American mythology is full of the steely-eyed, gun-toting cowboy who won’t be fenced in. But there’s nothing right or romantic about the men who took over Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and escaped criminal conviction.
Right next to each other in the paper a few days ago were two stories about land, power and rights.
In one story, law-enforcement officers used pepper spray and concussion grenades to force protesters off private land in North Dakota, arresting 141 of them. The other story was about a jury acquitting seven people who were part of the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon early this year.
There’s no one-to-one comparison of the two stories because there were different circumstances involved, but they do say something about justice. Social media lit up with discussions of how different justice can look depending on who’s being judged. I kept thinking especially about the refuge case.
The seven in Oregon were charged with conspiracy to keep federal government employees from doing their jobs at the refuge. Some of them were also charged with theft of government property and using and carrying a firearm “during and in relation to a crime of violence.”
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The jury, after five weeks of testimony and several days of deliberation, sided with the defendants.
These are folks who announced their intent to take over federal property, then took possession of the refuge headquarters and held it for more than a month. They clearly carried guns, and prosecutors showed 30 guns to jurors during the trial. But the jury acquitted them anyway.
I don’t know what the jurors were thinking, but I do know that the defendants’ chances of getting off wouldn’t have been as good if they’d not been a bunch of white guys in cowboy hats talking about freeing themselves from government tyranny.
I imagine the jurors must have identified with them. They aren’t terrorists. They aren’t thugs. They’re red-blooded American patriots fighting for freedom. There are regions of the country where resentment of the federal government is a powerful, uniting force, usually in areas that really depend on that government.
And of course, American mythology is full of the steely-eyed, gun-toting cowboy who won’t be fenced in.
There’s nothing romantic about the federal bureaucrats who help make farming and ranching in the West possible and profitable, spending federal tax money on water projects, agricultural research and subsidies.
Brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy wanted federal lands turned over to people like themselves, and they claim the government has no right to the land.
Of course, if you look at the history of the area, it might be the Paiute Tribe that could best make that argument. As elsewhere, the U.S. government moved Indians off their lands to make room for white homesteaders — farmers and ranchers.
The federal government created the refuge partly because ranchers were destroying the ecology of the area. Restoration of the environment improved the area for everyone, but some people want unfettered access to the land for private use. In recent years, the government, tribes and ranchers have worked out arrangements that allow a high degree of collaboration and mutual benefit. But an agreement worked out around a table after long give-and-take sessions? Well, that’s not anything like a John Wayne movie version of how things ought to be.
The people who took over the refugee did so propelled by a lot of wrongheaded ideas that more reasonable people would reject, but here we are anyway.
Two years ago, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy engaged in an armed standoff with authorities in Nevada over money he owed for illegally allowing his animals to graze on public lands. Two of his sons, Ammon and Ryan, led the refuge takeover.
They said God was telling them what to do, and that they were acting partly on behalf of two Oregon ranchers, Steven and Dwight Hammond, who had been jailed for setting fire to public lands. The Hammonds didn’t ask for or support the takeover.
But on Jan. 2, 27 armed people took over the headquarters building and held it for six weeks. They were all charged with crimes and 11 pleaded guilty.
The acquittal of seven last Thursday is sure to encourage people who think like them to pursue their own anti-government agendas. That’s especially scary at this moment, when supporters of one presidential candidate are saying there could be a revolution if he isn’t elected.
I want to say I’d be surprised if after the election some of Donald Trump’s supporters turned violent, but my threshold for being shocked isn’t where it used to be.