Mary von Aue

Not long after extremists stormed the Malheur Wildlife Refuge did local news begin to cover a baffling, if not anxious scene. The anti-government “militia” was no stranger to the Burns, Oregon community, with ongoing interactions with federal officials to protest the incarceration of two ranchers, but Saturday marked a turning point in the dialogue: what was billed as a peaceful protest became an armed takeover of a federal building. Sheriff David Ward called the peaceful rally a ruse, claiming "these men had alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.”

Yet, with local news sounding the alarms and west coast TV stations relaying videos of angered white men calling on the nation to take up arms against the government and join the movement, national news was silent. There were no red alerts, there were no travel warnings, there were no curfews. 

Social media bridged the lull between local and national coverage, where demand for mainstream reporting had become so overwhelming, national news began their coverage with responses to their previous silence by presenting the situation as benign. CNN law enforcement analyst Art Roderick advised the nation to “wait it out and see what they’ve got to say,” using the rationale that “if we wait it out, things will calm down and everyone will go home.” 

CNN host Brian Stelter’s language was no less bizarre when he commented, “you know this is going to become politicized,” since few events could be more political than an armed militia taking over a federal building. But the most telling part of this interview was when Roderick responded to social media’s use of the word ‘extremism’ and the public’s outrage over how this takeover is downplayed due to the criminals’ whiteness. Roderick argued that the armed protestors of Oregon shouldn’t be treated as harshly as protesters for the Black Lives Matter movement or even American Muslims on the grounds that this militia “isn’t destroying property or looting anything.” Reminder: This is an armed group that stole an entire federal building. What’s more, the very crux of this protest began because of the federal government’s decision to incarcerate two men for setting fire to federal property.

Sifting through the media’s avoidance of appropriate words such as extremism, terrorism, anti-government, or even basic words, like dangerous, here’s what we know: 

According to the Oregonian, 300 “militia men” from several states across the country came to Burns to protest the impending imprisonment of two Harney County ranchers: Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven. They are scheduled to report to federal prison on Monday after they were convicted of arson in 2012.  

Following the protest march— an event where no police were visible— key militia leaders drove across the high desert basin south of Burns to the Malheur Refuge. The takeover included the entire Malheur Refuge compound, its headquarters, a museum, homes and the access road. The refuge is operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but no employees were on duty during Saturday’s takeover. In a phone interview with local news, Ammon Bundy and his brother Ryan Bundy said they aren’t looking to hurt anyone, but would not rule out violence if police try to remove them

Ammon Bundy, son of the Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who became a right-wing folk hero for his confrontation with federal authorities in Nevada, has been named the leader of the militia. He has said in multiple interviews that this occupation is a response to the federal government’s oppression of local people by controlling land and demands that federal land to be returned to Harney County’s ranchers. Other militia leaders include Jon Ritzheimer, who has made headlines as an anti-Islamic rally organizer and for his website Rogue Infidel, which “leads the fight against Islam” by selling anti-Muslim shirts and bumper stickers. Ryan Payne is also a key player, an Army veteran from Montana who supported the Bundy family during the Nevada Standoff. Payne has been outspoken in claiming that under the Constitution, the federal government has no legal right to Harney County land.

So far, neither the Harney County Sheriff’s Office, nor the Oregon State Police or any other law enforcement agencies have approached the Malheur Refuge. Presumably, the FBI will be tasked with some responsibility as the refuge is federal property, but a plan has not been announced to the media.

The Harney County community has been outspoken in their anger over the occupation, which has had polarizing consequences for the militia remaining in Burns. As a safety measure, schools in the Burns area will remain closed the entire week. There even seems to be some splintering within the militia, as many members have issued statements on Saturday denouncing the occupation and claiming that they knew nothing of plans to take over the refuge.

Local news has provided the most thorough coverage to date, given their intimate knowledge of the Hammond case and its history of dissidents. The mainstream media’s coverage has been instructive largely for the language it explicitly avoids. These armed criminals have somehow been absolved of the terms terrorist or extremist despite fitting some of these definitions verbatim of Webster’s Dictionary. 

What we know is that this militia is armed, has seized and occupied federal land, and has threatened the police with violence. The media’s reluctance to condemn such acts is now painfully echoed in this week’s verdict for Tamir Rice’s killer, and the reminder that words such as “thug” and “threat” are applied to an unarmed 12 year old more readily than a militia of armed men. Muslim communities have pointed out that simply praying on a beach sent Florida officials into a frenzy, yet an armed takeover of a federal building gets presented as non-threatening. The media’s reluctance to define a blatant criminal act as such reflects our intentional downplaying of white violence. CNN analyst Art Roderick insisted that we must have a dialogue with these individuals threatening violence, but would he give the leaders of Black Lives Matter the same opportunity for discourse? He described the Hammond’s act of arson as “not destroying property” and the subsequent takeover of the federal building as “not looting anything.” That’s not downplaying the news, that’s defying the English language.  Before officials can engage with this militia in any form of dialogue, perhaps we should question our ability to speak at all.

Mary von Aue is a freelance writer based in New York. She holds an MA from Columbia University, where she studied classical Islamic literature and the effects of the water crisis in Palestine, a topic she investigated while working in Deheishe Refugee Camp. Mary has lived in 6 countries and writes about history, policy and culture. Twitter @von_owie