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Weaver and the Ruby Ridge standoff contributed to the evolution of the radical right

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A man at the center of an 11-day standoff with federal authorities in the '90s, Randy Weaver, has died. His family announced his death on social media this week. He's known for what unfolded in the remote area of Idaho called Ruby Ridge. Ever since then, that name and Weaver's have been rallying cries on the radical right. Here to walk us through the legacy of this is NPR's domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef. Odette, Randy Weaver had taken his family to live in an isolated, mountainous place to really just retreat from society. So quickly walk us through the events as they unfolded.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Well, back in 1992, a - federal authorities were looking at a neo-Nazi organization in Idaho called Aryan Nations. The Weavers had gone to some meetings of that group, and federal authorities tried to recruit Randy Weaver as an undercover agent. He said no, and so they alleged that he had illegally sold firearms, and they charged him with this. He said that he was set up. So then Weaver didn't show up for a scheduled court hearing. It turns out he'd been given the wrong date. And so law enforcement ended up circling his house that August, and things quickly got out of hand. The Weavers were heavily armed, and to this day it's disputed a - you know, who fired first? But a federal marshal and Weaver's 14-year-old son were shot dead. And then the next day, Weaver's wife was killed. The standoff ended with Weaver surrendering, but he was acquitted of everything except for failing to appear in court for that original firearms charge. And the Weaver family ended up getting over $3 million in compensation from the government.

MARTINEZ: Why was this such an important moment in the evolution of the radical right?

YOUSEF: Well, here's how Heidi Beirich explains it. She's with the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.

HEIDI BEIRICH: It powered the anti-government movement, the kinds of militias that we think of - paramilitary organizations who believe that the government is involved in conspiracies. They're going to come take your guns. They're going to round you up, your family up. It sparked that movement. And actually, in the 1990s, they hit the highest number of these kinds of organizations in 1996, with a count of 858 of them. We didn't hit a high of those kinds of numbers again until during the Obama administration.

YOUSEF: So A, this really was a key moment in the growth of the anti-government militia movement.

MARTINEZ: And Odette, as I recall, didn't the Waco siege happen not long after Ruby Ridge?

YOUSEF: That's right - you know, another standoff with federal authorities, this time in Texas, where 76 Branch Davidians ultimately died in a fire. Both of these really fed a paranoia on the far right about a tyrannical government, and they both provided inspiration to Timothy McVeigh, for example, who bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City just a couple of years later. Today, we see that kind of anti-government conspiratorial thinking has really extended into a much more mainstream part of the right. You know, we see it with QAnon. We saw it at the Capitol on January 6. And in many ways, that thinking really took off with Ruby Ridge.

MARTINEZ: And what has the legacy of Ruby Ridge done for federal authorities?

YOUSEF: Well, they've become much more sensitive to how quickly things can escalate with these heavily armed groups. Heidi Beirich said we don't really see them circle compounds anymore. You know, instead, they try to catch people off of those properties, and they're just much more patient in their approach to these groups. But, you know, we're seeing that distrust of government has only grown despite that. And Beirich says this distrust in some ways is more dangerous today because it threatens to erode our democratic institutions.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Odette Yousef. Odette, thanks a lot.

YOUSEF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.