The FBI has begun negotiations with militants at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, specifically with militant leader Ammon Bundy.
Guards at the occupied refuge are now openly carrying assault rifles on the grounds, while men drive federally owned bulldozers to pave roads. More people are coming too — from Cleveland, San Diego, and right here in Oregon.
These new recruits are joining a culture increasingly hostile to people who disagree with their beliefs. And now, they want to try and convict those people.
It's called a Citizens' Grand Jury and to explain how it works, OPB's John Sepulvado, reporting from Burns, joined Morning Edition host Geoff Norcross for a Q&A about the newest development inside the Oregon occupation.
Q&A With OPB Reporter John Sepulvado
Geoff Norcross: So let’s start with, what is a citizens' grand jury?
John Sepulvado: Well, if you've ever watched "Law and Order," Geoff, you've probably seen actors at one point or another listening as a prosecutor makes a case to them that a suspect should be indicted. Well it's the same concept – a group of people – mainly sovereign citizens, get together and form a grand jury, and then they indict people they feel have committed some type of crime or wrongdoing against them. And just like the grand jury on "Law and Order," these so-called citizen grand juries are just as fake. They carry absolutely no legal weight.
GN: John, I just heard you say sovereign citizen. Briefly explain what that is.
JS: That's a person who doesn't believe they are under the authority of the federal government, or often any government. I'm told by an expert they often don't follow traffic laws, pay taxes, and often are very isolated, but there about 300,000 in the U.S.
GN: Okay, so you have this group made up of these so-called sovereign citizens. Where is the danger in this, why should we care if people get together and have a mock trial?
JS: Well, it's mock to you and me, and to the law, until it's not, because, according to former Department of Homeland Security analyst Daryl Johnson, they get together and start deliberations. And Geoff, these proceedings are based on the Bible, English common law, and in the case of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the Book of Mormon.
GN: Okay, John, so say someone is found to violate these rules, they’re indicted by this so called grand jury – again, if this isn’t legally binding, who cares?
JS: Because it's not legally binding, Geoff, these juries, often men, act in extralegal means. They'll harass those who have been indicted, they'll stalk them, they'll kidnap them in some cases. I heard of one brutal instance in California where a county clerk was beat at the hands of someone who didn't like her and got his friends to say she was indicted. From the FBI to the Daryl Johnson to the Anti-Defamation League, they all say, wherever these juries form, intimidation follows.
GN: What do the militants say?
JS: The rank and file love this. They see this as a simple way to restore what they see as their rights. And they've maintained that these jury findings remain peaceful. But the leaders won't talk about it. I'm hearing from militants that Sheriff David Ward will be tried before this jury. I asked Ammon Bundy about it, he refused to answer, but it's clear the militants are hoping this jury indicts him for what they see as his failures. A Colorado man will act as judge in these proceedings, and I'm told the jury has already been selected.
GN: Harney County Sheriff David Ward is obviously well protected right now – he’s got body guards and extra deputies on patrol.
JS: But Geoff, it's not just the threat of physical violence. These juries will rule against someone, and harass them for years. They'll follow people, intimidate them, threaten them. There are cases where jury members have filed fraudulent liens against homeowners. When this jury reaches it's verdict, the sentence is often psychological.