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.”
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.