Are white protestors given the benefit of the doubt?

The armed occupation of a federal wildlife center by an anti-government group in eastern Oregon has prompted furious debate over the treatment, by journalists and by law enforcement, of white versus black protestors in America. So far it has not attracted many supporters to the tiny town of Burns, to the relief of residents there.

Federal authorities have also kept their distance, which rankles many who recall the phalanxes of police and National Guardsmen who responded to protests against the deaths of black men at the hands of police in Ferguson, Mo., and in Baltimore—as well as the heavy police presence, and arrests for trespassing, at Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The federal government’s cautious response to the Oregon occupation is drawing some sarcasm and charges of double standards. “What do you think the response would be if a bunch of black people, filled with rage and armed to the teeth, took over a federal government installation and defied officials to kick them out?” wrote the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson. “I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be wait-and-see. Probably more like point-and-shoot.”

Advertisement

Still, no one would benefit from the kind of hair-trigger decision-making that has led to the deaths of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old in Cleveland holding a toy gun in a park, and so many others.

The armed group in Oregon, which calls itself Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, claims to represent a broad anti-government movement in the United States, and specifically opposition to federal ownership of huge amounts of Western land, but the handful of members at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge building (no staff, so no hostages) have not seen many reinforcements. Any sympathizers may have chosen instead to stay home and arm themselves; The Washington Post reports that 2015 “was a record-smashing year for the American firearms industry, with gun sales appearing to hit the highest level on record,” and there’s no reason to expect a reversal of that trend this winter.

Most Republican presidential candidates have distanced themselves from the group, with Ted Cruz cautioning, “we don’t have a constitutional right…to threaten force and violence on others,” but Donald Trump has so far been uncharacteristically silent. One of the many rounds of “what if” accompanying this story involves the spokesperson for the self-styled militia, Ammon Bundy, who is demanding that “the federal government to give up its unconstitutional presence” in Harney County, where the wildlife refuge is located. Mr. Bundy is a son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who had his own armed standoff with the government in 2014 over his unpaid grazing fees for the use of federally owned land. The elder Mr. Bundy initially got some supportive, or at least understanding words, from Mr. Cruz and from Rand Paul, among other Republicans. But Cliven Bundy then revealed some hard-core racism, including his belief that black Americans were better off under slavery. The mere presence of a Bundy family member may make the Oregon group politically radioactive. Would things be different with a more politically adroit leader?

Things might be very different with a martyred leader, which is one reason for the restraint of law-enforcement officials. As The New York Times reports, “Federal officials may be mindful of prior clashes with people who did not recognize government authority—like those at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992, and near Waco, Tex., in 1993—that ended in bloodshed and became rallying cries for antigovernment militants. In contrast, the government took a much more restrained approach in a 1996 standoff with the Montana Freemen, negotiating for 81 days until the group’s members surrendered.”

One wonders how a Republican president would handle the situation in Oregon. It’s a generalization, but it must be said that people who do “not recognize government authority” seem especially reluctant to recognize the authority of Democrat Barack Obama—the first African-American president ever, as well as a longtime Chicago resident who somehow got to the White House without bowing down to the superiority of rural and small-town life in America. (In the 2012 election, Mr. Obama got 23 percent in Harney County, which closed its schools for a day because of nervousness over the armed occupation, and 28 percent in next-door Malheur County.) Mr. Obama is associated with the expansion of the federal government through, among other things, the Affordable Care Act, and he further raised the ire of libertarians this week with his efforts (weak tea as they are) to regulate gun sales. A website promoting Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign reacted with a muddy photo of a sinister-looking Mr. Obama in a helmet and military garb, accompanied by the text OBAMA WANTS YOUR GUNS. In this environment, any attempt by the Obama administration to disarm the gun-toters in Oregon is not guaranteed to end quickly or painlessly.

That’s the big difference between the armed occupation in Oregon and the Black Lives Matter protest marches. There is little risk in using force to break up mostly black demonstrations, not when police officers are so rarely convicted for even the most egregious examples of unjustified force. But if the FBI ends up killing anyone in Malheur County, it’s not a jury the Obama administration would have to worry about, it’s the political fallout in an increasingly polarized and angry nation. It’s understandable if Mr. Obama wants to avoid having the last year of his presidency consumed by hearings in the Republican-controlled Congress that would make everyone forget they ever heard of Benghazi.

More snark than light

Instead of bloodshed, the wildlife center occupation has so far produced a lot of snark, some of it elitist and all of it bound to reinforce the sense of victimhood among the armed in Oregon. There are the tweets with the nicknames #YallQaeda and #VanillaISIS, often with commentary on the very different kind of reaction to Muslims carrying guns. There is ridicule of the group’s request for “supplies or snacks” to help get through the Oregon winter. More seriously, some condemned ABC News for initially describing the occupation as a “peaceful protest” despite the threat posed by loaded firearms. (One can argue that it would have done no good for ABC to use more sensational language, but are media outlets as careful not to use “riot” to describe non-violent protest marches?)

One of the Oregon occupiers told the Huffington Post, “The Black Lives Matter movement, they can go and protest, close freeways down and all that stuff, and they don’t get any backlash, not on the level that we’re getting.” (It’s not hard to find the backlash he somehow missed.)  Ammon Bundy told Jacobin magazine, “In today’s society if someone doesn’t have the same views as you they consider you racist,” but he also said of Black Lives Matter, “I do agree with them standing up for what they believe in. I just think during their protest they were unorganized and not well-planned.”

Ironically, writes the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, the immediate cause of the Oregon occupation was anger over the re-sentencing of two ranchers for arson under a “mandatory minimum” law, the kind of law blamed for the huge increase in the incarceration of nonviolent offenders in the 1990s. Federal authorities charged the pair with arson after they set a series of fires on their own property that spread to public land; after their convictions, a judge bypassed the requirements of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (yes, the ranchers were convicted under an anti-terrorism law for wilderness fires) and imposed prison sentences of one year or less, which the men served. The feds appealed the decision, and a higher court ordered the ranchers back to prison to complete five-year sentences; this is the kind of overreach by the federal government that all but the most authoritarian politicians look askance at and want to curtail.

That’s the narrow reason for the takeover of the wildlife center—though the ranchers, Dwight L. Hammond and his son Steven D. Hammond, have not encouraged or supported the militia group. So this whole incident, and its interminable debates over what to call the actions and the participants, is connected to a criminal-justice reform that people across the political spectrum now agree on.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Tim O'Leary
1 year 9 months ago
This is an unfortunate race-baiting article, trying to incite racial discord when there is no racial issue in the remote area in Oregon. The situations are totally different between a bunch of (probably crazy extremist) hunters who haven't fired a shot in a remote area and those in cities where people are shooting other human beings all the time. The blacklivesmatter group have intimidated police from enforcing laws in chronically Democratic run cities (Detroit, Chicago, DC, Baltimore, NY, Philadelphia, etc.), with the result that many more black lives died in 2015 than in recent years - mostly at the hands of other blacks. Baltimore had its deadliest year ever. "The vast majority of the city’s 344 homicides were black-on-black crimes involving gunfire" according to the Baltimore Sun. And Chicago is a prime example of this reckless disregard for black lives by the BLM crowd, which has resulted in 484 murders & 2900 people shot in 2015 http://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/2015-chicago-murders.
Kevin Clarke
1 year 9 months ago

'Race baiting' is something we would take seriously here, though I would add that in my experience the term is used so loosely as to be useless. What in the above piece, specifically do you object to as race-baiting, "trying to incite racial discord"? I urge you to reread the post and perhaps reconsider this judgment, which I'd call a wide miss.

What I read is a measured commentary on the somewhat overwrought dynamics of the social and digital media's response to this crisis. Indeed a large amount of it has centered on comparisons between #blacklivesmatter and these protestors, if that is a fair moniker for them. RLS did not make up this controversy and to attempt to unravel it in a common sense manner as he does above does not constitute 'race baiting.'

Henry George
1 year 9 months ago
In this instance, no one is breaking into stores, no one is shooting at the police. Better to just let it fizzle out, as it will surely do in a week or two. Meanwhile will someone please change the Federal Anti-Terrorism Laws. Five years in jail for setting a backfire and accidentally burning some sagebrush. Wouldn't fines have been a better solution if an any Federal Property was accidentally destroyed ?
Henry George
1 year 9 months ago
In this instance, no one is breaking into stores, no one is shooting at the police. Better to just let it fizzle out, as it will surely do in a week or two. Meanwhile will someone please change the Federal Anti-Terrorism Laws. Five years in jail for setting a backfire and accidentally burning some sagebrush. Wouldn't fines have been a better solution if an any Federal Property was accidentally destroyed ?
Chris NUNEZ
1 year 9 months ago
Maybe you'd better dig deeper to find out what the fines were for this situation. I think you're missing some information.
MARY COAN
1 year 9 months ago
Whatever the color of protestors' skin, there is a big difference between armed protestors in a remote wilderness area 30 miles from the nearest town and armed protestors in a populated town or urban area. If armed protestors took over a federal building in Burns,or a federal building in any other city, there would be an entirely different response. At this point it seems reasonable that law enforcement authorities are not engaging the wilderness protestors. It minimizes publicity, takes the steam out of their engines, and hopefully they will have cooled down by the spring thaw. It seems like a wise decision at this time.
Robert Klahn
1 year 9 months ago
It seems like an encouragement for the next bunch of separatists who may just be many times larger, and more violent.
Gail Sockwell-Thompson
1 year 9 months ago
The number of excuses and unfettered rationalizations to treat people of color differently never ceases to amaze me. Help me understand why it is okay to gun down a kid in a park with a toy gun (allbeit real looking) and not blast those terrorist out of the federal buildings. Yes, I called them terrorists because that is what they are. It is truly appalling that some of the commenters are more offended that you asked the question than they are of the blatant racism exercised in this case. Benjamin Franklin once said 'Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.' Stop the double standard. Envision everyone - regardless of color - as if they were your own kin.
Chris NUNEZ
1 year 9 months ago
Beg to differ. There is a reason that 'civil rights' laws have been created at the federal level. And this ought to be taken into consideration when discussing this 'occupation.' This is federal property being occupied by these sons of Bundy and it is the legal responsibility to 'handle it' and President Obama's administration has proven to choose the 'cool hand luke' approach rather than fan the flames (which is what this Bundy crowd wants, and for that matter so do GOP players). The situations with Ferguson and other places is that the local law enforcement agencies are responsible for how local situations are handled. We've seen that some of these local agencies have no problem busting heads, using military equipment and methods. Notice also that the DOJ has stepped in afterwards to investigate. It's a matter of jurisdiction and the Obama administration's call on this is to keep from making martyrs of these fools, and to keep the GOP from using this. The stakes are high, and Dana Millbank's assessment of the political and economic motives should be enlightening.
Robert Klahn
1 year 9 months ago
They set fires on federal property to cover up illegal hunting on that property. Making their claim is a lie and aids their cause. America should not be party so such a lie. Government overreach? Did you say that when it was black protesters? This is called enforcing the law. These men are separatists, and they need to be taken down. If Clive Bundy had been taken down it's quite possible this would not have happened. It just keeps growing every time you let them off.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Imtiaz Cajee, nephew of Ahmed Timol, poses with his book about the activist on Aug. 24 in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, South Africa. (AP Photo, File)
A judge has overturned a finding of suicide and ruled that Ahmed Timol was murdered by South Africa’s Security Police 45 years ago.
Anthony EganOctober 23, 2017
Activists with Planned Parenthood demonstrate in support of a pregnant 17-year-old being held in a Texas facility for unaccompanied immigrant children to obtain an abortion, outside of the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, Friday, Oct. 20, 2017.
Texas bishops: "No one -- the government, private individuals or organizations -- should be forced to be complicit in abortion."
Catholic News ServiceOctober 23, 2017
It is time for the laity to speak out and act like true disciples of Christ in spreading the joy of the Gospel. 
Thomas J. ReeseOctober 23, 2017
Pope Francis speaks from the Vatican as he addresses Canadian youths in a video message that was included in a Salt and Light Television program on Oct. 22 (CNS photo/courtesy Holy See Press Office).
“The world, the church, are in need of courageous young people, who are not cowed in the face of difficulties," the pope said.
Michael J. O’LoughlinOctober 23, 2017