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The Bundy brothers’ acquittal shows how white privilege perverts justice in the US

Multnomah County Sheriff's Office/Handout via Reuters
  • Marcie Bianco
By Marcie Bianco

Managing editor, the Clayman Institute at Stanford University

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

What do we think would happen if a vocal anti-government armed militia made up of black Americans took over federal property for nearly six weeks? What would “justice” look like?

These and similar hypothetical questions are worth contemplating in the wake of the recent acquittal of the Bundy Brothers, Ammon and Ryan, in addition to the five accomplices who participated in the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon. It was a verdict shocking both due to its denial of fact and its sanctifying of white male privilege. The verdict was so insanely gobsmacking, in fact, that even the judge had to ask upon reading the jury’s decision, “Did I read the verdict correctly?”

“Apparently it’s legal in America for heavily armed white terrorists to invade Oregon. Imagine if some black folk did this #OregonStandoff.” Montel Williams wrote in one of the most heavily retweeted comments about the court’s verdict. No doubt, in an age where unarmed black men, women, and children are indiscriminately killed by police officers and incarcerated by the so-called justice system, it is utterly amazing that armed white men (and one white woman) could unconstitutionally seize federal property and, so far, get away with it in a court of law.

In fact, American history provides its own answer to Williams’s hypothetical question. On May 2, 1967, a group of 30 Black Panthers, both men and women, armed with shotguns, pistols, and rifles, occupied California’s capitol building in Sacramento in protest of proposed legislation that came to be known as the Mulford Act. The law, which banned the open carrying of loaded firearms in public, was drafted by Republication state assemblyman Don Mulford in response to the establishment of the Black Panthers in 1966. Although the group of protesters exited the building that day without incident, several Panthers were later arrested on felony charges of conspiracy to disrupt a legislative session.

“Mulford’s legislation,” Nick Wing explained in a piece for the Huffington Post, “which became known as the ‘Panthers Bill,’ passed with the support of the National Rifle Association, which apparently believed that the whole ‘good guy with a gun’ thing didn’t apply to black people. California Gov. Ronald Reagan (R), who would later campaign for president as a steadfast defender of the Second Amendment, signed the bill into law.”

Luckily for the Bundys, America still loves its cowboys. But, let’s be clear, the mythic figure of the American cowboy is not black. In fact, the moment a black man (or woman) picks up a gun, they are deemed a threat—think Philando Castile. It doesn’t even have to be a real gun; a toy, in the eyes of the police, warrants a black person’s murder—think about the senseless murder of 12-year old Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy at a park when police jumped out of a moving vehicle and shot and killed him.

White male privilege, on the other hand, often means existing above the law, untouchable by the justice system—or at the very least handled with kid gloves (and maybe a trip to Burger King). On Oct. 27, the same day that the seven Malheur militia members were acquitted, over one hundred Dakota Access Pipeline protestors—many of whom are Native American—were arrested for occupying federal land in protest of the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline. As Jake Flanagin wrote in a piece for Quartz, “America is inclined to treat armed white gunmen with much more respect and deference than the Dakota Access Pipeline protestors.”

The charges against the Bundys’ militia included conspiracy, possessing firearms on federal property, and impeding and intimidating federal workers from doing their job. Facts, including a bounty of visual and documented evidence, failed to sway a jury of peers. As we witness daily in the Age of Trump, inconvenient facts can always be explained away. For example, defense lawyer Matthew Schindler argued that the militia’s firearms were not intended as visual threats of violence, but mere accoutrements of the American cowboy: “For these defendants and these people, having a firearm has nothing to do with a threat or anything else,” he said, as quoted in the Washington Post. “It’s as much a statement of their rural culture as a cowboy hat or a pair of jeans. I think the jury believed at the end of the day that that’s why the guns were there.”

Despite what any lawyer may try to attest, the Bundys are not innocent. Far from it—they are domestic terrorists. Federal prosecutors seized “more than 30 guns,” the Associated Press reported, and “[a]n FBI agent testified that 16,636 live rounds and nearly 1,700 spent casings were found” during the trial. When they occupied the reserve, “federal Bureau of Land Management employees were forced to telework or were placed on administrative leave,” Laurel Raymond reported for ThinkProgress. This “kill and be killed” cowboy mentality also resulted in the closing of local schools, which were only allowed to reopen upon employing “extra security and mental health counselors,” Raymond continued. “Local police forces worked overtime, and extra security was brought in. The occupation cost the federal and local governments millions.”

If the textbook definition of terrorism is the use of violence to incite fear in order to achieve a particular political goal, then this sounds a lot like terrorism.

The problem is many white Americans remain incapable of deracializing terrorism in their mindset. To be clear, white people can commit terrorist acts: Think the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski; Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber; Eric Rudolph, the 1996 Atlantic Olympic Park Bomber; Wade Michael Page, who in 2012 killed six people at an attack on a Sikh Temple; and, more recently, Dylann Roof, who murdered nine black men and women at a church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015—to name just a few.

Of course, if Americans did deracialize terrorism, then they would also have to acknowledge the long history of white terrorism against people of color, from lynching to current forms of police brutality. “In America’s contemporary imagination, terrorism is foreign and brown,” Brit Bennett wrote in her 2015 New York Times article, “White Terrorism Is as Old As America.” This cognitive dissonance is essential to keeping the sanctity of the white mentality intact.

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