This post was originally published in September, 2014.
Bundy Ranch and Ferguson threw out all notions of what people thought they knew about activism be it left wing, right wing, or race-based. Both incidents were born of the exact same frustration and both suffered from outsiders “hijacking” the movements to serve their own ends. However, while they are similar in some ways, Ferguson and Bunkerville were treated completely different by the media, the public, and more importantly law enforcement. This has led many to question the reason one incurred such a violent response, while the other appeared to be a government in retreat. The answers are much simpler than most people are willing to accept, and they probably are not what most believe.
In order to adequately explain the difference between Ferguson and Bunkerville, it is necessary to briefly review both. In April 2014, a local rancher named Cliven Bundy issued a call for help from his cattle ranch near Bunkerville, Nevada. Bundy was facing the closing days of a decades old dispute with the US government, spearheaded by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM closed several thousand acres of public land, and were preparing to round up Bundy’s trespass cattle, which had roamed on the land for several years despite court orders to cease. Bundy’s call was answered by dozens of “patriots” and a number of citizen militia. The result was hundreds of armed men and women, ready to fight for what they saw as stunning government overreach. After nearly two weeks of escalating rhetoric, the incident ended with the BLM retreating, and the militia declaring victory.
In Ferguson, on August 9th, an officer confronted two African American men who were walking in the middle of the street. Accounts vary as to what happened next, but the consensus is, one of the men, Michael Brown, began to wrestle with the officer as the officer was in his vehicle. Brown fled from the officer, but then turned back to face him. At that point, the officer fired at Brown, killing him. Brown was found to be unarmed. The next night, a candle light vigil for Brown took a turn for the worst as members of the vigil began looting local businesses. By late on August 10th, many businesses were burned and other property destroyed. On-line hacktivists called for a full-scale attack on the City of Ferguson and the police department. The hacktivists took down web sites, and encouraged civil-disobedience on the ground. Dozens were arrested. Police deployed rubber bullets, audio-disruption devises, teargas and riot officers. The unrest ended nearly two weeks after it began. Over 150 people were arrested in the 16 days of rioting.
What is the cause of such a disparity? The answer lies in the inherent nature of social movements. Each movement needs three things; a clear message, a sympathetic public, and the ability to evolve. A clear message is a prerequisite for organization. When organized, activist movements are easier to control because the crowd follows a certain set of rules, established by the leadership. Examples of this include almost all immigration marches, anti-tax rallies, and anti-war protests. While both movements were in response to government oppression, only one had a clear message; Bunkerville.
At Bunkerville, Cliven Bundy and the militia set out to protect Bundy’s trespass cattle and secure the release of the confiscated cows. The message was clear, thus when two of the country’s largest militias arrived, the Oath Keepers and Arizona Praetorian Guard, they were able to quickly establish leadership and control the movement. It is important to note that when BLM Special Agent Dan Love broke the skirmish line and approached the throngs of armed militia, he was able to negotiate with one person. This presence of leadership allowed for the peaceful retreat of the BLM and probably saved the lives of dozens of people.
In Ferguson the message was ambiguous; “Justice for Mike Brown” or “stop police brutality” or “the police are racist” and so on. The lack of a single coherent message led to a lack of leadership and instead, an ochlocracy formed and remained for two weeks. People took to the streets being led by an ideology, fed by anonymous on-line provocateurs. Several people tried to take control of the mob including Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and the Nation of Islam. None of them succeeded because none of them had a clear message. On August 15th, five days after the shooting, Captain Ron Johnson from the Missouri Highway Patrol arrived on scene and attempted a similar move as BLM SA Love. Initially it looked as through Capt. Johnson’s presence and the use of the state police was enough to quell the anger, but this notion faded within 24 hours as the mob continued to riot. In the end, Ferguson calmed simply by virtue of running out of steam. As many movements have witnessed throughout history, anger and resentment only last for so long. Had one, tangible demand emerged early, Ferguson would have never seen the clouds of gas.
The police responded to Bunkerville and Ferguson in the same manner; heavily armed, teargas at the ready, and skirmish lines prepared. Bunkerville’s throngs were placated by their leadership, thus not a single round was fired. In Ferguson, no one was in charge so the crowd surged, challenged the skirmish lines, and incurred the wrath of a modern police force. Police agencies in the US are not accustomed to dealing with leaderless resistance. Their approach in Ferguson was not at all surprising when viewed through the lens of modern police training and common knowledge, both of which state, “look for the leader.” In the end, shouts of racism and intolerance by police in Ferguson hold little water because the movement itself invited the response by failing to organize early. Interestingly, Bunkerville and Ferguson attracted enough people to qualify as a sympathetic public, even if that public was highly niche. Unfortunately neither enjoyed national or global support similar to “Occupy.” Time will tell if Ferguson is able to adapt, but without a defined message this is not likely.
Much more can be said in regards to the Ferguson movement and its face-first collision with the police. The main point however will never change and that is, Ferguson lacked a message, therefore they lacked leadership, and we all saw the results.