One hundred armed militants marched into a federal building in Oregon and took it over. Led by Ammon Bundy, son of noted militant Cliven Bundy, the militia seized and occupied Malheur Wildlife Refuge Headquarters in Burns, Oregon, protesting against the prosecution of two local ranchers.
Although heavily armed, bent on a standoff with police, and organised by militiamen with prior criminal convictions, the police did not resist. No tear gas was sprayed, not a single shot was fired, nor a single arrest made. Rather, the seizure of federal property went unchallenged by police.
The events in Oregon unfolded during a broader impasse of social unrest, police brutality and intensifying Islamophobia in the United States. An impasse when the racial identity of protesters and citizens either creates suspicion of violence or terrorism or, in the case of the militiamen in Oregon, not only negates that suspicion, but equips them with the privilege and power to march across state lines, brandish heavy weaponry, and squat in a federal building without meeting resistance.
The militia march and takeover stands as lurid a demonstration of white privilege as any, illustrating the broad protest rights, privileges and deference denied to Black Lives Matter rallies; and a refusal to brand the white militiamen as terrorists in the midst of imagined and embellished Muslim terror in the US.
Oregon militia and privilege
Less than a week before the Oregon takeover, an Ohio grand jury cleared the Cleveland policeman who shot Tamir Rice of any wrongdoing. Rice, a 12-year old black child playing with a toy gun near a recreation centre, was shot and killed on November 22, 2014. The grand jury ruling followed national actions by Black Lives Matter protesters condemning disproportionate violence against black men, women, and even children such as Rice, whose very blackness was associated with criminal threat.
The largest protests took place in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, and more recently, Chicago and Detroit. Early Black Lives Matter protests were met with militarised police and their familiar fixings – tanks, tear gas, and indiscriminate mass arrests. Indeed, the images of police aggression against the protesters served as a lurid metaphor for the violent law enforcement inflicted on Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and the string of victims that gave rise to the protests.
The Bundy-led militia toted heavy weaponry, promised to respond with force if needed, and even enlisted the mastermind behind the wave of anti-Muslim protests that swept through the United States in 2015...
Black Lives Matters protesters were unarmed, spearheaded largely by students and young adults, and organised in public forums. Most importantly, they seized no government property nor adversely occupied any federal buildings. Their exercise of free speech, however, was met with repeated opposition, and more often than not, violent suppression.
Juxtapose this with recent events in Oregon. The Bundy-led militia toted heavy weaponry, promised to respond with force if needed, and even enlisted the mastermind behind the wave of anti-Muslim protests that swept through the United States in 2015, John Ritzheimer.
No police were on site. Enabling the militia to march into town, meddle in a purely local matter, and accomplish their mission. Instead of being met with police opposition, the white militiamen were extended full-scale police cooperation.
A response that would never be extended to black protesters in the US, who convene in public streets and spaces brandishing no weaponry but only their blackness, which for law enforcement, appears to be far more threatening than the military-fatigued, rifled, “kill-or-be-killed” menace posed by the Oregon militants.
The Oregon militiamen show how Oregon’s “open carry” laws enable them to carry armed weapons. Ohio has an identical law in place. But Tamir Rice was still shot dead and his toy gun, unlike the arms carried by the Oregon militants, did not shoot.
Oregon militiamen and their whiteness
Beyond its exonerating marching orders, whiteness also extends a presumption of innocence with regard to a threat to national security – even when evidence suggests otherwise. Mobilised by an overzealous defence of the 2nd Amendment gun rights, racism, and a “make America great again” vision steeped in xenophobia, the armed militiamen capitalised on a private land dispute as a political opportunity.
The militia convened along a clear political ideology. Brandished weaponry. Promised violence against the federal government if their demands were not met. In addition, several of the ringleaders, most notably Bundy, had criminal records.
Therefore, all of the elements of a terror threat were patently established. However, the legal construction of terror was less important than its prevailing racial and religious complexion.
The militiamen were neither Muslims nor Arabs. But white. A racial identity that disarms them of threat even while brandishing rifles, spewing subversive rhetoric, and promising violence if confronted with government opposition.
While Muslim identity is both legally and popularly linked to a threat to national security, on account of skin alone, whiteness benefits its most menacing elements by negating the perception of threat and disconnecting their association with terrorism.
Muslims are suspected of terrorism by merely being Muslims. While white militants, like the militiamen in Oregon, are seldom identified as terrorists when carrying forward a terrorist conspiracy. But also, seldom prosecuted as terrorists when driven to execute schoolchildren, churchgoers, or minorities to carry forward a hateful ideology.
Oregon militants and presumption of innocence
In the US, terrorism is more identity than it is activity. Whiteness not only arms the militiamen in Oregon with the presumption of innocence that systematically negates threat, but also emboldens their extremism by the lack of serious police opposition.
This invites and abets more armed anti-Muslim protests and “illegal immigrant” round-ups, federal building takeovers and mass shootings, some 62 percent of which, since 1982, were committed by the very demographic marching in Burns, Oregon.
Founded as a “racist utopia” in the American northwest in 1859, Oregon “was the only state in the Union admitted with a constitution that forbade black people from living, working, or owning property there”.
The brazen exercise of white privilege and terror displayed by the militiamen, combined with the passive cooperation of law enforcement, 157 years later, would make that legacy proud.
Khaled A Beydoun is an Assistant Professor of Law at the Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law. He is a native of Detroit.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.