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How What Happened 25 Years Ago At Ruby Ridge Still Matters Today


Heavily armed militia members and white nationalists listing the crimes of the federal government on camera. That's what happened in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend. And it's also what happened 25 years ago at Ruby Ridge.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: A standoff between a man who is wanted by the FBI and a large number of federal agents. It's entered its sixth day. The man has been holed up in a cabin in a remote section of Idaho.


August 21st, 1992, was the first day of what turned into an 11-day standoff between the federal government and the Weaver family. Randy Weaver was wanted on weapons charges. He and his wife were white separatists who flirted with joining the Aryan Nations. Weaver's wife and son and a federal agent would be dead by the end of the standoff. We wanted to take a look at what happened 25 years ago and to talk about how it still matters today. In a minute, we'll hear from people who use Ruby Ridge as a rallying cry.

But first, writer and journalist Jess Walter wrote what's considered the definitive account of what happened at Ruby Ridge, and he's with us now. Welcome.

JESS WALTER: Thank you.

MCEVERS: So I think if you ask people what they remember about this story, they would say, you know, right-wing militia types holed up in their compound, refusing orders from the federal government. Eventually there's a standoff. People get killed. But that's not really the whole story, right? I mean, what are some of the misconceptions about this story?

WALTER: Yeah. Basically, you know, the Weavers were people who had run away from society and were living on an Idaho mountaintop, went to some meetings that the Aryan Nations and got pulled into a larger investigation of white supremacist groups like The Order, the terrorist group that had ravaged the United States in the '80s. And because of that, Randy Weaver sawed the barrels off some shotguns and sold them to an undercover ATF informant. And that started this chain of events that really went about as badly as you can - as you can imagine on both sides.

MCEVERS: How does each side tell the story? Like, it - for the right wing, how do they tell it? How do the feds tell it?

WALTER: Basically, to hear some people on the right tell it, Randy Weaver was a gentleman farmer and the government swooped in and tricked him into sawing the barrels off shotguns, and then gave him the wrong court date and threatened to throw him off his land, and then provoked a gunfight with him and shot his son and his dog, and then the next day murdered his wife.

And to hear the federal government tell it, Randy Weaver was a white separatist who went to Aryan Nations meetings and was hanging out with the worst of the worst, and because of that became the target of federal investigation. And then wouldn't show up for court, defied every attempt to follow the law, armed his kids with weapons and wore swastikas and marched on his land and defied the government. And again, you can make the case that both of those sides have some points.

MCEVERS: What are the dangers even today to having these two very different versions of what happened at Ruby Ridge?

WALTER: I think the big danger really is in not understanding exactly what happened. The radical right wing, which changes its name, you know, almost like a rebranding - they go from white separatist to white supremacist to white nationalist.


WALTER: They continue to use this as a rallying cry because this is their very worst nightmare. This is the thing that they warn can happen to Americans. And on the other side, law enforcement is always in danger of prosecuting people because of their beliefs rather than their actions.

MCEVERS: Yeah. Have the feds learned their lesson from Ruby Ridge? I mean, going forward when we - we're seeing - you know, obviously we're seeing takeovers of federal buildings, more protests and demonstrations. Are they better at their jobs?

WALTER: You only have to look at the way they handled radical right-wing groups after this and the patience with which federal authorities now treat these groups. I had one FBI agent describe it as Weaver fever, the thing they're trying to avoid, this sense that a small thing like a minor weapons violation can blow up into the deaths of three people. And so I definitely think that they have learned to not inflame these situations when possible. As we've seen, though, the - these ideas don't go away. They come back and they're recycled.

And we haven't really dealt with them. This is a stew of all of the things that, you know, make it difficult for us to have conversations at Thanksgiving or to read Facebook posts. You've got race. You have religion. You have guns. You have the myths of the West. You have this blend of these things that divide Americans in ways that we have not figured out how to resolve. They go back to our founding, to slavery, to the very things that drive us apart right now.

MCEVERS: Jess Walter is the author of "Ruby Ridge: The Truth And Tragedy Of The Randy Weaver Family." Thank you so much for your time today.

WALTER: Thank you.

MCEVERS: As we just heard, Ruby Ridge is still a rallying cry for people on the militant far right, people like Cliven Bundy. Bundy was at the center of his own standoff against federal authorities in 2014. There's a trial going on in Las Vegas related to that armed standoff. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports on how Bundy supporters at the trial think about Ruby Ridge today.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Ruby Ridge may have happened a quarter century ago, but for Shawna Cox, the standoff is still relevant today.

SHAWNA COX: Is that what we do in America? If we don't stand up and get the information, then it allows more of that kind of problem to happen. And we've allowed it more and more until they've become so strong that they can attack anyone.

SIEGLER: When Cox says they, she's talking about what she sees as an overreaching federal government. Twenty-five years after Ruby Ridge, Cox is a reliable presence outside the federal courthouse in Las Vegas, leading a collection of self-described patriots, conspiracy theorists, militia and far-right sympathizers waving American flags and clutching pocket-sized Constitutions. They protest many of the same things as people did at Ruby Ridge, only with a new cast of characters - Cliven Bundy and his followers. Shawna Cox sees a parallel to the Weavers.

COX: They - we have a force that comes in against a family that was - that's innocent.

SIEGLER: In fact, things are a little more murky. Unlike Randy Weaver, Cliven Bundy openly defied the federal government for more than two decades, refusing to pay a million dollars in public lands grazing fees. But both cases are hugely complex. And the men's deep mistrust of the federal government was and is still an inspiration for people like Roger Roots. Roots traveled here from Montana, where he attended militia protests in the Northwest going back to the Ruby Ridge standoff.

ROGER ROOTS: Any resistance to federal power is considered, you know, as just almost domestic terrorism, very dangerous. And of course I think there's a large sector of the American population that doesn't see it that way. We view firearms as absolutely healthy and a tool for protecting individual freedom.

SIEGLER: Randy Weaver was eventually acquitted. There are similar charges, including firearms, at the center of the case against Cliven Bundy and his followers. And it's clear people like Roots are counting on a sympathetic jury again, especially given the mood of the country in many rural areas right now.

ROOTS: I think the public is very inclined toward freedom fighters, you know? And that's what these guys are, both here and in the Randy Weaver case.

SIEGLER: One big difference between Ruby Ridge and today - social media, which anti-government activists like Shawna Cox use prolifically.

COX: We didn't even realize how much the media controlled the American people because you have a newspaper that comes out, and they can say whatever they want to and lead the people whichever direction. And they were.

SIEGLER: Back in the '90s, far-right militias sent out newsletters and talked on chat rooms, but they didn't have a megaphone to reach the masses like they do now. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Las Vegas.

(SOUNDBITE OF KINOBE'S "CHASING CLOUDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.