As the standoff between the loony-tunes cowboys who seized the Oregon bird sanctuary and the feds has dragged on, a number of folks have wondered whether federal authorities would be as forbearing if the miscreants were African-American or (gasp!) Muslim.
If history is predictive, evidently not. At Dispatches from the Culture Wars, we learn about a similar incident that did, in fact occur, in 1979, in Harris Neck, Georgia,
where members of the African-American Gullah culture of former slaves had been screwed over by the government. Unlike those in Oregon, these men were unarmed. And they were black. And that seems to have made all the difference.
The drama unfolding with armed occupiers holed up at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns is similar to a standoff that made national headlines 37 years ago in Harris Neck, Ga.
But there are also stark differences, including the race of the Harris Neck occupiers – mostly displaced descendants of West African slaves — and the tactics used by the FBI to quickly remove what the media casually called “squatters.”
Also, the 40 members of People Organized for Equal Rights who set up a camp on the patch of land south of Savannah on April 30, 1979, were unarmed.
The grievances of the “squatters” were considerably more substantial than those of the Bundys:
Following the Civil War, a white plantation owner deeded the land on the Georgia coast to a former slave. In the decades that followed, the descendants of slaves moved to Harris Neck to build houses, factories and boats. They fished, hunted for oysters and grazed cattle.
But in 1942, U.S. military officials gave Harris Neck residents just three weeks via eminent domain to leave their property so they could construct an airbase for training pilots and conducting anti-submarine flights.
As the community’s young men fought in Europe during World War II, the U.S. government, encouraged by white county commissioners, came to Harris Neck and gave residents a notice to move, according to historical research by Emory University. Federal authorities bulldozed or burned Harris Neck’s houses, barns, businesses or crops.
The land was never returned to its Gullah owners, and eventually became the Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge; it was that land that the unarmed protestors occupied. Unlike the situation in Oregon, the federal authorities moved quickly; they obtained a court order to remove the demonstrators exactly one day after the “camp-in” began. Four men who refused to leave were forcibly dragged out, and sentenced to a month in jail for trespassing.
In all fairness, after Ruby Ridge and Waco, federal law enforcement personnel have altered the way they handle these situations, and for good reason.
Still, I wonder whether they’d be this patient if the occupiers were members of a disfavored or disempowered community….