Viewers of Netflix’s six-part mini-series “Waco” likely waded in with a healthy set of expectations about the dramatization of the 51-day standoff between the Branch Davidians and the FBI. That it might challenge us to define what we mean when we say “religious freedom.” That Michael Shannon’s talent could probably carry it even if the writing were lackluster (it often was, and he did). That things would end as badly for Koresh et al as they did in 1993.
One thing I didn’t expect, though, were the mentions of two Arkansas-based standoffs at the end of the series. In a final scene, a radio host named Ron Engelman puts the Waco standoff in context for his listeners:
The FBI and the Branch Davidians each claim the other started the fire. And we may never know the truth. So, instead, let’s talk about what we do know. Fact: Fresno, California, 1973. A standoff with law enforcement ends when tear gas turns to fire, killing those inside. Fact: Los Angeles, ’74. Standoff between the SLA and law enforcement ends when tear gas turns to fire, killing those inside. Fact: ’81, West Fork, Arkansas. A standoff, tear gas, fire, death. 1983, Smithfield, Arkansas. 1985, Philadelphia. 1987, Escondido, California. All of them… standoff, tear gas, fire, death. The FBI knows this happens, and yet they made no plan to put out a fire if one started. We are… all of us… Americans. When did we start seeing each other as the enemy?
So were the Smithfield and West Fork standoffs for real, or a matter of dramatization?
The mention of the 1983 standoff in Smithfield is, presumably, the 1983 death in Smithville of Gordon Kahl, an anti-IRS vigilante whose death is, as Encyclopedia of Arkansas puts it, “subject to much theorizing by right-wing conspiracy groups.”
As for West Fork? There was a white supremacist group in Marion County, one of whose members fatally shot a black police officer during a traffic stop in 1984. There was an FBI raid on a Stone County compound in 1995, two years after the Waco tragedy, that resulted in a jail cell suicide.
But nothing that matches Engelman’s monologue. We’ll chalk it up to dramatization, ready to stand corrected if you direct us otherwise in the comments.