Answering Brad Friedman: Why the discrepancy in police response to Ferguson versus Cliven Bundy?

Government officials promised accountability for those who broke the law by taking up arms against federal agents. It seems unfathomable, in fact, that the U.S. Department of Justice would allow a mob of antigovernment zealots to get away with using the threat of violence to block the enforcement of the law.

But, as the months have dragged on, there has been no response. Not an arrest. Not an indictment. Nothing.[1]

I’ve already remarked on the stark contrast between the federal government’s response to Cliven Bundy and to the Occupy movement,[2] and to the uprising in Ferguson,[3] and, one might add, to any of a number of other mostly leftist protests that have arisen since the Seattle World Trade Organization protest.[4] It’s not a question that’s attracted a lot of attention,[5] but it’s time to consider the possible explanations for this discrepancy.

It’s easy to suppose that this is about race, and I’ve seen people just assume that it is. Bundy is white, the Ferguson protesters are mostly Black, and some Occupy protesters were people of color. But a lot of Occupy protesters, including the ones who got pepper sprayed at University of California, Davis, were white and of middle class origins.[6]

Another possibility is that Bundy was backed with armed force, while the Occupy and Ferguson protesters were rarely if ever armed. The official explanation is that the Feds sought to avoid a repeat of the Waco or Ruby Ridge tragedies.[7] This explanation is somewhat plausible. Many on the far right seem to ascribe martyrdom to those who died at Waco and Ruby Ridge. Another incident might further provoke right-wing militia groups.

It is also apparent, however, that those defending Bundy were well-prepared[8] and that at least some extreme right-wingers are threatening federal workers across a larger area.[9] At least at one point, Congressman Steven Horsford “alleged that armed groups have created checkpoints requiring individuals ‘to prove they live in the area before being allowed to pass’ and have established ‘a persistent presence’ around highways, local schools and churches.”[10] A Utah county has asserted that its local authority supercedes that of the Bureau of Land Management.[11] By any usual standard, the federal government should be taking this uprising seriously, rather than simply allowing the legal process to follow its course.[12]

Moreover, when the Cliven Bundy saga attracted national attention, Bureau of Land Management agents were already on Bundy’s ranch, seizing his cattle.[13] At that stage in the confrontation, the federal government does not seem to have viewed the legal process as an obstacle to asserting its will. I’m not a lawyer, but I suppose it is possible that the cattle seizure was a civil matter, rather than a criminal one but, at least as I understand it, criminal matters are supposed to be about threats to public safety and therefore should receive elevated attention.

Another possibility is that the discrepancy can be explained through class dynamics. Bundy has, to my knowledge, been silent about the privileges of the ruling class. He simply thinks that in domestic matters, local authority supersedes federal authority.[14]

Leftist protests, on the other hand are often anti-capitalist. Even when not explicitly anti-capitalist, they often attack economic interests.[15] Police brutality against these protests strongly suggests that police are agents of the wealthy ruling class. We know that the criminal injustice system weighs most heavily on the poor, especially poor people of color.[16] Finally, the stigmatization and scapegoating of the poor serves to divert public attention from the crimes of the rich while serving the middle and working classes with an object lesson on what happens to those who do not comply.[17]

In this light, police violence against the Occupy protests and their predecessors seeks to defend elite privilege. Police violence in protests such as at Ferguson seeks to defend the privileges of agents of the elite.

All this already has the attention of Blacks across the United States. Everyone else should be paying attention as well.

  1. [1]Ryan Lenz, “The federal government lost its war against Cliven Bundy,” Salon, October 19, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/10/19/the_federal_government_lost_its_war_against_cliven_bundy_partner/
  2. [2]David Benfell, “The Quixotic Quest to Comprehend Conservatism, Part 2,” May 29, 2014, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2014/05/29/the-quixotic-quest-to-comprehend-conservatism-part-2/
  3. [3]David Benfell, “It’s so much easier to wave a Confederate flag,” Not Housebroken, August 15, 2014, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=6588
  4. [4]Democracy Now! “Report Finds Police Worldwide Criminalize Dissent, Assert New Powers in Crackdown on Protests,” October 10, 2013, http://www.democracynow.org/2013/10/10/report_finds_police_worldwide_criminalize_dissent
  5. [5]but see Brad Friedman, “Cliven Bundy vs. Ferguson’s peaceful demonstrators: A tale of two protests,” Salon, August 18, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/08/18/cliven_bundy_vs_fergusons_peaceful_demonstrators_a_tale_of_two_protests/
  6. [6]Jens Erik Gould, “A Sleepy Campus in Crisis: Pepper Spray at UC Davis Sparks Online Uproar, Calls for a Chancellor’s Resignation,” Time, November 21, 2011, http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2099919,00.html
  7. [7]Joe Schoenmann, “Sheriff breaks silence, says BLM, Bundy share blame for near-catastrophe,” Las Vegas Sun, July 2, 2014, http://lasvegassun.com/news/2014/jul/02/sheriff-breaks-silence-says-blm-bundy-share-blame-/; Laura Zuckerman, “Nevada cattle rancher calls on local sheriffs to join his cause,” Planet Ark, April 15, 2014, http://planetark.org/wen/71434
  8. [8]Southern Poverty Law Center, “SPLC report: Bundy ranch standoff was highly coordinated, reflecting threat of larger far-right militia movement,” July 10, 2014, http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/news/splc-report-bundy-ranch-standoff-was-highly-coordinated-reflecting-threat-of-large
  9. [9]Caitlin Dickson, “The Cliven Bundy Copycat Militia Movement,” Daily Beast, July 10, 2014, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/07/10/the-cliven-bundy-copycat-militia-movement.html; Caitlin MacNeal, “BLM Staffer Confronted By Armed Men On Utah Highway,” Talking Points Memo, May 8, 2014, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/blm-wrangler-armed-confrontation-utah; Rick Perlstein, “Gun nuts are terrorizing America: The watershed moment everyone missed,” Salon, June 23, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/06/23/gun_nuts_are_terrorizing_america_the_watershed_moment_everyone_missed/
  10. [10]Manu Raju, “Police investigating Cliven Bundy-related threats to Harry Reid,” Politico, April 28, 2014, http://www.politico.com/story/2014/04/cliven-bundy-harry-reid-threat-106106.html
  11. [11]Paul Rolly, “Eastern Utah county tells federal cops: We call the shots,” Salt Lake City Tribune, June 18, 2014, http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/politics/58079117-90/county-carbon-utah-corrections.html.csp; Dylan Scott, “Utah County Declares BLM’s Authority ‘Is Not Recognized’ There,” Talking Points Memo, June 18, 2014, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/carbon-county-utah-resolution-blm
  12. [12] Martin Griffith, “BLM Still Working To Hold Bundy Accountable Through Legal System,” Talking Points Memo, July 6, 2014, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/news/blm-bundy-accountable
  13. [13]Associated Press, “Nevada cattle roundup halted amid safety concerns,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 12, 2014, http://www.sfgate.com/nation/article/Nevada-cattle-roundup-halted-amid-safety-concerns-5398331.php
  14. [14]Travis Gettys, “Cliven Bundy threatens violence against federal agents as Sean Hannity eggs him on,” Raw Story, April 16, 2014, http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2014/04/16/cliven-bundy-threatens-violence-against-federal-agents-as-sean-hannity-eggs-him-on/; Manu Raju, “Police investigating Cliven Bundy-related threats to Harry Reid,” Politico, April 28, 2014, http://www.politico.com/story/2014/04/cliven-bundy-harry-reid-threat-106106.html; Joe Schoenmann, “Sheriff breaks silence, says BLM, Bundy share blame for near-catastrophe,” Las Vegas Sun, July 2, 2014, http://lasvegassun.com/news/2014/jul/02/sheriff-breaks-silence-says-blm-bundy-share-blame-/; Laura Zuckerman, “Nevada cattle rancher calls on local sheriffs to join his cause,” Planet Ark, April 15, 2014, http://planetark.org/wen/71434
  15. [15]Uri Gordon, Anarchy Alive! Anti-authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory (London: Pluto, 2008).
  16. [16]Ernest Drucker, A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America (New York: New, 2011); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  17. [17]Herbert J. Gans, The War Against The Poor: The Underclass And Antipoverty Policy (New York: Basic, 1995).

One thought on “Answering Brad Friedman: Why the discrepancy in police response to Ferguson versus Cliven Bundy?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.