Still jailed in Portland several weeks after their arrests, the Harney County occupiers are experiencing what they should have known before: Rebellion is punished as a crime only if it fails. Still, their treatment so far seems needlessly harsh.
Twenty-six of the occupiers have been indicted. The most serious charge is that they conspired by force and intimidation to prevent federal officers — Malheur National Wildlife Refuge employees — from doing their jobs. I don’t know what the work at this wildlife refuge entails in the middle of winter. But the law is the law, and it calls for such conspirators to be fined or imprisoned for up to six years.
In addition, the 26 are charged with having guns at a federal facility, defined in the law as a building where federal employees work. Presumably the occupiers carried their weapons inside the refuge office. If they had left them outside, that count might not have applied. Having a weapon as part of another crime (the conspiracy count) also carries five years.
The layman might think that intimidating someone by carrying a weapon, and carrying a weapon to intimidate someone, are the same crime. But the indictment counts them separately.
Count 3 alleges that the carrying of firearms during the conspiracy was a “crime of violence,” yet another offense. Nine of the defendants are charged with this one.
One of the occupiers is additionally charged with stealing a refuge truck, a 2012 Ford F-350. In court Friday, he said he was trying to get groceries in Burns, where he was arrested Feb.15, and would have returned the truck (with the groceries) to the refuge.
Two others are also charged with purloining and using government-owned cameras. And finally, one of the last holdouts and a person whose identity has been kept sealed are charged with using “heavy equipment” to dig what I think was a latrine. The indictment says the hole was dug on ground held sacred by the Burns Paiute Tribe.
So, the charges boil down to plotting the takeover, keeping the refuge staff from working, carrying arms, using or borrowing some equipment and digging a hole on government land.
One wonders what would have happened if the refuge manager had walked into his office and said, “Hey guys, fun’s over. I need to work on my budget, so get out of here and let me sit at my computer.” Then, if he had been restrained or harmed in any way, the government would have ample reason to throw the book at the guilty parties.
As it was, the occupiers hurt no one. The only one killed was one of their own, and there’s every indication in the published investigatory material that he provoked his own death.
Which makes me wonder why the defendants have not been released on bail. Or why the judge has agreed with the Justice Department that this is a “complex case,” a designation that cancels the defendants’ right to a speedy trial and thus may keep some of them incarcerated indefinitely, or until the government feels like going to trial.
These people had the loopy idea that their occupation would make the U.S. government relinquish control of federal land. They may be idealists in their own mind, but their reasoning was faulty and their tactics were nuts. Federal policies do need changing on a lot of fronts, but this does not get it done.
Let’s hope the government is smart enough not to make martyrs of the Malheur Gang. (hh)