The reaction to armed protesters who have occupied federal buildings in Oregon for the past 11 days offers a new example of a sensitive practice: how law enforcement uses discretion to enforce the law.
Authorities have shown considerable patience with the occupation by a small band of self-proclaimed “militia’’ in Oregon. Led by brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the group originally protested the imminent incarceration of ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond, who were convicted in 2012 of committing arson on public lands. But the pair reported to serve their time last week and disassociated themselves from the protest.
Still, the group continues its armed occupation of a federal site — the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. As a result, local schools and other public services in the area closed all last week and reopened on Monday. The refuge, of course, remains closed.
Bundy and his group say that they’re staying put — and that they will use their firearms if authorities try to remove them. They argue that the land doesn’t belong to the federal government, but to the people. It is public property, they say, that local farmers and ranchers should be able to use as they see fit.
Here’s where the discretion comes in: The group, which calls itself Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, is clearly breaking the law on several levels. The Constitution provides judicial and political paths to resolving land issues but includes no support for armed occupations.
And as many have noted, there are good questions about how law enforcement discretion is applied. The gun-toting demonstrators are largely white ranchers, farmers and ex-military members. Just how long would armed Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrators be allowed to occupy public buildings?
Of course, each situation is different, and officials must make these kinds of discretionary choices accordingly. Minneapolis officials, for example, made the right call during the recent BLM protest at the Fourth Precinct station to allow some laws to be broken in the larger interest of protecting the safety of all involved and preventing a more dangerous disturbance. Yet, ultimately, members of the community and others stood with Mayor Betsy Hodges and Police Chief Janeé Harteau to list the reasons why the 24/7 occupation of a public street needed to end. And, after three weeks, authorities moved in to peacefully remove the protesters.
The Oregon protest is taking place in a more remote area. Still, it has led to school and other service disruptions. And citizens from a variety of groups — including American Indians who use the land and even the Mormon church (some protesters are Mormon and claim church scripture supports their actions) — have denounced the occupation and told demonstrators to go home.
No one wants the standoff to become another Ruby Ridge or Waco-type shootout that results in multiple injuries or deaths. In part because of the location, authorities can wait out the protesters.
But once this stunt peacefully concludes, authorities have another discretionary decision to make. In 2014, protesters led by the Bundys’ father, Cliven Bundy, got away with aiming rifles at federal officers during a similar standoff over land rights. Authorities should not send another message that armed occupations are OK. This time, there should be charges.