In January of 2016 armed militants led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy seized the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, occupying it for over a month until they were arrested by law enforcement after a long standoff. The protesters were seeking an opportunity to advance their view that government agencies such as the United States Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM), are constitutionally required to turn over most of the federal public land they manage to the individual states.
Just last week, seven of the antigovernment protesters were acquitted of federal conspiracy and weapons charges pertaining to the takeover. While many of the protesters face other charges, the acquittal came as a shock to many who saw this as a cut and dry case. The defendants never denied that they had taken over the refuge, but claimed they were protesting government overreach and they posed no threat to the public. In addition, this protest cost taxpayers millions, which was necessary to pay law enforcement involved and the government workers who were prevented from doing their jobs.
These people are domestic terrorists. When armed militants seize government property and start demanding that the government cede 188,000 acres of land to local control they are not a group of peaceful protestors. They obviously posed a threat, as they threatened to murder anyone who tried to remove them. They obstructed federal workers, regular citizens who were collateral damage in this war against the government.
No strong steps were taken by law enforcement for nearly a month to fully remove the protesters. Now the verdict indicates that these federal agencies stand alone. Many federal land managers have anonymously expressed concern about copycats who will be emboldened by the decision. Assaults and threats of violence against federal employees on public lands are up, and it is shameful we cannot even prosecute those who threaten and disrupt the lives of those who are simply trying to care for the environment.
Just as important as the threat to the security of environmental workers is the blatant double standard this entire situation has illustrated. The question is whether these terrorists would have been allowed to occupy the refuge for six weeks and acquitted of charges if they weren’t white. To draw a comparison, it is useful to examine the occupation of California’s capitol building in 1967 by members of the Black Panthers protesting a gun control law. The protest ended after one day, and several members of the group were arrested on felony charges.
How would the protest have been different if, all else being equal, it had been African-Americans, or maybe Muslims who took over the refuge? For one thing, news outlets wouldn’t have been split on what to call them, probably thugs if they were black and terrorists if they were Muslim. There almost certainly would have been much stronger pressure on the government to end it, even if they were protesting for the same reasons.
This comparison can be extended to the trial as well. Ammon Bundy, one of the leaders of the takeover, testified that it was spontaneous and informed by religious belief. If a Muslim had stood in front of the jury and made the same claim, that jury would not have had to spend 10 minutes in deliberation before announcing their guilt. There is little doubt that being a group of white Christians tempered both the response of law enforcement and the judgement of the jury in the case.
It is disgrace that these terrorists were acquitted when they upended the lives of average citizens and threatened those who opposed them with murder. When there are Native Americans being pepper sprayed and having attack dogs set on them just because they want clean water. When any other demographic would have been quickly removed and locked up. From standoff to trial this entire incident has emphasized the double standard imposed upon the citizens of this country.
Jacob Kowalski is a weekly columnist to The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org