A jury’s stunning rejection of the government’s case against seven people charged in connection with this year’s armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon has reignited the combustible debate in America over the federal government’s authority and its land-use policies in the West.

While land rights and anti-Washington activists greeted the jury’s decision as a long-overdue victory for American liberty, others called it a terrifying invitation for armed protesters to occupy federal land and buildings with impunity, potentially putting federal workers at risk.

“People are starting to pay attention to the narrative that the government is trying to push upon the people, and they’re not buying it. The government is overreaching, and it’s time for that to stop,” said B.J. Soper, an Oregon activist who closely monitored the trial and also was present at the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge this January and February.

The acquittal after a six-week trial comes at a time when tensions across the nation are already amped up because of the vitriolic presidential campaign and growing fears of potential violence on and after Election Day.

“This absolutely shocking verdict is sure to embolden armed paramilitary groups in the white-hot political environment in this country,” said Tarso Luis Ramos, executive director of Political Research Associates, a human rights organization that has studied the anti-government activism in Oregon. “This sends a signal that not only is it appropriate to challenge the rule of law through armed militancy, but that it is effective to do so.”

The defendants argued that their occupation was a peaceful act of civil disobedience, in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr., in protest of vast federal land ownership in the West. They said they acted after years of frustration with government agencies that pay little attention to local concerns.

Federal prosecutors charged that the well-armed occupiers, led by brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, illegally occupied the property and used guns and the threat of force to hold it in an incident that drew international attention to the remote, snowy plains of far Eastern Oregon.

The six men and one woman acquitted Thursday were officially charged with conspiracy to prevent federal employees from doing their job, an argument rejected by a federal court jury in Portland.

That decision was “vindication for everyone who has stood up and said to the government: ‘What you are doing is wrong, and we want you to stop,'” Soper said.

The jury’s full reasoning remained unclear Friday, however. One juror wrote to the Oregonian newspaper after the trial, saying, “It should be known that all 12 jurors felt that this verdict was a statement regarding the various failures of the prosecution to prove ‘conspiracy’ in the count itself – and not any form of affirmation of the defense’s various beliefs, actions or aspirations.”

Mark Heckert, of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a sportsmen’s group, was outraged at the decision, which he said did not represent the “rural values” cited by supporters of the defendants.

“Negotiating at the barrel of a gun is not a rural value; that’s just intimidation,” said Heckert, who visited the refuge during the occupation as a public lands advocate. “It emboldens these guys who think if something doesn’t go your way, grab a gun and go out and force people to change it.”

In addition to the seven people acquitted Thursday, 11 others charged have already pleaded guilty; seven more face trial in February.

But most attention has been focused on the trial of the Bundy brothers, whose father, Cliven Bundy, has become a symbol for activists angry over land policies in the West.

Hundreds of armed activists faced off with armed Bureau of Land Management agents and other authorities at Bundy’s Nevada ranch in 2014 in a dispute over Bundy’s refusal to pay more than $1 million in overdue fees to graze his cattle on federal land.

Fearing bloodshed, federal authorities backed off for almost two years before filing federal firearms and other charges against Bundy and 18 other people, including Ammon Bundy, 41, and Ryan Bundy, 43. Despite their acquittal Thursday, the brothers were ordered held in jail pending their trial in Nevada in February.

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