State Rep. Tim Freeman has told us that the protesters up on the Bureau of Land Management’s White Castle timber sale are terrorists. It is a puzzling statement, in many ways.
I can’t imagine how a 19-year-old college girl passively awaiting arrest would strike fear in the heart of an experienced man of the world such as Mr. Freeman. Some of us just scare more easily than others, I guess.
To give him his due, his use of the word could just be a casual slip. Perhaps he meant to say “tourists,” which is what they more closely resemble.
It’s possible that his use of the emotionally loaded pejorative word is meant to slander people of whom he doesn’t approve, rather than being a genuine admission of fear on his part.
He is, after all, a politician, and he wouldn’t be the first in the long history of politics to attempt to increase his electoral popularity by vilifying an unpopular group. Demagoguery, a word that comes to us from ancient Greece, is what that is called. Whatever his reason for saying what he said, his charge is a difficult one to justify.
Cascadia Forest Defenders, the loosely organized group camping out there on a wintry ridge top, is dedicated to the practice of nonviolence. Its members have broken no laws, damaged no property and have treated all visitors, including law enforcement officers, with respect. Unlike so many of our law-abiding neighbors, none of them is armed and none of them has vowed to engage the police in a shootout if necessary to defend their constitutional rights.
It is their admitted intent to commit the misdemeanor crime of criminal trespass when and if they are finally ordered to vacate their “tree village” camp. This is called civil disobedience, a form of symbolic political speech that is a long-standing American tradition.
Last year more than 3,500 Americans were arrested for committing acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. Among them were eight members of the United States Congress, the current mayor of New York City, the head of the NAACP and numerous preachers and teachers.
To sincerely believe that nonviolent protesters are terrorists would require a lack of understanding of what terrorism is, of what the practice of nonviolence involves and of what the long, honorable history of American nonviolent civil disobedience has done for this country.
Mr. Freeman is correct in saying that he is not alone in calling for increasingly harsh penalties for resisting the government by passively courting arrest.
In 2003 an attempt was made in the Oregon Legislature to classify actions such as tree-sitting as terrorism, punishable by a sentence of 25 years to life in prison. It failed.
In 2012, the state Senate in Georgia considered a bill that would make it a felony to practice nonviolent civil disobedience. It, too, failed. Rep. Wayne Krieger’s attempt last spring to classify as a felony a second offense involving obstructing a logging show passed overwhelmingly in the Oregon House but failed in the Senate.
Such legislation is ultimately futile because no amount of increased penalties will ever stop people who consider it an honor to be arrested for acting on their beliefs. To their way of thinking, the harsher the penalty incurred, the more glory they have achieved.
In all these cases the justification was a charge of terrorism. As is so common among mediocre politicians, Rep. Freeman is not giving us a carefully considered judgment but simply aping the thoughts and words of others. Were it not for the inflammatory nature of the statement, it would amount to more than a bit of rhetorical simple-mindedness.
Whether or not we agree with the reasons why any particular protesters are disobeying the law in order to make a political statement, it is important to talk about the merits of their argument. Even if we know them to be horribly wrong, we should at least try to understand why they believe as they do. Name-calling just gets in the way of that understanding.
Robert Leo Heilman is an essayist, author and commentator who lives in Myrtle Creek. He can be contacted via electronic mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.