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Why Oregon Standoff Verdicts Set Dangerous and Far-Reaching Precedent

Malheur acquittals raise stakes for next year’s trial in Nevada and beyond

A member of the Oregon chapter of the Oath Keepers stands guard at the Sugar Pine Mine in Medford, Oregon in this file image. (Photo: Reuters)

I was nearly killed earlier this year while counter-protesting the paramilitary seizure of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. After accusing me of being an FBI agent, the armed occupiers there worked themselves into a mob. Hog-faced militia thugs barked, “he’s a fed.” Some pawed their pistols. I was told snipers were trained on us. It was dangerously close to violence.

"The cradling of the Bundy’s media circus at Malheur, and the government’s over-confident bungling of the ensuing prosecution—sets a dangerous and far-reaching precedent for the kind of paramilitary intimidation and right-wing violence that underpins their movement."

For weeks last January a small rag-tag group of public lands supporters protested the Malheur occupiers. There was a handful of us, and dozens of them—all 30 miles from the nearest law enforcement. We crashed press conferences, staged counter protests, and marched into their occupied barracks with signs. We were threatened, harassed, blasted with bull horns and trailed by thugs with assault rifles.

We saw first-hand what was live-streamed to the world: An illegal paramilitary seizure of one of the crown jewels of our national wildlife refuge system, and the months-long social, cultural, economic, and environmental terrorization of an entire community. So, like many others, I was jarred by last Thursday’s acquittal of seven defendants: How could such an obvious, video-taped crime could go unpunished? Here’s how: Federal fumbling.

The Bundy clan and their followers peddle a dangerous brand of radicalism. Their core ideas—that the federal government lacks authority to own public land, and that county sheriffs are the highest form of law enforcement—are rooted in hard-right racist ideologies created to sidestep federal civil rights laws by elevating local authority. They’re perfectly suited to ranchers, like Cliven Bundy, who refused to pay deeply subsidized federal grazing fees.

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After Cliven Bundy’s 2014 Nevada standoff—where militia thugs with assault rifles stood down federal officials corralling Cliven’s illegally-grazing cows—the Obama administration did nothing. The standoff was a big win for anti-government militants, and in the two years following, facing no arrests or federal enforcement, the movement grew, spawning the Malheur seizure last winter.

"It’s a stepping stone toward fascism, not nonviolent civil disobedience."

There, the kids-gloves stayed on. Militants were free to come and go from the refuge. They visited town, harassed locals, and crashed community meetings armed. They held press conferences, trenched Burns Paiute sacred sites, and shook hands with the FBI in front of news cameras. And because refuge employees were told to stay home, the jury could cynically find that the lynchpin charge in the government’s boldly-narrow prosecution—that occupiers had conspired to impede federal employees from doing their jobs—wasn’t supported by evidence.

All of this—the federal inaction following the Nevada standoff, the cradling of the Bundy’s media circus at Malheur, and the government’s over-confident bungling of the ensuing prosecution—sets a dangerous and far-reaching precedent for the kind of paramilitary intimidation and right-wing violence that underpins their movement. Social change in America depends on nonviolent civil disobedience, like the brutal struggles of indigenous activists in North Dakota and Black Lives Matter activists throughout the U.S. But right-wing paramilitary intimidation is different. It’s a stepping stone toward fascism, not nonviolent civil disobedience. Its rise should concern anyone who cares about America’s public lands, civil rights, and a political system that refuses to be bullied by violence and racism.

All of those principles were on trial in the Malheur case. They will be again in next year’s trial for the 2014 Bundy standoff. There, the government has the ingredients for a strong case. And the imperative for getting it right couldn’t be greater.

Taylor McKinnon

Taylor McKinnon is a public lands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity

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