What Do the Oregon Extremists Want?

Is this really a dispute over grazing rights—or a sign of a deeper, scarier divide?

Militia Man Patches, Oregon
Patches on the sleeve of a demonstrator on Jan. 4, 2016, at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, where an armed group has occupied multiple structures.

Photo by Jim Urquhart/Reuters

The current standoff at a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon is ostensibly a dispute over grazing rights, led by an armed group that as of yet has not identified itself as a militia. But Leonard Zeskind, who has been monitoring extremist groups for many years, views the conflict as part of a larger, longer-term battle between the federal government and organized right-wing militias. Zeskind, who is the president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, is also the author of Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement From the Margins to the Mainstream.

I spoke with Zeskind over the phone this week about what the Oregon protesters want, how Donald Trump divides white nationalists, and why Black Lives Matter and other recent anti-racism activism may be inspiring a frightening backlash. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Chotiner: You have said that since June 2015 there has been an uptick in militia activity.

Zeskind: It’s not just a small uptick. IREHR has recorded a massive increase. We are paying closer attention to the growing militia phenomenon. There has been a decided white reactionary response to anti-racist activism by black folks and white folks and brown folks and people of all colors opposed to police violence. They have turned to the militias.

When you say you see a rise, what do you mean exactly? How do you measure it?

We monitor these formations in all possible ways. People are joining in person. We do not think this is an online phenomenon, even though these groups are definitely online. The militia movement of the 1990s was not an online phenomenon either. On the other hand, the Internet has allowed them to communicate more broadly with each other and attract followers—people who were already inclined. The online activity doesn’t cause anyone to be a racist. Let’s be very clear about that. Racists go online to find each other.

When you look at these groups you are monitoring, is the anti-racism movement something that they admit is a motivating force, or is this your analysis of why they are joining now?

Both. On our website we have a story on the shootings in Minneapolis [in which five Black Lives Matter protesters were shot]. Folks came out and shot a bunch of the people who were in the street. This is not news. It didn’t happen last week. It has been building for months.

How do you view the Oregon protest specifically?

The thing we should steer away from is chalking this up to western grazing rights or something like that. This action stands in the line of Waco and other encampments. This is an assertion of political power by the far right. And we should understand it that way.

Is there a website or reading material—intellectual traditions—that these people have for inspiration or support?

They have think tanks and journals and books.

Is there anything particularly notable, or is this more marginal stuff?

Well, see, you trick yourself. By declaring that because most of the people you know haven’t heard of it, you trick yourself into thinking it is marginal.

Do you think this is a mass movement?

I am asserting to you that the militia phenomenon should be regarded as a mass movement. It’s not a million people. But it has a wide level of support, much wider than a couple of dozen cranks in Oregon. 

Do you think this movement could get political support?

I run a nonprofit institute. I don’t pay attention to the political parties per se. But look, since 2009, we have had a growing Tea Party movement. The Tea Party movement has done things like take over the anti-immigrant movement. It has added its support to the gun stuff. Tea Partiers have been showing up at gun rallies and burned their permits, like they were draft cards in 1967. They have demonstrated their opinion that they should have guns regardless of any laws. And some Tea Partiers are joining militias.

But do you think their ultimate power is limited without political support? You seem to think they can seriously affect society without political support.

That’s exactly what I am saying.

OK, but what form would that take?

Armed standoffs. Gun rallies. I can tell you that they are organizing and planning to do things.

Some commentators have noted that the rise of Trump has coincided with white nationalist fervor. Do you think his entry into the race, which was also in June, had something to do with what you are seeing?

There are white nationalists who support Trump generally. There are white nationalists who support him on immigration-related issues but oppose him on his friendships with Jews. White nationalists are generally anti-Semitic, and the fact that Trump is not an anti-Semite limits his support among white nationalists. David Duke “famously” said he supported Trump. But he didn’t say he supported Trump! Go to David Duke’s website.

It’s my home page.

Duke said he supported Trump’s immigration policy. What has brought about a growth in the white nationalist movement is that they have figured out a new approach, in the age of Obama. Obama disoriented them because so many white people voted for Obama. And the Tea Party initially supplanted them in a certain way. The Tea Party is not all white nationalists. But the rise of anti-racist activities has given the racists a new focus. Look at the battle over Confederate flags. After the shooting in Charleston, there were at least 140 pro-Confederate flag rallies. There are still people that gather in groups and drive around Southern metropolitan areas in convoys with flags. And you will see more of it. There are still battles over memorials.

So you seem to be saying it’s less Trump than things going on in the culture.

And the flag! It got lowered in South Carolina after decades of struggle, and a Republican governor came in there are lowered it.

A non-white Republican governor.

She got her Legislature to lower it. That was a significant blow. And then the corporations started acting.

This doesn’t augur well in one sense, because the culture is changing and there is sure to be more anti-racism activism. 

I hope so.

So do I, but it seems like you are saying the backlash will be intense.

Yes, but it doesn’t mean we should stop being anti-racist. It means we have to increase anti-racism! We should learn how to talk to white people who live in communities where racists have hegemony.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the standoff in Oregon.