Every once and awhile I like to deliver a history lecture with a contrarian slant. This is one of those times. The Hole in the Head Gang’s seizure of a building in a Federal wildlife preserve in Oregon has conjured up dueling narratives. One slice of Conventional Wisdom on the Right is that the Feds were asking for it because they didn’t come down hard enough on the Bundy ranch shenanigans in 2014. The CW on the Left is that if these had been black folks there would have been instant repression. There is some truth to both perceptions but the fundamental difference is that this involves Federal law enforcement, not state and local. The Black Lives Matters movement was inspired by local police tactics in Ferguson, New York, and elsewhere. The Feds have a different approach for some very good reasons.
If there’s a broad issue to come out of the Oregon standoff, it’s around the use of force. As with Cliven Bundy, local and federal law enforcement has taken a wait-and-see approach to Ammon Bundy and his militia supporters. The FBI has called for a “peaceful resolution” to the confrontation, and announced its concern for the safety of “both those inside the refuge as well as the law enforcement officers involved.”
To observers on Twitter, this caution was galling, especially after a year of highly visible police violence against unarmed black Americans and political fear-mongering over Muslim refugees to the United States. “Let’s be clear,” said columnist Cenk Uygur, “If Muslims had seized a federal building, they’d all be dead by now #whiteprivilege #OregonUnderAttack.” Likewise, thousands of people retweeted an image of an armed militiaman captioned “150 armed white men take over a federal building and threaten violence if removed—Not a single shot is fired at them” followed by a photo of Tamir Rice with the caption, “12-year-old black boy plays with a toy gun—is gunned down in less than two seconds without as much as a warning.”
It’s easy to see why both tweets struck a chord. But 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. Confrontations at Ruby Ridge and in Waco, Texas ended with scores of dead (white) civilians, and inspired the Oklahoma City bombing—the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil prior to Sept. 11, 2001.
Law enforcement has been willing to use lethal violence against armed white protesters and the results were catastrophic. It’s no surprise federal agents are cautious; they walk with the hard-learned lessons of the 1990s. Even if the Bundys are paper tigers, no one wants to relive the past. In that, law enforcement officials are correct.
I don’t usually use such epic quotes, but Jamelle nails this to the wall, so why re-do it? I recall watching with appalled fascination as the Feds assaulted the Branch Davidian compound in Waco in 1993. It was an epic fail and was cited by Timothy McVeigh as his reason for bombing the Federal building in OKC. I, for one, am glad that the Feds learned their lesson from misusing force in the early ’90’s. I have no sympathy for the ill-prepared bozos who seized that obscure Federal facility, BUT I don’t want a bloodbath either.
Another example of the “wait ’em out” strategy was the long siege when some Native American activists occupied Alcatraz in 1969. The Feds played the long game and the standoff ended in 19 months. The oddest thing about the Alcatraz episode is that one of our most trigger-happy Presidents, Richard Nixon, was in power at that time. Tricky Dick disliked minorities, and hated radical leftists, but the Federal agencies in charge of the situation quite rightly did not want a bloodbath. The odds of this standoff lasting that long are nil: they didn’t bring enough ramen noodles to survive…
I am at something of a loss as to why people who decry police brutality and oppose military intervention abroad are so eager to see Cliven Bundy’s idiot sons gunned down. It may be understandable as an initial, visceral reaction but why give the Alex Jones’ and Glenn Becks of the world what they want? They want dead martyrs instead of live oath swearing buffoons. Patience is clearly a virtue in this instance unless the Hole in the Head gang starts shooting and then all bets are off. That seems unlikely to me: these fake cowboys are all hat and no cattle.
The Feds are in the process of tightening the screws on these cretins. It won’t be hard since they don’t seem to be adequately supplied for an extended standoff. I’m hoping for a peaceful resolution and some sort of felony charges to be brought against the Hole in the Head Gang. It will be easier to prosecute the Bundy Bunch this time since, unlike their idiot racist father, they are NOT on their own land but have seized a Federal facility.
The Twitteratti have been busy cracking wise about what I’m calling the Hole in the Head Gang. My nickname is inspired by the Hole in the Wall Gang but Ammon Bundy is no Butch Cassidy. I think comparing these bozos to Al Qaeda and ISIS, even comically, elevates them above their pay grade. These boobs in the woods are common garden variety burglars as far as I’m concerned. I’m uncertain, however, which of them is Porky and which is Daffy:
Finally, there’s been a lot of wingnut posturing about Oregon being a blue state, which supposedly gives this minor insurrection some deeper meaning. It is today but Oregon was founded as a so-called white man’s paradise:
When Oregon was granted statehood in 1859, it was the only state in the Union admitted with a constitution that forbade black people from living, working, or owning property there. It was illegal for black people even to move to the state until 1926. Oregon’s founding is part of the forgotten history of racism in the American west.
Waddles Coffee Shop in Portland, Oregon was a popular restaurant in the 1950s for both locals and travelers alike. The drive-in catered to America’s postwar obsession with car culture, allowing people to get coffee and a slice of pie without even leaving their vehicle. But if you happened to be black, the owners of Waddles implored you to keep on driving. The restaurant had a sign outside with a very clear message: “White Trade Only — Please.”
It’s the kind of scene from the 1950s that’s so hard for many Americans to imagine happening outside of the Jim Crow South. How could a progressive, northern city like Portland have allowed a restaurant to exclude non-white patrons? This had to be an anomaly, right? In reality it was far too common in Oregon, a state that was explicitly founded as a kind of white utopia.
A friend of a friend posted a link to Matt Novak’s Gizmodo post on Facebook the other day. It’s a great read and makes me proud to be a blogger.
That concludes today’s attempt to defog history. Class dismissed.