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Shawn Vestal: Tremors of Ruby Ridge in today’s national divide

Bill Morlin, Jess Walter and Shawn Vestal discuss Ruby Ridge for a podcast, Aug. 15, 2017, in Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Bill Morlin, Jess Walter and Shawn Vestal discuss Ruby Ridge for a podcast, Aug. 15, 2017, in Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

It takes just two words to call it all up: Ruby Ridge.

The gunfight and 11-day standoff. The deaths of a teenage boy, a suspect’s wife, a federal agent. The chasms of miscommunications and misunderstandings and accident and error. The tense village of protesters and grandstanders and journalists waiting for daily news along a dirt road in the North Idaho mountains. The stalemated and irresolvable dead ends of disagreement over extremism and law, racism and resistance, civil rights and police overreach.

A quarter-century later, the same fires burn. The same fault lines tremble beneath the same schisms.

It takes just one word to see that: Charlottesville.

“Ruby Ridge really has come to signify so many different things for law enforcement, for the radical right, for civil rights groups,” said Jess Walter, former reporter for The Spokesman-Review and best-selling author. “It ended up being a black eye for law enforcement and it ended up being an inspiration for a lot of radical right-wing groups.”

Walter’s “Ruby Ridge” is the definitive book on the standoff and its aftermath. He and former S-R investigative reporter Bill Morlin participated in a podcast this week, reflecting on the events that unfolded around the remote cabin of Randy Weaver and his family 25 years ago.

One outgrowth of Ruby Ridge was that federal mistakes and misconduct gave a jolt of life to a whole universe of racist and extremist movements, which saw a confirmation of their worst fears about the government.

Fringe views crept toward the center. That’s truer than ever now, with a resurgent white nationalist movement, the violence and Nazi salutes and racist chants at Charlottesville and the president’s equivocal response to it.

“As we saw in Charlottesville, this is not a belief system that’s gone away,” Walter said. “It comes under different names, there are people who are more radical and committed to violence, but the basic underpinnings of it keep bubbling up in American society.”

Morlin has been tracking white supremacists and anti-government extremists for decades. He now works for the Southern Poverty Law Center, reporting on hate groups across the country.

“I see a continual changing of the labels,” Morlin said. “Racism has not gone away. It won’t go away, unfortunately. When Richard Butler was here, we referred to him as a white supremacist. When Randy Weaver showed up, he didn’t call himself a white supremacist, he said, ‘I’m a white separatist.’ …

“Now we move into the era of Donald Trump and we have people calling themselves white nationalists. They somehow think that by twisting their words, they can somehow make an excuse for their inherently racist views.”

A family story

For all the social scope Ruby Ridge has taken on, it had at its heart a family tragedy. Randy Weaver and his wife, Vicki, moved with their children to North Idaho in the 1980s, seeking to escape what they saw as a fallen world and live out their Christian Identity beliefs, which included white separatism and the conviction that the world was ending.

They formed associations with the Aryan Nations and other extremists in the region and came into the sights of law enforcement agencies. It was a fraught time for violent extremism in the region, with the Aryan Nations having established a base outside Hayden, and an offshoot group, The Order, carrying out bombings, a murder and other crimes.

“This region was really rich with extremism and hate in the early ’80s,” Morlin said. “Fiery crosses and Klan gatherings were going on in North Idaho, and people were saying: What’s going on?”

An undercover agent met Weaver at an Aryan Nations gathering, and eventually asked him to procure two sawed-off shotguns. This led to a federal firearms charge against Weaver, for which he refused to appear in court – the crux of the conflict that would deepen and lead eventually to a gun battle outside the family cabin on Aug. 21, 1992, in which a federal agent and 14-year-old Samuel Weaver died.

A day later, an FBI sniper trying to shoot Randy Weaver struck his wife, Vicki Weaver, in the head as she stood in the cabin’s doorway holding her infant daughter. Randy Weaver and a family friend, Kevin Harris, were also injured, and for more than a week after Vicki’s death, the family ignored the entreaties of the surrounding federal agents to surrender, trapped inside their cabin and convinced this was the long-foreseen apocalypse at the hand of government agents.

Randy Weaver was eventually acquitted of virtually all charges, and his family won a $3.1 million settlement from the government. Federal agencies revised their rules of engagement for standoffs. Human-rights supporters in North Idaho drew upon the event to strengthen and expand efforts to combat racism in the region – while extremist and racist groups took it as a confirmation of their worst suspicions about the government.

Hundreds of radical-right groups organized in the aftermath of the standoff. Ruby Ridge and Waco fed the beliefs of Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the federal courthouse in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people.

“It became a flashpoint between the radical right and the federal government,” Morlin said.

Investigations, changes

Internal reviews and a congressional investigation followed Ruby Ridge, and federal agencies changed the way they responded to such standoffs in an effort to avoid what Walter said had come to be known as “Weaver fever”: the escalating sense of urgency that can drive agents to disregard civil rights.

The feds came to adopt an approach focused on de-escalating conflict, and being patient rather than aggressively seeking to bring standoffs to a quick conclusion. In 1996, a group of “Christian patriots” called the Freemen engaged in a standoff with federal agents in Jordan, Montana. Group members were arrested after a siege of 81 days.

“So, as quickly as that, four years after Ruby Ridge, some of the lessons of Ruby Ridge were being put into new practices (by the FBI),” Morlin said.

An internal Department of Justice review and Senate committee report both identified a range of mistakes by federal agencies involved. Of note, both reports concluded the FBI rules of engagement given to snipers surrounding the cabin – rules that agents would later describe in the report as permission to “shoot on sight” – were a breach of the constitutional requirement that surrender announcements must be given before the use of deadly force.

The 2016 standoff between federal agents and anti-government protesters at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, for example, has been described by many as a case of a more patient, de-escalating kind of federal response.

It was also punctuated with the officers’ shooting death of a protester, Leroy Finicum, that has become a rallying point for supporters of the movement. And an FBI agent has been charged with lying to investigators when he said he had not fired his weapon at Finicum during a roadside confrontation; the agent had fired two shots, but neither hit Finicum.

A key difference from Malheur: The FBI agent was indicted rather quickly on the charges of lying to investigators, which even an attorney for the Finicum family praised. In the Ruby Ridge case, much of the truth about government errors and misconduct emerged slowly, if at all.

Into the mainstream

You didn’t have to be an extremist to see the serious problems with the government’s handling of the Weaver case. And for many people in the mainstream – and particularly conservatives who had general anti-government views of a Reaganesque stripe – Ruby Ridge served as a touchstone for wider concerns.

The relationship between extremism and the mainstream has taken on renewed relevance now. White nationalists have been a vocal and important part of the president’s base, and the media organizations that support him. In responding to Charlottesville, he has repeatedly declined to denounce white supremacists without equating them with civil-rights protesters.

People all over the traditional political spectrum, including plenty of conservative voices, have decried the president’s statements.

David Duke thanked him.

Morlin wrote a preview of the “Unite the Right” Charlottesville rally for SPLC’s news blog, Hatewatch, accurately predicting the potential for violence at an Alt-Right protest built around the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. He said whatever label you put on the white nationalists involved – many of whom marched and chanted “Jews will not replace us!” – they believe in a country that was created for white people and white people only.

Supremacist, separatist, nationalist.

“Let’s just call it what it is,” Morlin said.

Walter said Ruby Ridge set in motion a series of factors that have only intensified.

“The flashpoints, like Charlottesville, are going to keep coming up,” he said. “I don’t know how you deal with the deep racial divide in this country. I don’t know how you deal with the way our institutions have been undermined, almost intentionally, by one party. I don’t know how you deal with those things. It feels to me sometimes as if we live in a world in which Ruby Ridge was the first step … and it’s kind of terrifying.”