The occupiers are misguided–but so are the jail terms they are protestingby Andrew Stuttaford / January 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
If you want to understand the drama now unfolding in Oregon, checking out a photograph of Duane Ehmer riding his horse Hellboy across the high desert is not a bad place to start. Striving for the iconic, the Stars and Stripes in his hand, the Stars and Stripes on his jacket, the Stars and Stripes on his saddle blanket, he makes a pathetic, bathetic, cockeyed, grand—take your pick—spectacle, a performance for others, living out a dream for himself: Clint, Custer, the cavalryman at the crest of the hill, a Remington made flesh.
The stand-off at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge began when a group of people, some armed, occupied the refuge’s headquarters (no staff were present at the time) as a protest, they said, against the federal government’s harsh treatment of two local ranchers, 73-year old Dwight Hammond and his son Steven.
The Hammonds were in a fix. Two fires they had set on their ranch—the first in 2001 supposedly routine maintenance (although the prosecution argued it was designed to cover up poaching on government property), the second in 2006, a defensive ‘backfire’—had spread onto neighbouring federal land. The damage was minimal, but the Hammonds hadn’t notified the Bureau of Land Management—the US government body responsible for administering more than 250 million acres of public land—before lighting either. That was unwise, and, in the case of the 2006 fire, quite possibly dangerous.
Father and son were sued in a civil case (they ended up paying the government $400,000). They were also prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned, but for very small fractions of the minimum five years mandated by the law. The trial judge ruled that a five-year term would be “grossly disproportionate”; it would constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” and, as such, be unconstitutional. The government appealed the sentence, outraged, perhaps, that these miscreants had got off too lightly. Then again, the Hammonds and the BLM, a sometimes overbearing body often resented by ranchers, had been…