What We Should Learn from #OregonUnderAttack

Over the past two days, the media has trained its attention – and ours – on a situation in rural Oregon that, by contrast with events of the past two years in urban communities throughout the country, highlights our dysfunctional lack of restraint, our excessive use of force, and our assumption that guns are the solutions to our problems. All this without a single shot being fired.

Since Saturday night, an armed force of between a dozen and 150 has occupied between one and seventeen buildings in Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. (The varying numbers, along with a host of other unknowns, just highlights how little most of us know about this situation.) The motivations and demands of the group are complicated – they involve a long history of tense relations between the federal government, especially the Bureau of Land Management, and some ranchers in the west – but this occupation seems to have been immediately precipitated by extended prison sentences handed down to two Oregon ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, for arson. The occupying force includes, and seems to be led by, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who has been involved in past standoffs with the federal government – some of them armed – has ties to antigovernment and secessionist movements, and has made overt statements of white supremacy. The fact that the Bundys’ involvement muddies the waters a bit and makes the occupying force’s rationale more opaque is only highlighted by the fact that the Hammond family apparently wants nothing to do with them. Clearly, this is a complicated situation. 

Over the past two days, many have used the occasion of this occupation to call attention to possible racial and religious disparities in the use of force by authorities. Some suggested that the authorities would already have brought the occupation to a violent end if the occupiers were Muslim. And after months of media exposure to law enforcement officers beating, choking, and shooting armed and unarmed black citizens, sometimes for as little as objecting to daily harassment, the patience shown to armed white people who have taken over federal property, disrupted local schools, and threatened bloodshed if their vague demands are not met seems to highlight very real racial disparities. Bernie Sanders, for example, compared the killing of Cleveland’s Tamir Rice to the treatment of the Oregon occupation force:


Jamelle Bouie disagrees with the idea that the treatment of this standoff is evidence of a double standard. In an article for Slate, Bouie writes,

It’s also worth noting the extent to which the Rice shooting—and many others—are fundamentally different from that of a standoff between armed fanatics and federal law enforcement. It’s not just that these are different organizations—local and city police forces versus the FBI and other federal agencies—and different kinds of confrontations with different procedures, but that there’s also a different history involved.

Bouie’s article highlights the complicated politics of land management in the west, the federal government’s past willingness to use lethal violence against armed white protesters, and the fact that calling for equally violent treatment of the Oregon occupation force is perverse.

While Bouie isn’t the only author to emphasize the complicated regional politics and decades-long tension between western ranchers and the federal government, it’s just wrong to suggest that complication and long histories of abuse and tension are what make the situation in Oregon fundamentally different than the social movements, protests, occupations, and riots of urban minorities. Complication and long histories of abuse and tension are as much a part of the stories of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, and Laquan McDonald as they are part of the story of the Hammonds and other ranchers, the Bundys and others in the so-called Patriot movement. Bouie knows that, but I’m not sure his readers – or the other authors that point to complicated history as the fundamental difference between these kinds of cases – do.

What Bouie has right, though, is that it is perverse for us to look at the treatment of the Oregon occupation and call for a more violent response, one that matches the bullets unleashed on Michael Brown, the treatment allegedly denied to Freddie Gray, or the lethal chokehold put on Eric Garner simply for objecting to regular confrontation about his occasional illegal sale of cigarettes. As Bouie writes, “If there’s a question to ask on this score, it’s not why don’t they use violence, it’s why aren’t they more cautious with unarmed suspects and common criminals? If we’re outraged, it shouldn’t be because law enforcement isn’t rushing to violently confront Bundy and his group. We should be outraged because that restraint isn’t extended to all Americans.”

Here Bouie echoes what I’ve been saying for months – There is an undeniable racial dimension to the relationship with law enforcement in our urban communities across the country, but, at the same time, many recent events are also evidence that we have lost a sense of restraint, we have practically vacated “excessive force” of any meaning, and we have largely begun to see guns as our answer to any problem. From the man who shoots teenagers playing ding-dong ditch to the woman who shoots a potential shoplifter or purse-snatcher to the teenager who shoots someone for disrespecting him to the law enforcement officer who pumped 16 rounds into Laquan McDonald while he was walking away, too many of us think that escalation and the use of lethal force, usually with a gun, is the best way to handle inconveniences, offenses, and potential threats. We have become far too comfortable with the use of pre-emptive lethal force, and the people calling for that escalation right now in Oregon are for the most part further proof of that proclivity.

So I, for one, am glad that the authorities in Oregon are firmly slow-playing the situation there. Perhaps they can be an example of restraint, even though “we should be outraged,” as Bouie writes, “because that restraint isn’t extended to all Americans.” Perhaps they’re among those who don’t think that everything is a target, just because they have guns. I’m going to hope so, just because I want to hope that there are some of those people left among us.

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