The Left and Policing in Burns, Oregon

6 Jan

The takeover of federal property at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon is a most unwelcome development. Personally, I think violent protest is tactically and morally problematic, but I’m less worried about a couple dozen angry white men who think America’s ripe for a conservative revolution than the ramifications of the response, particularly on the Left. I say this because America has been down this road before, with horrific and far-reaching consequences.

There’s a lot of history that’s relevant to this incident, but from what I’ve read, the story largely begins in Waco, Texas in 1993. The Branch Davidians, a fundamentalist religious group, began a standoff with federal agents after refusing to allow them to serve a search warrant. After an initial attack was fatally repulsed, the FBI launched a second assault that started a fire and killed 76 people, including many children.

Considering the massive death toll, Waco should’ve been an example of the dangers of militarized policing, but in fact the exact opposite happened. Fear, that was not totally unfounded, of far-right domestic terrorism prompted tougher terrorism laws and an increase in the adoption of military tactics and equipment by police forces (which is excellently and extensively detailed in Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop). The perpetrators of attacks like Oklahoma City were white reactionaries, and in response, the most strident supporters of tougher anti-terrorism forces, like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), were liberals. Joe Biden, for example, was a major proponent of increased police militarization. However, the effects of policies originally designed to target conservative extremists were mainly felt in low-income, minority communities in the middle of the Drug War. Because terrorism is rare and drug raids are not, police and other federal agencies with an armed component mostly utilized the anti-terrorism tactics and equipment on drug raids and in everyday policing. It wouldn’t be a stretch to tie what happened in Ferguson to laws and government programs pushed through by Democrats in the 1990’s.

The current episode in Oregon is largely a result of anti-terrorism politics in the mid-90’s, though relations between ranchers and the government in Western states has also played a role. The federal government owns vast tracts of land in rural areas of the West, but allows ranchers to graze their herds on much of this land for a small fee. The Hammonds, the father and son duo at the center of Ammon Bundy’s protest movement, are one such pair of ranchers, who fell foul of the law after setting fires on their property, which then spread to federal land, for what they claim were legitimate reasons. Now federal prosecutors disagree, but regardless, the fires did not injure anyone. However, a law passed in 1996, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, mandates five-year minimum prison terms for those that cause fires on federal land. There are two major problems here. First, lighting fires on one’s own land, for potentially legitimate reasons such as fighting invasive species, is being dealt with by an anti-terrorist law. That’s absurd. It’s quite a testament to the growth of the national security state, and also legitimates a reactionary narrative that decries federal tyranny. Second, the mandatory minimums in this case are too harsh. Mandatory minimums as a concept, of course, was championed by liberals in the 70’s and 80’s as a way to prevent racial bias in sentencing, but have instead produced mass incarceration. Armed protest may be the wrong way to demonstrate displeasure, but when Ammon Bundy says that federal government is treating the Hammonds unjustly, he’s right.

As this situation progresses, I think those on the Left need to be especially careful with how they frame recommended responses. There is no option worse than an armed crackdown (though fortunately this outcome seems unlikely). It would likely create more support for Bundy’s reactionary fringe and lead to the loss of significant life. I think few Leftists truly hope for a crackdown (though they do exist), but some comparisons between how the government is currently acting and how it would act if the occupiers were not white make me uncomfortable (for reasons Jamelle Bouie powerfully explains). There is no disputing this truth, and there is also real value in identifying the double standard. However, it is a moral and political imperative to support a better status quo rather than calling for a lowest-common-denominator approach. There is certainly a leftist argument to be made against state violence here, but more importantly, laws that allow for more state violence will ultimately unleash it primarily on those who have the least privilege and influence. Measures aimed at violently suppressing white extremism will be used more forcefully on Muslims and the extra equipment given to police forces will be unleashed against racial minorities in the Drug War. The real power to inflict harm lies not in the hands of Bundy’s few dozen men, but in government agents tasked with responding to terrorism long after the current occupation ends. Therefore, those on the Left must be more consistent in their convictions on responding to violent extremism.

A final note on how we can understand the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, as they’re calling themselves: There’s been some dissonance between how those on the Left are characterizing these men and the best methods I know for evaluating violent groups. To generalize, many on the Left see Bundy’s men as violent terrorists driven by a sense of white privilege, or even a perfect example of American white supremacy. I think that’s the wrong approach. First of all, they can hardly be classified as terrorists, a word that has the remarkable ability to stifle critical thought. They have not committed any violence against civilians, or even threatened it. They have, however, indicated a willingness to violently confront the government, and therefore they can be classified as rebels or insurgents. But more than that, the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom should be taken seriously as political actors with complicated ideologies, even if we find those ideologies abhorrent. For example, seeing them merely as a manifestation of white privilege misses how the historical relationship between Mormons and the government plays a role or the origins of the struggle in federal land management. Digging deeper into this conflict not only presents a more accurate picture of who the insurgents are, but also highlights some problematic political dynamics. Now accepting that right-wing insurgents occupying federal land have legitimate grievances might be uncomfortable, but it can only lead to better politics.

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