7 WTF Moments From the Oregon Occupiers’ Courtroom Circus
When a group of gun-toting men broke into a middle-of-nowhere federal bird refuge in Southeastern Oregon this past January, they called it a political protest. Ammon Bundy – the protesters’ cowboy hat and flannel jacket wearing leader – told reporters that the people were taking a stand against the tyrannical, overreaching federal government.
This wasn’t the Bundys’ first rodeo with the Feds. Ammon and his brothers Ryan and Mel are sons of Bunkerville, Nevada, rancher Cliven Bundy. In 2014, the family, surrounded by hundreds of right-wing “Patriots” from around the country, famously squared off with the Feds at Bundy Ranch over decades of the senior Bundy illegally grazing his cows on government land without paying fees. That standoff became so tense that Bureau of Land Management officers backed down in a hurry – and the Patriots were emboldened. This was a win for their cause. They could do it again.
In Oregon, surrounded by the barren, snow-blanketed landscape, they did. In protest of the arrest of two local ranchers, Ammon Bundy told the media that he and his men (plus a couple women) were equipped with enough supplies to keep control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for years. They’d live there until the federal government handed the keys to the place over to who they believed are its constitutionally protected owners: ranchers, farmers and the public.
The Bundy brothers – none of them actual ranchers – claimed it’s illegal for the Feds to own land, pulling tiny Constitutions from their breast pockets and waving them about anytime cameras, reporters and naysayers weren’t clear on the reason for the occupation. Islamophobes, Christian family bands, vigilante border patrols, state legislators from across the West and some serious wingnuts (looking at you, Sumo Guy) drove from all corners of the country to join the party.
After 41 days of excavating ancient Indian artifacts and opening the boxes of dildos mailed to them, one of the occupation’s only ranchers was killed by police and the rest went to jail. Over the past seven months, many of the 26 defendants have been released on bail and several have pleaded guilty. But the occupation’s key figures remain behind bars in Portland and will go to trial next week. If some of these highlights from the last few months in court are any indication of what’s in store for the trial, it should be a doozy.
Occupiers’ lawyer compares them to Civil Rights protesters
On January 30th, in one of the occupiers’ first appearances before a federal judge, a public defender argued that the occupation of the Malheur refuge was a political protest much like the Boston Tea Party or lunch counter protests during the Civil Rights Movement.
“This country has a long and revered history of political protest,” argued attorney Lisa Hay.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Stacie F. Beckerman wasn’t buying it. “Those were peaceful protests … this was so far beyond a peaceful protest,” she said.
Supporter scoffs at Native American right to land
Michele Fiore, an actress-turned-Nevada Assemblywoman (perhaps best known for the “Walk the Talk” pin-up calendar featuring her with various firearms), visited the refuge to aid occupiers during the 41-day standoff. In mid-February she appeared in court to show her support. In an impromptu press conference on the steps of Portland’s federal courthouse, Fiore took questions from the media. When a New York Times reporter asked Fiore if the real rightful owner of the land was, in fact, the Burns Paiute tribe, she rolled her eyes. “Oh my, my,” she snarled, flipping her hair. “Why don’t we all just go back to England in that case? For real. Is there another question?”
Flag-wearing occupier threatens liberals
If minor defendant Duane Ehmer’s American flag shirts weren’t enough to push him into the spotlight recently, his Facebook posts certainly have. At home in Irrigon, Oregon, Ehmer posted that “it’s hunting season against liberal Democrats” and urged protesters to show up at the courthouse bearing arms. A judge slapped his wrist over his posts in late August.
Ryan Bundy calls himself an idiot
Though the Oregon standoff’s defendants represent different aspects of right-wing extremism – from white supremacy to militias – defendants Ryan Bundy and Kenneth Medenbach have employed a classic sovereign-citizen tactic throughout pre-trial hearings: file motions that make no sense. Bundy, representing himself, declared in July that he is “an idiot of the ‘Legal Society'” not subject to the courts. His argument was rejected. He also unsuccessfully attempted to subpoena Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.
Also his own attorney, Medenbach pestered U.S. District Judge Anna Brown over whether she swore a valid oath of office. In August, he filed a lawsuit on behalf of himself and his fellow occupiers demanding the defendants’ release since, he claimed, the court was not operating lawfully. By the end of the month, Judge Brown told him to cut it out or she’d strip him of his pro se status. He’s been quiet since.
Prosecutors screw up Facebook evidence
The standoff was unique in that so much of it played out on social media and in YouTube videos. So the government may have made a big mistake when it mishandled key evidence gleaned from the occupiers’ Facebook accounts. They’ll find out the day before the trial if the judge is going to throw out all Facebook evidence – which could be a giant blow to the government’s case.
Ryan Bundy keeps jail staff on their toes
In July, a routine search of Ryan Bundy’s jail cell found proof that the man has gotten ideas for escaping jail from cartoons: In his cell, officers found bedsheets braided together into a 15-foot rope. After the rope was, obviously, confiscated, Bundy scuffled with jail staff and was placed in solitary.
Bundy lawyer quotes Western movie
In a last-minute attempt to get the court to throw out his indictment altogether – a request hastily rejected by prosecutors – Ammon Bundy’s legal team (which includes former Utah State Rep. J. Morgan Philpot) squabbled with prosecutors over their dismissiveness. In a motion, Bundy’s team argued prosecutors were acting like the federales from the 1948 film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. They quoted:
“BANDIT: We are federales. You know, the mounted police.
“DOBBS: If you are the police, where are your badges?
“BANDIT: Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”
Seats in the courtroom are limited. No word yet if the U.S. Marshals will be handing out popcorn.