On Saturday, militants seized a remote government outpost following a protest by hundreds of angry citizens.
That could very easily be the opening line for a story about a Mid-East country beset by civil war. Instead, it’s a description of what happened in Oregon yesterday.
It all started back in 2001 when Dwight Hammond and his son Steven set fire to leased government land in what they said was an effort to beat back invasive plant species and - ironically - prevent wildfires. They set more fires in 2006 and were later convicted of arson.
(the elder Hammond)
Both men served time in prison but a judge eventually determined that their sentences were too light and ordered them back to jail.
Some folks were displeased with the ruling and staged a protest that saw some 300 people march through Burns, a city of around 3,000. The procession made a stop by the Hammond residence and proceeded to make an appearance at the local sheriff's office as well.
"As marchers reached the courthouse, they tossed hundreds of pennies at the locked door. Their message: civilians were buying back their government," AP recounts. "A few blocks away, Hammond and his wife, Susan, greeted marchers, who planted flower bouquets in the snow [after which they] sang some songs, Hammond said a few words, and the protesters marched back to their cars."
Enter Ammon Bundy.
Ammon is the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy who famously clashed with the government last year after his cattle were kidnapped by the Feds. Around 400 of Cliven's cows were busy grazing on land Bundy said he owned when the Bureau of Land Managment began to round them up and ship them off to a bovine internment camp at Bunkerville.
The government says the cattle were grazing on public rangeland, which is legal as long as the owner pays a fee. Bundy allegedly racked up some $1 million in such fees and so, the government decided to seize the cows, which the Nevada Bureau of Land Management accused of "trespassing."
Evenutally, the cavalry arrived (literally) as cowboys rode in and broke the cows out of jail. No, really.
Fast forward to November and Bundy's son Ammon was busy trying to come up with a way to keep Dwight Hammond and his son from going back to jail. "Ammon Bundy met with Dwight Hammond and his wife in November, seeking a way to keep the elderly rancher from having to surrender for prison," The Oregonian writes, adding that "the Hammonds professed through their attorneys that they had no interest in ignoring the order to report for prison."
But while the Hammonds have apparently come to terms with their fate, Bundy hasn't and in a brazen move, he and an unspecified number of "outside militants" seized control of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge headquarters, which is a short drive from Burns (where the protest took place).
The federal outpost fell to the militants without a fight presumably because it was deserted for the holidays. Here's more from the Oregonian:
"The facility has been the tool to do all the tyranny that has been placed upon the Hammonds," Ammon Bundy said.
"We're planning on staying here for years, absolutely," he added. "This is not a decision we've made at the last minute."
"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."
"After the peaceful rally was completed today, a group of outside militants drove to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, where they seized and occupied the refuge headquarters. A collective effort from multiple agencies is currently working on a solution. For the time being please stay away from that area. More information will be provided as it becomes available. Please maintain a peaceful and united front and allow us to work through this situation," Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward said, in a statement. The elder Bundy weighed in as well, noting that the occuption isn't “exactly what [he] thought should happen." "But I didn’t know what to do,” he added. “You know, if the Hammonds wouldn’t stand, if the sheriff didn’t stand, then, you know, the people had to do something. And I guess this is what they did decide to do. I wasn’t in on that.”
Ammon Bundy explained the rationale for the occupation as follows:
Got that? This wildlife refuge office will become "a base place where patriots from all over the country will live and be housed." Although from the looks of it, space is limited so reserve your spots now:
The Guardian apparently stopped by the refuge for a visit:
The occupation appears to have begun at about 2pm. Two hours later, the Guardian approached the refuge, which lies about 60 miles south of the town of Burns and is only accessible via a lakeside road slick with ice and banked with snow.
There were no law enforcement agents visible in the area around the refuge. A man with a goatee beard and wraparound sunglasses stood guard, armed with an AR-15-style rifle, and refused entry to the federally owned facility.
He declined to give his name or affiliation, citing “operational security”. He did confirm, however, that the men – several of whom were openly carrying assault weapons – would be camping on the site. “This public land belongs to ‘we the people’,” he said. “We’ll be here enjoying the snow and the scenery.”
— Jason Wilson (@jason_a_w) January 3, 2016
The Guardian was allowed to take a few photographs, and then it was strongly advised to leave the scene. Within hours, police had descended on the remote corner of Harney county, blocking roads and urging members of the public to stay away.
Ammon Bundy, whose father became a folk hero among rightwing constitutionalists after his previous confrontation with federal authorities in Nevada, appeared to be a key figure.
He called for other likeminded US citizens to travel to the refuge in solidarity and to support what he said would be a symbolic showdown between impoverished farmers and overzealous federal authorities.
“We’re out here because the people have been abused long enough,” he said in a video interview posted on his Facebook page on Saturday night.
It isn't entirely clear how these "patriots" plan to last "years" in the small building without supplies but that's probably irrelevant because it's difficult to imagine the oppressors in Washington will let this go on for very long. On that note, we'll close with two quotes, one from The Oregonian and one from US Army veteran Ryan Payne who is among the occupiers.
From The Oregonian: "In phone interviews from inside the occupied building Saturday night, Ammon Bundy and his brother, Ryan Bundy, said they are not looking to hurt anyone. But they would not rule out violence if police tried to remove them, they said."
From Payne: "When local and federal authorities arrive whatever else is going to happen will happen”.