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‘Off the charts unbelievable’: Will acquittal of Oregon refuge occupiers embolden extremists, militias?

Supporters of the armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge celebrated the acquittal of seven occupiers in Portland in 2016. (Video: Instagram/the_mother_hempin_truth via Storyful)

“I had been telling my client you can count on being convicted,” said Matthew Schindler, a lawyer for one of the men on trial for the armed takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. “You don’t walk into a federal court and win a case like this. It just doesn’t happen.”

But win they did and even Schindler thought it “off the charts unbelievable,” he told the Seattle Times.

“I fear this ruling will embolden other militants to use the threat of violence and I worry for the safety of employees at our public land- management agencies,” said John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians, in a statement. “It is entirely possible there will be threats or intimidations from militants that believe such actions are justified by this verdict.”

Jury acquits leaders of armed takeover of the Oregon wildlife refuge of federal conspiracy charges

As Leah Sottile reported for The Post, the trial for the leader of the armed occupation, Ammon Bundy, his brother Ryan and five others took six weeks. The verdict — not guilty of federal conspiracy charges — came in five days. While Ammon and Ryan Bundy face charges in Nevada for a 2014 standoff with Bureau of Land Manager officers at the family’s ranch, and seven additional defendants face their own trial, the others walked free.

While many of Bundy’s 26 co-defendants pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to impede federal officers from performing their duties — a charge that also has been used to prosecute extremist left-wingers and Earth First protesters — six others remained steadfast over their innocence.

When news of the verdict was announced, The Post reported, supporters whooped and hollered, waved flags and read from the Constitution.

Defendant Shawna Cox issued a call to action: “Wake up, America, and help us restore the Constitution. Don’t sleep with your head in the sand.”

The six-week armed occupation of the refuge transfixed the nation in January, as did parts of its bloody conclusion. It began as a protest against the imprisonment of two Oregon ranchers convicted of setting fires and morphed into a protest against the federal government’s ownership of Western lands, which Ammon Bundy and his followers contend the Constitution prohibits.

It ended on Jan. 26, when, after federal agents surrounded the refuge, police stopped and arrested Bundy and some of his followers driving to a community forum. The group’s spokesman, Lavoy Finicum, was shot and killed when he swerved to race past a police roadblock, reached for a weapon, according to authorities, and was shot dead by Oregon State Police officers. After that, four remaining occupiers surrendered on Feb. 11.

LaVoy Finicum, Ore. occupier who said he’d rather die than go to jail, did just that

While theirs was a movement of the West that reawakened longstanding resentment about the federal government’s management of land coveted by private operators, it has broader potential implications that are especially relevant today on the extreme right, which has expanded dramatically since President Obama’s election and grown to even greater prominence by association with the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.

Collectively, they’ve been referred to as “the modern antigovernment militia movement.”

As The Post’s Kevin Sullivan reported in May, those in the movement call themselves patriots, demanding that the federal government adhere to the Constitution as they interpret it and stop what they see as systematic abuse not just of land rights, gun rights, freedom of speech and other liberties.

Law enforcement officials call them dangerous, delusional and sometimes violent, and say that their numbers are growing amid a wave of anger at the government that has been gaining strength since 2008, a surge that coincided with the election of the first black U.S. president and a crippling economic recession.

The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that there are some 1,000 such groups across the country now — up from a few hundred in 2008 — one of the most prominent being the so-called “Oath Keepers.”

For them, these are conspiratorial times, with their enemies plotting to rig elections, eliminate the Second Amendment and worse.

And they are on high alert, perhaps bolstered now by what they can interpret fairly or unfairly by a vote of confidence from a jury in Oregon.

The Oath Keepers, for example, a national group of former military and law enforcement officers, has urged its members to “blend in” with voters and do “incognito intelligence gathering and crime spotting” at polling places across the country on Nov. 8, The Post’s Sullivan reported this week. 

“In particular, we are calling on our retired police officers, our military intelligence veterans, and our Special Warfare veterans (who are well trained in covert observation and intelligence gathering) to take the lead,” group leader Stewart Rhodes said in a “call to action” on the group’s website and in a YouTube video urging members to “help stop voter fraud.”

Among the tenets these groups share, besides their own interpretation of the Constitution, is the belief that it is their job to enforce their vision, even by resort to extra-constitutional remedies for their grievances, like seizing federal land.

The extreme rhetoric is producing vows of extreme and even illegal actions on the part of ordinary people.

According to the Hill:

A woman attending a rally with the GOP nominee’s running mate Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in Albuquerque said to applause that “If Hillary Clinton wins the election . . . and she’s on that Second Amendment, taking your guns away, there is going to be a civil war in this state.”
“But, if President Trump would win,” the woman continued, to hollers from the crowd, “there’s also going to be a war, because Obama is going to pull that martial law on the United States.”

The political rhetoric of the extreme right pervaded the Malheur Refuge trial despite the efforts of the judge to keep the proceeding ideologically free.

According to Willamette Week:

Ammon Bundy and several other defendants took the stand in their own defense to detail their beliefs that the Constitution prohibits the federal government from owning land, that the sentences given to two Burns-area ranchers convicted on federal arson charges were the result of government tyranny and that the 2014 standoff at Cliven Bundy’s Bunkerville ranch was a vindication of Bundy’s belief that the county sheriff is the ultimate law of the land.
Ammon Bundy’s attorney, Marcus Mumford, painted Bundy as a valiant patriot, fighting a David-and-Goliath battle against government overreach. He told the jury Bundy is in jail because of that same “dark” force.

Sympathizers and critics of the armed takeover agreed only on one thing, that the verdict was a surprise, considering that the takeover and the armed resistance to surrender was done in full public view.

Robert Salisbury, attorney for defendant Jeff Banta, told the Associated Press that the acquittals were “stunning.”

“I’m speechless,” he said.

On the one hand, Lisa Ludwig, described as a standby counsel for Ryan Bundy, told the Oregonian that “maybe this is a lesson that that’s not the way to engage with these people who want nothing more than just to be heard …”

By contrast, Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, said the decision puts park rangers and scientists at great risk just for doing their jobs and will “undoubtedly embolden extremist groups.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) agreed. “While in our judicial system it’s important to respect a jury’s decision,” he told KOIN TV, “I am troubled by this outcome. The notion that an armed occupation could take over a citizen-owned facility and cause extensive damage, and yet face no consequences within our legal system, is deeply concerning.”

The verdict against open lawbreakers by an all-white jury raised racial issues as well and references to the protests among Native American groups over the Dakota Access oil pipeline, who were forcibly removed Thursday night from their camp in the pipeline’s path.

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