I recently posted this story on Facebook — Media Coverage of Oregon Militia Standoff Raises Eyebrows — and Ire (Common Dreams, 3 Jan 2016). The subtitle reads: “Despite the extreme nature of the demonstration, both media and law enforcement response appears muted, especially in comparison to other recent protests.”
The article listed a few tweets offering commentary on the situation such as “Did I miss the call for the national guard in Oregon? I recall them in Ferguson and Baltimore. #OregonUnderAttack” (rolandsmartin).
A friend responded that no law had been broken so there was no reason to make a big deal out of this situation (to greatly oversimplify but hopefully not misconstrue his sentiment).
I responded that refusing to leave a federal building sounds like trespassing to me. If I tried to do that at a Post Office, I think I would find myself being escorted out against my will at closing time. Clearly these guys think the same or else they wouldn’t need guns to enforce their position. They could just stay there without threat like I stand in the Post Office buying stamps at 3pm.
But this whole approach — no law has been broken so let it go — misses two important issues, in my view.
First, it presumes that breaking a law is what is required for police to bring down the hammer. There are just too many unarmed and disarmed African Americans dying at the hands of police for this logic to stand up. The Guardian reported:
Black Americans are more than twice as likely to be unarmed when killed during encounters with police as white people, according to a Guardian investigation which found 102 of 464 people killed so far this year in incidents with law enforcement officers were not carrying weapons. (Swaine, Laughland and Lartey, “Black Americans killed by police twice as likely to be unarmed as white people,” 1 June 2015).
I believe Black Americans are often treated differently than I am, both by the police and in the court room. I believe numbers like the Guardian reported above and the incidents of specific cases that have received significant media coverage over the past year or so speak to this, some of which I’ve covered in blog posts here. This is a contested statement, yet remains my understanding of our society. Yes, I believe if African Americans were doing something like the Oregon ranchers, a SWAT team or the National Guard would be very involved.
Second, and this is related to the first. I’ve read in two articles that law enforcement has chosen to respond to militias differently after situations like the conflagration at Waco, TX. If this is true, then it shows police are quite able to change tactics. Yet one African American after another dies in the hands of police. I hear of the need to retrain police, to offer better classes, but the people keep dying. Where is the change? This is a second way that I believe police appear to me to treat African Americans differently than people who look like me. Saving white people’s lives appears to be valuable enough to law enforcement to actually bring about tactical change.
So do I still believe the views contained in the original article I posted are accurate? Yes, I do. I believe this would be handled very differently if the people with guns were either African Americans or Muslims. Can I prove it? Obviously not.
As a final side note, I find it interesting that my white friends focus on “rioting” but not the injustices that lead to demonstrations, both peaceful and otherwise. “The problem is the rioting!” But as soon as it’s white guys with a beef, they want to talk about all the history and context of the situation, asking for nuance of social analysis. “The problem is the legal decision and the government and our rights!” I’m all for learning about the context; I just hope my white friends will start doing it in other situations as well.