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Language Matters: #BlackLivesMatter Called “Thugs”; Why Aren’t Oregon Militants Called “Terrorists”?

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Critics are raising questions about what they say is the unique treatment that armed militia members have received in the mainstream press, including coverage that described the members of the group occupying a federally owned wildlife outpost in eastern Oregon as “peaceful” protesters. The Associated Press ran the headline, “Peaceful Protest Followed by Oregon Wildlife Refuge Action,” but later removed the word “peaceful.” CNN law enforcement analyst Art Roderick said the militants were being treated differently than Black Lives Matter protesters because “they’re not looting anything.” We speak with Washington Post political reporter Janell Ross, whose recent article is “Why aren’t we calling the Oregon occupiers 'terrorists'?” “It’s certainly … very hard to imagine that the same kind of deliberate, slow, careful, methodical use of language would happen were there a group of, say, black protesters who had decided to take over a courthouse while armed and threatening to fight to the death,” Ross says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I wanted to bring Janell Ross in, as well, a reporter for The Washington Post blog The Fix. Janell, you have a piece headlined “Why aren’t we calling the Oregon occupiers 'terrorists'?” And you start by saying, “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.'” Take it from there. You’re talking about disparate coverage of different kinds of groups.

JANELL ROSS: I think so. I think the point, I suppose, that I was trying to make or highlight was just the sort of slow and very deliberate, careful pace at which it seems that we often move in our public discussions of these sorts of events, from describing individuals, such as the group that are occupying this facility in Oregon, as sort of principled individuals who are there to support a specific cause, and although they, in some cases, have come to the facility armed, and, in the case of Ammon Bundy, has said directly that while they are not looking for a violent confrontation, they are prepared to die there. This certainly is an indicator that some violence could occur. And there’s, it seems, a real effort to be very, very careful about how their actions, themselves, and what they are doing right now are described.

The same certainly can’t be said about the way, for instance, that coverage of various protests related to race and policing have been covered, or the fairly rapid way in which the activities of, say, a group or subset of people who may have been involved in rioting in those cases gets—sort of mushrooms out and becomes the way that the entire group is described. In fact, I’m sure you, as well as many viewers, have seen, you know, the sort of active conflation of protesters with rioters and looters and descriptions of them as thugs, etc., and a threat to entire cities and so on and so forth. And it’s certainly, in light of that, very hard to imagine that the same kind of deliberate, slow, careful, methodical use of language would happen were there a group of, say, black protesters who had decided to take over a courthouse while armed and threatening to fight to the death. It’s very hard to imagine.

AMY GOODMAN: Janell, I wanted to play this for you. On Sunday, CNN law enforcement analyst Art Roderick said the militants were being treated differently than Black Lives Matter protesters because, quote, “They’re not looting anything.” Roderick made the remarks in an interview when he was being interviewed by CNN host Brian Stelter. This is Brian first.

BRIAN STELTER: You know it’s going to become politicized. And we’ve already heard from activists online, many of them—I’ve been reading from them all morning—who say if these were Black Lives Matter protesters, or if these were peaceful Muslim Americans, they’d be treated very differently by law enforcement. Do you think there’s truth to that argument?

ART RODERICK: We’re not talking about—I think you had mentioned it in the opening, because this is a very rural area. It is out in the middle of nowhere. What are they actually doing? They’re not destroying property. They’re not looting anything.

BRIAN STELTER: Yeah, no shots fired.

ART RODERICK: Right, exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there you have CNN law enforcement analyst Art Broderick. Your response, Janell Ross?

JANELL ROSS: My response to his opinion is not really necessary. I can only point out the obvious difference in what he said. I think that all Americans who, you know, have been paying attention to the news over the last 12 months are aware that there were in fact protests and there were in fact some looters in Ferguson and in Baltimore, or rioters, but there was also no reticence at all about describing those individuals that engaged in violent activities as rioters or as looters. And, in fact, what you saw is people describing the entire group, groups of people who came for peaceable protests, who were not armed and were being described in all sorts of ways, including as straight-up criminals and thugs, because of who they are, not because of what they were actively doing, even though much of this was caught on tape.

And in this case, I think that while it is certainly true, factually, that these individuals are occupying a space in a rural area, where there is little in the way of built infrastructure to destroy, even if that was what they were inclined to do, it is worth noting that these individuals have arrived armed, have said repeatedly that they are prepared to essentially fight to the death, and, in fact, are seeking an overthrow, or, rather, an end to federal government authority in specific areas, or, in this case, over specific pieces of land. That is a whole and altogether different thing than protesting and saying that you would like to see the justice system function in a different way.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, talk about how media coverage influences how different groups are treated.

RICHARD COHEN: Well, I’m not sure I can—I don’t know if I really want to compare the different groups. I do want to speak to the issue of terrorism, if I could, for a moment. There’s no doubt that there’s been an enormous amount of terrorism over the years that has emanated from the radical right in our country. You know, the most spectacular incident, of course, was the Oklahoma City bombing, carried out by people who had a hatred of the federal government and felt that it was overreaching. And since that time, there have probably been a hundred different plots involving efforts to kill federal officials, poison water supplies, and all of that. So, the Bundys come out of a milieu where there has been an enormous amount of terrorism. So, I understand exactly why Janell would want to kind of describe this as a terrorist incident. You know, there’s been no violence yet, but you can imagine something far worse happening from fanatics like this.

I think these people have been described by the media as fanatics, as zealots. There has been, I think, some reluctance to call them terrorists. I’m not sure why. We certainly wouldn’t call the rioters in—or the people involved in the disturbance in Ferguson or Baltimore, wouldn’t call them terrorists, but we would be very quick to, I think, condemn them. And I’m not—I think people have been relatively quick, of course, to condemn the Bundys. Some, I mean, really quite—you know, I don’t want to point fingers, but Sean Hannity, many Republican politicians originally portrayed the Bundys as heroic. You know, Chris—excuse me, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Trump, Rand Paul all talked about how, you know, the Bundys were standing tall against the man. And that type of portraying them as heroes, I think—I think they should be held accountable for those kinds of—that kind of encouragement that they’ve given them.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, you contrast this, how the protesters here are being dealt with, to 1985, Janell, to Philadelphia, when the Philadelphia police bombed the MOVE house, killing 11 people—actually dropped a bomb on their house, 11 people killed. Five of them were children.

JANELL ROSS: That is true. I think, of course, as Mr. Cohen said, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to make direct comparisons between groups and events and responses. There are always variables on the ground, certainly not the least of which in this case is the sort of urban versus rural setting. But there is, it seems, at least, a sort of clear difference in the escalation of language and/or, as Mr. Cohen pointed out, some real differences in the way that members of the media, but also the public, seem to think about and understand these individuals who are involved in different incidents. And it seems largely to be based on who they are, rather than their cause or, even more specifically, what they’re actually doing or not doing on the ground.

And I would just come back to, all you have to do is look closely at specifically what Ammon Bundy has said about their goals and aims in Oregon and what they are prepared to do. And the fact that these occupiers have come to this space, they certainly have a right to assemble, they have a right to protest—this is the United States, that is certainly true. But to occupy a building is perhaps a different thing. It is not exactly the same as a protest. And further, to occupy a building while armed and to, in essence, invite a confrontation and say that it’s going to end in violence is an entirely different thing. And there seems to be some sort of—I guess there are certainly some people who view—they may agree with the sort of underlying principles of their reason for gathering or occupying this space, but they have ascribed to that a whole series of very principled ideas and labels, which is noteworthy, because it certainly affects both the way that these issues are covered, but also, I think, the way that law enforcement feels it is appropriate to respond or how the public will react to law enforcement’s response. There is—

AMY GOODMAN: Janell, I want thank you for being with us. We’re going to move on to Portland, Oregon, to look at the roots of the land in the area of eastern Oregon. Janell Ross, reporter for The Washington Post blog, The Fix; Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. When we come back, we’ll go to eastern—we’ll go to Portland, Oregon. Stay with us.

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