January 7, 2020 – The mob violence that swarmed the halls of the Capitol Building and other government offices yesterday is the direct result of a growing movement of domestic terrorists within the United States, paired with a systematic failure by law enforcement to bring them to justice. It flows from a series of smaller armed insurrections by domestic terrorists in Bunkerville, Nevada, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, Recapture Canyon in Utah, and elsewhere across the West. The rarity of arrests and indictments, and the botched prosecutions, that followed in the wake of these acts of terrorism in the West sent a message that law enforcement will turn a blind eye to alt-right lawlessness by overwhelmingly white perpetrators. At the same time, heavy-handed (and sometimes deadly) force is used, and harsh prison sentences are routinely applied, to African American, Indigenous, Latinx, and other persons of color even in cases where their alleged crimes, if any, are minor and victimless.
Yesterday’s appalling events are the end result of years of selective law enforcement that privileges politically-motivated crimes targeting government agencies, public lands and property, and our democratic system of government, too often shielding the perpetrators from equal justice under the law. If Cliven Bundy’s trespassing cattle had been rounded up and removed promptly from the public lands where they were originally trespassing, as federal courts have ordered, the Bundys might not have felt emboldened to start staging these types of armed uprisings in the first place. After years of laissez-faire treatment of these scofflaws, the Trump administration elevated proponents of alt-right insurrections, like William Perry Pendley and Karen Budd Falen, into decision-making positions of power within federal land-management agencies.
Then, in 2018, Trump himself pardoned Dwight and Steven Hammond, whose grazing permits were revoked for violating federal regulations, and who were imprisoned for setting fires on federal public lands, releasing them early from prison. This pardon granted the explicit goal of Ammon and Ryan Bundy and their armed militants when they staged their illegal takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January of 2016. And just the other day, the Bureau of Land Management proposed giving the Hammonds new grazing permits. Last month, Trump pardoned Phil Lyman, a southern Utah politician who led (with Ryan Bundy) an illegal off-road vehicle rally through Recapture Canyon, near Bears Ears, an area closed to motor vehicles to protect fragile Indigenous cultural sites, to many a violation as egregious as the Capitol building events of yesterday. By implementing the agendas of alt-right groups, and by shielding the perpetrators from accountability, this president has engaged in a clear and systematic encouragement of illegal acts of violence and destruction targeting public employees and public lands and property throughout his tenure.
The events in Washington DC are the latest wake-up call, in a long series of outrages perpetrated by political extremists whose actions have been tolerated and coddled for far too long. They signal a clear and compelling need to re-establish the rule of law that is the foundation of our democracy.
The Constitution protects the sacred rights of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and these hallowed rights must always be honored. At the same time, with freedom comes responsibility, and in no way does the right to protest peacefully provide any loophole for violating any other law or regulation. Yesterday, the national media televised breaking and entering, theft and vandalism of public property, assault, and placement of pipe bombs perpetrated by members of a lawless mob. Perpetrators posted selfies and videos documenting their crimes, boasting about them on social media. Closed-circuit security cameras in place throughout that capital gathered further evidence or wrongdoing. Law enforcement must now comb through the mountains of evidence and investigate all crimes committed during the insurrection, bring charges against the violators, and prosecute each to the maximum extent of the law.
These prosecutions should include investigation and, if warranted, an indictment of President Donald J. Trump for his role in directing and inciting the violence. As we reach the final days of the Trump presidency, the consequences of shielding anyone – from the President of the United States to the mobs in the streets – from paying the price for breaking the law is becoming painfully apparent to all of us. No one should be above the law, nor should the law be applied differently to different classes of citizens. We call upon Americans of all parties, of all races, and of all beliefs to unite behind the imperative need to apply the laws and regulations that protect our rights and protect our democracy, that armed domestic terrorism of this type never again disgrace our nation.
The mission of Western Watersheds Project is to protect and restore western watersheds and wildlife through education, public policy initiatives, and legal advocacy. www.westernwatersheds.org