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Acquittals in Oregon standoff add fuel to the political fire

Defendant Neil Wampler speaks as he leaves federal court in Portland, Ore., Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016. A jury exonerated brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five others of conspiring to impede federal workers from their jobs at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. (Don Ryan / AP)
By Kevin Sullivan and Leah Sottile Washington Post

A jury’s stunning rejection of the government’s case against seven people charged in connection with this year’s armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon has reignited the combustible debate in America over the federal government’s authority and its land use policies in the West.

While land rights and anti-Washington activists greeted the jury’s decision as a long-overdue victory for American liberty, others called it a terrifying invitation for armed protesters to occupy federal land and buildings with impunity, potentially putting federal workers at risk.

“People are starting to pay attention to the narrative that the government is trying to push upon the people, and they’re not buying it. The government is overreaching, and it’s time for that to stop,” said B.J. Soper, an Oregon activist who closely monitored the trial and also was present at the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge this January and February.

The acquittal after a six-week trial comes at a time when tensions across the nation are already amped up because of the vitriolic presidential campaign and growing fears of potential violence on and after Election Day.

“This absolutely shocking verdict is sure to embolden armed paramilitary groups in the white-hot political environment in this country,” said Tarso Luis Ramos, executive director of Political Research Associates, a human rights organization that has studied the anti-government activism in Oregon. “This sends a signal that not only is it appropriate to challenge the rule of law through armed militancy, but that it is effective to do so.”

The defendants argued that their occupation was a peaceful act of civil disobedience, in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr., in protest of vast federal land ownership in the West. They said they acted after years of frustration with government agencies that they say strangle local economies with over-regulation and pay little attention to local concerns.

Federal prosecutors charged that the well-armed occupiers, led by brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, illegally occupied the property and used guns and the threat of force to hold it in an incident that drew international attention to the remote, snowy plains of far Eastern Oregon.

The six men and one woman acquitted Thursday were officially charged with conspiracy to prevent federal employees from doing their job, an argument rejected by a federal court jury in Portland.

That decision was “vindication for everyone who has stood up and said to the government: ‘What you are doing is wrong, and we want you to stop,’ ” Soper said.

The jury’s full reasoning remained unclear Friday, however. One juror wrote to the Oregonian newspaper after the trial, saying, “It should be known that all 12 jurors felt that this verdict was a statement regarding the various failures of the prosecution to prove ‘conspiracy’ in the count itself – and not any form of affirmation of the defense’s various beliefs, actions or aspirations.”

Mark Heckert, of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a sportsmen’s group, could barely control his rage at the decision, which he said did not represent the “rural values” cited by supporters of the defendants.

“Negotiating at the barrel of a gun is not a rural value; that’s just intimidation,” said Heckert, who visited the refuge during the occupation as a public lands advocate. “It emboldens these guys who think if something doesn’t go your way, grab a gun and go out and force people to change it. I’m disgusted at the actions that people can take without any consequences.”

In addition to the seven people acquitted Thursday, 11 others charged have already pleaded guilty; seven more face trial in February.

But most attention has been focused on the trial of the Bundy brothers, whose father, Cliven Bundy, has become a potent symbol for activists angry over land policies in the West, where the federal government owns more than 50 percent of the land in many states.

Hundreds of armed activists faced off with armed Bureau of Land Management agents and other federal authorities at Bundy’s Nevada ranch in 2014 in a dispute over Bundy’s refusal to pay more than $1 million in overdue fees to graze his cattle on federal land.

Fearing bloodshed, federal authorities backed off for almost two years before filing federal firearms and other charges against Bundy and 18 other people, including Ammon Bundy, 41, and Ryan Bundy, 43. Despite their acquittal Thursday, the brothers were ordered held in jail pending their trial in Nevada in February.

That withdrawal from the land in 2014 has been seen as emboldening militia groups, including the Oath Keepers and the 3 Percenters, to stage armed confrontations with authorities at mines on federal property in Oregon and Montana – as well as the wildlife refuge occupation.

Critics said the jury’s verdict would encourage them further.

“It’s disastrous; what this verdict is very likely to do is to unleash these people,” said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors anti-government extremism. “The danger is that we get armed invasions of all kinds of public lands and similar institutions, to push the completely bogus idea that the states are the real owners of public lands. The real danger is bloodshed.”

Michele Fiore, a Nevada state assemblywoman and high-profile supporter of the Bundys, said that such predictions were groundless. She said that many of the defendants had spent nine months in jail awaiting trial, so their activism has come with a heavy price despite the acquittal.

“Personally, I don’t see anyone just going in and taking over federal buildings because we got a not-guilty verdict,” she said.

J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, representing 670,000 workers – including hundreds of BLM agents – disagreed.

“This acquittal sends a very dangerous message that members of the public can engage in an armed takeover of a federal facility and face no consequences,” Cox said in a written statement.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell sent a note to all employees Friday, including those at the Bureau of Land Management, saying she was “profoundly disappointed” in the decision and “concerned about its potential implications.”

“In the coming days and weeks, I encourage you to take care of yourselves and your fellow employees,” she wrote. “The armed occupation in Oregon was and continues to be a reminder that employees in all offices should remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity.”

Jamie Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife, issued a statement Friday saying the jury’s decision represented “a day of national sorrow for all who care about our country’s magnificent public lands, and a time for deep concern among our nation’s law enforcement officers who will confront increased threats of violence across the West.”

Bob Dreher, another official of that organization, said, “The signal that it sends is that they got away with it.” He said the verdict adds validation to statements by Ammon Bundy and others “about how the federal government is illegitimate,” which “puts everybody at risk – federal workers at risk, federal lands at risk of intrusion.”

Joseph Rice, a local Republican official in Southern Oregon, noted that Americans have “a constitutionally protected right to redress grievances with the government.”

“It doesn’t say how or when it’s done. It’s at the individual’s choosing,” Rice said.

Rice said history suggests that civilians have more to fear from the government than vice versa. He said federal authorities instigated violence at the 1990s standoffs at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, which resulted in scores of deaths and energized the anti-government militia movement. At the Oregon standoff, he said, Oregon State Police troopers fatally shot LaVoy Finicum, who had been a spokesman for the group.

Finicum was killed when state police and the FBI stopped a car in which he and other occupation leaders were driving. Officials said Finicum was shot when he appeared to reach for a loaded gun in his jacket, and the troopers were later cleared of wrongdoing.

“Lavoy Finicum was basically set up and assassinated,” Rice said. “That man was denied his day in court, and, as we saw yesterday, would have been found innocent. He broke no law yet was murdered by the government.”

Rice faulted the BLM for failing to make good-faith efforts to communicate with and work with local people who feel that their traditional means of earning income – including grazing, timber-cutting and mining – are threatened by federal environmental policies that they believe favor endangered species over the economic well-being of communities.

The acquittal came as a shock to black activists in Portland. Earlier this month, during the Malheur trial, police used pepper spray to break up a peaceful sit-in over a police union contract at City Hall.

“We were all thrown down the stairs and out the door by riot cops because our mayor said he didn’t feel comfortable with us being in a public space,” said Teressa Raiford, a community organizer active in the Black Lives Matter movement who is also running a write-in campaign for Multnomah County sheriff.

“It’s very racist out here, and this is a serious message to everybody that says, ‘You know what, if you don’t look like us, if you don’t stand for America – and I guess America is white – you’re an insurgent and we’ll treat you as such,’ ” she said. “It’s horrible.”

Thursday’s verdict came on the same day that Native American protesters of an oil pipeline in North Dakota were tear-gassed, which came as no surprise to Jarvis Kennedy, an official with the Burns Paiute Native American tribe, which lived on the land where the Oregon wildlife refuge is now located.

“I kind of figured they’d get off because there were no minorities there,” Kennedy said. “It’s all about white privilege.”