If protesters take over a site that nobody goes to, does it matter? What if they’re black?

As you may have heard by now, there is some ruckus going on in a remote part of Oregon. The Malheur Wildlife Refuge has been seized by a group of anti-government protesters. The Refuge has been closed to visitors, and nearby schools are closed also, in the interest of safety. This article describes what’s going on quite well, and I’ll let Dickenson fill you in if you need it. Also, once again, I’m thoroughly impressed by the reporting coming out of Rolling Stone Magazine. Tangent alert: Matt Taibbi’s coverage of the fiscal collapse was really exceptional, and anybody who read his reporting on the issue already knew pretty much everything that happened in the Big Short — which was really entertaining nevertheless. Tangent over.

The armed takeover of the Refuge has sparked some debate about the way that we and our news outlets treat protesters of different stripes. I think this is worth looking at, and I also think it’s worth giving the benefit of the doubt, at least sometimes.

Let me start by saying that in some respects, I side with the Oregon protesters. The issue that sparked this protest was the appeal of the sentence, and the resultant increase in prison sentence, for two ranchers convicted of arson. The details of the case are interesting, and I don’t question their guilt, but I’m generally opposed to mandatory minimum sentences, and I would be pretty angry too if I served a sentence, went home, then was told that the sentence wasn’t long enough so I had to go back. That’s a pretty bad nightmare scenario to me. That said, I think the general view of the ranchers that the government is controlling their land is a bunch of garbage being spewed by some serious hypocrites, and, as a taxpayer, I still think Cliven Bundy (one of the ringleaders of these protests) should pay the more than $1 million in fines he owes us. If Al Capone,  Heidi Fleiss, James Traficant, and others have had to serve time in prison for tax evasion, Cliven Bundy should have to also.  Some may remember  the stand-off in the spring of 2014, when Bundy successfully rebuffed federal authorities who tried to collect what he owes. This clearly helped embolden actions like those we’re seeing this week. Regardless, I think that the current group of protesters has some legitimate concerns, and I applaud their activism, and support their right to protest. I think they should be arrested, like most other activists, but some of the issues seem worthy of protest.
A lot of attention has been given to the different treatment of protesting groups by law enforcement. In December 2014, for instance, a group of about 3,000 held a protest at the Mall of America in Minneapolis. They were unarmed and there was no violence, but they were met by heavily armed law enforcement, and 25 of them were arrested for trespassing. Contrast this with the protests in Oregon, where the protesters are all armed, and have said they would use lethal force if needed. But where are the masses of law enforcement in military equipment? Where are the calls for the National Guard? Nowhere to be found. The difference isn’t lost on me, but I also see other differences: the protests in Oregon are really in the middle of nowhere. They are not in anywhere that is densely populated or that has commercial value (like a shopping mall). This is apparently not a place that people visit, at least not many people and not often, so it seems that we might not even know this was happening if they hadn’t called attention to themselves. So what’s the reasonable way to handle them? Maybe leave them alone and wait it out. They aren’t in the position to hurt anybody. It doesn’t seem that they’ve disrupted anybody’s work, or anybody’s ability to go about their daily business. It’s not like they’ve shut down a busy shopping mall, closed down an airport, restricted access to a busy street. They’re certainly breaking the law by occupying the buildings at the Wildlife Refuge, but my sense is that these buildings aren’t anywhere that anybody would really go anyway, so we don’t lose much by letting them sit there for a while.

So I’m left wondering, is the difference in the way they’re being treated really because they’re white? In the end, I honestly don’t know. Wouldn’t it be great if we could find another spot of Bureau of Land Management land with a few rarely visited buildings that we could send in a bunch of well-armed black lives matter protesters? Then we would know for sure.

One thing we can say, is that the media certainly used language that is more kind when referring to the protests in Oregon than they did when referring to black lives matter protests. This was pretty well covered by Media Matters, so I’ll leave it to them. But even there I’m left with the same question…is it really because of the black-white difference, or is it because the black lives matter protests had more people, and were in more populated areas? I don’t know for sure, although I suspect that race did, indeed, play a role. It would be nice, however, if it didn’t. That would make me much happier.




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