Oregon Standoff

How Making a Murderer Helps Explain Liberals' Reaction to the Oregon Standoff

We all deserve fair treatment under the law, and we all lose when people let aesthetic and ideological differences obscure that basic truth.


USFWC Pacific/Flickr

For several days, America has been gripped by the seizure of a remote federal outpost in Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by a group calling themselves the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom. Led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy—the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who fought the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in 2014 over cattle-grazing fees—these "Malheur Militants" claim they're sticking up for citizen rights. But liberal media have branded them dangerous, racist, and patriarchal, referring to the group as extremists, "heavily armed domestic terrorists," and "Vanilla ISIS." Many on the left have been calling for the government to come down on the group with all its might.

The Citizens for Constitutional Freedom are not terrorists, though, at least not by any normal definition. As Jesse Walker wrote in the Los Angeles Times today, "the question of what qualifies as terrorism is hotly contested, but the most compelling definitions hinge on whether the perpetrators target civilians." The Malheur group has not. In fact, it hasn't targeted anyone with violence. It says members only armed themselves in preparation for the worst, and will only use weapons if necessary for self defense. 

As to the charges of bigotry? Some, such as Slate writer Isaac Chotiner, have even portrayed the Malheur Militants as the antithesis of the Black Lives Matter movement. Others make it seem as if they're taking over land in connection with white nationalist politics. But whatever the Bundy family's general opinions on race, these have no relation to the current protest, which is rooted in objections to government policies.

Specifically, the Malheur group is concerned with federal land management in an area where the government owns 53 percent of the land. They also oppose the conviction and sentencing of ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, who were found guilty of terrorism-motivated arson after fires set on their own property inadvertently spread to federal land. Using a broad interpretation of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (itself a reactionary measure, passed the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, that also limits habeas corpus rights) and a mandatory minimum sentencing requirement designed to get tough on terrorists, the government was able to overrule a judge's initially lenient sentencing and send both Hammond men to prison for five years, with no ability to appeal.  

In the Hammonds case, we have the overzealous application of anti-terrorism statutes, absurdly harsh mandatory minimums, and plenty of due process abuse—all things liberals would decry in many circumstances. In the broader land use battle, we have a group of relatively disempowered people fighting powerful interests for ownership of the land they've been laboring on. And in the Oregon standoff, we have non-violent but radical resistance to perceived government tyranny, in the tradition of groups like grassroots farm movements and the Black Panther Party. Again and again, what's not for the left to like?

Whether we call them patriots or radicals or activists, the underlying morality of fighting against oppressive power structures and civil-rights infringements does not change. Branding those who do as terrorists and thugs, however, is a favorite trick of the federal government. So why are liberals now encouraging such state propaganda? Why are they doing the work of the very people who would just as soon use these mandates against racial and religious minorities?

Two recent documentaries might provide some insight. The first, last year's Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, focuses on the calculated destruction of the Black Panther Party by federal officials; highlights the racist roots of gun control laws and early police militarization; and shows how the FBI manipulated local police, media, and the public to see the Panthers as nothing more than violent extremists. In my mini-review for Reason's January 2016 issue, I noted that the film "serves as a reminder of authorities' interest in keeping Americans pitted against one another rather than them rallying together against a corrupt state."

For a brief moment in the 1960s, black organizers and student protesters had started trying to rally poor and rural whites around shared causes. But as the film makes clear, this kumbaya moment didn't play too well with authorities. They were too invested in stoking race and class tension for their own political gains. 

Portraying citizens fighting for their rights as terrorists and extremists is part of the fundamental work of the police state. That so many on the left should now do it so willingly shows how deep tribalism and fear of the other run.

Which bring me to Making a Murderer, the new Netflix true-crime series that's captured the early 2016 zeitgeist. The guilt or innocence of main subject Steven Avery—accused, along with nephew Brendan Dassey, of the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach—is currently a matter of much speculation. But prior to 2005, Avery served 18 years in prison for a rape that he definitely didn't commit. Both DNA evidence and statements from the actual perpetrator cleared him of the Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, crime. 

Making a Murder spends the first episode on Avery's arrest, conviction, and eventual exoneration on the rape charges. From the beginning, filmmakers highlight how the Avery family—an extended clan that owned an auto salvage business on the outskirts of town—was perceived by people around those parts as different. The Averys didn't get involved in community groups. Didn't dress well. Didn't speak well. Owned a lot of guns. Owned a junk heap. Some had learning disorders, drinking problems, or a history of petty run-ins with the law.

In other words, they were hillbillies. Rednecks. Hicks. And as such, fair game for mocking, rumors, contempt. Community members suspected the worst of the Averys, including incest and other sexual deviance. Their low social status and country ways were more or less all the proof that neighbors needed. 

When the Manitowoc County cops railroaded Steven Avery into jail for a sexual assault he didn't commit, they were egged on by local media and the community at large, whose prejudice against these backward-seeming outsiders made them both bloodthirsty and willing to believe anything. In both the rape case and the subsequent murder cases against Avery and Dassey, an undercurrent of class animosity and pro-authority bias runs strong. 

These are, of course, the same biases that drive middle- and upper-class whites to dismiss people of color's complaints about police harassment and label their resistance as mere thuggery. Meanwhile, poor people of all colors are prone to the same sorts of abuses under the law.

Sure, poor whites still enjoy privileges their minority counterparts don't, just like Ammon Bundy and gang certainly benefit from their skin color in this Oregon situation. But the point of pointing out privilege is to extend its benefit to everyone, not ensure that everyone is mistreated equally. Is it bullshit that a group of black or brown Malheur militants would inspire a whole different conversation and response in America? Sure. But just because "no one would call them patriots" doesn't mean we shouldn't. And we can acknowledge, dissect, and decry this double standard without wishing the worst on white protesters, too. 

Like the family at the heart of Making a Murderer, the Malheur protesters may not be comprised of the most culturally sophisticated or socially sympathetic people. They might keep to themselves. Use uncool or unsavvy language. Hold some views on race or sexual orientation that folks find unpalatable or even abhorrent. They might be the kind of people that many would label "white trash," and this makes it easy for respectable types to dismiss their claims of mistreatment. Who wants to stick up for people like that?

But of course there's no good-person clause to the Constitution. There need be nothing redeeming in someone's personal beliefs for them to deserve fair treatment under the law. We all deserve that, no matter what our politics are. And we all lose when we let aesthetic and ideological differences obscure that basic American truth.