I think one of the least appealing characteristics of white Americans is an excessive tendency to identify with authority figures. We can see this tendency among whites who lean to the political right, who are often ridiculously tenacious in their defense of police officers who shoot unarmed suspects or presidents who invade barely-armed countries. I’m a white American myself. Even though I usually tend towards the opposite extreme, being overly leery of authority, there are times when I revert to the norm. For example, when I’m under stress, my first reflex when I hear about a conflict is to identify with the more powerful side and ask impatiently why they don’t just go in with overwhelming force and sort the whole mess all out once and for all.
When I was a kid in the 1970s, people were still talking about the 71-day standoff that began when activists associated with the American Indian Movement took control of the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Those activists were armed, and in the course of the standoff they shot United States Marshal Lloyd Grimm, paralyzing him from the waist down. When the topic of the Wounded Knee Incident came up in a room full of whites, there was always a good chance someone would say that the authorities should have resolved the situation with a violent assault, that organizers Russell Means and Dennis Banks should have been prosecuted on the gravest possible charges, and that the patience the government showed during the standoff and the acquittal of Mr Means and Mr Banks at their federal trial in 1974 were special treatment accorded to the activists because they were Native American.
For the last several days an armed group made up of whites has been in control of a federal bird sanctuary in Oregon. While the group who seized Wounded Knee were moved to action by their belief that their tribal government was corrupt and in need of reform, a belief that connected to a wider vision of Native American history and the place of Native peoples on this continent, the group in Oregon is incensed about what they see as the unjust federal prosecution of one man who, like them, was upset about federal land policy in the West. What strikes me is the sheer number of left-leaning whites whom I’ve heard in the last couple of days talking exactly like the people who were frothing at the mouth about Russell Means and Dennis Banks almost 43 years ago. I’ve heard them call for police violence to end the standoff; I’ve heard them call for prosecutions under federal anti-terrorism statutes; I’ve heard them say that a failure to do either of those things is the result of special treatment for the occupiers due to the their race. White people haven’t changed very much over the years, and don’t change just because they put down one political party’s banner and pick up another’s.
I’ve seen a number of interesting things about this situation. Counterpunch isn’t what it was when Alexander Cockburn was alive and co-editing it with Jeffrey St. Clair; Cockburn would probably have had a great deal of sympathy for the occupation and never had anything but scorn for people who interjected the word “terrorism” into a political discussion, but Mr St. Clair is the co-author of a piece there today calling the occupiers terrorists and chronicling the woes of a federal land management official who has long been in conflict with them and their relatives. Mr St. Clair certainly makes out a strong prima facie case that the occupiers are a bunch of jerks and that they they would be an unwelcome addition to any neighborhood, but that’s a long way from justifying the use of the “terrorist” label, a word which, these days, is virtually trademarked by those who demand a submissive attitude to the law enforcement and intelligence-gathering apparatuses of the US government.
Artur Rosman, citing his status as a naturalized citizen of the USA, declares himself incompetent to form an opinion about the Oregon standoff, and quotes at length from an African American friend of his:
If over the last several years you’ve thought that any of the black lives cut short by police violence “had it coming” because they were not compliant with law and order and/or were disrespectful and aggressive towards those in authority, then surely you are now advocating for a quick and overwhelming amount of lethal force to be brought against the activists in Burns, Oregon, who are openly breaking the law, actually bearing and threatening to use arms against police forces, intentionally flouting authority, etc. You can’t have it both ways. Conversely, if you think that the patience and calm with regard to the disgruntled and armed activists in Burns, Oregon, is probably the better part of wisdom, then surely you have been deeply outraged at the lack of patience and calm shown by police officers in so many cases in recent years involving un-armed black men and women posing far less of a threat to authority and government than is represented by this “militia” in Oregon. Again, you can’t have it both ways. Or, if you want to have it both ways, especially if you’ve been tempted by the “all lives matter” clap-trap, you have some serious explaining to do.
At Slate, Jamelle Bouie cautions against an interpretation of the situation which is phrased in solely racial terms. He also points out how bizarre it is that people who present themselves as opponents of police violence appear to be frustrated that the police are not handling this matter with an immediate recourse to violence. Mr Bouie’s last two paragraphs sum this aspect of it up well:
In any case, why won’t they shoot at armed white fanatics isn’t just the wrong question; it’s a bad one. Not only does it hold lethal violence as a fair response to the Bundy militia, but it opens a path to legitimizing the same violence against more marginalized groups. As long as the government is an equal opportunity killer,goes the argument, violence is acceptable.
But that’s perverse. 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.
Libertarian stalwart Justin Raimondo has taken a lively concern with the case; in this piece, he anticipates the arguments Mr St. Clair and others have made about the basic rottenness of the people occupying the bird sanctuary and the cause they represent. Mr Raimondo defends the occupiers and extols their cause, unconvincingly to my mind, but vigorously.
He’s also spent a lot of time tweeting at people who have expressed authoritarian rage at the Oregon activists; here are a couple of samples:
Glenn Greenwald has also mounted his Twitter account and taken it to the heart of this particular battle. As for instance: