transform6789.