The Slatest

If It Happened There: Armed Rebel Faction Occupies Government Building

Rebel fighters near Burns, Oregon, on Jan. 4, 2016.

Photo by Rob Kerr/AFP/Getty Images

The latest installment of a continuing series in which American events are described using the tropes and tone normally employed by the American media to describe events in other countries.

BURNS, United States—An armed rebel group has seized control of a government building in the country’s sparsely populated northwest frontier territories. The ongoing standoff in Oregon state poses a serious challenge to the authority of the government in the capital, Washington, more than 2,000 miles away.

The militant faction, calling itself Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, is affiliated with a family clan known as the Bundys. Political power is often passed down through families in this heavily patriarchal society, and while the Bundys are not yet as powerful as well-known clans like the Bushes, Clintons, and Kochs, they have amassed a sizable arsenal of weaponry and gained a substantial number of loyal followers after another armed confrontation with the central government in 2014.


The Bundys are followers of Mormonism, a religious sect living primarily in America’s restive western regions with a history of persecution by America’s protestant-dominated government. However, scholars note that the vast majority of Mormons are peaceful and that the Bundys’ grievances do not appear to be religiously motivated.  

Rather, the latest incident is rooted in a long-running conflict between pastoralist tribal groups and the central government. These tribes believe the traditional way of life they have practiced for centuries is under threat from a government that restricts their right to graze their herds of cattle where they please. While the latest standoff is related to a case involving another pastoralist family, the Hammonds, setting fire to forests owned by the government to acquire more grazing land, it likely reflects large prevailing anxieties among a portion of the citizenry over economic development, political centralization, and globalization. Experts believe conflicts over grazing land may only become more common and intensify thanks to the changing weather patterns caused by climate change.


The events in Oregon suggest that militant factions may be taking advantage of the power vacuum caused by America’s political dysfunction to increase their territorial control in areas where the government’s control is weaker. The U.S. central government has been paralyzed for years by feuding between the center-left Democratic Party, which controls the executive branch, and the center-right Republican Party, which dominates the legislature. The country’s traditional governing elite have also been threatened this year by the rise of oligarch Donald Trump and his ultranationalist, populist campaign for president.

In a bid to demonstrate his continued legitimacy, the country’s embattled President Barack Obama announced new firearms-control measures on Tuesday. The country is currently awash with high-powered weapons, which are designed primarily for military use, but have frequently fallen into the hands of anti-government extremists representing a number of religious and secular ideologies.

However, the president is acting solely on his own limited authority, and without the support of the legislature. With armed groups increasingly challenging his government, it’s unclear whether he still has the power to enforce his edicts.