What if…?

The day after militia members began their occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Washington Post writer Janell Ross asked a question on a lot of minds “Why aren’t we calling the Oregon occupiers ‘terrorists’?”

As of Sunday afternoon, The Washington Post called them “occupiers.” The New York Times opted for “armed activists” and “militia men.” And the Associated Press put the situation this way: “A family previously involved in a showdown with the federal government has occupied a building at a national wildlife refuge in Oregon and is asking militia members to join them.”

Not one seemed to lean toward terms such as “insurrection,” “revolt,” anti-government “insurgents” or, as some on social media were calling them, “terrorists.” When a group of unknown size and unknown firepower has taken over any federal building with plans and possibly some equipment to aid a years-long occupation — and when its representative tells reporters that they would prefer to avoid violence but are prepared to die — the kind of almost-uniform delicacy and the limits on the language used to describe the people involved becomes noteworthy itself.

***

White Americans, their activities and ideas seem always to stem from a font of principled and committed individuals. As such, group suspicion and presumed guilt are readily perceived and described as unjust, unreasonable and unethical.

***

The sometimes-coded but increasingly overt ways that some Americans are presumed guilty and violence-prone while others are assumed to be principled and peaceable unless and until provoked — even when actually armed — is remarkable.

Underlying Ross’ analysis, which sticks with the power of words,  is an implicit question: What actions would the government have taken if the those who have taken over the federal wildlife preserve were black?

Well, the Portland Oregonian, which has been providing some of the most complete coverage of the Malheur occupation, has provided an answer. The Oregonian’s Joseph Rose put together an excellent roundup, with photos (some below), of how authorities have responded to other occupations of federal property.

Rose details a 1979 incident in Georgia. A group of descendents of slaves, in an act of civil disobedience, camped on land where some of their grandparents had been kicked out in 1942.

Feds forcibly removed black occupiers from wildlife refuge in 1979

1979-arrest

FBI agents forcibly remove black protesters from a tent during a 1979 camp-in at Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge. The U.S. government had seized the property in 1942 from descendants of former slaves. (Emory University/Lewis H. Beck Center)

Although on the Georgia coast and much smaller, like Malheur, the Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge is a mix of wetlands and farmland whose ownership has been disputed since the 19th century. Unlike Malheur, the Harris Neck “squatters” were unarmed and black, attempting to reclaim refuge land, which was being leased by a white county commissioner to graze his cattle.

1979clip 1979-camp1

1979-camp2

Children play at the 1979 camp-in at the Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge on the Georgia coast. The U.S. government seized the property from the descendants of former slaves in 1942. (Emory Univ.)

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