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What Would Happen if Black People Occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge?

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Wait, we know the answer to this question. Because black people have occupied a National Wildlife Refuge before:

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.

Instead of guns, the demonstrators, including prominent civil rights leaders, brought concrete blocks and bags of mortar to build new homes.

Their protest was straightforward and, upon reflection, heartbreaking.

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.

Harris Neck evolved into a thriving community. Its members were recognized as a culturally unique group of African Americans called Gullah.

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.

The 1930s and 1940s were period where a lot of American residents were forced to move. As with everything else in this country, race and class largely determined who got kicked off their land. African-Americans and poor whites were shoved off their land. Sometimes, it was for dams, occasionally for national parks. Most commonly, as in this case, it was for military installations. Those were chosen on a number of criteria. The big atomic installations were required to be remote. Two of the three were relatively easy because almost no one (but not in fact no one) lived at Los Alamos and Hanford. Oak Ridge was different–there were a lot of poor whites in east Tennessee. There is a story of a woman who was actually kicked off her land three different times in these years–first by a TVA dam, then by the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and finally by Oak Ridge. In areas that interested the military that had black populations, they were the ones kicked off, such as in Georgia. A lot of these instillations are of course still in use today. But some were abandoned immediately after the war. Such is the case at Harris Neck. But here, instead of returning it to the original landowners, the government decided to turn it into a National Wildlife Refuge. Now, there’s a lot of value in those, but like the national forests and wilderness areas of northern New Mexico stolen from the Spanish land grant recipients, the creation of these spaces are quite often racialized.

In the 1960s and 1970s of course, people of color increasingly stood up against their oppression. This includes over the dispossession and federalization of lands formerly belonging to those people. In New Mexico, Reies Lopez Tijerina dramatically led this movement. In Georgia, in 1979, African-Americans occupied the wildlife refuge:

In contrast to the Burns occupation, federal authorities secured a court order to remove the Harris Neck demonstrators a day after the 1979 camp-in began.

However, four of the unarmed protestors — Edgar Timmons, Jr., Hercules Anderson, Christopher McIntosh and the Rev. Ted Clark — refused to leave.

On May 2, 1979, U.S. deputy marshals “forcibly removed” the men, according to a story in The Oregonian. “Their bodies taut and motionless,” the men were dragged out of their tent, handcuffed and hoisted into a waiting van.

Supporters taunted the police, shouted insults. One woman screamed, “Slavery is over with!”

At a Savannah news conference, Timmons protested: “You can’t tell me that geese, wild birds, cows, lizards and snakes have priority over a taxpaying American citizen.”

A judge sentenced the four men to a month in jail for trespassing.

In 1981, a fire destroyed county records with details on the original home sites.

Now, yes, one might argue that the real difference here is not race but rather time–Ruby Ridge and Waco changed the way the government dealt with these situations. Well, maybe. We know it changed how the government deals with white people. But black people occupying federal land? Given the general indifference and hostility to black lives among law enforcement, I just have a really, really hard time believing that black occupiers would be treated with kid gloves like the Bundys and their band of idiots. And there is never a time when overestimating the role of race in understanding the United States is a bad idea.

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