Oregon trial exposes gov’t frame-up of land protesters
BY EDWIN FRUIT
AND MARY MARTIN
PORTLAND, Ore. — After five weeks of testimony, the trial of brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five others who joined the protest occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last January drew to a close. The jury began its deliberations Oct. 20. Ammon Bundy organized the civil disobedience action to draw attention to the jailing for the second time of Dwight and Steven Hammond, father and son cattle ranchers in Harney County, on the same frame-up arson charges and to protest government policies that drive ranchers off the land.
Despite no evidence that the protesters carried out a single violent act, the prosecution painted the occupation as a violent conspiracy. The government’s case centered around the charge that protesters conspired to “impede” federal employees in the discharge of their duties. “These defendants took over a wildlife refuge and it wasn’t theirs,” prosecutor Ethan Knight said in his closing statement.
The most serious charge, “Use and Carry of a Firearm in Relation to a Crime of Violence,” was dismissed in June. But numerous other rulings by U.S. District Judge Anna Brown hampered the defense. She prohibited the showing of videos of conversations the Bundys had with Oregon ranchers that confirmed the character and demands of the protest.
Brown, with few exceptions, barred defense lawyers and witnesses from mentioning the Jan. 26 police killing of protest leader Robert “LaVoy” Finicum. The Bundys, Finicum and others had been on the way to a community meeting to discuss the protest when they were ambushed by the FBI and Oregon state police.
The judge also refused to allow the defendants to explain why they thought the doctrine of “adverse possession” gave them the legal right to occupy the refuge as a way of demonstrating that the land should not be under federal control.
Despite the deck being stacked against them, the defendants showed that FBI informants and agent provocateurs had infiltrated the occupation and that those involved in the protest never told federal employees to stop working. It was officials from various government agencies who instructed employees not to go to the refuge.
Frame-up of the Oregon ranchers
The occupation began Jan. 2, just two days before the Hammonds were to return to federal prison after already serving time for the same alleged offense. A federal appeals court had ruled that the judge in their case did not have the authority to sentence them to less than the mandatory five-year sentences in the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.
The Hammonds — who for decades had been fighting U.S. government restrictions on their ability to ranch and attempts to force them to sell their land — had been convicted on frame-up charges of arson. They had set controlled burns, a common practice by both ranchers and government agencies to protect land from wildfires and to clear out invasive plants.
The Bundys and their supporters also saw the occupation as a way to protest what many ranchers call “federal overreach” — rules, regulations, fees and other bureaucratic obstacles to their use of federal land for grazing and watering livestock.
A thousand ranchers and others visited the refuge during the occupation. Even ranchers who did not agree with the action frequently told the press that it brought needed attention to the frame-up of the Hammonds and the U.S. government’s anti-rancher policies.
Much of the prosecution’s case centered on the weapons that some protesters carried during the occupation. Knight played a video of up to 10 men at the refuge boat launch firing assault rifles. “This is not a firing range,” he said. “This is inherently intimidating.”
But it was FBI informant Fabio Minoggio — alias John Killman — who organized the target practice, noted Marcus Mumford, Ammon Bundy’s lawyer. “There were more FBI confidential informants at the refuge than there are defendants in this room,” Mumford said. The government admits to having at least nine informants at the refuge.
FBI agents even infiltrated a Mormon Church service that Ryan Bundy was attending. And FBI informant Mark McConnell was the driver for Ammon Bundy the day he was arrested and Finicum was gunned down.
Indian artifacts not disturbed
The defense was also able to answer a slander that the refuge occupation was an attack on Native Americans and that the protesters had damaged Indian artifacts stored there. Sheila Warren, an elder with the Siletz tribe in Oregon, testified that she went to the refuge to find out if accusations were true. She said she was welcomed and saw the artifacts were not disturbed.
A handful of supporters of the defendants held a daily vigil near the courthouse during the trial. “We are trying to educate people that the Bundys did not steal land and the Hammonds did not intentionally burn federal land,” said John Lamb, a chicken farmer from Bozeman, Montana. “I don’t know how to run the subway in New York City and the federal government has no business telling me how to run a farm.”
Talking to workers on their doorsteps in northeast Portland, Socialist Workers Party members who attended part of the trial found a range of views about the occupation and charges. “That whole thing was a little too radical for me,” said Ken Anderson, 49, a printing press operator. “But no one should get shot for protesting like happened there.”