After an armed militia seized a federal building in Oregon — and proclaimed they’re willing to kill and be killed if necessary — the initial headlines about the incident suggested they’re simply peaceful protesters exercising their right to assemble.
This weekend, radical militia members descended on an Oregon town to protest the conviction of two local ranchers facing multiple years in prison for setting fire to federal land. The right-wing protesters say that the federal government shouldn’t have so much jurisdiction over land use.
In order to provoke a standoff with federal officials over this point, at least a dozen “heavily armed men” broke into the empty headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon on Saturday evening and refused to leave. Ammon Bundy, a spokesman for the group, told reporters that the militia “would not rule out violence” if officials attempt to remove them from the refuge building.
Shortly after news broke of the occupation, the Associated Press sparked criticism for writing a mild headline that framed the incident as a “peaceful” gathering of protesters performing an “action” of civil disobedience.
The AP has since changed its headline to remove the word “peaceful,” though it still doesn’t reference the potential for violence in Oregon. The story is now titled: “Militia members occupy U.S. building in Oregon after protest.”
Even local officials who are working to counter the ongoing occupation have been careful to emphasize the “peaceful” nature of the situation. “After the peaceful rally was completed today, a group of outside militants drove to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, where they seized and occupied the refuge headquarters,” Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said in a statement released on Saturday night. “A collective effort from multiple agencies is currently working on a solution. For the time being please stay away from that area.”
It’s a sharp departure from the way that other protests are characterized for the public. For instance, the racial justice activists affiliated with the Black Lives Matter are often labeled as “threat actors” and accused of inciting violence against police officers, even though the movement is largely nonviolent. In some cases, police have used excessive force against Black Lives Matter protesters, deploying riot gear and tear gas to counter the apparent threat posed by the unarmed activists taking to the streets.
But even when white people are suspected of committing violent crimes, there’s evidence they aren’t subject to the same scrutiny or perceived as the same level of threat. Indeed, armed white people are more likely to be taken alive into police custody rather than shot and killed by cops. And although armed white men are arguably the biggest threat to Americans’ safety — right-wing terrorists have killed more people than “homegrown jihadists” since September 11 — the mainstream media typically isn’t comfortable labeling them as domestic terrorists.
Several leaders of the militia group currently occupying the building in Oregon are related to Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher whose armed standoff with the federal Bureau of Land Management made national headlines in 2014. At the time, Sen. Harry Reid (D) did go as far as to call his supporters terrorists.