Yesterday, in an attempt to make some sense of the situation taking place in Oregon, where a self-styled “militia” has taken over a federal building in armed protest, I wrote a short post on Facebook noting the similarities and differences between this incident, and the MOVE siege in Philadelphia in 1985.
As is often the case on social media, response was strong in both directions.
So when I woke at 2 o’clock this morning, unable to fall back asleep, I attributed my sudden onset insomnia to a troubling by the Holy Spirit. I hadn’t said everything I should have said.
The original post I made linked to the NPR article “Philadelphia Marks 30th Anniversary of MOVE Bombing” (Woods). I wrote:
“On May 13, 1985, after a 24-hour siege by armed African-American activists, police dropped a firebomb which killed 11 people. Today, in Oregon, an armed group of armed (sic) white Americans is occupying a federal building in protest and the FBI is ‘carefully monitoring’ the situation. If the group consisted of Mexican-Americans, or African-Americans, or Muslim-Americans, this would be over by now.”
Clearly these two situations have a lot that they do not have in common. I concede that I was not in Philadelphia in 1985, and my understanding of that event is incomplete. A dear friend wrote me privately in response to my post, teaching me that MOVE had a long and violent history in this city, and they tormented their neighbors with profanity and violence. It is also true that the city of Philadelphia did an egregious job in dealing with this group, and the loss of life on both sides is something we should lament, particularly the 5 children who died in the firebombing. With MOVE, there is plenty of blame to go around.
Yet with 2015 in the rearview mirror, a year in which police brutality and policing tactics in general have been at the very forefront of the American consciousness, we have the responsibility to reexamine our history through that same lens. As Jeanette Woods notes, “Violent, overzealous policing against the black community had been a complaint across Philadelphia for decades,” which led in part to the MOVE siege in 1985.
In some respects, the media and white America have been treating this recent spotlighting of police shootings as a new and troubling trend.
Let us be clear: people of color in this country have been stripped of their land, liberty, and lives for generations. This is not a new story.
So when a group of armed white Americans who are stylizing themselves a “militia” take over a federal building, and the siege goes on for one, two, three days (as of this writing, it has been approximately three days), we must look at the seeming double standard that exists between situations like MOVE and the current standoff in Oregon.
I do not fault the Oregon police and federal agencies involved in their handling of this situation. In fact, restraint is probably the best tool at their disposal right now. Rushing in would likely only lead to bloodshed and turning these terrorists into martyrs.
At the same time, as I look at our collective history through the lens of privilege, I return to my original question: if this group were people of color, and not a group of white men, would this siege still be ongoing?
This group has stated that they are willing to kill and be killed. They have connections to other armed standoffs in recent history. Two of the leaders are sons of “Cliven Bundy, who notably took part in an armed standoff with the federal Bureau of Land Management, or BLM in Nevada in 2014” (Dwyer).
Obviously this situation, like MOVE, is wrought with complicated histories and many twists and turns (note: the NPR article I reference in the paragraph above is an excellent analysis and worth a read when you get a moment). But what is not complicated is the privilege these men are enjoying by simply being white. They have not been oppressed in ways that threaten their very lives. They are upset with federal law that limits their grazing rights, federal law that protects our shared heritage so that we might have something to pass down to our grandchildren.
In my criticism of policing tactics, I am not defending MOVE. But we do need to understand the correlation between these two events.
Make no mistake: this group (I refuse to call them a militia, and I am loathe to call them protestors), like MOVE, is terrorizing its neighbors. They are clinging to violence as a means of protecting their privilege, unlike MOVE who was determined to seek black liberation and “demonstrat[e] against racism, police brutality, and other issues they consider important” (Wikipedia), though their methods of achieving this were reckless and damaging.
There are many similarities. There are many differences.
For now in Oregon, no one has died. I pray that things can be resolved without bloodshed. I lament that our world today still reverts to violence to solve our problems. I’m not sure I have made any sense of the madness, but I continue to lift up my voice in prayer: help us, Lord Jesus, and come quickly. Amen.
Grace and peace to all of you.
Dwyer, Colin. “Of Ranchers And Rancor: The Roots Of The Armed Occupation In Oregon.” NPR. NPR, 3 Jan. 2016. Web. 05 Jan. 2016. <http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/01/03/461831737/of-ranchers-and-rancor-the-roots-of-the-armed-occupation-in-oregon>.
Woods, Jeanette. “Philadelphia Marks 30th Anniversary Of MOVE Bombing.”NPR. NPR, 13 May 2015. Web. 05 Jan. 2016. <http://www.npr.org/2015/05/13/406505210/philadelphia-marks-30th-anniversary-of-move-bombing>.