What’s at Stake in Harney County

The recent standoff near Burns should be of interest to all of us who work for the public at federal, state, or local facilities. Occupying public property is not a new tactic, and there have been a number of recent occupations at college campuses that illustrate the point. Protestors in Portland even suspended themselves from a bridge a few months ago to stop a ship from leaving port. What is different about the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge example is the fact that the occupiers are armed and have threatened to shoot anyone who attempts to evict them.

Not surprisingly, as a bureaucrat charged with managing public facilities, I am not a fan of anyone who disrupts the orderly conduct of business, whether that takes place at City Hall or at a game refuge in Harney County. I understand the value of calling attention to abuses of government power, but I believe it should be done without the threat of violence. If everyone whose sense of justice is somehow offended by a government action is free to pick up a gun and take over a facility or land that belongs to all of us, we will soon be living in a place where our rights will only be as secure as the size of our weapons. Raqqa, Syria, is such a place at the moment; and places like Somalia, the Sudan, and Iraq endured comparable anarchy in recent times.

I am not qualified to judge the merits of the case being made by the armed protestors in Harney County, and I’m not sure I’ve heard a coherent version of it, if one exists. It concerns me that their leadership is from out of state and that most people who actually live in the county apparently want them gone. School closures and other disruptions of life in Burns are further indicators that the people the protestors are supposedly advocating for are those being harmed by the protest. At the same time, I appreciate the patient approach that law enforcement has taken toward the occupiers. As much as the actions of a few criminals offends my belief in the rule of law, I see no value in making them martyrs. Life on a compound in wintertime Harney County with no electricity and limited access to other essentials will eventually resolve the matter.

It’s been too many years since I’ve visited Steens Mountain and the Malheur game refuge, but I remember it as an area with great scenic beauty and amazing opportunities to see wildlife. The game refuge has been in public ownership for more than 100 years. Despite the importance of the land, however, the most important issue at stake in Harney County isn’t who occupies or even owns the ground. What matters most is our ability to resolve our differences through the democratic process and the rule of law versus a reliance on force and weaponry. The armed protestors at the Malheur game refuge threaten our respect for each other and the processes we use to live together peacefully.