Is the Oregon Militia Takeover an Example of White Privilege?

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Harney County Sheriff David Ward, left, and county judge Steven Grasty address the media about the occupation by a group of armed, self-styled militiamen, at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, on January 4. Jim Urquhart/Reuters

The standoff continues on Tuesday in southeastern Oregon, where two local ranchers were convicted and sentenced for setting fire to federal lands. Their dispute is part of long-running tensions in this part of the state—and, indeed, throughout the West—between local residents who want more control over the lands surrounding them and the federal government that controls huge swaths of territory.

Over the weekend, local residents and sympathizers from throughout the West held a peaceful protest about the sentencing of the men, but shortly afterward a breakaway group headed to a refuge run by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife preserve to take control of an empty federal building there. Armed, they vowed to remain until the federal government began to, in their estimation, respect the rights of local citizens.

The takeover of a federal facility by self-styled freedom fighters is no joke—even if it’s led to some pretty funny mockery of the group’s white composition: #YallQaeda and #VanillaISIS are among the hashtags in play on Twitter. But what’s bringing the mockery is a in fact a serious affront to the power of the federal government and an act of sedition that echoes the rebellions in the early years of the republic, as well as segregationists who refused to recognize federal orders pertaining to civil rights.

[Related: The United States' Tense History with Armed Standoffs]

Let’s recall that in September 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to integrate schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, because local education officials had refused to obey a federal court order. This kind of insurrection isn’t a mere expression of civil disobedience, in which persons object to a particular law and pay the price when arrested—an American tradition that stretches from Henry David Thoreau to Martin Luther King. This is a broadside against federal authority in general, not just a particular federal law.

The left’s reaction to this kind of act has, at times, missed the mark. In the wake of recent police shootings of civilians and the determination of Donald Trump to win the presidency and ban all Muslim immigrants, many progressives are asking if there’s a double standard when it comes to the Oregon militia. If these militiamen were black, would there be a more robust federal response?

As of Tuesday, the White House is saying it’s a local matter. If they were Muslim, would there be a major federal assault on the compound instead of relative silence? And how would the media behave if it were so? Let’s parse these questions one at a time.

1. What if the Oregon militiamen were black? Activist and author Sean King writes in the New York Daily News that indeed, “the white skin of the armed men and women who’ve taken over the federal property serves as a powerful force field protecting them from the shoot-first, ask-questions-later style of law enforcement that permeates communities of color every day.”

Assuming black militants took over a U.S. Fish & Wildlife building 30 miles from the nearest town, would the federal government respond differently? You’d have to believe that President Barack Obama and a Justice Department led by Attorney General Loretta Lynch would draw a distinction between black and white perpetrators?

Does that really make sense? You could ask if the Chicago or Ferguson, Missouri, police departments would show restraint if they were somehow transported to this rural location. But it’s also apples and oranges—some local cops would respond well to this, and some wouldn’t. There’s no indication that local law enforcement in this remote corner of the state has any interest in escalating this fight.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume it is a state matter. Does anyone believe that Oregon’s progressive Democratic Governor Kate Brown, the nation’s first openly bisexual governor, would be going in there guns blazing if blacks had taken over the facility. Brown is a liberal as well as a pathbreaker and it’s hard to see her being all shoot-’em-up if the perpetrators were black. As of Tuesday, she’s yet to mobilize the national guard in response to the situation.

2. Why aren’t news outlets calling them terrorists? Fair point, the media has refrained from calling these men terrorists much to the consternation of some on the left. These men are using violence or the threat of violence to achieve a political end—despite their protestations that they’re not seeking any armed conflict. That’s the dictionary definition of terrorism.

So is the media hesitancy about calling these men terrorists racial, or anti-Muslim? There could be an alternative explanation. But when terrorism is discussed it usually refers to an attack on civilians. This compound is completely empty, having been closed for the holidays. Had these marauders shot up a school, held hostages, more in the media might be applying the terrorist label. For its part, Newsweek eschews the terrorist label in general, and not just in this particular case.

3. Wouldn’t this get more attention if the shooters were Muslim? Sure—the national fear of Islamic terrorism would surely kick in if these were, say, sympathizers with the ISIS militant group who decided to take over this cabin in the woods. Writing for Salon, Chauncey Devaga says this is “a strident example of unapologetic white privilege in action.”

But take a step back. The U.S. has been at war with Islamist extremists of one variety or another since the Iranian takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran since 1979. Consider what the country has borne in this fight: two wars, trillions of dollars, thousands killed, buildings toppled in lower Manhattan and the Pentagon attacked—not to mention attacks globally, from Bali to Paris, to Buenos Aires to Beslan, Russia.

Compared with those attackers who subvert the good name of Islam, this militia movement has been much smaller. Plus the men have been slow and deliberate, and they are not aiming for mass casualties. It’s not surprising that the country, the media and politicians are more jumpy about jihadis than militiamen in Oregon.

No one should underestimate the criminality of what’s happening in Oregon. But the prudence shown by law enforcement so far doesn’t seem to be out of deference to skin color. It’s less white privilege, more cover your ass.

Since the horrific federal handling of sieges in the early 1990s—the standoff with a white separatist family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and the conflagration of dozens of cult members in Waco,Texas—federal law enforcement has shown more patience with these kind of sieges as opposed to Waco, where they served warrants quickly, leading to a first shootout and then paused for about two months—then went in with a tank.

By contrast, a 1996 standoff with an outfit called the Montana Freemen ended without a shot. The same prudence is being applied here. Yes, local law enforcement has been too quick on the trigger too many times—you only have to witness the killing of Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald and Walter Scott to know there racial double standards in American life.

I think German Lopez was right to note for Vox that reporters took a while before they highlighted that the Oregon men are, um, armed. Comparing the response of bad local cops to the prudence of the FBI and local law enforcement in Oregon (at least so far) is a product of real frustration, but it’s not a fair analogy.

Matthew Cooper is the political editor of Newsweek.