For more than a week, the tranquility of the snow-swept terrain of the southeast Oregon high desert has been disrupted by a small group of white, armed, self-described militia members who forcibly invaded the buildings of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Ostensibly about defending two local ranchers, the armed standoff by far-rightists has quickly transformed into a crusade to steal public lands. As the first week of the standoff wound down, tensions in Harney County remained on a hair-trigger, with outside forces looking to join the fray.
Fanned by social media, ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond became a cause celebre among far-rightists. On Saturday, January 2, around eighty militia members, Three Percenters, Tea Partiers, and other so-called “patriots” from across the county converged on Burns, Oregon, a small town about 30 miles north of the wildlife refuge for “Operation Hammond Freedom.”
The rally was organized by Idaho III%, a group with Tea Party politics and militia attitude, known best for organizing recent Islamophobic demonstrations. Among the crowd were protesters in III% gear, armed men in camouflage, and one with a Confederate Flag cap. Celebrities in the audience included 1990s militia hero, Sheriff Richard Mack, and Ammon Bundy, son of the racist Nevada rancher who led an armed standoff with Bureau of Land Management officials in 2014.
Far from being sympathetic characters, ranchers Dwight Hammond Jr., 73, and his son, Steven, 46, were convicted of starting a 2001 wildfire on federal land, allegedly to cover up illegal deer poaching. A Department of Justice statement issued Monday noted that, “Steven Hammond handed out ‘Strike Anywhere’ matches with instructions that they be lit and dropped on the ground because they were going to ‘light up the whole country on fire.’” Steven Hammond was also convicted of a 2006 arson in a national wildlife refuge.
The two received the mandatory minimum sentence of five years for the arson, but were released after two years by a federal judge. In October, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the two were required to serve the full sentence.
Despite the Hammonds disapproval, a crowd rallied next to a supermarket and marched through the streets of Burns, where protesters waved signs and flew American and Gadsden flags (the yellow “don’t tread on me” flag popularized by the Tea Party).
To the protesters who traveled to Burns, the court ruling was a sign of federal “tyranny” and they planned to prevent the Hammonds detention. Those plans went awry when the Hammonds turned down their support and agreed to turn themselves in to serve the remainder of their sentences.
Undeterred, a cadre of the protesters chose to not let a good protest go to waste. Following the demonstration, a small group of activists led by Ammon Bundy left the rally to take over the dormant buildings of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to take a “hard stand” against federal “tyranny.”
Originally established as a reservation for the Northern Paiute tribe, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1908 by President Teddy Roosevelt. The important bird habitat today consists of 187,757 acres. Surrounded by a sea of sagebrush and grasslands, fifteen buildings dot the refuge of complex–many of which were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.
After storming the refuge complex, the group named themselves “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom.” At a press conference, Ammon Bundy explained the real motivation for the seizure of the facility, “We have basically taken over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and this will become a base place for patriots from all over the country to come and be housed here and live here. And we’re planning on staying here for several years. And while we’re here, we’re going to be bringing these lands up and giving the ranchers back their ranch, giving the miners back the mines, giving the loggers back the logging, and where they can do it under the protection of the people, and not be afraid of this tyranny that’s been upon them. What will happen is that Harney County will begin to thrive again.” (There was no mention of the indigenous people who once lived in the area, and were forcibly relocated 350 miles away on the Yakama Reservation.)
Calling on people to join them, Bundy declared they were the “point of the spear that’s going to bring confidence and strength to the rest of the people.”
Initial claims of 150 people involved were wildly exaggerated. Just two dozen people have been seen on site. Among volatile characters who’ve joined Bundy in the standoff:
- Jon Ritzheimer, the Arizona Islamophobe who led an armed protest in front of a Phoenix mosque and threatened to physically apprehend a Michigan Senator.
- Ryan Payne, the Montanan who claimed to be in charge of putting snipers in position during the height of the Nevada Bundy standoff.
- LaVoy Finicum, a Northern Arizona rancher acting as a spokesman for the group, who claimed the refuge is “Harney County land” and that the group has teams to “unwind claims that the federal government has upon this land.”
- David Fry, an Ohioan known for lauding praise on Nazi Germany and ISIS, is using government computers to set up the group’s website.
Finicum claimed he did not know the takeover of the refuge was going to take place when he arrived at the Burns demonstration. Finicum said he, Bundy and others met before that protest and decided they needed to do something more.
Not everyone agreed with Finicum’s recollection, nor was everyone happy with the armed occupation.
The Idaho III% blasted the standoff, “these actions were premeditated and carried out by a small group of persons who chose to carry out this takeover after the rally.” Another far-right group familiar with standoffs, the Oath Keepers, also came out strong against the Bundy occupation, “If you want to go protest, by all means do so … but do not allow yourselves to be roped into an armed stand off [sic] the Hammonds do not want.”
The roots of the Malheur standoff go back more than a year and a half, and extend more than 700 miles to the Bundy Ranch. When BLM officials backed away from the standoff, it gave militia members a victory for which they’d long searched. When there were no repercussions for training sniper rifles on federal officials, militia groups were emboldened. The number of armed standoffs has spiked since the Bundy Ranch standoff.
- In January, a group of armed far-rightists tried to occupy the Washington State Legislative Chambers in protest over a new gun law.
- In April, the Oath Keepers and militia members led an armed standoff with the BLM at Oregon’s Sugar Pine Mine, about 275 miles west of the current standoff.
- In August, the Oath Keeper and Three Percenter groups launched “Operation Big Sky,” an armed standoff at the White Hope Mining Claim in Montana.
Back at the wildlife refuge, armed occupiers have been seen around the complex of buildings, and in the refuge’s lookout towers. Supporters have been seen resupplying the group with food and cold weather gear.
On January 9, a coalition of nine groups, calling themselves the Pacific Patriots Network, met for thirty minutes with the occupiers. The group is planning to establish a perimeter around the refuge to prevent a “Waco-style” incident from occurring.
Meanwhile in Burns, tonight local Three Percenter and militia activists will be attending a meeting of a group called the Harney County Committee of Safety, a group led by the president of the county’s Republican Party, which claims to be “the governing body for the Militia and directs the Militia in its defensive actions.”
The situation continues to evolve and remains volatile. Unlike the handling of recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations, in this case law enforcement have taken a “hands off” approach, choosing to wait out the armed invaders. If militia members heed Bundy’s call, or that of those on the perimeter, the longer this standoff drags on, the more unpredictable it becomes and the more likely there will be additional standoffs.