Wednesday, February 15, 2017

American Experience: “Ruby Ridge” (Ark Media, WGBH, PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I put on KPBS for a couple of interesting documentaries about young men with guns: an American Experience program on Randy Weaver and an Independent Lens presentation called “Tower,” of which more later. The program on Randy Weaver was a sort of prequel to the American Experience episode the week before on the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, since the shootout at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in which Weaver’s wife Vicki and son Samuel were killed by federal agents in 1992 was one of the three incidents, along with the death of white supremacist Robert Mathews in a similar shootout with the feds at a similarly isolated house on Whidbey Island in Washington State in 1984 and the destruction of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas in 1993, that Timothy McVeigh cited as inspirations for his attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 (the second anniversary of Waco). The weird thing is that, despite my loathing for just about everything he stood for, from Book of Revelation-inspired apocalypse to white supremacy, Randy Weaver emerges from this show as a hero, a former Green Beret who was radicalized in a Rightward direction by the collapse of family farms in Iowa, where he’d settled after his tour of duty in Viet Nam and which he experienced more or less personally: he was a salesperson for the John Deere company and noted how strongly their business fell off because debt-burdened farmers owed too much on their land, were getting foreclosed on and therefore the market for John Deere products largely dried up. He moved his wife Vicki and their small kids to an isolated plot of land in Idaho so they could be left alone and lead what they considered to be a Biblically based lifestyle, with no electricity or telephones, since Vicki had become an avid student of the Book of Revelation and was convinced that Armageddon was imminent. (It’s interesting to note the parallel with David Koresh’s theology, which was also based on a reading of Revelation that regarded its predicted cataclysms as imminent.)

Whatever the Weavers’ madnesses were, they weren’t particularly involved with white supremacism until they started hanging out at the camp of Richard Butler’s Aryan Nations about 50 miles away from their land mainly because Butler and his tribe were virtually their only neighbors, and as white survivalists they were welcomed with open arms by the Aryan Nations and their very odd religious offshoot, the “Church of Jesus Christ Christian.” One of the main denominations of the so-called “Christian Identity” movement, the Church of Jesus Christ Christian held that the Aryan (white) race were the true chosen people of the Bible — whites, they preached, were the children of Seth, the only son of Adam and Eve, while Jews were descended from a liaison between Eve and Satan that produced Cain, and Blacks and other people of color were another subhuman species altogether. Weaver ran into trouble with the federal government when an undercover agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms infiltrated Butler’s compound and got Weaver to agree to saw off the barrels of some shotguns for him. Apparently they were hoping to implicate Weaver in a federal crime in order to “turn” him and get him to inform on Butler and the Aryan Nations; instead Weaver failed to appear in court, whereupon the Federal Marshal’s Service got his case and treated him as just another fugitive who needed to be apprehended. The situation escalated and the FBI eventually got involved, leading to a months-long standoff outside Weaver’s cabin in which up to 400 Federal agents surrounded the place to fight the dastardly terrorist plots about to be implemented by … a man, his wife and four kids. Once the FBI got called in they were given military-style rules of engagement that regarded anyone with a gun as fair game — the FBI agents were told not only that they could but should use deadly force against anyone who was armed, and as a matter of course all the Weavers were armed. (If you’re living in the middle of the wilderness and you’ve cut yourself off from electricity and most modern conveniences, a supply of guns and ammunition is an absolute necessity because if you can’t shoot game, you’re likely to starve.)

The unlikely heroes in this story are Weaver himself and Col. James “Bo” Gritz, Right-wing activist and independent Presidential candidate, who offered himself as a negotiator hoping that Weaver would have enough trust in him that Gritz could persuade him to come out peacefully. Along the way a federal marshal was killed, as were Weaver’s son Samuel and his wife Vicki — and to add insult to injury, for a week after they shot Vicki the federal agents, having no way of communicating with the Weavers and therefore no idea that Vicki was dead, kept calling out to her because they thought she would be the reasonable one, while Randy heard them calling out to a wife who was dead on their kitchen floor and thought the agents were deliberately taunting him. As much as I loathe what Weaver stood for (and still does; he was actually acquitted of murder in 1995 and his Wikipedia page mentions a few appearances he’s made at radical-Right events since, including a visit to the Waco site in 2000 that was filmed for a documentary and a press conference with tax protesters Edward and Elaine Brown in New Hampshire on June 18, 2007), the way Barak Goodman presented the story he was entirely sympathetic and the feds were the villains, first entrapping him into a crime, then surrounding his little cabin with 400 people in an hysterical display of overkill, and finally shooting his wife and son. I’m sure at least part of my sympathy for Weaver comes from the fact that the way they dealt with him is the way they routinely deal with Left-wing dissenters as well, including their genocidal campaign against the Black Panther Party from 1968 to 1975 (when enough Panthers had been killed that their infrastructure was devastated and they were thus no longer considered a threat).