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Oregon standoff: What should media call armed, white activists?

As authorities seek a 'peaceful' solution to a standoff with Oregon's armed activists, who have taken over a building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, journalists and readers debate what to call them. 

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Trucks block the entrance to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon, where armed protesters have taken over an empty federal building, on January 3. The occupiers have asked sympathizers from around the country to join them.

Les Zaitz/ The Oregonian via AP

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Ammon Bundy renewed his calls for "patriots" to join his armed occupiers in eastern Oregon on Sunday, where a group has taken over an empty federal building at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to protest federal land management.

"We are asking people to come because we need to be united and have a strong defense," he told reporters, according to Fox News

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While many other ranchers and sympathizers across the country view the group as "patriots," it's hardly the term most use to describe them. The mostly white group, whose numbers are uncertain, has had supplies delivered and is prepared to stay until their demands are met: returning federal land to state or local management. 

Once ranchers, loggers, and miners "can use these lands as free men, then we will have accomplished what we came to accomplish," Mr. Bundy said in a video posted to Facebook, calling federal control "tyranny."

The group has said they seek a peaceful resolution, but are ready to defend themselves. 

Mainstream media have given the group various names: "occupiers," "armed activists," and "protesters." But debates raging on Twitter, Facebook, and now several mainstream publications suggests that, to many, those labels prove double standards, particularly around protesters' and terrorists' race. 

"Face it, Oregon building takeover is terrorism," CNN's National Security Analyst Juliette Kayyem's op-ed headline said Sunday night:

This group of men is wielding terror, and the threat of violence, as if it were their constitutional right. ...They are dangerous, they are unforgiving, they are flouting federal law, they have a political purpose and they clearly are willing to use violence to get their way.

Some have compared the Oregon situation to the siege of the Branch Davidian compound by federal agents outside of Waco, Texas, in 1993, a deadly confrontation that "radicalized a different round of domestic terrorists," according to Harvard Professor Kayyem. But far fewer lives are at stake in the Oregon takeover, leading her to recommend that authorities mobilize the military, but avoid turning the armed men into "martyrs."

Despite the growth of right-wing extremist groups in the United States, particularly since President Barack Obama's election in 2008, some experts say "domestic terrorist" has become a rarely-used label, as foreign extremist Muslim terrorists became a public focus after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. 

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According to a count from the Washington, D.C.-based think tank New America, jihadist terrorist attacks have killed 45 people in the United States since 9/11. During that time, 48 were killed by "far ring wing attacks," such as the Charleston church massacre. (The count categorizes the San Bernardino shooting  as a jihadist attack.)

Although many publications have referred to the men occupying the park headquarters as a 'militia,' other observers point out that the building's remote location and peaceful takeover (no employees were present at the time) makes it premature to consider them violent "terrorists."

The legal definition of domestic terrorism, according to the FBI, are "acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law," which "appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping." 

For others, the most relevant — and telling — comparison is to street protests and riots connected to Black Lives Matter causes. 

In Ferguson, Mo., during unrest following Michael Brown's death, the state deployed the National Guard to subdue "enemy forces." In Oregon, on the other hand, armed authorities appeared to be biding their time: activists in camouflage still blocked the entrance to the refuge. 

According to NBC, the FBI was leading efforts to find a "peaceful" solution to the standoff, but would not share details out of concern for safety "for both those inside the refuge as well as the law enforcement officers involved."

Others mourned Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy fatally shot by a Cleveland police officer last year, whom a grand jury failed to indict in December. 

Native American groups were also eager to point out the irony of the armed occupiers' demand to "get their land back." The area was once Paiute tribal land.

John Weaver, a strategist for Ohio governor and GOP presidential contender John Kasich, was one of few political figures to lend his voice to the debate.

Others, particularly Republicans who have previously voiced support for state-based land management, or for the Bundy family themselves, have not commented on the Oregon takeover. 

According to The Washington Post, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, also a Republican presidential candidate, said amid the 2014 Bundy standoff with federal officials at Cliven Bundy's, Ammon's father's, ranch in Nevada:

We have seen liberty under assault from a federal government that seems hell-bent on expanding its authority over every aspect of our lives. ...It is in that context that people are viewing this battle with the federal government. We should have a federal government protecting the liberty of the citizens, not using the jackboot of authoritarianism to come against the citizens.


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