Armed right-wing extremists occupied a federal building in Oregon late on Jan. 2. The white militants, from far-right, anti-government militias led by the infamous Bundy family, announced they would remain there indefinitely, and were willing to "kill or be killed if necessary."
The response of the federal government was lackluster, to put it mildly. Two days into the armed occupation, law enforcement authorities admitted they had no plans to deal with it.
Gracious, euphemistic media treatment echoed the paltry governmental response.
In response, social media and Op-Ed pages of newspapers were inundated with condemnations of white privilege and arguments that the far-right militants would have been violently removed if they were people of color.
There is a crucial point missing from many of the liberal hot takes on the Oregon paramilitary occupation, however. In their hyper-emphasis on white privilege, many are depoliticizing the situation.
But if they were leftists, even if they were still white, countless historical examples show they would be attacked, too.
That is to say, race is certainly a big factor; there is no doubt whatsoever about this. But it is not the sole factor. These aren't just any white people occupying a federal building; these are right-wing white people occupying a federal building. The U.S. state is much more accommodating and even supportive of the right.
If armed white radical leftists occupied a federal property and declared that they were expropriating it to be controlled by the working class, the SWAT team would doubtless be sent in.
This is because the U.S. state is a fundamentally right-wing institution — particularly today, at a time in which neoliberalism has been firmly entrenched for more than three decades.
In fact, it bears stressing that much of what the militants are calling for is actually supported by the U.S. state:
- The U.S. government favors privatization, which the armed militants are calling for.
- The U.S. government favors nationalism, which the armed militants flaunt in spades.
- The U.S. government favors constitutionalism, which the armed militants preach like the Bible.
Many of the people who work in the government would be more than happy to privatize federal lands and other properties. The Bureau of Land Management is chock full of conservatives, and has a long history of opposing left-wing movements — particularly environmental and indigenous ones.
This is the ultimate irony. The Bureau of Land Management is full of right-wingers pushing a pro-privatization and pro-corporate agenda, but hated by right-wingers who support this very agenda because it is a federal government institution.
None of this is in any way meant to deny the impact of white privilege in the armed Oregon occupation; it certainly is a big factor. Police brutality and state repression are much harsher on activists of color than they are on white activists.
The Black Panther Party was systematically infiltrated and destroyed by the U.S. government, and leaders like Fred Hampton were assassinated (although it should also be remembered that they were revolutionary socialists, not right-wingers).
The black liberation group MOVE was heinously massacred in 1985, when the U.S. government firebombed its Philadelphia headquarters, killing 11 people and destroying 65 homes (although, once more, they were radical leftists, not rightists).
The American Indian Movement was likewise violently crushed when it occupied Wounded Knee in 1973, with the U.S. government killing two activists and wounding 13 (although, yet again, they were on the left, not the right).
Like the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement today, these past grass-roots movements led by people of color were violently repressed. But the U.S. government feared these movements not just because it is racist (which it mostly definitely is, at a structural level), but also because they were calling for a radical change to the right-wing status quo. These movements were not just led by people of color; they were led by people of color who were radical leftists.
Again, this is not meant to downplay the influence of white supremacy in federal authorities' reaction to the armed Oregon occupation. But a brief look at history strongly suggests that, if the armed militants occupying the federal facility in Oregon were white leftists, and not white rightists, they would be crushed by the U.S. government.
Leftists have a long history of occupying public spaces. And even when white leftists aren't armed, they face torrents of repression and the roaring brutality of the state.
One does not need to look back far in history — not far at all. Occupy Wall Street was a predominately white movement, and was brutally repressed by police. The U.S. government aggressively cracked down on the peaceful Occupy Wall Street, arresting and brutalizing thousands of people.
How many Tea Party rallies have been broken up by police? Compare that to the enormous number of Occupy rallies that were violently dispersed, with activists rounded up and detained.
The U.S. government even went so far as to cover up the information on an alleged sniper assassination threat. To this day, it refuses to release records about the plot to murder unarmed, nonviolent Occupy Houston activists.
Environmental movements in the U.S. are also heavily white, and frequently occupy public and corporate spaces in protest of environmentally destructive policies. Groups like Greenpeace or Mountain Justice frequently carry out these forms of direct action -- yet their occupations are often quickly dispersed by police, with violence.
And, of course, there is the Kent State massacre, in which unarmed mostly white students protesting the U.S. military's bloody invasion of Cambodia were mowed down by the Ohio National Guard. Four students were killed, and nine were injured, some left disabled.
Yet the most powerful historical example of all can, in fact, be seen in the earlier left-wing version of today's "patriot" movements.
In the 1960s and '70s, left-wing white rural movements were violently repressed by the U.S. government, along with the left-wing movements led by people of color. The Young Patriots were a leftist grass-roots organization in Chicago that consisted of poor white activists from Appalachia, who often self-identified as "hillbillies." They were part of the radical leftist Rainbow Coalition (the original Rainbow Coalition, before it was later co-opted by Jesse Jackson), along with the Black Panthers, the Young Lords and the American Indian Movement.
The Patriot Party was a socialist group of white Appalachian activists that splintered off of the Young Patriots in the early 1970s and organized nationally, with branches in New York, Connecticut, D.C. and even Oregon. The Patriots often worked closely with the Black Panthers, who inspired them to make their own free breakfast programs and health clinics in poor predominately white communities. Like the Panthers, the Patriots were crushed by the government. FBI documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show how COINTELPRO spied on and infiltrated the movement, destroying it from the inside.
In their definitive book detailing the history of the movement, "Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times," authors Amy Sonnie and James Tracy note that, "For the majority of the Patriots, their own experience with political repression was nowhere near the punishment meted out upon Black radicals. Still, a mass arrest of the entire Patriots central committee led to the dissolution of the organization."
This is to say, leftist movements led by both Americans of color and white Americans have been ruthlessly quashed by the U.S. government. It is not just a matter of racism, but also politics and the hegemony of the right wing.
In other words, history indicates that the Oregon militia has faced no violent backlash not just because it is white, but also because it is right wing. For, once more, it is not just white people with guns taking over that wildlife refuge; it is right-wing white people with guns.
A sole focus on race depoliticizes the situation. Race is a big factor, and it should not by any means be overlooked, but it is part of a larger political framework.
In general, U.S. law enforcement authorities are going to be easier on people occupying federal properties who are making right-wing, pro-privatization demands, or any other kinds of demands that the U.S. state supports. Left-wing activists who call for public or worker control of or access to federal institutions, or for increased transparency in those institutions, bare the heavy brunt of the state.
That is to say, the U.S. government consistently clamps down much more heavily on left-wing protesters than it does on right-wing ones.
At the end of the day, the U.S. government does not see right-wing movements -- even far-right ones like those led by the Bundy family and his fellow militiamen -- as threatening as left-wing ones.
Black Lives Matter has been violently repressed by the government not just because it is a civil rights movement, but also because it has explicit left-wing demands that challenge firmly entrenched institutional powers in a way that right-wing protest movements like the Tea Party do not.
If the U.S. state truly considered the right-wing militants in Oregon a threat, their armed occupation would have ended immediately after it started — by force.
Instead of seeing this double standard simply in terms of white privilege, we should see the U.S. government's incredibly gracious and accommodating response to the armed occupation of a federal building by right-wing extremists as reflective of not just the U.S. state's racism, but also its fundamental conservatism.