A jury verdict in Portland, Ore., a few weeks ago was all but obscured in the news by the presidential campaign.
That’s unfortunate, because the verdict falls into the same “oh, you’ve got to be kidding” category as the acquittal of O.J. Simpson on murder charges in 1995.
The Oregon jurors found brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five sympathizers not guilty of federal charges in the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The 187,000-acre refuge has been assembled through purchases by the federal government since 1908.
There was no question the Bundy brothers and about 25 armed militants took control of the refuge for 41 days in January and February, keeping officials and the public out at gunpoint.
There was no question the mob damaged government property there.
And there’s no question the participants believe the federal government lacks the authority under the Constitution to own and manage public lands in the United States.
But federal prosecutors either failed to adequately present the government’s case against this group of thugs or jurors chose to interpret the evidence to fit their own desired outcome.
There are legitimate concerns the verdict will embolden copycats who believe they are entitled to express their views from the butt end of a rifle with thousands of rounds of ammunition at their side.
The Bundy brothers are no strangers to expressing their anti-government opinions with guns drawn.
Their father, Clive Bundy, led an armed standoff in Nevada in 2014 when federal agents tried to seize his cattle that had been grazing illegally on federal range land for years without him paying the required grazing fees like other ranchers pay.
New York Times columnist Andrew Rosenthal pretty well summed up the lack of public outrage over the takeover in Oregon. “If the ringleader were named Hassan instead of Bundy, the right-wing circus on the presidential campaign trail would have been demanding a nuclear response,” he wrote in January.
Former talk show host Montel William said of the verdicts, “Apparently it’s legal in America for heavily armed white terrorists to invade Oregon. Imagine if black folk did this.”
And Jill Stein, the Green Party’s candidate for president, contrasted the verdict in Portland with the response to protests in North Dakota by Native Americans and environmentalists: “Something is wrong when an armed Oregon standoff faces no consequences and Dakota Access Pipeline protestors are attacked for protecting water.”
There has been plenty of anti-government rhetoric coming from politicians this year. The last thing we need is people who share a view that the government is too big thinking the Oregon verdict gives them a green light to make their views known at gunpoint on federal lands and federal facilities.
The Portland Oregonian, the largest newspaper in that state, said, “The verdict is beyond unsatisfying. It signals to any knucklehead in America that trespassing on government property, and trashing publicly owned facilities and equipment, is an action that can be beat.”
The takeover of the Malheur refuge has led to an increase in the number of assaults and death threats against federal employees in the West. “It’s gotten to the point where we do active-shooter drills,” an administrator for the federal Bureau of Land Management said.
The Bundy brothers and their sympathizers like to portray themselves as patriots who are engaging in civil disobedience. But actual patriots know the Constitution provides a way for people to bring about change. That is through legislation.
If enough people share the view of the Bundy brothers — and there’s no evidence this is true — they can persuade senators and representatives to pass laws to require the federal government to divest its ownership of federal forests and federal grasslands.
Our nation has a history of civil disobedience. Think of the civil rights movement and the protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Disobeying the law, even with the best intentions, carries an understanding that there will be legal consequences.
Thousands of civil rights activists and anti-war demonstrators suffered those consequences — fines and jail time — in their quest to persuade a majority of Americans to view those issues as the activists did.
If protesters arm themselves and signal to authorities that they won’t hesitate to use those weapons, then civil disobedience has morphed into armed revolt. That needs to be punished by our judicial system, the botched verdict in Oregon notwithstanding.
There still is hope. The Bundy brothers and their father will be in federal court in Nevada in February for a trial on criminal charges growing out of the 2014 standoff.
However, there’s no sign the family or its followers are inclined to alter their strategy for bringing change.
Ryan Bundy told reporters, “The government should be scared. The land does not belong to the government.”
Unfortunately, that view, when coupled with the Bundys’ affinity for firearms, means bloodshed is likely to be the ultimate result of this dispute.
Unfortunately, the Bundys’ view of our system of government is seriously warped.
by Randy Evans
Photo via Gage Skidmore