In a verdict that astonished all sides, Ammon Bundy and seven other members of a right-wing militia were acquitted Thursday of all charges related to their 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon earlier this year, with even one defendant's lawyer characterizing the jury's decision as "off-the-charts unbelievable."
"This is an extremely disturbing verdict for anyone who cares about America's public lands, the rights of native people and their heritage, and a political system that refuses to be bullied by violence and racism."
Center for Biological DiversityThat was Matthew Schindler, an attorney for defendant Kenneth Medenbach, speaking to the Seattle Times. "I had been telling my client you can count on being convicted," Schindler said. "You don't walk into a federal court and win a case like this. It just doesn't happen."
Conservationists fear that the stunning acquittal will embolden other right-wing groups to take up arms against public land defenders.
"[M]ost Americans agree that taking over the Refuge through threats of violence was appalling. Right now, the safety of employees at our public land management agencies is absolutely crucial," wrote John Horning, executive director of the New Mexico-based WildEarth Guardians, in a statement. "It is possible there will be intimidation from militants who believe such actions are justified by this verdict."
"This is an extremely disturbing verdict for anyone who cares about America's public lands, the rights of native people and their heritage, and a political system that refuses to be bullied by violence and racism," said executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity Kierán Suckling.
"The Bundy clan and their followers peddle a dangerous brand of radicalism aimed at taking over lands owned by all of us," Suckling continued. "I worry this verdict only emboldens the kind of intimidation and right-wing violence that underpins their movement."
The shocking verdict was met with cheers from supporters outside the courtroom, while events inside swiftly devolved into a brawl between Ammon Bundy's lawyer and several U.S. marshals.
Oregon Live reports that after the verdict was read,
six to seven U.S. marshals surrounded Ammon Bundy's lawyer as he stood before the judge, arguing and shouting for his client to walk out the door a free man. They tackled him and stunned him with a Taser gun. As [Marcus] Mumford yelled, "What are you doing?," U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown ordered, "Everybody out of the courtroom!''
Ammon Bundy and his brother, Ryan Bundy, are still facing charges stemming from the family's earlier armed standoff with federal officials in Nevada in 2014. Other militia members facing no further charges were left free to go after the verdict was announced.
Observers were swift to highlight the apparent hypocrisy of the government's militant crackdown on peaceful Native American water protectors in North Dakota at the same time the across-the-board acquittal was handed down to the Bundy clan and their fellow right-wingers in Oregon:
Bundy Oregon thugs are acquitted while riot police remove peaceful, unarmed #NoDAPL protesters. What kind of country are we?
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— Greg Dennis (@GreenGregDennis) October 28, 2016
So the white people in Oregon who took over Federal land and shot at the Feds are not guilty but we’re bulldozing #NoDAPL?
— Ahab (@ahab99) October 28, 2016
— Mike Hudema (@MikeHudema) October 28, 2016
#NoDAPL Protestor: The Oregon standoff guys were acquitted, so we should be, too, right?
Court: Well, um, they're white.
— Justin Armbruster (@JL_Armbruster) October 28, 2016
— Keegan Stephan (@KeeganNYC) October 28, 2016
— Kate Crowe (@kcrowe) October 28, 2016
"Authorities" arresting indigenous for protecting nature while Oregon militia goes free. #nodapl
Are u paying attention?
— Saul Williams (@SaulWilliams) October 28, 2016
Meanwhile, Indigenous activists pointed out that the militia in Oregon didn't only threaten public officials and the wildlife refuge during their armed occupation, but the armed group also destroyed sacred sites and artifacts of the local Burns Paiute Tribe—just as Dakota Access Pipeline construction has done to Standing Rock Sioux Tribe sacred sites in North Dakota.
"I was raised like this to know that it's always going to be our land—no matter who owns it, it's always going to be us," Jarvis Kennedy, a councilman with the Burns Paiute Tribe, told NPR before the verdict. "We're the first people, and when everything's done and said, we're going to still be there."
Kennedy added: "What if I did that with my Native brothers and sisters, and we went and occupied something, do you think we'd be let running around free, going in and out of it? No, we'd be locked down."