Occupations, Contrasting Responses, and Capitalism
Last January, a group of armed white ‘patriots’ overtook the Malheur Wildlife Refuge located on unceded Paiute land in eastern Oregon. They illegally occupied it for over a month in order to protest various grievances against the government, including the conviction of two ranchers who had set fires on federal land. They successfully drew attention to their cause, as well as their anti-government ideology, one that seeks to privatize “public lands” held by the federal government.
This ‘occupation’ took place 173 years to the month after the land’s rightful occupants were forcibly marched off the land to a reservation in Washington State. After 41 days. the occupiers were arrested and jailed on federal charges that included conspiracy and firearms violations.
Throughout the occupation, federal, state, and local law enforcement had adopted a hands-off policy, to the point of meeting with the occupiers and allowing them free rein of the neighboring areas without interference. This approach was a sharp contrast when compared to how law enforcement has historically treated Black armed militia movements, as well as leftist and anti-capitalist protest movements such as Occupy. Contrast was also painfully evident when compared to the issues highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement, and the reality of how Black people are currently treated by law enforcement, armed or not.
Three months later, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe established a camp on reservation land in North Dakota in order to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. This pipeline is to be built through Sioux land, and would directly threaten both water sources and sacred sites. The camp grew steadily over the next several months, and by late September there were thousands of resisters from all over the country camped across several sites.
Like the Malheur protesters, the Standing Rock protesters also maintain that the land in question does not belong to the federal government. They both also insist that the federal government does not have authority to control the usage of the land. But unlike the Malheur protesters, who tend to use ‘free market’ and ‘sovereign’ arguments to justify their right to public land, the Sioux’s argument is based on treaty rights and ancestral possession. Their claim to the land is not based on settler entitlement or capitalist ideology, but on the fact that it has always been their land, and that they have a sacred duty to protect it.
As the Standing Rock protests progressed and strengthened, the police repression intensified, and over the past several weeks there has been a series of brutalities and arrests. This repression built up to a law enforcement offensive on October 27th, where police used tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets in order to clear protesters from a specific area, arresting 141 people in the process.
On that same day, October 27th, the Malheur occupiers were found “not guilty” by a jury of their peers, cleared of all federal charges against them. The timing and contrast between the violence wrought against the Standing Rock protesters and the acquittal of the Malheur occupants exposed what many interpreted as a “flaw” in the system. Most focused on white privilege as the sole reason for both the Bundy acquittal and the disparities in treatment between the Malheur occupiers and the Standing Rock protesters.
Race is undeniably a factor in these disparities. However, in focusing solely on race, one fails to account for the role that capitalism and state power also play in the differing treatment, especially when it comes to state violence. In that regard, Standing Rock has commonality with Black Lives Matter: the level of repression experienced by both groups is not only due to both historical and current systematic racism by the police, but is also influenced by why they are protesting in the first place in relation to capitalism.
Ammon Bundy, the leader of the Malheur occupation, is the son of Cliven Bundy, a successful cattle rancher who grazes his cattle on unceded Paiute land in Nevada. His father has been engaged in a longstanding dispute with the federal government for well over two decades over grazing fees on land that neither party has a legitimate claim to. The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) holds title to the land, but Cliven Bundy maintains that the land belongs to the state, not the federal government, and that BLM does not have authority to collect grazing fees. This specific stance is based on the one of the core beliefs of the sovereign citizens movement – the idea that the federal government has little to no authority and that local law supersedes federal law in most instances.
The dispute culminated in an armed standoff between federal agents and militiamen rallying behind Bundy’s cause over an attempted cattle seizure, an incident in which federal agents relented and returned the cattle. This militia ‘victory’ over the government strengthened and legitimized the Bundys’ movement, and empowered many of those who then went on to occupy the Malheur refuge. The recent acquittal of the ‘patriots’ who occupied the Malheur refuge further serves to legitimize their positions and ideology.
While the Malheur occupiers and patriot movements in the West position themselves as anti-establishment, heroes of the working man who is sick of government overreach, that does not change the fact that much of their beliefs and ideologies are aligned with those of the ruling classes and the State itself. They are in favor of privatizing and selling off public land in the name of profit, a position which is of great benefit to numerous subsets of business and industry.
If the patriot movement were to succeed in their goal regarding land rights, it’s not the working man who would benefit: rather, it’s big business. The growth of the patriot movement, and the increasing adoption of their ideology is of great benefit to all of those who wish to privatize the vast amounts of BLM land throughout the West for profit, whether it be cattle ranchers or mineral and oil prospectors.
Although the patriot movement panders—and widely appeals—to the working class, the Bundys themselves have much more in common with the upper classes. Ammon Bundy may dress like a rancher, but he’s a businessman, owning several companies in Arizona including a car fleet. Cliven Bundy is also a successful businessman, and much of his wealth has been dependent on subsidies from the very government he opposes. Even before he refused to pay his grazing fees, the percentage he was paying the government was a fraction of the fees charged by owners of privately held lands.
Bundy benefits from the same types of corporate welfare that so much of the ruling class depends on to further inflate their wealth.
Profit is also central to the Standing Rock protests, but this time the protesters are not fighting in the name of profit but are instead indirectly fighting to impede it. The Dakota Access Pipeline is a $3.7 billion dollar project that will then enrich the profits of oil companies for many years to come once it is completed. While the opposition to the pipeline is rooted in water rights and protections of sacred land, the protests themselves are a disruption of the capitalist machine and a victory would be an even greater blow.
To oppose the pipeline is to stand in the way of enormous profits, profits that benefit the State as well as capitalism itself.
Beyond the direct and actual economic impact, the differences in the overlying ideologies that frame the two scenarios also play a role. The patriot movement is a movement in favor of dismantling the commons in the name of profit. They seek the right to declare and enforce private property rights on land that theoretically belongs to the “public.” Their interests may be personal, but enclosing and selling off the commons is an essential function of capitalism.
Any and all attempts to protect or restore the commons is a potential threat to profits. Movements that fight for the commons are acting in direct contradiction with the needs and logic of capital. The indigenous-led movement opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline is explicitly fighting to maintain clean water and protect the commons on behalf of the people. They also speak of ‘sovereignty’, but the meaning of that for them is based in community and collective sustenance, as opposed to the ideology of individualism. The desire for profit is not a factor in their resistance. Their resistance is based in their very survival.
It is not just the physical and economic effects of the resistance that are a threat to capitalism. The collective power and shared values that tie the pipeline resisters together—and the deepening of those values and connections over time as they continue their resistance—is an egregoric threat to capitalism in itself. This is true even when completely detached from the actualized impact of the protest, which also potentially factors into the disproportionate government response. As can be seen from the violence against the labor movement to the Black Panthers or Occupy, the modern State has a long and detailed history of enacting violence against and attempting to destroy movements that seek to dismantle capitalism and/or challenge the social order.
The contrasting values of the two areas of land are also an important factor in terms of the urgency of the state response. The Malheur refuge, while “valuable” for reasons related to environment and biodiversity, is not of value to capitalism in its current state as a federally protected area. The occupation of the property, regardless of who had been occupying it, was not affecting anyone’s profits on a significant level, as the land itself does not and cannot create potential income. The occupation of such a parcel may be an inconvenience for law enforcement and a drain on public funds, but its not a threat to profit or the capitalist machine as a whole – at least not at this point. But it is the very fact that places like the Malheur refuge cannot be exploited in the name of capital which is what the Bundys and their followers seek to change.
Unlike the lack of profit value of the wildlife refuge, the land in the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline is indescribably valuable, especially to those who stand to profit of the building and operation of the project. In response to the growing protests, the corporations behind the Dakota Access Pipeline have been openly calling on the federal government to protect their “property rights,” calls which have been answered on multiple occasions in the form of police violence. The pipeline’s parent company stated that it was working with police in order to clear the camp just prior to the October 27th arrests.
The stark difference in the way that law enforcement treated the Malheur occupiers and the protesters at Standing Rock should not come as a surprise, but merely as a confirmation that the purpose of law enforcement is not to “protect and serve” the “people,” but instead to protect and serve the interest and the property of the ruling class. The more valuable any given piece of property is to either business or The State, the more violently it will be defended by that business or that state.
The response to the Standing Rock Protests taps into a much deeper wound, being the latest in a long and painful history of the federal government forcing Native people off their rightful land in the name of economic expansion and progress. It is a repetition of the very primitive accumulation and accompanying violence which founded the colonial settlement that became America. It is also the continuation of a struggle on the part of indigenous communities that has yet to cease since the first European contact.
These disparities between how the Malheur occupiers were treated and the Standing Rock protesters were treated is not a result of a “flaw” in the system. If anything, what is being witnessed is that the system is responding so rapidly and so effectively that it can no longer mask its intentions or its contradictions. That exposure is in turn feeding an ever-increasing awareness amongst the masses as to how racism and state violence actually function. It’s also exposing the futility of reform.
Racism and private property rights are two of the most vital necessities in order for capitalism to function. Whether it’s Black Lives Matter bringing attention to police violence and systemic discrimination, or it’s the Standing Rock protesters bringing attention to illegal takings and the need to protect the commons, the police violence used against them will always be disproportionately severe when compared to those whose grievances and actions, even if illegal, do not challenge the interests or mechanics of capital.
Alley Valkyrie is a social activist, writer, artist, and spirit-worker living in the Pacific Northwest. She currently divides her time between Portland and Eugene. Alley has spent the past several years working with homeless and impoverished populations in Oregon. She is also a freelance visual artist and photographer, and produces a clothing line called Practical Rabbit. She is a co-founder of Gods&Radicals.
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