Academic journal article Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems

The Patriarch and the Sovereign: The Malheur Occupations and the Hyper-Masculine Drive for Control

Academic journal article Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems

The Patriarch and the Sovereign: The Malheur Occupations and the Hyper-Masculine Drive for Control

Article excerpt


For forty days in 2016, a group of anti-government protesters occupied the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Southeastern Oregon.1 Led by the Bundy family, the group was protesting the resentencing of the Hammonds, a father and son pair convicted of arson on federal land.2 More generally, however, the occupation was rooted in tensions between federal land management policies and the rural inhabitants who believed the land should be handed over to local control.3 The occupation only lasted for a month, but it reignited a decades-long conversation about the presence of the federal government in the West.4

As a result of westward expansion, the United States federal government at one point owned almost all the land in the western half of the country.5 Though it has since transferred the majority of it to states or private actors, the federal government still owns 47% of all land in the West.6 This number reaches as high as 80% in some states.7 In response, there was a movement in the 1970's and 80's called the Sagebrush Rebellion that pushed for the transfer of that land to state control.8 Most of that crusade was fought in political arenas, with legislators in both congress and at the state level pushing bills that would increase local control over land management.9 The Malheur Occupation was in spirit a revival of the original Sagebrush Rebellion, but it took a much more violent turn than the political battles of the past.

Indeed, this was not even the occupier's first clash with the federal government.10 Beginning in March 2014, Cliven Bundy - father of Ammon and Ryan Bundy, who led the Malheur occupation - led an armed standoff against law enforcement after officials from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) seized Bundy's cattle when he refused to pay grazing fees.11 While the Bundys and several others have since faced multiple federal charges for the incident, including conspiracy to impede and injure a federal officer, at the time the BLM officials retreated and returned the cattle.12 Many observers worried that this retreat would embolden the Bundys.13 Indeed, the Bundys used the arrest of the Hammonds in Oregon as an opportunity to advance their cause of federal land divestiture even further.14 Their position attracted a reasonably wide following. While some were ranchers, others were blue-collar workers.15 Many were loners, and several had criminal records.16 Only a handful of them were from Oregon, but most others were from neighboring states.17 The group was united primarily by one strong belief: the federal government could not legitimately own land in the West, and by claiming ownership over this land it was threatening the liberty of all citizens.18

In many ways, the Malheur occupiers are an extreme take on a popular sentiment: deep mistrust of the federal government. These occupiers are part of a long line of armed standoffs led against federal officials, but they are also part of a growing number of anti-government militia groups that are responding in their own way to America's role in an increasingly diverse and global society.19 The Oregon standoff provides an opportunity to explore how violent federalism and those willing to die for local control are part of a hyper-masculine desire to compete against the sovereign.

In this Note, I argue that the militia members' patriarchal beliefs about masculinity influenced and informed their understanding of federalism. Using the occupier's extensive social media postings, their interviews with the media during the occupation, and the legal documents that followed their arrest, I analyze their articulation of federalism through a gendered lens with the understanding that doing so may help us understand the growing nationalist and extremist views in conservative movements today.

In Part II, I provide an overview of the events that led to the occupation, the main leaders of the movement, the occupation itself, and the legal arguments made by the occupiers. …

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