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Five Takeaways from the Oregon Militia Standoff

Police and media response sparked cutting analysis. Start with these assumption-busting voices.

By Sarah Berman 5 Jan 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Sarah Berman is managing editor of The Tyee.

What the hell is going on in Oregon?

Answers to this question seem particularly hard to swallow for activists and political commentators following global terrorism and black Americans' fight against police brutality. That's because police response to (and resulting media coverage of) the armed occupation of a wildlife refuge has so noticeably departed from responses to Muslim terror or black protest. The difference, say observers, is the Oregon militiamen are white.

What began as a long-simmering fight over cattle grazing rights escalated Saturday when a militia took up arms against the U.S. government in protest of the arson convictions of two ranchers. The confrontation is still unfolding Tuesday, even as the ranchers whose prison sentences sparked the standoff turned themselves in Monday afternoon.

The armed occupation set off a storm of criticism on the ideology and racial assumptions animating government, militia and media actions. The Tyee offers a cross-section of those must-read perspectives.

1. If the Oregon militiamen were Muslim or black, they'd probably be dead.

Over at The Guardian, author Wajahat Ali makes one of the sharpest comparisons between extremism in Syria and Oregon, spotlighting how racial profiling has operated in the past. On the portrayal of militia leader Ammon Bundy, he writes:

"If Bundy and his followers were like the 38 per cent of Americans who aren't white, people across America wouldn't be watching this surreal, dangerous episode unfold and wondering what they could do to be labeled a 'militia' when occupying a federal area with guns instead of 'terrorists,' 'thugs,' 'extremists' or 'gangs.'

"If one black man holding a plastic toy gun even walked in the direction of a federal building, let alone with 150 other black men all holding loaded rifles, he'd be shot dead by law enforcement, no questions asked. If 15 Muslims occupied a 7-Eleven with BB guns and masala Slurpees, federal law enforcement would probably roll up with six MRAPs and immediately take everyone out Waco-style (but without a congressional investigation).

"...Since 9/11, more people in America have been killed by rightwing terror attacks than violent jihadists (48 deaths to 45 deaths). America witnessed an 'unprecedented rise' in radical rightwing, anti-government groups after the election of President Barack Hussein Obama. Yet, the Department of Homeland Security buried an analyst's early 2009 warning about the growing threat of rightwing terror groups to focus solely on Muslim extremists, caving to conservative pundits who complained the DHS was demonizing rightwing speech by targeting these groups."

Wajahat Ali is lead author of the investigative report Fear Inc: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America.

2. Even so, they probably shouldn't be hunted as terrorists.

Margaret Corvid at Jacobin, meanwhile, takes aim at those calling for violent police intervention in Oregon, expertly neutralizing progressive hysteria.

"The response from many progressives has been loud: clamouring for the world to call the Oregon gunmen terrorists. And while that term is a fraught one, it is essential for us to raise our voices, contrasting how the state and media treat these gunmen with how they treat the black women, children, and men gunned down by police, or the protesters that fight against police violence. Similarly, rebuking media who call the Oregon gunmen 'protesters' offers an important corrective to widespread Islamophobia in the press...

"Though we hate and fear the worldview the Oregon gunmen profess, subjecting them to the same brutality the state metes out against black people would simply empower the militia movement. Ammon might call this occupation peaceful, but there are people hunkered in that refuge who are ready to die for their beliefs. Giving them their martyrs would only strengthen their cause.

"The racist and radical right, while spared the crackdown experienced by the marginalized, the Left, and the poor have also been brutally put down in recent times. In Ruby Ridge, ID, a white supremacist waged a standoff that ended in the death of his wife and young son; in Waco, TX a tense standoff between federal agents and the Branch Davidian doomsday cult led to conflagration and massacre in which seventy-six people died.

"These events fuel the virulent, aggrieved entitlement of the Right; both names are legends on the lips of the militiamen and their supporters. Strategy and human mercy demand that we not add Malheur to this grisly list."

Margaret Corvid is an American activist and writer based in England.

3. By the way, the disputed land was once aboriginal reserve.

Steve Russell of Indian Country Today Media Network adds another important layer to the discussion, noting the land in question was first reserved for the Northern Paiute peoples before right-wing ranchers decided it belonged to them. From a Jan. 3 report:

"Some of the same armed 'militia' involved in the Cliven Bundy affair in Nevada have occupied federal land in Oregon formerly reserved for the Northern Paiute. Ironically, the 'legal' basis for starting a fight with the federal government is that sovereignty 'really' belongs to Oregon rather than the Paiutes, who have seen their federal trust land shrink from over one and a half million acres to a tiny remnant of 760 acres in Burns, Oregon, where this current armed standoff began...

"President U.S. Grant established the Malheur Indian Reservation for the Northern Paiute in 1872. It is no coincidence that the historical reservation shares a name with the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, site of the current armed standoff. Unofficially, Paiutes had scattered all over the Western States that comprised their aboriginal lands. The Burns Paiute Reservation is the remains of the Malheur Reservation and the Malheur Wildlife Refuge is an alternative use for the federal land."

Steve Russell is a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.

4. Who deserves free stuff? Militia's assumptions based on race.

In a similar vein, Salon's Amanda Marcotte digs into the distorted, racist ideology she says motivated the militia to demand ownership of land that wasn't theirs. Have a look if you want to feel angry.

"The Bundys and their supporters want the federal government to hand over federally held lands, free of charge, to the people in the area, so they can enrich themselves off those lands without paying the taxpayers back for what they use. Some of the folks want to graze animals for free, some want access to the minerals under the ground to sell without having to buy them first, and others want to cut down trees they didn't buy and sell them at a profit. The common theme here is that the taxpayers should give them a bunch of stuff we own, because 'freedom' and 'constitution' and 'the people' and whatever nonsense words they are flinging around to say they want free stuff.

"What's frustrating is that it's not entirely unreasonable for citizens of the U.S. government to want access to federal lands, within reason. It does belong, as Bundy says, to 'the people.' But the fact is they are already getting this. Ranchers in Nevada only pay the government $1.35 per cow per month to use federal lands for grazing, compared to the average $15-$18 that private landowners get. This difference amounts to a huge federal giveaway to ranchers. But getting $13 per cow per month in free cash isn't enough for these greedy monsters. No, they want the federal government to cover the entire cost of their cattle grazing. Because 'freedom' and 'the constitution.'

"But while the Bundy family wants the taxpayers to fatten their cows up for free, so they can turn around and sell those cows at a tidy profit, they sure resent anyone else getting any benefits from the federal government. After his 2014 standoff, where Cliven Bundy demanded that the government feed his cows for free instead of for $1.35 a head, Bundy held forth on his racial views to the New York Times.

"'I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,' he ranted. 'They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy?'

It doesn't get blunter than that: If white people are getting government-subsidized land in order to feed their cattle and make money off it, that's just 'freedom' and 'liberty.' If black people are getting government-subsidized land to live in so that they can take care of their families, that's somehow illegitimate."

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon.

5. Media make race-based assumptions of guilt, too.

The Washington Post's Janell Ross was one of the first to question why government and media weren't calling the gunmen terrorists. Her thoughtful analysis calls on the New York Times, Associated Press and CNN to make smarter, more deliberate language choices.

"The descriptions of events in Oregon appear to reflect the usual shape of our collective assumptions about the relationship between race and guilt -- or religion and violent extremism -- in the United States.

"White Americans, their activities and ideas seem always to stem from a font of principled and committed individuals. As such, group suspicion and presumed guilt are readily perceived and described as unjust, unreasonable and unethical.

"You will note that while the group gathered in Oregon is almost assuredly all or nearly all white, that has scarcely been mentioned in any story. You will note that nothing even close to similar can be said about coverage of events in Missouri, Maryland, Illinois or any other place where questions about policing have given way to protests or actual riots.

"You will note the extended debate about whether admitted Charleston shooter Dylann Roof's apparently racially motivated shooting spree was an act of terrorism or even violent racism and the comparatively rapid way that more than one news organization began hinting at and then using terms such as Islamic extremism to describe the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.

"The sometimes-coded but increasingly overt ways that some Americans are presumed guilty and violence-prone while others are assumed to be principled and peaceable unless and until provoked -- even when actually armed -- is remarkable."

Janell Ross is a reporter for The Fix who writes about race, gender, immigration and inequality.  [Tyee]

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