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Vol. 80/No. 43      November 14, 2016

(front page)

Oregon land protesters’ acquittal is gain for workers

SEATTLE — In a victory for the rights of all those standing up to abuses by the U.S. government, a jury Oct. 27 found brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five others not guilty of conspiracy and other frame-up charges. They were on trial for their participation in the pro-rancher protest occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon last winter.

But the Bundys were not released from prison. Instead, they are being sent to Nevada to stand trial on more frame-up charges for resisting federal attempts to confiscate their father’s cattle in 2014. When defense attorney Marcus Mumford demanded to see an official detainer ordering his clients to remain in prison, federal marshals threw him to the ground, used a Taser on him, handcuffed and arrested him.

The verdict shocked big-business news media and politicians. “‘Off the Charts Unbelievable’: Will Acquittal of Oregon Refuge Occupiers Embolden Extremists, Militias?” read a headline in the Oct. 28 Washington Post. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued a statement saying she was “disappointed.”

“The acquittal is good for working people and all those fighting the government’s spying and trampling of democratic rights,” said Mary Martin, Socialist Workers Party candidate for governor of Washington. “And it strengthens the fight to free the Hammonds.”

Ammon Bundy initiated the civil disobedience occupation to protest the jailing of father and son Dwight and Steven Hammond, cattle ranchers near the Malheur refuge. The two had been convicted on frame-up arson charges for setting controlled burns to protect their land from wildfires and invasive species. They were sent to prison a second time after an appeals court ruled that the judge in their trial had erred by giving them a sentence less than the minimum set under the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.

The occupation also protested what many ranchers call “federal overreach” — government policies that limit ranchers’ and farmers’ access to federal land, increase grazing fees and restrict watering rights for livestock. More than 50 percent of the land west of the Mississippi is owned by the U.S. government.

The government’s admission that they had 15 paid FBI informants operating in the protest occupation or in the nearby town of Burns, Oregon, undermined the prosecution’s case.

The only violence that occurred during the refuge occupation was the Jan. 26 police killing of protest leader Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, who along with the Bundys and other protesters was ambushed on his way to a community meeting. U.S. District Judge Anna Brown refused to allow most mention of the killing of Finicum.

The government’s use of the charge of “conspiracy to impede” federal employees as the heart of their case backfired. U.S. prosecutors often use conspiracy charges to frame up union and other political activists to get stiffer sentences and avoid having to prove that any crime was committed.

The Oregonian newspaper quoted an email statement from “Juror 4,” who said the prosecution failed “to prove ‘conspiracy.’” He said when jurors asked why conspiracy charges were being used, they were told other charges such as criminal trespass didn’t carry as stiff a penalty — up to six years for conspiracy. “The air of triumphalism that the prosecution brought was not lost on any of us, nor was it warranted,” Juror 4 wrote.

The paper said another juror “was especially disturbed when the defense unmasked” one of the informers sent in by the FBI as the person who began and organized firearms training.

A discussion broke out immediately outside the courthouse in Portland and in the press about whether or not the participants in the occupation, most of whom are Caucasian, got more lenient treatment than Black Lives Matter protesters or those defending Native American rights.

John Lamb, a chicken farmer from Montana who maintained a daily support vigil for those on trial, told the Militant that “Portland Don’t Shoot” activists were marching near the courthouse after the verdict to protest police brutality. “We joined in with their march. Some objected at first because they thought we were racists or white supremacists. When they saw who we were, and that wasn’t the case, that our group included people who are Native and Black and Asian and opposed what the government is doing, some of them came back and apologized. We are going to talk again. We are fighting the same monster.”

In Burns, former logger Dave Smerski said by phone that he and many others in the region “responded happily” to the verdict. A sign he erected last year that reads “Stand with the Hammonds” remains visible in town. He said there are now “more FBI and state police in town, more street lights with rotating cameras to monitor people.” He noted that 40 Native Americans held a protest in town recently in solidarity with the fight of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota.

Ruth Danielson, a neighbor of the Hammonds who supports their fight to get out of prison, told the Militant, “I didn’t agree with the refuge takeover but to use conspiracy charges against them was wrong and nefarious and I’m glad the jury didn’t agree with this.”

Eleven participants in the occupation previously took plea bargains and have been sentenced. Ammon Bundy called on the prosecution to drop charges against seven others scheduled for trial in February.

Joel Britton contributed to this article.
Related articles:
End the frame-ups, free the Hammonds and the Bundys!
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