By Laura Clawson / Daily Kos
Over the weekend, a group of armed militia members led by the son of deadbeat rancher Cliven Bundy took over a federal building in Oregon at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The occupiers had gathered in support of Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, ranchers who are supposed to begin five-year federal prison terms on Monday on arson charges.
Alan Pyke explains the background:
The Hammonds set a fire in 2001 that ultimately burned 139 acres of [Bureau of Land Management] land. The ranchers say they began it on their own land with agency approval, but prosecutors say they were in fact seeking to cover up illegal deer hunting on the BLM acreage near their property. A second, much smaller fire in 2006 burned another acre of BLM land during a “burn ban” imposed to allow agency firefighters to combat a blaze caused by lightning.
The Hammonds served time for the fires in 2013. A district judge sentenced Dwight to three months and Steve to 366 days of prison time. But the federal anti-terrorism law that prosecutors used to punish the fires includes mandatory minimum sentences of 5 years for fires that damage public property but cause no injury or death. After a series of appeals, the Hammonds were re-sentenced in October of 2015 to the full five years required by that 1990s statute.
Hundreds of supporters have gathered to rally behind the Hammonds, but notably, the Hammonds themselves say they’ll report to prison as ordered. Ammon Bundy, meanwhile, is using the situation to grandstand a little more, having escaped serious repercussions from his family’s earlier standoff with federal officials. Bundy and his followers would say this is about freedom; according to the Audobon Society:
The occupation of Malheur by armed, out of state militia groups puts one of America’s most important wildlife refuges at risk. It violates the most basic principles of the Public Trust Doctrine and holds hostage public lands and public resources to serve the very narrow political agenda of the occupiers. The occupiers have used the flimsiest of pretexts to justify their actions—the conviction of two local ranchers in a case involving arson and poaching on public lands. Notably, neither the local community or the individuals convicted have requested or endorsed the occupation or the assistance of militia groups.
There’s significant debate over whether this should be labeled terrorism, with the media and public officials bending over backward to portray the armed building occupation as peaceful and definitely not terrorism. Which gets to the meaning of that word, because certainly the Bundy group can be written into the long American history of protest—but in that case, we have to think about who is written out of that history, not allowed to claim that heritage. The answer, it may not shock you to hear, has a lot to with race.
Tara Culp-Ressler points out that:
It’s a sharp departure from the way that other protests are characterized for the public. For instance, the racial justice activists affiliated with the Black Lives Matter are often labeled as “threat actors” and accused of inciting violence against police officers, even though the movement is largely nonviolent. In some cases, police have used excessive force against Black Lives Matter protesters, deploying riot gear and tear gas to counter the apparent threat posed by the unarmed activists taking to the streets.
But even when white people are suspected of committing violent crimes, there’s evidence they aren’t subject to the same scrutiny or perceived as the same level of threat. Indeed, armed white people are more likely to be taken alive into police custody rather than shot and killed by cops. And although armed white men are arguably the biggest threat to Americans’ safety — right-wing terrorists have killed more people than “homegrown jihadists” since September 11 — the mainstream media typically isn’t comfortable labeling them as domestic terrorists.
White men are allowed to make claims to liberty from and authority over the government that other groups aren’t allowed to make, in the eyes of the media and officials. The “right” answer, insofar as there is one, may be that other groups should be allowed more of the latitude that white men are allowed rather than that white men should, for instance, be shot by police or labeled terrorists more freely. But the many journalists currently being defensive about how “WE’RE NOT CALLING IT TERRORISM BECAUSE IT ISN’T” really need to think about why this isn’t but a similar action by another group would be.