The acquittal of Ammon Bundy and six others involved in the armed takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge caused a surprising reaction on the liberal side of social media and the blogosphere. After years of defending violent protests, the Left was outraged that members of a group that threatened to “kill or be killed” were not convicted.
At the same time, liberal activists rallied around occupiers who lit fires that torched construction equipment working to install oil pipelines. Then, two weeks later, liberals again rose to defend aggressive protests that arose after Donald Trump was elected president. Who would have thought the Left still opposes violence during protests?
Over the past few years, liberals have condemned police presence near riots, criticized the use of tear gas, and defended or excused protesters’ acts of arson and looting. After all, protests such as those against Trump’s election, Laurel Raymond at Vox wrote, “play an important role in America’s democracy.”
“[I]s rioting so wrong? Riots are a necessary part of the evolution of society,” Darlena Cunha wrote at Time. Robert Stephens II, writing “in defense of the Ferguson riots” in The Jacobin, wrote, “The crowd was not irrational and apolitical. They were attempting to use this opportunity to address their broader political needs.” ThinkProgress quoted a rap group as saying, “Riots work.”
We Like Unrest, Except When We Don’t
Some of those same outlets published outraged articles bemoaning the fact that police hadn’t responded sooner to the violent occupation of the nature reserve, which ended up lasting more than a month. ThinkProgress, which had been concerned about the high cost of bail for people charged with smashing police cars, wrote nothing of the fact that Ammon and Ryan Bundy and their cohorts were flatly denied bail, saying the verdict that they were not guilty was a victory for lawlessness.
I agree. If the Bundy family had a problem with federal land policies, they should have protested peacefully. Picking up guns after your side loses a court ruling, as the pro-Bundy militia did in the earlier standoff on the federal land Bundy had been using tax-free, is an affront to rule of law. The environmental protesters who are trying to block a pipeline that has the proper permits are no different in that they also didn’t respect the results of multiple court cases that ruled against them.
Fires and Molotov cocktails can cause serious injury or death. That the authorities ultimately let Bundy’s militia achieve its goal of stifling the enforcement of the law may have caused them to think they could win again and encouraged Bundy to help with the Oregon occupation. I would have liked to have seen the National Guard called earlier to restore order, but I wonder what liberals, who bemoan the “militarization of police,” would have thought of that?
Liberals Excuse Some People But Blame Others
To excuse the riots there earlier this year, ThinkProgress pointed to “the economic devastation fueling the anger in Baltimore.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, if not defending the Baltimore rioters, at least tried to shift blame by also pointing to factors that “explain” the riots.
It’s hard to find a job, the factories left, people are angry, etc. You could write a sympathetic article about the poor white Trump supporters of western Pennsylvania with this kind of worn-out misery peddling. Indeed, the median income of the Seventh Congressional District ($38,885), where Gray lived, is just about the same as that of Pennsylvania’s Tenth ($35,996), whose representative, Tom Marino, was the first congressman to endorse Trump.
Comparing the Oregon occupiers to the pipeline protesters is, of course, an oversimplification. While more than 100 protesters in North Dakota have been arrested, they have not been tried yet. Nor is it true that all of the Oregon gang got off scot-free. Eleven have pled guilty, and more face trial in 2017.
Disappointing as the recent verdict may have been, it is the nature of the criminal justice system that trials do not always go the ways we wish they would. The government has to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, and sometimes they don’t do a good job making their case. Without hearing all the evidence and arguments presented, it’s tough to say definitively whether the jury made the right decision, but if they didn’t it wouldn’t be the first time a jury has made an inexplicable decision not to convict. Due process ought to be a right, not a “privilege.”
So, too, with the Baltimore riots have many of the accused gotten dropped charges, been acquitted, or received relatively light sentences. According to an analysis by Tricia Bishop of the Baltimore Sun, about 450 of the 550 people arrested during the riots have been released without significant charges. Half of those initially charged had charges dropped, and “Most sentences were for a few days.”
The Double Standard Is Based on Leftist Victim Categories
Why does ThinkProgress, et. al seem to have a double standard about violent protests depending on certain circumstances? The militia men were just “attempting to use this opportunity to address their broader political needs,” after all. The headline of ThinkProgress’s article on the acquittals makes clear the reason for their double standard: “White armed occupiers were acquitted. Native American activists were tear gassed.” Vox called the ruling an example of “white privilege in action.”
When police used tear gas to disperse rioters at a Keene State College party and a Ohio State championship celebration, liberals didn’t bemoan the use of riot control tactics. Could that be because the thugs rioting at those universities were mostly white?
Liberals like to compare the Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charlotte riots to the sports riots that sometimes break out after a team wins the championship, but what message are they sending with such comparisons? All riots that destroy innocent people’s property are wrong.
The Problem Is Identity Politics
To be sure, a number of Republicans who expressed sympathy or even support for Cliven Bundy and the militia also display a certain double standard. Some rural white conservatives privilege identity politics over principled application of standards. It is also worth remembering the last time a Democratic administration aggressively enforced the law against insurrectionists bent on not abiding by the law—Republicans investigated Bill Clinton for the deaths that resulted at Waco and Ruby Ridge when anti-government radicals bunkered down against law enforcement.
If Marilyn Mosby can claim to have “heard your call for ‘no justice, no peace’” when she announced charges against the six officers involved in the arrest and transit of Freddie Gray, then Republican politicians have heard the calls from protesters for less government control of land. Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz expressed sympathy for Cliven Bundy at the time. The Republican Party included in its platform this year a proposal to put some federal lands under the control of the states, and representatives Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop introduced a bill with that goal. As they say, “Riots work.”
The problem is identity politics. Principled conservatives would welcome liberals who really wanted to get tough on real crimes, rather than championing the cases of suspects like Sylville Smith, who approached officers with a stolen gun in hand. Conservatives, for their part, shouldn’t champion the causes of delinquents just because they happen to share political or cultural traits.
Unfortunately, groups like Black Lives Matter and Trump’s presidential campaign have worked to harden identity politics on both sides.