Today is Hallowe’en, a traditional time to scare each other and scry into the future. And what a perfect time to do so, with a frightening verdict to report, and mischief that is sure to follow! Unless you’ve been stuck in a dungeon for the last several days, you’ve probably heard that Ryan Bundy and his ragtag militia have been found not guilty of the charges stemming from their occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon earlier this year. Remember the way they broke into the government buildings early this year, fouled the place up, begged for snacks online, and terrified the locals? Yeah, those ghouls.
One ringleader of this circus, Ryan Bundy, opted to represent himself in court, and the trial was about as big of a freak show as you might expect with that opening act. Judge Anna Brown found it necessary to repeatedly remind the disorganized defense and rambling witnesses to “get it together.” Reverend Franklin Graham took the stand to recall how he helped bring the Malheur occupation to a nonviolent end, recounting that the FBI negotiators were brought to tears during the surrender process, saying that they were “thankful to God that no one was hurt.” Juror No. 11, who had worked previously for the Bureau of Land Management, was replaced at the last minute because he spoke of being biased during deliberations, yet didn’t mention it during voir dire. Perhaps because the substitution of a new juror required the deliberation to start fresh and disregard any conclusions they may have drawn, six hours later the jury came back with a sweeping vindication of the seven defendants. No conspiracy, not even a conviction for stealing the government-owned car that the driver was arrested in. Nothing.
While this verdict has frightening implications concerning the empowerment of other militia movements that haunt odd corners of the country, a natural contrast can be made to a current occupation of Native American treaty land, the anti-pipeline protest by the Standing Rock Sioux. Unlike the FBI’s kid-glove handling of the Malheur occupation, the Native protest is being actively subdued with pepper spray, rubber bullets, vicious dogs, and pre-planned police brutality. The FBI doesn’t seem to be moved to tears here any more than police cried as they killed Walter Scott or Philando Castile.
It’s tempting to paint this as a racial issue, pitting leniency for white sovereign citizen militias against violence for people of color, but it goes deeper than that. One can also smell money at work. On one hand, armed ranchers like the Bundy family are deeply committed to fighting the government and privatizing the commons, both by grazing cattle on land they leased but refuse to pay for, and by trying to forcibly steal land through adverse possession. On the other hand, peaceful Sioux are trying to prevent the corporate desecration and pollution of their own land and everyone else downstream.
You can tell a lot about what a society values by who gets beat up, and who gets to walk. And these two occupations, treated so differently, speak volumes about who really controls our system.