Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-Md.), who is running for the U.S. Senate, on Monday accused the media of a racial double standard in covering the armed anti-government activists who are occupying a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon.
The group took over a federal building at the refuge Saturday to protest the treatment of a pair of local ranchers who were convicted of arson on federal land. Edwards said in a statement that the activists should be called “lawbreaking . . . militants” and that they are being judged differently than black activists who have demonstrated throughout the country over the past 18 months as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I am deeply troubled by the media portrayal of the events in Oregon and the armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge,” Edwards said in a statement. “Since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, activists . . . have been referred to variously as ‘thugs,’ ‘criminals,’ and ‘drug users.’ To the contrary, most of these protests and protesters have been peaceful, and organizers have sought and obtained permission to peaceably assemble in exercise of their Constitutional rights. But in Oregon, a group of armed men illegally occupying a federal building have been referred to as an ‘armed militia,’ or simply ‘occupiers,’ as though that behavior is acceptable in a nation of laws. What is happening in Oregon is not protest sanctioned by the Constitution, it is lawbreaking.”
Without naming specific news organizations, Edwards said in her statement that the media “have a responsibility to avoid language that paints these armed militants in a positive light.”
She also argued that a nonwhite group would never be allowed to seize control of government property in this way. “One could not imagine a group of armed black men taking over an unoccupied federal building in one of our nation’s cities as they have in Oregon,” she said. “It is time to tell that tough truth.”
Asked for specific examples of media bias, Edwards spokesman Benjamin Gerdes cited a comment by CNN’s Don Lemon during Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Mo., that “obviously there is the smell of marijuana in the air.” He also described Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly comparing Black Lives Matter activists to Nazis and remarks by other Fox News hosts who called the protesters “criminal” and “a hate group.”
Gerdes also referred to the repeated use of the word “thug” to describe rioters in Baltimore after the death in police custody of 25-year-old Freddie Gray last spring. The mayor of Baltimore used the word, although she later apologized. In addition, Gerdes pointed to news stories by a variety of outlets that connected a rise in murder rates in several cities with Black Lives Matter protests.
The media have struggled with how to describe the Oregon occupiers, as The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi has written. Major news outlets, he reported, were avoiding the term “ ‘terrorist’ . . . saying it was unclear that the group’s action was designed to terrorize or harm anyone.”
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) wrote Monday on Twitter that “it’s time these criminals get to occupy another federal facility: prison.” The FBI says it will work with local and state authorities to seek “a peaceful resolution to the situation.”
Edwards, an African American, is running against Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who is white, for the Democratic nomination to replace Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who is retiring.
There are no black women serving in the U.S. Senate, and the congresswoman has repeatedly argued that she would bring sorely needed diversity to Congress’s upper chamber.
In an op-ed for The Post in April, she said that as a black mother she was “moved” by the protests against police brutality and “disgusted” by looting in Baltimore and Ferguson.
Sen. Martin Heinrich’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.