Was that Oregon wildlife refuge occupation a legitimate protest?

In the trial of seven activists who staged an armed occupation of Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last winter, prosecutors dismissed claims that their actions were protected under the First Amendment.

Multnomah County Sheriff's Office/Handout/Reuters
On trial are (clockwise from top left) Ryan Bundy, Ammon Bundy, Brian Cavalier, Peter Santilli, Shawna Cox, Ryan Payne, and Joseph O'Shaughnessy, limited-government activists who led an armed 41-day takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, are seen in a combination of police jail booking photos released by the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office in Portland, Oregon, Jan. 27, 2016.

Seven protesters involved in the armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to protest the federal government’s land use earlier this year went on trial Tuesday. All seven are accused of conspiring to impede Interior Department employees from doing their jobs, while five face the additional charge of possession of a firearm in a federal facility.

Prosecutor Geoffrey Barrow is expected tol form his case around how the occupiers were trained and drilled to establish patrols that prevented federal employees from going to work. While attorneys for the defendants have not yet made his opening statements, protesters have argued that their occupation was a legal expression of First Amendment rights on an issue that has affected many Western states for years.

"Everyone in this great nation has a right to his or her beliefs,” Mr. Barrow told jurors in his opening statement. “We are not prosecuting the defendants because we don't like what they think or said. We are prosecuting them because of what they did."

The occupation began on January 2, following the imprisonment to of two Oregon ranchers who had set fires that spread to nearby federal property, as a protest against what they saw as illegal control and mismanagement of public lands by the federal government.

But over the course of the 41 days the protesters remained at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, their cause become less about the ranchers and more about demanding that the government turn over public land to local control.

"Federal control of public lands in the West is destroying the rural way of life, and that is what my client and others were trying to draw attention to,” Matthew Schindler, a lawyer for Kenneth Medenbach, charged with theft of a government-owned Ford F-350 truck, told Reuters.

Two of the seven protesters on trial are brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, who belong to a Nevada ranching family that has been embroiled in conflicts over land use for years. And they aren’t the only ones.  Some Western ranchers take issue with how much land the federal government owns – more than 630 million acres – as well as its system of leasing it for ranching and agricultural use.

“If there is ever to be some ‘repatriation’ of public lands to Western states to own and control, it ... needs the participation of state and national public officials, not simply a few families grabbing and holding land that belongs to all Americans," Elizabeth Sanders, who teaches government at Cornell University, told USA Today. "The ‘Bundy principle’ is anarchy, theft of public land and resources."

The government did not rush to address the issue of the protesters when the occupation was going on, forcing Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to write a letter to the US Attorney General Loretta Lynch and FBI Director James Comey asking for a safe and quick end to the conflict.

But while the federal government did not immediately take action against the protesters, it has not lent them their sympathies either. So far, the protesters’ message has failed to translate into policy change.

"In terms of public land affairs, it's been business as usual," Bruce Huber, a Notre Dame law professor who specializes in natural resources, told USA Today. "[The Bureau of Land Management] has given no indication that they intend to pursue gentler policies with respect to public lands ranchers. And in other areas of land management, most notably federal coal leasing, the BLM has not shied away from taking positions that make it very unpopular in the rural West."

Material from the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Was that Oregon wildlife refuge occupation a legitimate protest?
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2016/0914/Was-that-Oregon-wildlife-refuge-occupation-a-legitimate-protest
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe