The Bundy Militia: A Tale of White Privilege

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Only through white privilege can a group of militants cross state lines and take over federal property without facing any physical resistance or being dubbed domestic terrorists. It’s a matter of white entitlement, furthermore, that such militants can possibly expect to avoid accountability for their violation of federal law.

This is exactly the case with Ammon Bundy and the 100 other armed anti-government activists who seized control of the federally-owned Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon last month.

Illustration by Owen Thomas
Illustration by Owen Thomas

As the contentious standoff is slowing to a roll, it’s clear that the reaction to Oregon’s militia has been very different than that of other protests. The passive response to the militants by authorities and media exposes the racist double standard toward public demonstrations in this country — the government will only use force if absolutely necessary, as long as you’re white.

Despite the militia’s extensive arsenal of weapons and stated willingness for violent confrontation, the takeover wasn’t met with any immediate pushback by local or federal authorities. In fact, very little occurred until Jan. 26, when Bundy and 11 others were arrested and one man — spokesman Robert ‘LaVoy’ Finicum — was shot and killed by police after reaching for a loaded gun at a traffic stop. Four militants remain at the compound even though Bundy has urged them to “go home,” but they refuse to leave until they have been granted full immunity from any criminal action.

In the words of the St. Louis Post Dispatch editorial board, “if these protesters were olive-skinned Muslims in traditional headgear instead of white Mormons and Christians in Stetsons and baseball caps, the reaction would be very different.”

When law-abiding, unarmed demonstrators are being tear-gassed, beaten and arrested for their actions on a consistent basis, while the Oregon militants went largely unchallenged, there must be something more systemic at work.

 

The right of public demonstration and the right to bear arms are both constitutionally protected, but that protection doesn’t seem to be universal. For many communities, especially those of color, the ability to protest anywhere and with weapons is simply not a reality. The recent history of activism in the U.S. shows that for people of color, the right to safely brandish the first and second amendment in a public sphere has been a right largely exclusive to white citizens.

Bundy’s ability to hold the refuge without any authorized show of force ultimately amasses to a display of white privilege and the clout it provides. In breaking the law, the Oregon militia surrendered any claim they had in serving the Constitution. Moreover, these so-called “patriots” are simply delusional if they believe Bundy and his affiliates can walk away from this stunt without any legal consequences.

Hundreds of demonstrators faced off at the courthouse in Burns, Oregon on Monday afternoon to voice their frustrations over the ongoing issue. Some were locals demanding an end to the standoff, while others were there to support the remaining four occupying ranchers. In a shameless appropriation of a Black Lives Matter mantra, the demonstrators began chanting “hands up, don’t shoot!” to protest Finicum’s death by a police officer.

It’s ironic that the two groups, Finicum’s supporters and Black Lives Matter, could share the argument that the police are too militarized, when response to their demonstrations has been so stark in contrast. “Hands up, don’t shoot” was popularized after the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, both unarmed, at the hands of the police. To use it for Finicum, who spoke of readily dying in an altercation with the government, is unjustifiable and inappropriate.

A video released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation depicted Finicum in the Jan. 26 confrontation, reaching twice for his gun before being shot. This comes a little more than a month following the non-indictment of the officer who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, a black child killed for playing with a toy gun.

While Finicum’s supporters have the audacity to demand punitive justice for his death, the officers involved in the shootings of Rice, Garner and Brown were not indicted for true acts of injustice. The difference in perception of justice for these two group sends a very clear message: in the United States, it’s more dangerous to be a black person suspected of having a weapon than a white person actually brandishing a weapon.

A broader truth is that the Oregon militia’s actions differ very little from the technical definition of domestic terrorism. While the media may hesitate to refer to them as such, the privilege afforded by their whiteness is the same privilege that makes them a viable potential threat to national security.  America is knee-deep in a xenophobic obsession with Islamic terror “while white militants, like the militiamen in Oregon, are seldom identified as terrorists when carrying forward a terrorist conspiracy,” Khaled A Beydoun from Al Jazeera said in an opinion piece.

White terrorism must be recognized for what it is, as the exceptionalist attitude toward people like Bundy has cultivated a powerful and dangerous white subculture that believe it’s above the law. In 2009, Homeland Security “issued a report about the danger of domestic terrorism from far-right, often-racist, anti-government groups. Conservative commentators and lawmakers howled.” The inability to believe that white activism can be terrorism is what is perpetuating their staying power.

In the meantime, Bundy has rescinded his request for release from jail; according to court documents, he wishes to stay incarcerated so his attorneys can gather evidence that his actions were in the interest of “peaceful protest and civil disobedience”.

It’s critical in this case to not confuse the true definition of peaceful civil disobedience with the actions of the Oregon militia. It’s even more critical to acknowledge the influence of race in level of response toward civil disobedience. Had the Bundy Clan been any other race than white, the continuing occupation and its ridiculous demands would not have been tolerated.