An Oregon jury’s stunning rejection of the federal case against seven people charged in connection with this year’s armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge has reignited the debate over the federal government’s land use policies in the West, reports the Washington Post. While land rights and anti-Washington activists greeted the jury’s decision as a long-overdue victory, others called it a terrifying invitation for armed protesters to occupy federal land with impunity, potentially putting federal workers at risk. “People are starting to pay attention to the narrative that the government is trying to push upon the people, and they’re not buying it. The government is overreaching, and it’s time for that to stop,” said B. J. Soper, who took part in the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January and February.
The acquittal after a six-week trial comes as tensions are high because of the vitriolic presidential campaign and fears of violence on and after Election Day. “This absolutely shocking verdict is sure to embolden armed paramilitary groups in the white-hot political environment in this country,” said Tarso Luis Ramos of Political Research Associates, a human rights organization that has studied anti-government activism in Oregon. “This sends a signal that not only is it appropriate to challenge the rule of law through armed militancy, but that it is effective to do so.” The defendants argued that their occupation was a peaceful act of civil disobedience in protest of vast federal land ownership. Federal prosecutors charged that the well-armed occupiers, led by brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, illegally occupied the property and used guns and the threat of force to hold it. In addition to the seven people acquitted Thursday, 11 others have already pleaded guilty; seven more face trial in February.