Commentary

From Oregon to Wounded Knee

In my home state of Oregon, a group of armed, radical militants have seized federal property.

The dangers of the so-called militia movement should not be underestimated. They’re heavily armed, utterly unconcerned with the rule of law, and looking for any excuse to pick a fight. Unhappy with the U.S. Constitution’s clause establishing federal supremacy over state law, they’ve chosen to take over a wildlife refuge on public land. Their cause is, ostensibly, defense of two Oregon ranchers sentenced to prison for arson – two Oregon ranchers who, by the way, don’t want them there.

Days into the standoff, government and law enforcement are keeping mum about what response will be forthcoming. To date, no real effort to end the confrontation has happened.

Others have pointed out how different the response might be if this were a group of Muslims or Central American refugees. (As someone who grew up Mormon in Oregon, I also wonder where the calls are for mainstream Latter-Day Saints to distance themselves from these seditious radicals, many of whom use perversions of theology to justify their actions.)

There’s another recent historical parallel, though, involving another group with actual life-or-death concerns about federal encroachment on their property.

If there is any group in America with legitimate grievances about theft of private property, it’s our continent’s native people. In 1973, a group of American Indians also occupied territory as partly symbolic, partly substantive action. Thus began 71 tense days of occupation at Wounded Knee.

The tribal members were armed, like the Oregon militants. Unlike the Oregon militants, they had read and understood the Constitution of the United States, which declared that their treaties were the supreme law of the land. I imagine they had a good handle on the federal supremacy clause, too.

Unlike today, the government’s response was swift: Armed marshals, FBI agents and armored vehicles surrounded Wounded Knee. In fact, the Department of Justice sent out a force of 50 marshals two days before the occupation happened, just in case. The armed sides became entrenched the day after the occupation began on Feb. 27, 1973.

Historians Ian Record and Ann Pearse Hocker describe “barricades of paramilitary personnel armed with automatic weapons, snipers, helicopters, armored personnel carriers equipped with .50-caliber machine guns, and more than 130,000 rounds of ammunition.” Shooting was steady from both sides.

The Wounded Knee occupying force sent out a call for people to join them. From North Carolina came Frank Clearwater, a Cherokee with a pregnant wife. The day after Clearwater arrived, he was shot in the head with a federal bullet and died.

My two main points are simply these: first, the Oregon militants are not patriots. This is a group of irrational fanatics whose wilfully inaccurate readings of the Constitution and religious texts are excuses to commit violence. We must not ignore, or worse, whitewash their potential for violence.

Second, we cannot ignore the role that race plays in the response to the Oregon militants. Of course the FBI and U.S. Marshals learned something in the wake of Wounded Knee, Waco, and Ruby Ridge. But we must also acknowledge that we live in an era when it is legal and, in some quarters, acceptable to shoot an unarmed black child like Tamir Rice, or to choke and then deny aid to a black man for selling single cigarettes. Race has consequences (or, for privileged groups, benefits) that play out across the news every day.

We’ve known about this particular strain of anti-government activity for years, even decades. But unlike the Wounded Knee event, there’s no law enforcement response in place days before the trouble starts. Days after, there’s not even a response – let alone an armed-to-the-teeth response.

Consider how this looked when the occupiers looked different. Maybe there is a good reason for how the armed, anti-American, and above all white protesters have been treated. It seems more likely that there’s a bad one.


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