Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Equal Oppression Is Not the Goal - Rethinking the #OregonStandoff

By now, you have likely heard the news that a group of armed men are occupying a federal building in Oregon's wilderness. The group appears to be comprised mostly, or entirely, of white conservative-types and they call themselves the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom (CCF). However, many commentators have taken to describing them as terrorists, and some even appear to be calling for the use of force to root them out. In certain respects, this reaction is understandable--there does appear to be a clear double standard when it comes to policing, responding to protests, and the always arbitrary use of the terrorism label. But when we point out that double standard, we must always be careful to also note how it should be corrected. No, Ferguson, Missouri officials shouldn't have brought out the 3rd Infantry Division in response to the mostly black protesters after Michael Brown's death. But is that wrong corrected in any way by a violent and certainly deadly SWAT raid against white protesters in Oregon? Obviously not. Equality under the law is important, but it is not sufficient. Now and always, we must remember that the goal is not to be equally oppressed but equally free. In this piece, we would like to offer a corrective to the violent rhetoric against this group.

Examples of the Backlash
We'll begin with some examples of the commentary I'm referring to:

Of course, one fair response to the items above might be that they're just tweets and 140 characters doesn't leave a lot of room for nuance. But when you read many of the full-length articles from liberal and mainstream publications, you will likely find them to be similarly one-sided and dismissive. For instance, this piece at The Guardian was circulating widely and is an excellent example.

The article explicitly compares the militia to ISIS, and goes on to suggest that right-wing militia groups such as this one are a greater threat than radical jihadists. The evidence introduced in support of this claim is that right-wing terrorists have killed 48 people since 9/11 while jihadists have killed just 45. Then, this is how they finish the article:
Extremism comes in different colors, ethnicities, beards and head coverings – which is why racial profiling cannot protect us from all extremist violence. Maybe it’s time for politicians and law enforcement to acknowledge inconvenient truths and confront the extremists with “American” names and grievances as they would any other. The security of our homeland – or at least our national wildlife refuges – might depend on it.
Now, the point about racial profiling is surely legitimate; whatever its effectiveness, it's clearly wrong, illegal, and it shouldn't be done. But what self-respecting critic of the War on Terror still uses the word homeland in a serious way? The real takeaway from the statistics on terrorism presented above is that neither jihadists nor right-wing militias present a meaningful threat to the American people. Virtually any other cause of death imaginable is more likely to kill Americans than terrorism. One choice example: police in America killed an average of 94 people per month in 2015,* more than both types of terrorists killed over the past 14 years.

In one way, the "Call it domestic terrorism" demand can be seen as simply the left's rejoinder to the incredibly annoying "Call it Radical Islam" line among conservatives.** But in this particular case, it's actually far more dangerous. Other than making the Prime Minister of Israel happy, there would be no practical implications if Obama decided to indeed "call it Radical Islam" tomorrow. Conversely, if he declared that the militia members are terrorists, we should fully anticipate that he would use overwhelming lethal force to assassinate them, as he does to countless alleged and actual militants overseas. Exactly what that would look like is unclear, but it would not be good.

Terrorism or Protests?
For the sake of argument, let's assume that the terrorism label could be used in a consistent fashion. Would it even fit the facts of the case?

To answer this, let's first note all the questions that are totally irrelevant to this determination:
  • Do we think the goal of the militia members is legitimate?
  • Are some or most of the militia members avowed racists?
  • Do we think the Federal government should have ownership of land in the states (this is one of the group's major issues)?
  • Do we personally like guns?
  • Do we think there should be more gun control?
  • Do we think ranchers are destroying the environment?
All of these questions might seem relevant on the surface, but they are not. It does not matter whether we agree with the militia or think they are good people that we'd want to befriend. None of those things should have an impact on the laws and rights that apply. (And lest you should think I'm just biased on the matter, I'll confess that I'm actually vegan and have been for 7 years. Which is to say, if I were to think in terms of groups, ranchers are among the groups I would sympathize with the least.)

Terrorism is defined by Webster's as "the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal". Certainly, this group does have a political goal, but can we say they have been violent?

Many accounts of this story characterize the situation as an armed takeover. While this is not technically inaccurate--they were armed and they took over a building--it also misleading because it suggests resistance or possibly even hostages. In fact, the building the militia took over was unoccupied at the time. They did not have to use violence or threats to take over the building for the simple reason that there was no one to threaten. Further, the building was not near any population center, and thus was not designed to threaten or endanger anyone. Since then (they took the building on Saturday), there has still been no violence. Some members of the group have indicated they are willing to fight and die for their cause, which is certainly alarming, but the most informative quote from the group appears to be this one from Ammon Bundy:

"We have no intentions of using force upon anyone, (but) if force is used against us, we would defend ourselves."

Those are certainly not the words of a pacifist. But it's also hard to see that as an aggressive threat of violence akin to ISIS or Al-Qaeda. This group occupied a building that didn't belong to them, and now they are threatening to use self-defense to protect their new position. Obviously, from a legal standpoint, they are in the wrong. If I break into your house, and then you barge into your home and attack me, I can't legitimately claim self-defense. But at least at this point, it thankfully hasn't escalated to violence. Right now, they are only guilty of trespassing--and they did not threaten or endanger anyone in that process. To me, that crime should not be deemed sufficient to justify the label of terrorism, and it certainly should not warrant an overwhelming show of force to crack down against them. We should be hoping for a peaceful resolution.

Although the comparison is clearly imperfect, it's important to see the similarities between this episode and other direct action campaigns of the past. The sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the recent Black Lives Matter protests at the Mall of America -- all of these involved civil disobedience and trespassing. All were technically illegal, all sought to draw attention to a cause that they felt was not getting enough coverage, and many cases involved passive resistance when law enforcement attempted to evict them.

The difference with the militia's actions is of course that they are overtly armed. But I have not seen anyone suggest that the firearms they own are illegal or that their decision to openly carry the weapons is illegal. Thus, the fact that they're armed shouldn't radically change our understanding of the actions they've committed so far. If they proceed to violently retaliate against attempts at dispersal, that clearly changes the situation. But that has not happened. So right now, it appears that we would have to say they are just a new kind of protest. Their behavior is unquestionably illegal, and unlikely to be prove successful, but at this point, it does not seem like this meets the definition of terrorism.

Even if we did decide this met the threshold for terrorism, would this be sufficient to have us support a violent crackdown? Haven't we have been attempting the overwhelming force model against extremists in the greater Middle East for 14 years? That approach has demonstrably failed as there are clearly more extremists today than there were when the War on Terror began. And the recent attacks in Paris and California suggest that the threat level is likely higher today as well as a result of blowback. In fact, our historical experience with right-wing militias tells a similar story. As Jamelle Bouie at Slate points out, the government's previous violent responses at Waco and Ruby Ridge against other conservative groups served as the inspiration for the Oklahoma City Bombing attack. So even if we wanted to set aside the moral implications of supporting a likely massacre, the evidence suggests this is not a prudent approach.

What Are They Protesting Anyway?
Although it is irrelevant to whether we should support violence or not, it is worth touching on the subject of the protest. The main issue that sparked this particular action was the re-sentencing of the Hammonds, a father-and-son rancher team. The Hammonds deliberately set fires in 2001 and 2006 on their own property to hell maintain the land and protect it against wildfires. Unfortunately, the fires happened to spread onto federally owned land, damaging the property. No one was harmed in either episode, but there was damage and the Hammonds failed to follow the customary procedures. For these actions, the Hammonds were ultimately convicted on terrorism charges that carried a mandatory minimum of 5 years in prison. However, the judge in their case thought 5 years was too harsh and gave each a lesser sentence than the minimum. Both Hammonds served their time and were released from prison. In the meantime, however, the government appealed the sentencing and eventually convinced an appellate court that both men needed to serve the full mandatory minimum of 5 years. Thus, the Hammonds were required to return to prison this Monday, and turned themselves in without incident. The Hammonds publicly said that the militia does not represent them and did not condone their actions. But it's not hard to understand why many people would see this outcome as unjust.

The militia sees the Hammonds' case as part of a more general issue that the federal government shouldn't own land in the states in the first place.  And more specifically, they want to see the federal government to give ownership of the land to either the ranchers themselves or at least the states. We won't discuss the merits of this position here, but this story offers a good summary of some of the history, if you're interested to learn more.

Stepping back to the Hammond case that sparked this situation, we actually see that the militia's outrage is not unwarranted. The Hammonds were victimized by the arbitrary application of terrorism charges and mandatory minimum sentencing. In other words, the Hammonds should represent a poster-child of sorts for liberals that are typically concerned about excesses of prosecutorial discretion and the problems of mandatory minimums. But because they are involuntarily being represented by a right-wing, gun-toting group that many despise, their plight is largely being ignored.

Summing Up
Ultimately, the situation in Oregon is tragic and unnecessary. What's happened to the Hammonds is a classic example of what's wrong with the criminal justice system. But the militant protest that has sprung out of it has virtually no chance to improve their situation. There's no question that occupying a federal building is illegal, but the group has not harmed anyone yet and has expressed no desire to initiate violence. The group has violated the law, but their actions do not rise to the level of terrorism, and they certainly do not warrant the use of violent or lethal force by the government. If the group happened to be comprised of minorities, it's entirely possible that the government would have already intervened and killed them by now. But it would be wrong in that case, and it is wrong in this case too. Equal oppression is not the goal; equal justice is.

*Technically, it rounds to 95, but I rounded down to be conservative.

**To be fair, the domestic terrorism argument tends to make much more sense than the radical Islam line. But given that the term is already being used too broadly and arbitrarily, we should be reluctant to advocate that more people be swept up under the banner of terrorism. This is especially true since terrorism can be used to justify virtually any manner of violence by the government. Further, the arbitrariness of the terrorism label is ironically on display in the case that sparked this situation, as we will discuss later in this piece.

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