As of Sunday afternoon, The Washington Post called them “occupiers.” The New York Times opted for “armed activists” and “militia men.” And The Associated Press put the situation this way: “A family previously involved in a showdown with the federal government has occupied a building at a national wildlife refuge in Oregon and is asking militia members to join them.”
Not one seemed to lean toward terms such as “insurrection,” “revolt,” anti-government “insurgents” or, as some on social media were calling them, “terrorists.” When a group of unknown size and unknown firepower has taken over any federal building with plans and possibly some equipment to aid a years-long occupation — and when its representative tells reporters that they would prefer to avoid violence but are prepared to die — the kind of almost-uniform delicacy and the limits on the language used to describe the people involved becomes noteworthy itself.
It is hard to imagine that none of the words mentioned above — particularly “insurrection” or “revolt” — would be avoided if, for instance, a group of armed black Americans took possession of a federal or state courthouse to protest the police.
If a group of armed Muslims took possession of a federal building or even its lobby to protest calls to surveil the entire group, it’s even more doubtful they could avoid harsher, more-alarming labels.
In fairness to those assembled in Oregon, it is true that there have been no reports of actual violence, injury or anyone being held inside the Oregon building against their will.
And in the interim, some may feel particularly inclined to take real care with the language used to describe the situation so as not to inflame it or offend people who, in some cases, have already been troubled by the decision to charge a father and son pair of ranchers with arson under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. The charge not only carries what many of the rancher’s supporters believe to be an unjust five-year jail term, but it brings the very same T-word into the mix.
For those who know the father and son — Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven Hammond — personally, it is understandable that they would disagree vehemently with any government action that implies that the men they know as engaged members of the community are terrorists. But one really cannot help but wonder where similar outrage lives when data clearly indicate that black Americans are far more likely than white ones to face serious charges and jail time rather than misdemeanor penalties for resisting arrest.
Beyond that seeming incongruity, the Hammonds are not among the occupiers. The man who has helped to organize the building occupation in Oregon is Ammon Bundy. Bundy is the son of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who engaged in a standoff in 2014 with the government over grazing rights. And the younger Bundy has, again, described the occupiers as “armed” and prepared to die.
The armed occupation of a federal building might be what Bundy considers an assertion of rights and a mere gathering in a taxpayer-financed space. But it would seem to contain the real risk of violence, serious injury or even death.
Deliberate language choices are always a wise and reasonable move. That is especially true when telling stories of conflict with government and political protests. But the incredibly limited and relatively soft range of words in wide use Sunday seems to extend beyond all of that. The descriptions of events in Oregon appear to reflect the usual shape of our collective assumptions about the relationship between race and guilt — or religion and violent extremism — in the United States.
White Americans, their activities and ideas seem always to stem from a font of principled and committed individuals. As such, group suspicion and presumed guilt are readily perceived and described as unjust, unreasonable and unethical.
The sometimes-coded but increasingly overt ways that some Americans are presumed guilty and violence-prone while others are assumed to be principled and peaceable unless and until provoked — even when actually armed — is remarkable.