During their weeks-long occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, armed militants have declared their intention to return the federal land to its “rightful owners.” They’ve also made it apparent that by “rightful owners,” they weren’t talking about the Burns Paiute tribe, whose ancestral lands encompass the reserve. And on Wednesday, they made their priorities clear when they bulldozed a path through a Burns Paiute archaeological site.
They are desecrating and destroying sacred land. They have posted video of themselves pawing through Native American cultural artifacts preserved and archived at the refuge. They are arguably violating federal law and a treaty dating back to 1868. This has not spurred law enforcement into action. It can be inferred that the government’s fear of these armed white men holding the refuge hostage outweighs their respect for the Burns Paiute culture preserved within, or else they would finally take some kind of action to end the occupation.
I am not saying that said action should include any kind of charging in or any kind of blazing guns. For that matter, I haven’t encountered anyone who actually does. Most reasonable people recognize that wholesale death and destruction, even a little bit, are bad things. But there’s restraint, and then there’s leaving the Burns Paiute tribe to watch their culture getting crushed under bulldozer treads.
During the 2015 Baltimore protests following the death of Freddie Gray, a group of protesters looted and burned a CVS store — which is a store much like 7,600 other CVS stores in the U.S. The next day, the National Guard arrived. (Indeed, pretty much any time black protesters so walk as march past private property, they’re met with force. In Ferguson in 2014, protesters marching literally unarmed and with their hands in the air were met with urban police tanks, teargas, and rubber bullets.) None of that is to say that the Oregon militants should also be subject to that kind of force — again, loss of life and destruction of property are things we want to avoid. But the question of what law enforcement is willing to protect, and who they’re willing to hurt in order to do it, remains.
These militants know they aren’t going to face interference from law enforcement because they never have before (although the standoff in Nevada was at least attended by a handful of sheriff’s deputies and BLM rangers). “Restraint,” in this case, has become not just moving cautiously but actually doing nothing at all. If these militants weren’t armed, if they hadn’t expressed a willingness to take lives, if they didn’t have the memory of Waco and Ruby Ridge to hide behind like a shield, the Burns Paiute land and artifacts might be as revered as a CVS in Baltimore. (Then again, maybe not.) But as long as they continue to receive the kind of “restraint” they’ve enjoyed for the past three weeks, the militants are going to keep bulldozing their way through the reserve in the name of the land’s “rightful owners.”
Guns don’t need to blaze. But a visit from a sheriff’s deputy carrying a white flag to politely ask them to leave the fences where they are, please, thank you, might not be unwelcome — if it’s okay with them, of course. Whatever works for their schedule.