Occupying & Protesting

Ammon Bundy and fellow “militia” members occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon as a protest of federal land use policies. Ammon Bundy is the son of Cliven Bundy—the rancher who was involved in another armed stand-off with the federal government. Cliven Bundy still owes the American taxpayers over $1 million for grazing his cattle on public land—the sort of sponging off the public that would normally enrage conservatives. While that itself is an interesting issue, my focus will be on discussing the ethics of protest through non-violent armed occupation.

Before getting to the main issue, I will anticipate some concerns about the discussion. First, I will not be addressing the merits of the Bundy protest. Bundy purports to be protesting against the tyranny of the federal government in regards to its land-use policies. Some critics have pointed out that Bundy has benefitted from the federal government, something that seems a bit reminiscent of the infamous cry of “keep your government hands off my Medicare.” While the merit of a specific protest is certainly relevant to the moral status of the protest, my focus is on the general subject of occupation as a means of protest.

Second, I will not be addressing the criticism that if the federal land had been non-violently seized by Muslims protesting Donald Trump or Black Lives Matter activists protesting police treatment of blacks, then the response would have been very different. While the subject of race and protest is important, it is not my focus here. I now turn to the matter of protesting via non-violent armed occupation.

The use of illegal occupation is well established as a means of protest in the United States and was used during the civil rights movement. But, of course, an appeal to tradition is a fallacy—the mere fact that something is well-established does not entail that it is justified. As such, an argument is needed to morally justify occupation as a means of protest.

One argument for occupation as a means of protest is that protestors do not give up their rights simply because they are engaged in a protest. Assuming that they wish to engage in their protest where they would normally have the right to be, then it would seem to follow that they should be allowed to protest there.


One obvious reply to this argument is that people do not automatically have the right to engage in protest in all places they have a right to visit. For example, a public library is open to the public, but it does not follow that people thus have a right to occupy a public library and interfere with its operation. This is because the act of protest would violate the rights of others in a way that would seem to warrant not allowing the protest.

People also protest in areas that are not normally open to the public—or whose use by the public is restricted. This would include privately owned areas as well as public areas that have restrictions. In the case of the Bundy protest, public facilities are being occupied rather than private facilities. However, Bundy and his fellows are certainly using the area in a way that would normally not be allowed—people cannot, in the normal course of things, just take up residence in public buildings. This can also be regarded as a conflict of rights—the right of protest versus the right of private ownership or public use.

These replies can, of course, be overcome by showing that the protest does more good than harm or by showing that the right to protest outweighs the rights of others to use the area that is occupied.  After all, to forbid protests simply because they might inconvenience or annoy people would be absurd. However, to accept protests regardless of the imposition on others would also be absurd. Being a protestor does not grant a person special rights to violate the rights of others, so a protestor who engages in such behavior would be acting wrongly and the protest would thus be morally wrong. After all, if rights are accepted to justify a right to protest, then this would provide a clear foundation for accepting the rights of those who would be imposed upon by the protest. If the protestor who is protesting tyranny becomes a tyrant to others, then the protest certainly loses its moral foundation.

This provides the theoretical framework for assessing whether the Bundy protest is morally acceptable or not: it is a matter of weighing the merit of the protest against the harm done to the rights of other citizens (especially those in the surrounding community).

The above assumes a non-violent occupation of the sort that can be classified as classic civil disobedience of the sort discussed by Thoreau. That is, non-violently breaking the rules (or law) in an act of disobedience intended to bring about change. This approach was also adopted by Gandhi and Dr. King. Bundy has added a new factor—while the occupation has (as of this writing) been peaceful, the “militia” on the site is well armed. It has been claimed that the weapons are for self-defense, which indicates that the “militia” is willing to escalate from non-violent (albeit armed) to violent occupation in response to the alleged tyranny of the federal government. This leads to the matter of the ethics of armed resistance as a means of protest.

Modern political philosophy does provide a justification of such resistance. John Locke, for example, emphasized the moral responsibilities of the state in regards to the good of the people. That is, he does not simply advocate obedience to whatever the laws happen to be, but requires that the laws and the leaders prove worthy of obedience. Laws or leaders that are tyrannical are not to be obeyed, but are to be defied and justly so. He provides the following definition of “tyranny”: “Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to.  And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage.” When the state is acting in a tyrannical manner, it can be justly resisted—at least on Locke’s view. As such, Bundy does have a clear theoretical justification for armed resistance. However, for this justification to be actual, it would need to be shown that federal land use policies are tyrannical to a degree that warrants the use of violence as a means of resistance.

Consistency does, of course, require that the framework be applied to all relevantly similar cases of protests—be they non-violent occupations or armed resistance.


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  1. I don’t think that this situation can be evaluated abstractly.

    It all depends on whether the cause is good and whether there is a legal way to achieve the ends of the cause. If the cause is good and if there are no legal ways to achieve the ends of the cause, then an illegal occupation is fully justified. For example, civil rights protestors were justified in illegally occupying buildings during the era of segregation. From what I can see, these cowboy clowns do not have a good cause. Now obviously they will claim that their cause is good and so finally, we’d have to discuss which causes are good and which ones are not, instead of considering the issue abstractly.

  2. I do not know enough about American law, or all the varying ways of life in the country to give a satisfactory reply to this matter. However the fact that it is an armed stand-off is what bothers me. I don’t think in UK an armed stand-off whether or not the protesters are licensed to possess a firearm would be tolerated, what ever the underlying circumstances are. I can only think that as a side issue to this case, Mr Obama has an awful lot more to think about, and deal with, so far as his reforms of gun law are concerned. It just cannot be right that one could get one’s way, as a result of of armed threats. I do not think there is such a thing as non-violent armed occupation. If you are armed, in protest, then that is violent. Well it would be to me, and many others I’m thinking. S Wallerstein uses the expression  “these cowboy clowns”  yes maybe, a pretty horrific situation, clowns with firearms.

  3. s.wallerstein;

    “If the cause is good and if there are no legal ways to achieve the ends of the cause, then an illegal occupation is fully justified.”
    Everything depends on how we define what cause is good, and particularly how do we deal with causes we do not agree. For the record, I do not agree with this armed occupation; in any other context it would be considered a terrorist act. But for the occupiers it is a just cause and they are doing the right thing. I prefer the second part of your statement, are there legal and/or political ways to achieve the end of a cause. And the answer in the USA is an overwhelming yes. It is also interesting to contrast the civil right movement or the anti war protests with this. They defy the law unarmed, they protest to produce political change. They did not threaten to hurt others because they did not think like them or because they were enforcing the country’s laws.

  4. John M.

    Yes, the cowboys occupying land consider their cause to be just. In fact, we humans seem to have a mental mechanism which convinces us that whatever causes we are involved in are just. ISIS considers their cause to be just; multi-billionaires who crusade for eliminating the minimum wage and doing away with the income tax consider their cause to be just.

    In theory we should be able to get together and discuss which causes are just and which are unjust, but I doubt that I’ll be able to do that with either ISIS or the multi-billionaires against the minimum wage and the income tax.

    I agree that non-violent protests are preferible to violent ones, although non-violent resistance is not always possible.

    For example, Mapuche Native-Americans in the south of Chile illegally occupy lands which were stolen from their people and while they don’t carry guns (which would be suicidal, among other things), they do resist with sticks and stones any attempt by the police to expel them from the land. If they were to occupy the land without the sticks and stones, they would be expelled in half an hour by armed police, but given that they will resist with sticks and stones, the police think twice before trying to expel them, since the police don’t want policemen to be seriously injured and they don’t want to have to use their firearms against people armed with sticks and stones. So after a while, the government often gives in and agrees to buy back the land from the landowners and to return it to the Mapuches who owned it before white people arrived and stole it by force.

    Now that kind of protest would not work if the police were less careful about not killing protesters. The Israeli police, for example, fire on and kill Palestinian protesters who are
    throwing stones.

    There are lots of factors to be considered before deciding whether an armed or unarmed occupation is justified or whether an occupation is justified at all and that’s why I think that no abstract rule is viable.

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