It’s open season for America’s extremists.
That’s the signal sent by an Oregon jury after they acquitted seven armed anti-government demonstrators Thursday, legal observers say. The group had been charged for their occupation of a federal wildlife sanctuary earlier this year.
It all takes place in the context of a wild presidential campaign, during which Donald Trump has legitimized radical anti-government sentiment, such as his claim that the presidential election was rigged against him. And it also occurs during a time of rapid, nationwide proliferation of these extreme groups.
The Oregon jury made the decision to acquit the seven individuals despite there being ample evidence that they were guilty: they were cleared despite ample photo and video evidence of their occupation, and their public declaration that they would be carrying it out.
The verdict has deep implications that will stretch far beyond the eastern side of Oregon, where the standoff occurred, as it could embolden America’s most radical anti-government activists all across the nation.
The number of extreme anti-government groups have have exploded since President Obama took office, from 150 groups to now well above 1,000, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Many of these individuals have “deep seated fears of a possible Clinton presidency… if Trump were to lose, that could spark God knows what kind of violence or domestic terrorism,” said Heidi Beirich, who heads the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, an initiative which tracks the nation’s hate and hardline anti-government groups.
“Now a jury has let them walk for taking over public lands by force. The signal to these folks is that they are right and the government is wrong… that is a frightening situation,” she added. “This is a growing movement that is probably going to grow more due to this verdict because they have shown they can use armed interventions and not be punished for them.”
And it was all part of the plan.
“I personally heard Ammon Bundy state clearly and unapologetically that his intent was to use the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge as an example to other groups that are ‘on the edge’ that they can seize federal property and that the government will back down,” said Peter Walker, a University of Oregon professor who is writing a book on the standoff.
Prosecutors are still pressing other charges against militia members involved in the siege—“they must be asking, ‘is something deeper going on here?’” said Tung Yin, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School. “Perhaps there’s more of that [anti-government] feeling than we expected, and maybe that explains the verdict.”
Trump has been a catalyst for the growth of these radical anti-government groups, Beirich claimed, because “he’s given legitimacy to racist sentiments about immigrants and Muslims, and radical anti-government thinking.”
Conservative talk radio has also been at the forefront of bringing coverage of these anti-government protests into the public eye.
“News talk radio, one of its areas where it has tremendous potency… is in covering stories that the mainstream media may not talk about, may not even know about. This story goes back to constitutional rights, who owns what… insurgency against the government, gun rights—all of those juicy issues,” said Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers, a talk radio trade publication.
Former Rep. Joe Walsh, now a nationally syndicated radio host, hinted earlier this week at violence if Clinton won the presidential election.
“On November 8th, I’m voting for Trump,” he wrote on Twitter. “On November 9th, if Trump loses, I’m grabbing my musket. You in?”
Mainstream conservative talk radio hosts do not typically condone or suggest violence. But even as many hosts have riled up their audiences with anti-government talk, some are now struggling to contain the blaze they have lit.
“I am quite sure that a lot of talk show hosts are doing a lot of soul searching on where they stand on civil disobedience, because of the discussion of revolution, bloodshed and insurrection in the aftermath of this election. A lot of hosts have expressed concern to me. Most talk show hosts do not want to come down on the side of violence,” Harrison said.
The repercussions of these sorts of radical anti-government standoffs are deadly serious.
Despite the acquittals, the siege in Oregon was not without consequences: as the standoff wound down, an Arizona rancher named LaVoy Finicum appeared to reach for his waistband—and was shot and killed by law enforcement.