The not-guilty verdict in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge case was a stunner. Did we not witness armed protesters staging a 41-day standoff and refusing to comply with law enforcement?
Yes we did.
The Portland jurors weren’t asked whether they approved of the occupiers’ message and tactics. They were asked whether the seven defendants were guilty of an ambiguous charge: conspiring to impede federal workers from doing their jobs. The weapons charge was contingent on a guilty verdict for conspiracy, so that went by the wayside, too.
One juror told an Oregonian reporter, “It was not lost on us that our verdict(s) might inspire future actions that are regrettable, but that sort of thinking was not permitted when considering the charges before us.”
The conspiracy charge would have carried a hefty sentence and sent a potent message that similar armed anti-government protests will be met with severe punishment. But prosecutors weren’t able to convince the jury that the defendants intended to sideline refuge workers. Their supervisor kept them home to avoid a potentially dangerous situation. A wise choice, by the way.
The defendants said their purpose was to protest federal government overreach and to spread the message that federal land throughout the rural West should be “restored” to the states.
Federal prosecutors need to study this case to see the right way to proceed the next time.
Unfortunately, there could be a next time, because the defendants and their supporters are spinning the verdict as an affirmation of their message.
“A stunning victory for rural America,” gushed one defendant. “PRAISE GOD, A GREAT GREAT DAY!” proclaimed Washington state Rep. Matt Shea on his Facebook page.
The occupiers invoke “civil disobedience” and Martin Luther King Jr., but betray that legacy by bringing weapons and the threat of violence. King was willing to do jail time to further the Civil Rights Movement. Occupiers say nobody would have listened had they not been armed. They said the shooting death of occupation leader LaVoy Finicum demonstrates why they needed weapons. But Finicum would be alive if he didn’t have a weapon to reach for.
Most of the rural residents near the refuge weren’t sympathetic to the occupation. They decried the closing of schools and other disruptions. They say the occupiers were an intimidating force.
Let’s remember what happened. A couple of dozen people, almost all from outside of Oregon, took over federal property. They brought guns so they couldn’t be readily expelled. Imagine other protests being weaponized – say, Black Lives Matter or Occupy Wall Street. Sympathy would wane.
Nobody is preventing anti-government groups from exercising their First Amendment rights peacefully. Only they see the need to raise the stakes by raising their weapons.
Sadly, perhaps tragically, they got away with it this time. And most Americans are rightly outraged.
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