As students headed or trudged back (depending on your enthusiasm over winter break ending) to the UCR campus for classes, one of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge’s abandoned federal buildings in Harney County, Oregon was occupied by self-proclaimed “patriots” — the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom. Led by Nevada residents Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the small, all white group’s occupation has stirred the media a little with their cause, making major headlines during the weekend, but not much afterward.
However, these constitution-toting patriots have caused a greater ripple of dissent from others opposed to the group’s treatment by the media and their violent tactics that are associated with extremists or terrorists. Though the occupation has not resulted in an injury, focusing on the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom’s occupation brings to light greater issues plaguing perspectives on race and violence.
To begin with, how does this Oregon occupation demonstrate the media’s racial bias? Well, think back to the Black Lives Matter movement and how the media reported on the protestors. How, even a year after his death, media outlets still point out that there is evidence to dispute that Michael Brown was not a “helpless victim with his hands up in surrender,” since “he fought with Officer (Darren) Wilson and tried to grab his gun.” How Black Lives Matter protestors at Dartmouth College were said to have “stormed a library” in order to “berate students studying there for their supposed racial privilege” instead of walking around and chanting their movement’s slogan. How there is a need for news articles to confirm that the Black Lives Matter movement’s “marches and demonstration in dozens of cities were so peaceful and event-free,” which “by and large didn’t make the (mainstream) news,” while protests involving some rioting did.
In comparison, the Citizens’ occupation has been covered by the media with pieces seeking to educate the public on the event from who’s involved to its roots. NPR and USA Today published pieces with clear sub-headlines like “Is this group violent?” or “The background” as well as utilizing neutral language that didn’t mischaracterize the group. The Guardian started a piece by noting how the group’s members, like Melissa Cooper, had to say goodbye to their kids before proceeding to occupy the federal building — a clear effort to humanize the Citizens. There are fewer articles, beyond op-ed and opinions articles, outright condemning them. While there is an ocean of articles denoting the violent tendencies and the actions of the Black Lives Matter protesters — that they are “inciting violence ‘to the point of hate crime’” — there are hardly any explaining the terrible possibilities that the armed group with a leader saying “members are willing to to kill or be killed” can bring to the Oregon community.
Much of mainstream media is catering to and supporting many Americans’ fear that minority groups’ protests lead to violence, not only by heavily mischaracterizing movements like Black Lives Matter, but also dismissing the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom’s possibility to be a harbinger of brutality. There shouldn’t be such racial biases in mass media that seeks to inform. With such shoddy reporting, unjust racist perspectives are perpetuated further when such thinking and action should be squashed.
Though the Citizens are armed, they have more often been called “protestors” or “activists” or “militiamen” or even quoted to be “normal everyday people,” shifting focus on what some would say is the group’s extremist or terrorist tendencies. While leaders of the occupation stated that they were merely protesting for lighter prison sentences on Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, ranchers convicted of arson in 2012, and “the people of Harney County in claiming their rights” to current federal land, their legal open access to guns endangers their group’s claim to be protestors.
You stop being protestors if locals, like Harney County judge Steve Grasty, state “these thugs, criminals, militia … I don’t know what they’re capable of. No one does. People are afraid in this town,” or Shonna McKay state, “I am scared to death.” You stop being protesters if you utilize weapons as a means to drive a conversation.
It’s all right to protest issues you believe are important, but not if arms are brought as leverage. Even though some residents of Harney County have thanked the Citizens for putting their community concerns over land use and employment on the national level, many have said “they didn’t agree with the tactics of the armed men.” The Citizens for Constitutional Freedom have forgone their claim to be protestors once they engendered conflict and inflicted fear onto the residents of Harney County due to their unorganized and rash occupation. Though it would be a very charged move to call this group “terrorists,” they would deserve it if they use violence.
Oregon’s open-carry laws are possibly to blame for this tense situation. However, it is ultimately the perpetrators of these actions who deserve to be reprimanded — especially as their occupation and how it’s being treated by the media may fester similar armed protests in the future.
As their name suggests, the Citizens’ protest rhetoric is steeped in freedom, liberty and patriotism (let’s just say they are the Founding Fathers’ biggest fans), which are themes deeply associated with right-wing paranoia. Already such paranoia has come to play in recent politics, such as when 25 Republican governors vowed to bar Syrian refugees from immigrating to their states. Incidents, such as the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge building, may encourage others to hold similar armed protests in the future as, so far, the occupation has not been met with actual retaliation from the media or police.
Such protests should not be encouraged by the current inaction of the media and police, which is why focus on the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom is crucial at this stage. Their actions should not fade into oblivion just because the media chooses to highlight only certain characteristics. They must be held accountable for their actions before any real violence occurs.