Peniel Joseph: Bundy verdict shows racial disparity in response to protesters
Timing of acquittal and forcible removal of Dakota protesters revealing, he writes
Editor’s Note: Peniel Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “Stokely: A Life.” The views expressed here are his.
The shocking acquittal of Ammon Bundy and six other defendants accused of staging an armed protest at a wildlife refuge in Oregon earlier this year places issues of race and the criminal justice system in sharp relief.
White men armed with shotguns remain good old boys in the American imagination, rugged cowboys bold enough to stand up to federal encroachment. Meanwhile, critics scorn and demonize black protesters engaged in peaceful protests as anti-police troublemakers and law enforcement – armed and ready for war – round up Native Americans fighting to protect their indigenous land from environmental disaster. The jury’s acquittal of the Oregon defendants begs the question: What would the outcome have been if the armed protesters had been black, Latino or Native American?
Recent and overlapping events offer some insight to an answer.
We can compare responses in Oregon and North Dakota. The Bundy group’s protest centered on land rights and disputes over federal authority in one corner of southeast Oregon and their acquittal coincided with well-publicized, unarmed protests in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, against construction of an oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
Authorities there have responded by deploying law enforcement officers in riot gear who have wielded pepper spray, and fired bean bags and Taser guns. Recently police arrived in military Humvees to remove protesters, prompting human rights organizations to deploy observers to catalog alleged abuse of power by law enforcement against what has been a largely peaceful protest.
We can also compare motivations. The Dakota Access pipeline protests revolve around questions of indigenous land rights, environmental protection, and water and food security as Native American activists and environmentalists question the pipeline’s impact on sacred burial grounds and the region’s water supply.
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In contrast, the 41-day armed standoff led by Bundy earlier this year is part of an anti-government fervor that has buoyed the presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump. These protesters argue that large swaths of land under federal control represent an overreach that fuels conspiratorial theories of government control over individual liberties, confiscation of guns and veritable marshal law.
We can contrast more than the responses to and motivations behind the two protests. The comparison also illustrates the stark racial realities of contemporary America, especially the relationship between people of color and the criminal justice system.
In an era where Black Lives Matter activists have perpetually highlighted inequality in the arrest, sentencing, use of deadly force against and overall treatment of black bodies by the justice system, the Bundy acquittal sends a clear message of whose lives matter in America – and whose don’t.
Armed whites illegally occupying federal land are still accorded citizenship rights, not labeled as terrorists, and negotiated with to achieve a peaceful resolution (although one armed protester was shot and killed by an FBI agent). Later, they are found not guilty of the very crimes they committed by a sympathetic jury in Oregon.
Unarmed BLM activists have been characterized as racial terrorists by a chorus of critics who include elected officials, law enforcement authorities and journalists.
The Standing Rock Sioux people who are organizing to defend indigenous land, cultural and water rights are met with military vehicles, riot-clad police and mass arrests.
White lives have always mattered more than any others in the United States. The genocide of Native Americans, the forced enslavement of blacks, and the system of Jim Crow all reinforced a system of privilege — and corresponding abuse against people of color — that became codified into law, public policy, institutions and our national culture.
During the 1960s, led by the civil rights and Black Power movements, a wide spectrum of activists organized for racial justice and the rights of indigenous people, including what was then called the American Indian Movement, which galvanized national attention on the heartbreaking history of native peoples in the past and present. These activists protested against the violence perpetuated by institutions that treated citizens differently because of race. Their movements ameliorated, but did not defeat, institutional racism and inequality.
The Bundy acquittal illustrates the distance still to be traveled to achieve racial equality in both our criminal justice system and the larger society. The fact that white anti-government protesters railing against federal overreach scarcely realize their privileged treatment at the hands of law enforcement and the criminal justice system is one side of this story. The images of Native American activists in North Dakota and black activists in Ferguson staring down military-style police presence while fighting for racial justice is the other.