Why Are Armed Whites Getting Treated Better than Unarmed Black & Brown Americans?
Over the weekend, news broke of an unusual event taking place in Oregon, a state most commonly associated with nature, liberalism, and the television series Portlandia. As such, the revelation that armed ranchers had quite literally taken a federal building hostage on Saturday, January 2, struck an odd chord for most Americans. However, as the politically engaged know, Oregon is one of the most politically divided states in the country, with nearly equal numbers of liberal- and conservative-minded voters. On its western front, the state is predominantly Democratic in its voting, whereas eastern Oregon houses a concentrated number of Republicans, and it is in the eastern region where this story continues to develop. Many of the story’s plotlines resemble a similar story that took place in Nevada in 2014, when cattle rancher Cliven Bundy engaged in a drawn-out armed confrontation with law enforcement because of a longstanding dispute about his grazing cattle on federally owned land. Essentially, the Bundy standoff was a fight between big and small government, with Bundy representing a popular consensus that the federal government has encroached far too closely on the rights of individuals. This time around, Oregon is home to its own Bundy standoff and it’s eliciting a heated debate about the definition of terrorism.
In short, a group of armed citizens managed to break into the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a nature preserve managed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Their actions are reportedly a reaction to what they view is an overreaching arm of the government, one which arrested two of their fellow ranchers, Dwight and Steve Hammond (in this video, one such protester explains the reasoning behind the takeover). Their arrests transpired after a series of events involving their property and cattle grazing led to a dispute with federal agents way back in 1994, and following more than a decade of legal issues, the two were recently sentenced to five years in prison for various charges stemming from the original incident as well as arson charges brought against them in the early ’00s, with their sentence scheduled to begin today (January 4). It is within the framework of this history that the armed takeover of the Refuge has taken place; those involved have said they are ready to “kill and be killed” for what they argue is a fight for justice against the federal government. And, while the Hammonds have in the past distanced themselves from Cliven Bundy, it is hard to ignore the presence of Bundy’s son, Ammon, in the armed takeover.
According to NPR, there is some contextual history that lends insight to why this particular event has transpired so loudly and aggressively. In the audio clip below, reporter Ted Robbins ties the contemporary happenings back to the Civil War era, most specifically the following: “The 1862 Homestead Act granted 160 acres of land to the people willing to settle it. Ranchers in some regions needed far more land than that to be profitable. They eventually began to pay grazing fees for the right to lease federal land — if they agreed to federal oversight.” The NPR feature also includes a detailed history of the Hammonds’ arrest history, the embittered battle between the government and ranchers, as well as some backstory into what the dynamics of the various groups in Oregon stand for. All of the information paints an informative picture of what the current definition of terrorism in America seems to be, and the stark double standard that appears in similar situations across lines of color.
Some of the loudest arguments that set social media on fire over the weekend involve the overwhelming hypocrisy which exists in how law officials in the United States respond to non-White offenders and alleged offenders. For example, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was playing in a public park with a toy gun in Cleveland, housed in the open-carry state of Ohio where registered gun owners are free to navigate their daily lives as openly armed citizens. As most know, Rice was shot and killed by police officers who apparently thought the gun was real, and that a 12-year-old boy was menacing enough to deserve being shot and killed within seconds of the police car pulling up. This is not to say anything about the killings of unarmed people of color, from Michael Brown to Eric Garner and the thousands of others whose deaths have come at the hands of law enforcement. And yet, a group of heavily armed White “protesters” who publicly make statements of violence and hijack a federally-controlled building have yet to face off with police. In fact, as of Sunday, law enforcement announced it had not yet even begun to attempt any extraction of the self-styled militia.
Similarly, tensions were engulfed in arguments about how law enforcement handles the arrests of armed assailants. Notorious mass murderers like James Holmes (Aurora, Colorado movie theater; 12 killed and 70 injured), Dylann Roof (Charleston church shooting; nine killed), and others were all arrested without incident, managing to retain their lives despite proving to be terrorists. And yet, both media and government officials seem hesitant to describe such horrific mass killings as acts of terrorism. Unless, of course, the acts are perpetrated by non-White, non-Christian, or foreign citizens. The Boston Marathon bombings and the more recent shooting in San Bernardino, California, where both labeled as acts of terrorism with great ease, leading many to speculate that, regardless of a higher body count or higher degree of premeditated murder, the acts carried out by White Americans are far too often mislabeled as an “isolated incident,” a symptom of “mental illness,” or various other titles that, for many, directly refute the proof that, statistically speaking, the deadliest members of American society are White men with weapons. In fact, that argument has become so prolific that a new hashtag exists: #YallQaeda, an effort to draw similarities between those so easily labeled as being terrorists with those who are not.
For many, the real story here is not about whether the Hammonds or the Bundys are victims of a zealous government, but rather how the treatment of the armed protesters in Oregon reflects implicit bias by the media and politicians. There are those who argue that because no violence has taken place at the Refuge in Oregon, that the actions are not those of terrorism, Islamic or domestic. However, it is hard not to ponder the following: if, rather than a bunch of armed ranchers, the armed protesters were Muslim Americans or representatives of the Black Lives Matter movement, would the seemingly laissez-faire response from the government be more aggressive? What do you think would happen if a group of African-American men and women, fed up with the federal and state governments’ continued failure to indict those officers who killed their sons and daughters, took over a federal building? If Muslim Americans, fed up with the continued racism and xenophobia they face in this country, took over a federal building and were armed, how would the media frame the events? What is your definition of terrorism, and how have the media and politicians failed to address the glaring miscarriages of justice in how they describe the events taking place in Oregon?