Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Oath Keepers in Ferguson

In the wave of protests surrounding the one-year anniversary of the watershed shooting of Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, a new actor has arrived on the scene.

The Oath Keepers, perhaps better known to all of us as the rancher Cliven Bundy's armed militia when he stood off against the federal Bureau of Land Management after pretty clearly violating federal law for decades by not paying grazing fees for his cattle (the irony of seeing hardcore libertarians defend a guy's "right" to mooch off of government resources--the land--for decades was not lost on me).

Wait, Cliven Bundy, you say?  The same Cliven Bundy who openly mused that African-Americans would have been better off if they had remained enslaved?  Yep, that's him.  And meanwhile, CBS News does a solid, if perfunctory job of outlining how the Oath Keepers group was born amid the dearth of the Northwest's usual array of white supremacy groups after the predominant Idaho-based Aryan Nation went the way of the dinosaurs in 2000.

So...a right-wing militia group with both present ties to both white supremacists (Bundy) and historical ties to white supremacist groups (Aryan Nation) happens to show up in Ferguson amidst largely peaceful protests of a young black man being killed by a white police officer.

What possible room for ill intent or bad faith could there be on the part of the Oath Keepers?

For the record, they claim they are there to protect the interests of Alex Jones, a nutjob conspiracy theorist who believes the federal government was behind both the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11, and who thinks the Apollo moon landings were staged.  Hey, I report, you decide.

In doing so, the Oath Keepers, by arriving in camo gear and openly carrying their assault rifles, were, according to St. Louis County police chief, being " both unnecessary and inflammatory."  (Same CBS link above.)

But they may have also--thoroughly unintentionally, I am sure--become a means for making the case for the racial justice being sought by the Black Lives Matter movement.  Just as C.S. Lewis says a person with ill intent can still serve God as an unwitting tool, so too do I genuinely believe that the Oath Keepers may have just unknowingly served the purpose of actual, authentic racial reconciliation.

Because you had better bet your bottom dollar that if a majority black militia group like, I don't know, the New Black Panthers, had arrived in Ferguson at such a sensitive point in time as this, they would have been confronted by police faster than a cowboy in a saloon.  The Oath Keepers were not fired upon in the Bundy standoff, nor were they directly confronted in Ferguson the same way the protesters have been.

For, as Patricia Bynes, a Ferguson committeewoman, reported to NBC News, the police saw the Oath Keepers descend on the scene, assault weapons in full view, and did not a damn thing, even though the county police chief described their presence as "inflammatory."

In other words, a majority white--and arguably white supremacist--militia was allowed by police to openly intimidate peaceful protesters with their assault weapons, whereas protesters for a cause called "Black Lives Matter," and who were not at least visibly armed, got treated like this by police:

Really watch that clip.  The protester is retreating from police with hands up in a gesture of surrender, before being body slammed onto the concrete from behind.  That's not how a non-threatening person ought to ever be taken into custody.

This might be the clearest instance we might ever get of disparate treatment by law enforcement as an example of white privilege.  About as many independent variables as can be accounted for are: the location is exactly the same, the law enforcement agencies coordinating together are the same (meaning this isn't a case of comparing St. Louis law enforcement with, say, the LAPD), and this is all happening almost simultaneously over the last few days.  The one independent variable that truly remains, the one that genuinely stands out, that jumps up and down, that screams out like God in the burning bush to Moses, demanding to be recognized, is the skin color of the people.

Which means that--and I know I say this as a white man largely on the outside; I am well aware of my own privilege in saying what I am about to say, which is: maybe the presence of the Oath Keepers, and the photographs of them making it onto news wires around the nation, might actually put on full display, with no other independent variables for excuse-makers to hide behind, that we do indeed suffer from a real and damaging double standard when it comes to race in our country.

I don't expect everyone to be able to see that reality, of course, least of all the Oath Keepers themselves, even as by being there and cowing the protesters, they are ironically violating one of their own core principles: that they do not stand in the way of the citizenry's right to peaceably assemble, or to petition the government for a redress of grievances. (NBC News link above.)

No, some will surely be in too deep to see their self-imposed blinders and prejudices for what they are.  But for the rest of us--those people who, say, genuinely cherish their local police force but are troubled about what they're hearing in stories from across the country, or who want to give their officers the benefit of the doubt but don't know what to make of the genuinely disturbing video footage coming out from dashcams and body cameras--those folks who are genuinely, in good faith, truly on the fence, they are who I have faith in and hope for.

I am hoping, longing, praying, that maybe they can see some of these images, side-by-side, of the free rein abdicated by a militarized police force to the militarized Oath Keepers and of the harshness meted out by that same militarized police force to the very much unarmed, non-militarized Black Lives Matter protesters, and at least empathize with what the protests are trying to achieve, if not outright sympathize.

The spirit of the protests in Ferguson, and of the outcry against the deaths of far too many people of color since Michael Brown, is not to threaten you or me.  It is to ensure, as we have claimed hollowly throughout our nation's history with varying degrees of inauthenticity and falsehood, equal justice under the law.  Nothing more, nothing less.

My deep desire right now is for you, dear reader, to see what is at present the profoundly different treatment meted out to two different entities, with as few other variables as possible aside from the majority color of their skin, and to recognize why our brothers and sisters of color are pleading, demanding, and calling out for racial justice with increasingly loud and vehement cries.

For after Cain killed Abel in Genesis, God spoke to Cain and said that Abel's blood still cried out to God from the very ground upon which Abel had died.

The cries of a brother's blood reached God's ears.  May they, at long last, reach our own.

Vancouver, Washington
August 11, 2015

Image courtesy of sojo.net