While unarmed Dakota Access pipeline protesters are met with force, armed militia members including the Bundy brothers were acquitted of their occupation of a federal space
KIM BROWN, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, I’m Kim Brown in Baltimore. A federal court jury delivered surprise verdict on Thursday acquitting all 7 Oregon militia members of conspiracy charges stemming from the armed take over of a wildlife center, earlier this year. [VIDEO START] DAVID FRY: Wonderful feeling to be out after 9 months. Being acquitted by the highest authority in this country which is the juror, you know, the jury people. I wanna thank those people for doing the right thing. Definitely feel that this was divine intervention. [VIDEO END] BROWN: The verdict is a stinging defeat for prosecutors’ anti-government leader Ammon Bundy and his followers had cast the 41-day standoff earlier this year as a patriotic act of civil disobedience. They used the occupation as a pulpit to air their opposition to the US government’s control of millions of acres of public lands in the West. The Bundy brothers and their father, Cliven remain in custody as they face other charges in a separate armed standoff in 2014 at their Nevada ranch. Joining us from Montgomery, Alabama to take a look at what this verdict means for right wing extremism in the US is Heidi Beirich. Heidi is the director of Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Heidi thank you so much for joining us on The Real News. HEIDI BEIRICH: Thanks for having me. BROWN: Heidi how do you think it was possible that the accused were all acquitted? I mean after all, some of the charges seemed like they were clearly guilty of such as possession of firearms at federal facility. BEIRICH: It’s absolutely hard to believe that this actually happened. It smells a little bit of jury nullification, given the evidence that was available there. So I think that this is a bit of a tragedy of justice although of course the jury has the right to decide, as it decided. BROWN: Its sort of interesting to note that these militia members were acquitted against the backdrop of what’s happening in North Dakota with the Dakota Access protestors against the pipeline who are receiving really heavy-handed law enforcement and private security response for being on unoccupied land that is actually being challenged as to whether or not its private versus treaty’d land that has been afforded to the tribe through a treaty, I think it was in 1851 or something like that. So its interesting that these members in Oregon go free compared to the response that we’ve been seeing at the Dakota Access Pipeline. BEIRICH: Well I mean, look, the Bundys and their allies in the militia movement have essentially got away with one thing after another, after another. The Southern Poverty Law Center has been harshly critical of the fact that in 2014, Bundy and his supporters used weapons to run off federal officials from the Bundy Ranch in Nevada. That is unbelievable and for 2 years, no charges were brought at all, emboldening these folks to take over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and I just have to think that if the skin color of the folks who had take over the refuge was different we wouldn’t have any of these outcomes. BROWN: Heidi, the Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking the activities of right wing extremism groups and other hate groups for over 4 decades now, so what do you think that this verdict will mean for hate groups across the US? Will it galvanize them or will it encourage them to commit similar actions? BEIRICH: I think it will galvanize them. I think its caused folks to be emboldened and if you look online at the comments of everything from white supremacists to anti-government extremists, they’re celebrating this verdict. They argue that it shows the federal government can’t be shown up, that the law of the land is not the law of the land. And this is a pretty dangerous environment, when we hear a lot of talk about revolutionary war and we hear about rigged elections. To have people like this emboldened in this way, and its been growing in the last several years since Obama came into office. This will probably add to its ranks. BROWN: So, how do you think such verdicts could be avoided in the future? I mean if the jury system, which is so important in the US here, was responsible for this verdict then how can we try to – I don’t know – amend, ameliorate, such further decisions in the future? BEIRICH: Well it’s a little hard to understand what the government could have done more, in terms of presenting evidence. I mean, after all, we all sort of watched this unfold on television, right over the many months that they were holed up there. So I don’t know what to say but there has been a history in this country, in the past, in particular in the South, of jury nullification. In those cases, it was usually all white juries let a white perpetrator of violence off on usually a hate crime. And so I’m not sure what more the prosecution could have done or the judge could have done. We’ll just have to see what happens with the remaining prosecutions that are still there. BROWN: So this verdict comes during a time that your organization has noted, as you just said, a sharp increase in hate group activities. So, tell us a little as to what kinds of activities that you have observed and what you attribute this increase to. BEIRICH: Sure. We’ve seen both the numbers of hate groups, you know neo-Nazi type groups, white supremacists and radical anti-government groups, which is really what the Bundys are involved in, malicious. Both of those types of groups hit 20 year highs in the last few years under the Obama Administration. And there are a lot of things that the economic crisis played a role, I don’t think that you can discount the fact that Barack Obama is African-American is playing a role here. But in general, a lot of it has to do with the anxiety around the changing demographics in the United States. And there are a lot of people, you can see them in Trump supporters in Trump rallies, that are not happy about increasing diversity in the United States. And they’re reacting very negatively to that. And that’s the same way that these Bundy folks look like throwbacks from a hundred years ago. They’re not comfortable with this changing society and that kind of a backlash to our growing diversity is something that we’ll continue to [inaud.] this kind of extremism. We don’t expect it to go away anytime soon. BROWN: So Heidi, to play devil’s advocate here, are white people under attack? Is white identity under some sort of threat with the changing diversity of America? BEIRICH: No, white identity is not under attack. The country is changing. White people in general enjoy benefits that nobody else does, given our history, a long history of racial oppression and treating people of color poorly. There are just some white people that don’t want any change and its those folks that are struggling as the country becomes more cosmopolitan, the economy more globalized. They are reacting negatively, they would like to stop time in its tracks and turn it backwards. And those folks unfortunately are the ones who are most likely to react in a violent manner to these changes. BROWN: So, many people have associate this time of ideology to kind of go hand-in-hand with the campaign of Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for president. Do you think that Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the mass media are reacting appropriately to the challenge that Trump is presenting with this inflammatory rhetoric? BEIRICH: Well, I think that the media gave Trump a pass on his bigotry and racism for too long during the primary campaign and I think its only in recent months that people began to concentrate more specifically on Trump’s comments. I mean, he’s the most racist, xenophobic, nativist, anti-female candidate, at least in my lifetime. It’s sort of an astounding development. And hopefully now, the reporting on these issues now have taken hold but we’ll have to see what happens on election day. BROWN: We will have to see what happens and in part of the issue that we’re trying to ascertain is that the polls are obviously the polls. They are being presented in a way from different organizations perhaps to try to make the race seem closer than what it is. Or perhaps the race is indeed as close as it is. But do you think that, I mean, we’re seeing as you mentioned the rise in hate groups as you said at a 20 year high. For people, mostly white Americans, joining these types of groups but when it comes to the potential presidency of a Donald Trump what do you think will be the reaction of these individuals should he lose? BEIRICH: Well our concern if Trump loses and we’re a 501C3, so we don’t suggest anything about voting on election year, but our concern if he does lose is that these people are riled up and are emboldened. Their ideas have been brought to the mainstream and some of them may be triggered by talk of rigged elections and so on to feel that the vote is illegitimate. And if that were to happen, its entirely possible that we can see additional domestic terrorism coming from the white supremacists or the anti-government world. People need to remember, there has been a pot coming from those ideologies, people with those ideas, about every month, month and a little bit more, during the Obama Administration, so it’s not an outrageous thing to think that someone might think that the election was rigged and the vote was false and this candidate Donald Trump lost because of some kind of shenanigans and that they think violence is the answer to that. We see talk like that already on white supremacist forums. BROWN: And we just recently saw how the FBI was able to foil a plot, I believe it was in Kansas, a group of white supremacists, I believe, they were operating under the banner called The Crusaders. They were planning to bomb an apartment complex where a lot of Somali-Americans and Somali immigrants were residing. And it didn’t get a lot of mainstream media attention. I thought that was sort of unusual given the proximity towards the election that they were able to foil a domestic terrorism plot but as you said, the Southern Poverty Law Center monitors this type of chatter online. So, do you think that law enforcement is doing a good job in responding to these potential threats? At least, sometimes some of these individuals who have committed these acts, especially in the lone wolf category, they have talked about it online before going out and actually taking action. How effective do you think law enforcement has been in responding to that? BEIRICH: In the last couple years, federal law enforcement has done a much better job monitoring threats from the radical right. The Southern Poverty Law Center has been critical of the Obama Administration and the Bush Administration before it, for ignoring terrorism in the form of white supremacy or anti-government bullies in favor of only focusing on Islamic extremism. That has changed lately and the case that you mentioned in Kansas is indicative of that because the FBI had dropped an informant in the Crusaders militia group and that’s how they busted up the plot. When I say there has been an attempted domestic terrorism attack or plot every 34 days, which is what our data shows, most of those were foiled by federal law enforcement so its important to give them credit there. On the other hand, their inability to prosecute the Bundys at the time of the ranch standoff in April 2014, was a mistake. Because that movement, the anti-government movement out West grew and grew and grew because the feds didn’t take action there. BROWN: Indeed. We’ve been speaking with Heidi Beirich. Heidi is the director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, she’s been joining us today from Montgomery, Alabama. Thank you so much, Heidi, we appreciate your time today. BEIRICH: Thank you. BROWN: And thank you for watching The Real News. 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