A jury’s quick acquittal of seven militants in Oregon on charges stemming from the armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge raised cries of racial bias and white privilege. The all-white jury took just six hours to find all of the defendants not guilty on all conspiracy charges despite the fact the armed takeover was live streamed to the world and authorities discovered huge caches of weapons and ammunition on the property.
Critics noted the irony of images of native protesters being maced and attacked over their peaceful protest on the very day the verdict was delivered. Many charged that if the militants had been Native American or black, they would have been killed, not acquitted.
Sad day for America: white people armed to the teeth at #oregonstandoff all found not guilty while #StandingRock protesters removed by force
Vox‘s German Lopez expressed similar concern. “It is impossible to ignore race here. This was a group of armed white people, mostly men, taking over a facility,” he wrote. “Just imagine: What would happen if a group of armed black men, protesting police brutality, tried to take over a police facility and hold it hostage for more than a month? Would they even come out alive and get to trial? Would a jury find them and their cause relatable, making it easier to send them back home with no prison time?”
The evidence and the case were very strong against the defendants. The case relied heavily on testimony from local law enforcement, including FBI agents who responded to the occupation or processed evidence after the standoff had ended.
There was never a question that the group had occupied the refuge: Federal prosecutors took two weeks to present evidence, which included a display of more than 30 weapons seized after the standoff. According to an FBI agent who testified during the trial, authorities recovered 16,636 live rounds and nearly 1,700 spent casings at the scene. Ammon Bundy, who led the nearly six-week occupation with his brother, Ryan, spent three days testifying, during which he continued to protest federal land ownership. He even participated in interviews during the standoff in which he called for more people to support the occupation.
“At the end of the day, there is an element of common sense that demonstrates the guilt of these defendants,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Ethan Knight said during his closing arguments during the trial. “These defendants took over a wildlife refuge and it wasn’t theirs.”
In his criticisms of the verdict, German Lopez notes that this “common sense” is privilege bias at work: “The social science is pretty clear: People are much more likely to look at black people and see criminals and wrongdoers. They don’t get the privilege of innocence in the same way that white people — including these militants in Oregon — do.”
In fact, he mentions, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychologyin 2014 found that the public is far more likely to associate black people “with criminality and violence.” As Phillip Goff, an author of the study, said in a statement: “Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”
Another study from researchers at the University of California Los Angeles suggests that individuals tend to associate “black sounding names,” like Deshawn and Jamal, with physical threats than they do “white sounding names” like Connor and Garrett, or, in this case, Ammon and Ryan. (Their five co-defendants are named Jeff, Shauna, Kenneth, David, and Neil, respectively.)
“I’ve never been so disgusted by my own data,” Colin Holbrook, the lead author of the study, said in a statement. “The amount that our study participants assumed