Tuesday, November 29, 2016

White privilege in the "not guilty" verdict of the Oregon vigilantes?

This news story about the armed militias that took over some federal land in Oregon got swamped by the presidential election.   While all that was happening, they had a trial and an acquittal on all charges.    This is a remarkable example of people clearly breaking the law, even filming themselves doing it -- and yet a sympathetic jury found them not guilty.

Writer German Lopez of Vox News thinks the verdict "is completely absurd.   His essay is worth considering, especially the question he raises about "white privilege."   Here in his own words:

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"Eight months after the nation watched an armed militia take over a wildlife refuge in Oregon to protest federal land ownership, a jury has come back and said that the militia members are “not guilty.” This includes not guilty of a charge that describes what everyone knows these militants did, considering that they live-streamed themselves doing it: conspiracy to prevent Bureau of Land Management and US Fish and Wildlife employees from doing their jobs at the wildlife refuge.

"Again, this is literally what they did. They armed themselves and took over a wildlife refuge, preventing federal workers from going into the facility and doing their jobs. Ammon Bundy, the militants’ leader, even participated in interviews in which he called for more people to join him in his cause.

"In fact, the militants staged their protest because they want to get federal employees out of these lands. The Bundys and other militants would like to see the federal government give up federal lands to locals. This, they argue, would free the territory of environmental regulations that they see as burdensome — but are meant to preserve endangered animals and nature — and enable more exploitation of the lands’ resources by allowing, for example, more unfettered farming, mining, and hunting.

"The defense argued there was no intent to keep federal employees off the refuge. But come on. An armed group occupied a federal building. Your imagination doesn’t have to stretch very far to realize what was happening.

"Yet a jury found them not guilty.

"It is impossible to ignore race here. This was a group of armed white people, mostly men, taking over a facility. Just imagine: What would happen if a group of armed black men, protesting police brutality, tried to take over a police facility and hold it hostage for more than a month? Would they even come out alive and get to trial? Would a jury find them and their cause relatable, making it easier to send them back home with no prison time?

"One doesn’t have to do much imagining here, either. The social science is pretty clear: People are much more likely to look at black people and see criminals and wrongdoers. They don’t get the privilege of innocence in the same way that white people — including these militants in Oregon — do."
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I certainly agree that white privilege is a real thing and that it often tilts justice in favor of white people and against people of color.    But I'm not sure this was such an open and shut, simplistic case of racism operating in that courtroom.

It's possible that there was another issue:   that some people in the community and on the jury agreed with the Bundys about federal land use, rather than putting it on the market for private ownership and development.   I would argue that it is first a dispute about public vs private ownership and, second, an issue of white privilege/black prejudice.

Still, the point is about a not-guilty verdict for a clear breaking of the law.   And that does raise the valid point that -- regardless of the crime -- white people do have a privilege that makes them far less likely to be convicted than would a black person for the same charges.  So I guess I agree about the differential racial treatment;   but I don't think the original case had anything to do with racism.   That was about land ownership, deregulation, etc.

Sometimes liberals, too, can get stuck on one issue and be a bit blind to the big picture.


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