Ghavri: The Death of Peaceful Protests?

by Anmol Ghavri | 1/13/16 6:35pm

On January 2, self-proclaimed “militiamen” took over the federally-owned Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. The cause of this federal property takeover can be traced back to the imprisonment of two cattlemen for arson, father and son — Dwight Hammond, Jr., 73, and his son Steve, 46.

Despite having no connection to the Hammonds, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the leaders of the “militiamen,” traveled from Nevada to Oregon to lead the takeover of the wildlife refuge in protest of the Hammonds’ resentencing. However, instead of referring to them as “militiamen,” a term that for many evokes the earliest fighters in the American Revolution, the American public should call a spade, a spade. The Bundys are anti-government insurgents who are undermining the concept of peaceful and legal protest.

The Hammonds were arrested for ignoring a burn ban and setting fire to federal territory near their ranch in Oregon. According to the Hammonds, the fires were meant to control invasive species.

Many have been quick to dismiss this explanation, accusing the Hammonds of trying to cover up deer poaching instead. The episode concluded with the arrest of the Hammonds for alleged arson.

The Hammonds’ case stoked anti-government sentiment, as the father and son were recently re-sentenced under a 1996 law, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Initially, Dwight Hammond served three months in prison, and Steve Hammond a full year. Under the 1996 statute, the Hammonds have had their jailtime extended. Both face an additional five years behind bars, minus time already served.

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act requires a five-year minimum sentence for arson on federal land, stating: “Whoever maliciously damages or destroys [...] by means of fire [...] any [...] real property [...] owned or possessed by [...] the United States [...] shall be imprisoned for not less than five years.” The original federal case concluded with the judge shying away from the five-year minimum, arguing that it was too harsh. Instead, the judge sentenced Dwight Hammond to three months and Steve Hammond to one year in prison.

The federal government appealed the case, and in October 2015, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals returned a ruling: “Given the seriousness of arson, a five-year sentence is not grossly disproportionate to the offense.” Regardless of whether or not the resentencing of the Hammonds was just, protests against it should have been peaceful. Although many protestors have employed peaceful means, a small subset of extremists hijacked the initiative.

The Hammonds’ unusual resentencing enraged many and culminated in the armed anti-government group, led by the Bundys, taking over the wildlife refuge in Oregon. The group not only condemns the Hammonds’ imprisonment, but also protests their conviction under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. They feel it inaccurately portrays the Hammonds as terrorists.

The federal government has not been quick to respond due to its experience with right-wing militant groups in Waco and Ruby Ridge in the 1990s. The Hammonds have clearly stated that they do not support the occupation of the wildlife refuge or the anti-government “militia” movement. Despite this, the “militia” is demanding that the federally-owned land around the wildlife refuge be free for public use.

If the armed men were African-American, they would be called thugs. If they were Muslim, they would be called terrorists. The showdown between the armed protestors and the government illuminates a tremendous hypocrisy. We label violent groups based on the race or religion of their members. Additionally, the occupation has exposed the government’s fear of antagonizing right-wing groups. Our nation’s leaders have given such extremists carte blanche. They can act with impunity. If the armed men were African-American or Muslim, the government would have mustered all of its strength to crush the opposition.

Ryan Bundy explained the militant’s demands in a phone interview with The Oregonian. He then went on to say, “The best possible outcome is that the ranchers that have been kicked out of the area [...] will come back and reclaim their land, and the wildlife refuge will be shut down forever and the federal government will relinquish such control.”

It seems that the militants are bent on staying at the wildlife refuge for weeks to come, or at least until the government responds to their demands. The brash actions by this band of armed “protesters” undermine the legitimacy of peaceful groups with grievances against Washington.

Correction appended (Jan. 22, 2016)

This column, originally published on Jan. 14 was missing a word and included an extraneous phrase. Both of these have been corrected.