Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Double Standard: Cliven Bundy Standoff and Race

We live in a world in which black men are "accidentally" shot multiple times because police thought that a wallet looked like a gun. We live in a world where black teens climbing trees have guns drawn on them by police who feel threatened or more likely just wanted to put the fear of God into someone they viewed in a negative light, despite their tender age. We live in a world where black people stopped, not arrested but just stopped, by police are more likely to have force used against them. So if some black people who were members of what some people considered to be a fringe religious or political group decided that they weren't going to pay taxes or fees on commercial activity and ignored court orders to do so while continuing to engage in illegal activity and threatening law enforcement officials, well the response would likely be swift and bloody, probably something like this. Most Americans, regardless of where their sympathies lay, would point out that disobeying court orders and drawing down on police officers really isn't very smart unless you're ready to go all out. 

And if you are ready to shed blood well you've either got guts and are quite dedicated or are quite reckless and dumb. If you tell local law enforcement, state police and the United States government to bring it, well don't be surprised or offended when they do indeed bring it. This is obvious to most people, at least when it's black people stirring up a fuss.

But recently in Nevada we saw the spectacle of Cliven Bundy, a rancher, refusing to pay the proper government fees for letting his cattle graze on government land and also refusing to stop his cattle from grazing on government land. He claimed that he and his had been doing it for decades and that he didn't recognize the authority of the Federal government. The proverbial stuff hit the fan after the federal government impounded some of Bundy's cattle.
Flat on his belly in a sniper position, wearing a baseball cap and a flak jacket, a protester aimed his semi-automatic rifle from the edge of an overpass and waited as a crowd below stood its ground against U.S. federal agents in the Nevada desert.
He was part of a 1,000-strong coalition of armed militia-men, cowboys on horseback, gun rights activists and others who rallied to Cliven Bundy's Bunkerville ranch, about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas, in a stand-off with about a dozen agents from the federal Bureau of Land Management.
The rangers had rounded up hundreds of Bundy's cattle, which had been grazing illegally on federal lands for two decades. Bundy had refused to pay grazing fees, saying he did not recognize the government's authority over the land, a view that attracted vocal support from some right-wing groups.
Citing public safety, the BLM retreated, suspending its operation and even handing back cattle it had already seized. No shots were fired during the stand-off, which Bundy's triumphant supporters swiftly dubbed the "Battle of Bunkerville," but the government's decision to withdraw in the face of armed resistance has alarmed some who worry that it has set a dangerous precedent and emboldened militia groups.

I can often sympathize in theory with people who think that the federal government and law enforcement in general has become too large and too powerful. Whether it's CPS mandarins seizing children because they disagree with the parents' medical or naming decisions, or alphabet agencies descending on a landowner's property to prevent him making some routine changes there is definitely room to fine tune and/or reduce the authority of the federal and local polity over the individual. Unfortunately many of the people on the right who claim to feel that way virtually never show any sympathy for black people who run afoul of federal or state government law enforcement. Then we usually hear a predictable rant about "law and order", "family breakdown", "the need to support the thin blue line" or any other number of oft racialized tropes. Funny. Remember that Fox news and other right wing outlets had the vapors over members of the New Black Panther Party standing near polling stations. This was spun as voter intimidation and black thugs and threats and AG Holder conspiracy and so on. Yet these same media outlets celebrate white men pointing guns at federal agents. Let that sink in a little won't you? If I am stopped by the police and do not have both hands in sight at all times there's a good chance I might be tased, beaten or worse. Yet a white man and his buddies who were ready to shoot at law enforcement walk away clean.

It's also very important to remember that Bundy is not in fact fighting for the right to do something on his land. No. He doesn't own the land in question. It's federal land. So Bundy is no different than someone who enters a federal park, throws a lot of trash all over the place, refuses to clean up after himself and when told to do so has his friends pull guns on the park rangers. This is not political protest. It's thuggery. How can we tell the difference? Well one of the easiest ways is to look to Kant's categorical imperative. Are Bundy and his right wing supporters willing to: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law

I doubt it. 

If environmentalists showed up with guns to stop fracking, if Native Americans showed up with guns to stop mining, if Black people showed up with guns to stop police brutality, if Latinos showed up with guns to stop deportations, if feminists showed up with guns to ensure that a defendant accused of rape was convicted regardless of the evidence, the right wing would go ballistic. And police would no doubt call that bet of violence and raise it quite a bit. Nobody considers those sorts of "marginalized" groups to be the proper descendants of American revolutionaries. Believe that. We can't have a system where political decisions are made based on who can put more button men in the street at any given point in time. In the same way I'm critical of people trying to physically prevent deportations, I'm just as critical of Bundy and his supporters. If you don't like the law, work to change it. Convince people that it's wrong. Blanket the media with your arguments. But when you reach for your gun and start claiming you don't recognize the federal government, that my friend is a different conversation. 

The BLM made a big mistake backing down to Bundy and his supporters. It may have been done for political reasons in an election year. It may have been done because some government agent somewhere lacks the normal amount of testosterone. I don't know. But I do know that when you submit to a bully, all you're going to get is more bullying. This is going to give certain people more swagger and recklessness, guaranteed.


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