This article is dedicated to the many victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, and to the reportorial genius of James Ridgeway.
Twenty years ago, on April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh, an Army veteran of the first Iraq War, drove a rental truck packed with explosive fertilizer from a small park in central Kansas to Oklahoma City. At about 9:00 a.m., he parked it on the street outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He lit the bomb and walked away to his car, parked safely nearby. The bomb went off minutes later, killing 168 people, including 19 children in the daycare center. A total of 500 were injured. The bombing in Oklahoma City was the worst incident of its kind on United States soil until September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. And in the immediate aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, one response was a search for “Middle Eastern terrorists” thought to be the bombers.
Today, one-third of the population of the United States is 25 years old and younger, according the Census Bureau. This story needs to be re-told now, both to educate all of us and to remember it and the lessons it should teach us.
Neither McVeigh nor any other perpetrator left a manifesto explaining this murderous attack. The “reason” behind the bomb was obvious, however. April 19 was a day much discussed in militia and white nationalist circles at that time. On April 19, 1993, an FBI raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas had resulted in a fire which took the lives of 76 Davidians, including 21 children. The events at Waco had been precipitated by an earlier search for illegal weapons. That Waco disaster had followed a 1992 attack on Randy Weaver and his family in the northern panhandle of Idaho. In that badly botched case, federal officers had killed a young boy and the child’s mother in two different shootings. April 19 then came to symbolize both Waco and Weaver.
Timothy McVeigh was a member of the NRA and a small Klan group, and he carried around multiple copies of William Pierce’s novel, The Turner Diaries, an anti-Semitic, white supremacist novel with a race war that brings Nazified whites to state power. McVeigh traveled the gun show and militia circuit, trading and selling as commercial activity easily mixed with ideology. And he was one part of a broad-based movement of gun nuts, militiamen, common law court activists and white nationalists that then surged angrily across the country.
That movement of white supremacists in the mid-1990s was met first by a constellation of civic human rights task forces, anti-racist organizers and others already engaged in fighting the far right. The Coalition for Human Dignity (CHD), in Portland and Seattle, did the best investigative research on the movement as a whole. And their information and analysis was used by communities across the Northwest hungry to know what was happening. (IREHR vice president Devin Burghart was first active in CHD.)
The Montana Human Rights Task Force first tackled the Militia of Montana, long before any law enforcement officer. The Militia of Montana was led by hardcore white supremacists that had frequented the Aryan Nations camp in Idaho, and they became in the words of one astute reporter, the “mother of all militias.” And the Montana task force provided the core information and analysis that was used by all.
The Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment then had dozens of local task forces across the Northwest, each of them trying to counter the racist and anti-Semitic organizing in its midst. The Center for Democratic Renewal and Political Research Associates added their voices to those opposed to a growing militia and common law court movement. The Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights worked with all these groups at that time.
Only after the bombing, did a massive federal crackdown on this upsurge put dozens in prison. An Aryan Republican Army, which had been robbing banks in the Midwest both before and after the bombing, was finally captured and put out of business. The so-called Freemen encampment on a farm in Montana was shut down after a long siege. In Ohio a militiaman was shot and killed after an encounter with the police. Four people were arrested in a bomb plot in Oklahoma. A gang called the Aryan People’s Republic was captured. Also arrested was another bank robbing and bombing group calling itself the “Phineas Priesthood.”
The law enforcement squeeze on armed groups did not touch other white-ist groups, however. During this period the American Renaissance organization held its first conference and the Council of Conservative Citizens, derived from the old white citizens’ councils groups, grew rapidly. Today, those two groups and others still spread their white nationalist poison.
One lesson from this is history is obvious: the first line of defense against increased white nationalist activity is cutting edge research and analysis by community and civic organizations. Long before the Klan can be taken to court or law enforcement can crack down on bank robbing Aryans, these organizations have alerted us to the danger and helped build a response. These anti-racists stand up to all kinds of bigotry first and defend human rights. And it is in that tradition that the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights continues to do its work.
Leonard Zeskind was directly involved in the reporting of the Oklahoma City Bombing. After the bombing he was hired as a consultant to ABC News, and he also appeared in a network television news magazine piece on the topic. During this period, Zeskind also wrote a feature article for Rolling Stone magazine on the NRA, gun lobby and militia movement. It appeared in the November 2, 1995 issue. In 1996, he worked with Village Voice reporter James Ridgeway and photographer Jenny Warburg, traveling the bombers’ route through Kansas and Oklahoma. Together, he and Ridgeway produced articles for the Voice on the topic. He also included a discussion of the white nationalist movement and the militias—both before during and after the bombing—in his book, Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream.