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.
President Trump’s decision to pardon cattle ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven Hammond for committing arson on federal lands in Oregon sends a troubling signal about double standards of justice based on race in America. The Hammonds’ legal troubles dovetailed into the rise of Ammon Bundy, who led an armed struggle to take over federally preserved land that he and his group claimed belonged to the American people.
The Hammonds and Bundy tapped into a longstanding reservoir of anger and skepticism over the federal government’s seemingly capricious use of power. From this perspective, Uncle Sam does not represent a benign symbol of patriotism, but rather the specter of Big Brother ordering citizens to return their guns, land, and liberty in the name of the law.
Historically, the politics of armed insurrection against the US government has elicited tense standoffs between authorities and local movements who each strive to define their actions as patriotic.
The Hammond pardon showcases the double standard of justice the nation still clings to, one that is dependent upon the skin color of armed insurrectionists. White survivalists, many of whom are proud supporters of the President, the NRA, and the symbols (if not substance) of America found in declarations of faith, family, and football are treated as misguided patriots, overzealous citizens whose love of country and hatred of taxes got the best of them and caused them to misbehave.
Black insurrectionists who are critical of the government are frequently labeled anti-American terrorists whose willingness to use self-defensive violence should be punished to the full extent of the law. The very presence of the Black Panthers, for example, spurred local, state, and federal authorities to enact new laws (including gun control in California) expressly designed to limit their impact and make it easier to arrest and prosecute them.
The Black Panthers notably protested during the 1960s against the growing and sometimes violent use of authority in black communities, going as far as organizing their own patrols to follow police officers and at times engage in armed conflict with law enforcement officials.
In stark contrast with the Hammonds’ original sentence of five years each, some of the Panthers faced steep legal consequences for their behavior, at times for crimes they were innocent of. Perhaps the most egregious example is the case of Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, a former Green Beret turned Black Panther who served 27 years in prison for a crime the FBI allegedly knew he didn’t commit.
A Philadelphia-based group of black activists called MOVE also famously refused to cooperate with municipal authorities during the 1970s and early 1980s, setting off a period of tense relations that ended in tragedy. In 1985, Philadelphia law enforcement, under the command of the city’s first black mayor, Wilson Goode, dropped a bomb on 10 square city blocks and let the fire rage in an act of violence that arguably might never have been conceived of had the organization’s members been white.
More remarkable is what both of these groups were actually fighting for. The Black Panthers, for all their shortcomings, were vocal proponents of racial and economic justice. They fervently believed in the best and most resilient aspect of the nation’s founding dreams of liberty and democracy for all and were willing to use bold, at times reckless, tactics in pursuit of justice.
The Hammonds, on the other hand, represent a strain of anti-American insurrectionary politics whose goal is truly another country – one where the federal government exerts virtually no control over the lives of Americans, is unable to right political and moral wrongs in local communities, and political entitlement remains the birthright of white men. Both of these perspectives deserve equal treatment under the law, yet one is considered by many to be more American and less dangerous than the other, based on race and fear.
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Mr. Trump’s pardon of the Hammonds continues his intimate rapprochement with his overwhelmingly white base of supporters. The rest of us await the President’s pardon of former Black Panthers and MOVE members who continue to languish in federal and state jails as political prisoners. They deserve nothing less than the empathy, compassion, and forgiveness that Mr. Trump has shown the Hammonds.