On Thursday, two protest movements based on land occupation played out very differently in the American West.
In a courthouse in Oregon, the leaders of an armed occupation of a federal wildlife preserve were acquitted on all charges, which included charges of conspiring to impede federal workers from their job and of possessing firearms on federal property.
These folks, pictured here possessing firearms in a federal facility, were just acquitted of possessing firearms in a federal facility. pic.twitter.com/V7Hf6XxTDA
— Gordie Loewen (@gordieloewen) October 28, 2016
Meanwhile, in North Dakota, heavily armed riot police used pepper spray, bean bags (which are similar to rubber bullets), and sirens on Native Americans protesting the construction of an oil pipeline on land they say is theirs by right of treaty.
— Unicorn Riot (@UR_Ninja) October 27, 2016
Both events — the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and the peaceful occupation of the land on which the Dakota Access Pipeline will be built — have been characterized as protests. But, in reality, they played out very differently.
In the first case, armed, out-of-state occupiers, led by Ammon Bundy, broke into the Malheur preserve, a popular bird sanctuary. Seizing control of the federal building for 41 days, they claimed to be protesting federal control of land they believe should be turned over to western states, and to the West’s private ranchers.
While they held the preserve, federal Bureau of Land Management employees were forced to telework or were placed on administrative leave. Local schools closed and then reopened but had to employ extra security and mental health counselors. Local police forces worked overtime, and extra security was brought in. The occupation cost the federal and local governments millions.
The Oregon occupiers were heavily armed. During the standoff, occupiers posted pictures of guns and of target practice to social media. Multiple participants told federal authorities, after arrest, that during the occupation they held target practice training near the refuge boat launch, and that they started carrying guns around the refuge. At the start of the occupation, they said they were willing to “kill or be killed.”
At trial, federal prosecutors displayed more than 30 guns that were seized after the standoff and 1,700 spent casings found on the reserve.
Yet despite having crossed state lines to seize federal property and “patrolling” said property with firearms, over the course of the occupation, the ranchers were largely left alone by the authorities. When the local sheriff first met Ammon Bundy, he greeted him with a handshake and offered him “safe transit” out of town if the occupiers left voluntarily.
— Beth Nakamura (@bethnakamura) January 7, 2016
There was one instance of deadly police action: Lavoy Finicum, one of the most colorful of the occupiers, was shot and killed by the police outside of the preserve. Bundy and his supporters have tried to characterize Finicum as a martyr, going so far as to compare his death to the shooting of Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old boy who was shot by Cleveland police less than two seconds after they saw him. Rice was playing with a toy gun.
Footage released by the FBI, however, shows Finicum reached twice toward his gun, and he very nearly ran over an officer with his SUV before being killed. In total, the encounter lasted nearly a half an hour.
For the most part, the occupation continued unmolested. The occupiers published their exploits widely on social media, and Ammon Bundy gave near-daily press conferences to reporters. Coverage of the armed occupation blanketed the news for weeks, where it was largely characterized as a “protest,” rather than an armed occupation.
This week, despite all evidence to the contrary, the leaders have been acquitted by a grand jury all charges.
Meanwhile, in North Dakota…
Contrast that to the protest currently playing out in North Dakota.
Native American tribes have been, for months, protesting against the construction of an oil pipeline upstream from the local Standing Rock Sioux reservation. The pipeline would move more than 500,000 barrels of fracked crude oil daily through the Dakotas and Iowa on the way to Illinois. A spill would have a disastrous effect on the Missouri river, which is the tribe’s sole water supply.
For most of the protest, the tribes and other protesters have camped out on federal land, occasionally protesting on the land now privately owned by Dakota Access, an arm of the natural gas and propane company that is building the pipeline. On Sunday, arguing that the land was given to their tribe in an 1800’s treaty, the protest moved for the first time into the direct path of the construction.
The protesters are reportedly unarmed. The majority of the time, the protest has been peaceful, though there have been repeated clashes with private security over the past few months. In September, security for Dakota Access were filmed using dogs and pepper spray on the protesters.
— Winnie Wong (@WaywardWinifred) September 4, 2016
And, in stark contrast to the tactics used by authorities in Oregon, the protesters on Thursday were met by the National Guard and heavily armed police in riot gear. Footage of the scene shows Humvees being used to herd protesters. Police allegedly used bean bags (which are similar to rubber bullets), sirens, and pepper spray against the protesters. According to local law enforcement, the activists set roadblocks on fire and threw rocks, logs, and molotov cocktails at the officers.
In another contrast to the Oregon occupation, the protest in North Dakota has been largely ignored by the major news networks.
Comparisons have already been made between the gentle treatment of the Oregon occupiers and other protesters, particularly when those protesters are people of color. In January, many on social media drew contrasts between the media coverage of the Oregon militants, which characterized them as “protesters” and sometimes called them “peaceful,” and coverage of Black Lives Matter protesters, who have been called “terrorists” and a “grave threat.” And, 30 years ago, a standoff similar to the Malheur occupation — but this time, with black occupiers — played out very differently. When armed members of the fringe anti-government group MOVE made a stand in a Philadelphia house, they were bombed and burned alive.
The colliding events on Thursday drive home this contrast even more strongly. In one state, white armed occupiers were cleared of all charges. In another, primarily peaceful Native American activists were met with riot police, military vehicles, and pepper spray, and more than 100 were arrested.
Notably, the land that ranchers in Oregon say had been taken from them had, indeed, been taken from someone: The tribe that originally occupied it. Native people spent nearly 6,000 years occupying the land in southeast Oregon before being forced out in 1870 by settlers and, eventually, the federal government.
In a January press conference, the Burns Paiute Tribal council said that the ranchers needed to “get the hell out.”