What Black Lives Matter and the Oregon Ranchers Have in Common

A little empathy could go a long way


"Admit it," documentary filmmaker Michael Moore tweeted on January 4. "If the armed Oregon militia were black or Muslim, they'd all be dead by now."

That was a popular sentiment in the hours and days after armed ranchers in eastern Oregon took over an unused facility at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Faced with the spectacle of gun-toting rural whites trespassing on federal property, many left-of-center commentators posited that the protesters were receiving racially derived special treatment—as evidenced by the fact that they were not already dead or in jail.

"Did I miss the call for the national guard in Oregon? I recall them in Ferguson and Baltimore," tweeted former CNN host Roland Martin, deploying the not-quite-accurate hashtag #OregonUnderAttack (which was nonetheless more apropos than the similarly popular #YallQaeda and #VanillaISIS). If the Oregon occupiers had been non-white, wrote Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, "I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be wait-and-see. Probably more like point-and-shoot."

Frustrated by the well-publicized police violence against 25-year-old Freddie Gray of Baltimore and 18-year-old Michael Brown of Missouri, and by the super-aggressive law enforcement response to the protests that resulted from those incidents, critics of the Oregon "militia" were quick to ask why its leader, Ammon Bundy, was being given second and third chances to explain himself and stand down, an opportunity not afforded to Gray or Brown.

The quick vitriol spit at the ranchers by supporters of Black Lives Matter—not unlike the easy disregard with which swaths of white conservatives have bemoaned Black Lives Matter's stylistic excesses—is a missed opportunity to see at least some common cause in individual rights and dignity vis-à-vis a too-powerful state.

The spark for the Oregon protests was a federal court imposing mandatory minimum sentences on two ranchers who had already served shorter sentences for arson. Black Lives Matter activists have long highlighted sentencing disparities and other injustices perpetuated under those same mandatory minimum guidelines. The Oregon occupiers chose to draw attention to their cause by disrupting the status quo through a media stunt involving trespassing, just as Black Lives Matter activists did when blocking traffic at several airports on December 23.

One of the great promises of Black Lives Matter is communicating simple, powerful testimonials about the consistent mistreatment of and violence against individuals at the hands of the law. You need to understand what our lives are like, goes the underlying notion, and maybe you will have a sense of urgency about reforming the practices that degrade the autonomy of those lives. The prevalence of citizen and dashcam video capturing police misconduct has proven a shock to the conscience—a sudden, terrible discovery that under the hood of the American system we have somehow been tolerating an intolerable mix of injustice, bad police and prosecutorial behavior, and a distorted set of incentives keeping it all in place. It's no accident that grassroots calls for criminal justice reform have been breaking out from rural Texas to the halls of Congress.

But that social progress—slow and painful though it may be—gets reversed when the same people crying out for empathy suggest, even jokingly, that the real solution is to equalize violence by directing the same level of abuse at rednecks.

"I hope they pull a M.O.V.E. on those terrorists in Oregon," tweeted the author Jess Nevins, referring to one of the most egregious police overreactions in modern history—the 1985 incineration of an entire city block in Philadelphia, killing 11 people, after a standoff with a black militant group.

"'Protesters' & 'occupiers'—(as in 'Occupy Wall Street')—do not have weapons. Terrorists have weapons," wrote noted author Joyce Carol Oates. "Media should note distinction." Not only was Oates wrong on logic—carrying a firearm is legal in much of America, and doing so does not strip you of qualification to protest—she is missing the opportunity to discover some politics-bending historical dissonance.

In 1967, the Black Panthers famously staged a protest in California's State Capitol building in Sacramento. They were armed, as was their habit at the time. The incident terrified California's Republican establishment, including Gov. Ronald Reagan. As a result the state pushed through a law banning the carry of loaded firearms. It is one of the most influential pieces of gun control legislation in modern times, and it was endorsed by the National Rifle Association, likely because the sight of marching armed Panthers seemed to be a bridge too far, even to the pro-gun crowd. When you lack empathy for an other, it's a short step to deprive them of their rights.

History provides a perhaps even more surprising lesson. There have indeed been other instances analogous to the Oregon protest, but with members of a disfavored minority engaged in an armed standoff against law enforcement. And contra Michael Moore, they mostly lived to tell the tale.

In November 1972, just days before Richard Nixon's re-election, hundreds of Native American protesters, who had come to Washington to negotiate with the Bureau of Indian Affairs over what they felt were "broken" tribal treaties, overpowered security guards and took over the whole federal building instead. Armed with guns, knives, spears, and improvised weaponry, they lit fires inside the bureau, vandalized property (causing an estimated $2 million in damages), and issued a 20-point set of demands. The tension lasted one week.

So how much blood was spilled to evict the insurrectionists? None: The crisis was dissipated through a peaceful negotiated settlement. Cops use tools besides trigger fingers more often than pessimists remember.

There were a series of standoffs between Native Americans and federal authorities during the late 1960s and early '70s. One of them, the two-month occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973, saw several exchanges of gunfire; two Indians were killed, and a U.S. marshal was paralyzed. But the majority of the takeovers—Alcatraz, Mount Rushmore, and so on—ended without violence. And police forces back then, like the citizenry overall, were statistically more violent and racist than those we have today.

Washington Post writer Philip Bump in early January tallied up the last half-century of protester/law enforcement stare-downs. "Since 1969," he wrote, there have been "more than 1,000 days that activists and extremists have occupied federal or state buildings or been in stand-offs with federal agents…Half of that total was in the occupation at Alcatraz. And over the course of those incidents—excluding Waco—only four civilians and one federal agent were killed."

As humans, we tend to remember the bad stuff: The Wacos (at which an appalling 82 civilians and four federal agents were killed), the Wounded Knees, the slayings of citizens like 12-year-old Tamir Rice for wielding a toy gun. But there is a chance for peaceful resolution of these types of standoffs—a chance that increases dramatically when law enforcement, media, and observers attempt to put themselves in the protesters' shoes.

In a world with more empathy, our commonalities could spark some interesting conversations about the nature of government power and citizen protest. In the tribal world we actually live in, Oregon became a culture war skirmish within hours. One of the modern conditions of libertarianism is to experience these moments with a sense of heightened frustration, wishing that people could agree more about the flaws in the superstructure around them.

"Admit it," New York Post columnist John Podhoretz tweeted January 3. "You like people who have your politics and you make allowances, and you want people whose politics you hate to be arrested." But for those of us who feel instinctively distrustful of tribes, it's closer to the opposite: It's the people we don't instinctively empathize with—whether because of politics, character, class, or race—whom we should take the most care not to railroad.