4 Days Later, Those Armed Militiamen Are Still Occupying a Federal Building

One of the armed militants told a reporter the refuge belonged to “we the people.” Photo: Jason Wilson/Twitter

What’s New
- Ryan Bundy says that if locals ask the militiamen to leave, they will, according to the Los Angeles Times.
- Ammon Bundy told reporters on Tuesday that the militia’s main goal was occupying the refuge until its land was transferred back to ranchers and other local landowners, per The Oregonian.
- The Guardian reports that the Feds might cut off power to the occupied building, in an effort to freeze out the militiamen. 
- The ranchers whose sentence helped set off this occupation said they plan on asking Obama for clemency. They reported to prison on Monday.
- The county sheriff told the militiamen to “go home” on Monday.

A group of armed, anti-government militiamen have taken control of a small federal building outside Burns, Oregon, to protest the federal management of public lands. The latest chapter in the decades-long dispute was sparked by a case involving two local ranchers convicted of arson for setting fires on federal lands in 2001 and 2006. Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son Steven Hammond, 46, are set to report to prison on Monday, and on Saturday night several hundred people gathered to show their support.

Following the peaceful rally, a small group of protesters led by Ammon Bundy, the son of infamous Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, began making impromptu speeches and declared that it was time to take up arms. “Those who want to go take a hard stand, get in your trucks and follow me!” Bundy said, according to attendees. About an hour later the group had seized the headquarters of the the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Bundy told reporters on Monday that the group now has a name: “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom.” He did not say where exactly the Constitution said he was allowed to complain about policies he disagrees with by breaking the law and threatening violence. A day later, he added that the militia now had a specific goal: forcing the Feds to transfer all of the land in the Malheur refuge back to ranchers and private landowners, according to The Oregonian. After that happened, he said, “we will go home.”

The Occupation
Armed men have been posted at the entrance to the stone cottage, which is operated by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. According to the New York Times, it’s still unclear how the group gained access to the building, which sits in an extremely remote rural area in southeast Oregon.

Bundy, who has been driving around in a pickup truck with a “Bye Bye BLM” bumper sticker, according to The Oregonian, says the group is prepared to occupy the building for “years.”

“We will be here as long as it takes. We have no intentions of using force upon anyone, [but] if force is used against us, we would defend ourselves,” Bundy told CNN. He added, “We do have a plan, and that plan is going to take several months to accomplish. Those who have rights on this land, those rights will be acknowledged. There will be an opportunity to claim those rights. We are going to defend you as you use those rights.”

Although the militiamen see themselves as outsiders helping all Americans frustrated by the government, not everyone in Burns is pleased by the intervention, especially from people they don’t even know. Len Vohs, former mayor of Burns, told the Washington Post, “The majority of us support the Hammonds, but we don’t need outsiders telling us what to do.” County commissioner Dan Nichols told the New York Times, “This county isn’t supportive of what’s being done here at all. Once again, it’s a bunch of those who live without the county telling us what we need to do, how we need to be doing it and the repercussions if we don’t.”

In a phone interview from inside the building, Ammon’s brother Ryan told the Oregonian that the group is demanding that the Hammonds be released and the federal government give up the lands. “The best possible outcome is that the ranchers that have been kicked out of the area, then they will come back and reclaim their land, and the wildlife refuge will be shut down forever and the federal government will relinquish such control,” he said. “What we’re doing is not rebellious. What we’re doing is in accordance with the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land.”

He added to the Los Angeles Times, “We’re not looking for bloodshed.”

Ammon Bundy, leader of a group of armed anti-government protesters, arrives to speak to the media at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon. Photo: Rob Kerr/AFP/Getty Images

Shortly after Ammon Bundy tweeted, “As Thomas Paine said, It is the duty of the patriot to protect its country from its government. #CitizensForConstitutionalFreedom” on Tuesday, his Twitter account was suspended.

The Militia
The group claims that more than 100 people are taking part in the occupation, but reporters and visitors say they’ve only seen about a dozen people at the site. The Bundys’ father, Cliven, briefly rose to fame after staging his own armed standoff with federal authorities in 2014 over unpaid grazing fees, but lost his cause-célèbre status after making racist comments to a New York Times reporter.

According to The Oregonian, “the scene can hardly be described as a standoff. The 20 or so militants at the refuge come and go as they please. No police were apparent Sunday anywhere between Burns and the 30-mile drive to the refuge.”

The elder Bundy is not involved in the Oregon group, but at least two other veterans of the Nevada standoff are, in addition to Bundy’s sons. One militiaman, Jon Ritzheimer, recorded a tearful, rambling, Constitution-waving video on Thursday in which he says good-bye to his family. (Ritzheimer, a Marine veteran from Arizona, is also a well-known anti-Muslim extremist.)

Another man from Utah who took part in the Bundy standoff told Oregon Public Broadcasting that he was miffed by how few protesters showed up. “I feel quite betrayed. It’s been on Facebook that everyone is going to come. And we show up, and everyone just craps out,” he said. “You come up here, ready to get killed if we have to and these people are just on Facebook about it.” He added, “I’m not here to shoot anyone, I’m here to get shot.”

The Hammonds
The father and son whose prison sentence sparked the incident say they don’t know the Bundys well and don’t support the militia’s actions, though Dwight Hammond’s wife, Susan, said, “We share a lot of sentiments in regards to our government, and the overreach into management of our country.”

However, Susan added to Oregon Public Broadcasting, with a laugh, that she didn’t really get what the militia was doing. “I don’t even know what ‘occupying the refuge’ means,” she said. “I can’t judge what’s going on out there because I don’t know what it is. I hope they’ve got some warm clothes. … I don’t really know the purpose of the guys who are out there.”

The charges against the Hammonds relate to fires, which federal prosecutors say they illegally set on public lands, endangering firefighters. Prosecutors said they were attempting to destroy evidence that they had been hunting deer illegally on federal grounds. The Hammonds maintain that they started the fires on their own property to reduce the growth of invasive plants and prevent the spread of a wildfire.

The men already served time for the arson, but earlier this year a federal-appeals court ordered them back to prison, saying their initial sentences were too short. They were charged under a federal-terrorism statute that carries a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, which particularly angered their supporters and drew attention to their case.

Lawyers for the Hammonds have tried to distance their clients from the militia, and say they still intend to report to prison on Monday. “Neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone within his group/organization speak for the Hammond Family,” their lawyer told the local sheriff. Instead it seems that the group at the refuge is mostly made up of outsider agitators who are using the Hammonds’ case to draw attention to a broader series of complaints. Several news reports indicate that other local supporters of the Hammonds do not welcome the militiamen’s actions either.

On Monday, the family’s lawyers said the pair planned on asking the president for clemency. “We hope that President Obama will agree with us and with the veteran judge who presided over the trial that the mandatory five-year minimum sentence is far too long for these ranchers,” they said, per The Oregonian

President Obama has been briefed on the situation at the refuge, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said on Monday. “Obviously we’re aware of the situation and concerned about it,” he said adding that “this ultimately is a … local law enforcement matter.”

The Government Response
The FBI is monitoring the situation, and local authorities appear to be blocking access to the facility. They are reportedly preparing to establish a law-enforcement command post. The agency released a statement on Sunday saying it hoped “to bring a peaceful resolution to the situation.” Ammon Bundy said at one point that the federal government “would be putting lives at risk” if it tried to retake the refuge from the “peaceful” protesters.

Bundy said more on this subject on the Today show on Monday morning. “The only violence that, if it comes our way, will be because [the] government is wanting their building back,” he said. 

Law enforcement has said it won’t be forthcoming on details about its plan for countering the militia because of “safety considerations for both those inside the refuge as well as the law enforcement officers involved.” Senator Ron Wyden told the Los Angeles Times that “based on comments from what we’ve heard in the community and what’s been reported, we may be in just the early stages of this.”

As Jamelle Bouie at Slate wrote on Tuesday, there’s a reason that the FBI has been slow to react. “Law enforcement has been willing to use lethal violence against armed white protesters and the results were catastrophic,” he writes, citing the standoffs at Waco and Ruby Ridge. “It’s no surprise federal agents are cautious; they walk with the hard-learned lessons of the 1990s. Even if the Bundys are paper tigers, no one wants to relive the past.”

On Sunday, Harney County sheriff David Ward warned residents to avoid the site. “These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers, when in reality these men had alternative motives, to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States,” he said. 

On Monday, he added, “Go home.” Ryan Bundy says that the militia is willing to leave the refuge — but only if local residents ask them “directly,” according to the Los Angeles Times. “If they don’t want to retrieve their rights,” he said, “and if the county people tell us to leave, we’ll leave.”

A day later, The Guardian reported that federal authorities might shut off the government building’s power to try and freeze out the occupiers. As one government official explained to a reporter, “It’s in the middle of nowhere. And it’s flat-ass cold up there.” He added, “After they shut off the power, they’ll kill the phone service. Then they’ll block all the roads so that all those guys have a long, lonely winter to think about what they’ve done.”

It’s supposed to get very cold and snowy in the region this week. The Guardian also looked at the militia’s food stash. It didn’t seem like they had enough food to last very long, even though they have vowed to wait years if necessary. 

Local government officials have warned people to stay away from the refuge, and several local schools will stay closed this week. The U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management will close their offices in the region, too. 

And What Do the Potential Presidents Think?
A few 2016ers have commented on the situation.

Senator Marco Rubio told an Iowa radio station, “You can’t be lawless. We live in a republic. There are ways to change the laws of this country and the policies. If we get frustrated with it, that’s why we have elections. That’s why we have people we can hold accountable.”

I’m sympathetic to the idea that the large collection of federal lands ought to be turned back to the states and the people, but I think the best way to bring about change is through politics, Senator Rand Paul added to the Washington Post. “That’s why I entered the electoral arena. I don’t support any violence or suggestion of violence toward changing policy.”

This post has been updated throughout.

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