Social Media Doomed Malheur Militia
Occupiers broadcast their cause, the FBI built its case
The militiamen who occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon used social media to advance their cause and spread their message. But social media was, in many ways, a major contributor to their undoing, as investigators watched their activities closely.
It’s practically a truism that the Internet gives activists new tools to organize and gather, quickly, and challenge established institutions, such as the government. But it’s also a powerful tool for surveillance, which the FBI relied on extensively for gathering evidence that the militia conspired to impede officials from “discharging their official duties through the use of force, intimidation, or threats,” according to the FBI affidavit filed in the U.S. District Court of Oregon.
On Jan. 26, officials made their move, stopping the militia’s leaders on the highway and killing militia spokesman Robert “LaVoy” Finicum. Militiamen Ryan Bundy received non-fatal gunshot injuries and is in federal custody after a brief hospitalization.
The feds also arrested militia leader Ammon Bundy and associates Ryan W. Payne, Brian Cavalier and Shawna J. Cox. Separate from the traffic stop, police arrested militiaman Joseph O’Shaughnessy and pro-militia talk show host Peter Santilli for their roles in the siege. Jon Ritzheimer, another leader in the occupation, turned himself into local authorities in Arizona.
The militia which occupied Malheur owes a lot to social media. Last year, the Bundys and other activists began flocking to Harney county as word spread online that local ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond were being sent back to prison for starting fires on federal land.
The Hammonds had already served time, but a federal court invoked a 1996 anti-terror law that imposed a mandatory five-year minimum sentence. A U.S. district judge who sent the Hammonds to jail in 2012 previously rejected that sentence, arguing the punishment was excessive and the law unconstitutional.
It didn’t take long for the Hammonds to turn themselves in, and they began publicly distancing themselves from Bundy and his followers. “I write to clarify that neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone within his group/organization speak for the Hammond Family,” Hammond family attorney Alan Schroeder wrote in a letter to the county sheriff on Dec. 11.
Nevertheless, the Bundy brothers and their followers remained in the area. During a peaceful rally on Jan. 2, Bundy and his followers joined local residents demanding that the Hammonds go free. After the march, the militia made its way to Malheur.
The militia and its supporters proudly broadcast their activities on social media, posting calls for people to join their movement and photos of armed men patrolling the perimeter. They also sent out a call for socks, winter clothes and “snacks” to help them in their mission. But officials were tracking these social media activities too.
The FBI’s affidavit is littered with detailed descriptions of social media activity by members of the group, tracking their movements throughout the refuge and their efforts to keep employees out. In particular, the FBI notes the extensive video Santilli took of the group’s activities.
Intelligence from social media — and other sources — increased with the occupation. On Jan. 8, nearly a week after the occupation, BLM officials received reports the group “had explosives, night vision goggles, and weapons and that if they didn’t get the fight they wanted out there they would bring the fight to town,” the affidavit states.
The videos included identifying information for alleged threats before the occupation. Ritzheimer — who identified himself in a video cited in the complaint — and another person allegedly threatened a citizen in a BLM shirt in a Burns grocery store on Dec. 18. The pair warned the person they would “follow her home … and burn Citizen’s house down.”
But just as the occupiers used social media to promote themselves, it didn’t take long before the web became an outlet for others to voice skepticism and criticism — including members of the Patriot movement who’d initially arrived to support the Hammonds and felt the cause had been hijacked.
On Jan. 7, Lewis Arthur, a member of the group Veterans on Patrol, took to Facebook to recount a brawl that ensued when he and three fellow VOP members attempted to enter the reserve to remove what they referred to as a “radicalized” and “suicidal” veteran with PTSD.
According to Arthur’s account and others, Bundy associate Blaine Cooper sucker-punched one of the VOP members in a brutal attack that resulted in the man going to the hospital with a concussion and hurting other members of the group including Arthur.
“I would ask everyone in the American Patriot movement to stand down. Do not come out here.” Arthur said in his video address. “This occupation is being run by militias [from] outside of Oregon and the Harney County residents don’t want us out here … we’ve come into a community and divided that community and we’ve done more harm than good.”
As the siege continued the militia began receiving fan mail, but also a significant amount of hate mail. Ritzheimer posted a video in which he lay out several items they’d received with their hate mail on a table, including a “bag of dicks” — a novelty prank item people can mail anonymously to a specific address.
In the video, Ritzheimer angrily shoved the items off the table while renewing his requests that other people around the country join the group. “For the rest of you patriots out there who are still twiddling your thumbs and debating whether or not you should come out, well now’s the time. If you want to be part of history in the making you need to come out here and show some support.”
In the same video, Ritzheimer made a dismissive reference to members of the Pacific Patriot Network who briefly set up an armed “outside perimeter” on Jan. 9 to act as mediators between law enforcement and the occupiers, until both parties evidently asked them to leave after just a few hours.
On Jan. 20, a video filmed by Cooper depicted Finicum and other militiamen sorting through archaeological artifacts left behind by the Native American Paiute tribe was posted on the Bundy Ranch Facebook page. Finicum requested setting up a “liaison” from the tribe to return the items.
“We want to make sure these things are returned to their rightful owners and that they’re taken care of,” Finicum says in the video. “This is how Native Americans’ heritage is being treated. To me, I don’t think it’s acceptable. The rightful owners need to come back and claim these belongings.”
The Paiute tribe was never particularly supportive of the occupation. “We as Harney County people can stand on our own feet,” Jarvis Kennedy of the Burns Paiute Tribal council said at a press conference shortly after the militia seized Malheur. “We don’t need some clown to come in here and stand up for us.”
Images of the militiamen rummaging through the tribe’s artifacts did little to win them over. Paiute tribal leaders have repeatedly stressed that they work closely with the staff at Malheur to preserve their heritage and care for the artifacts.
“The video clearly shows they have unfettered access to the tribe’s sacred artifacts,” Charlotte Roderique, the Burns Paiute tribal chairwoman wrote in a letter to federal officials. “The militants have also built a road through the refuge and taken down a fence. We fear that the demolition and construction activities of the militants may have harmed our burial grounds and disturbed tribal artifacts.”
The fateful traffic stop that led to Finicum’s death and Bundy’s arrest happened while they were on the highway bound for the town of John Day, where they were scheduled to participate in an evening community meeting set up by local residents and publicized on social media.
The next day, a series of livestreams by YouTube user DefendYourBase offered a glimpse into the Malheur occupation. The remaining militiamen readied themselves for a potential confrontation with federal authorities. The FBI, state police and the Harney County Sheriff’s office had closed the roads, but many members began having second thoughts.
At one point, broadcast live, a man told the group he was leaving. “I’m sorry man, I’ve got a young wife and kids,” he said. Another man implored he rethink the decision. “I hope you understand what it is you’re giving up.”
As the day went on, some other members of the group became more passionate. In one particularly eventful segment, a bearded militiamen wearing a tiger stripe camouflage jacket shouted into the camera demanding that military members who’d fought overseas come to the Malheur to reinforce them.
“There are no laws in these United States now, this is a free for all Armageddon!” he shouted. “Any military or law enforcement or feds who stand up and fuck their oath — don’t abide by their oath — are the enemy. If they stop you from getting here, kill them!”
But by evening, Ammon Bundy released a statement through his attorney that called for the occupation to end and for the militiamen to pack up. “To those remaining at the refuge, I love you,” he said. “Let us take this fight from here. Please stand down. Go home and hug your families. This fight is ours for now in the courts. Please go home.”
Rep. Gregg Walden, an Oregon Republican, also called on the militiamen to end the operation. “Once again, I urge those who remain at the refuge to go home before anyone else gets hurt,” he said in a released statement.
While Walden has been critical of the occupation and praised the arrests, he’s voiced criticism of federal officials. In particular, he’s questioned the aggressive prosecution of the Hammonds and the government’s treatment of rural Oregonians who depend on the land for their livelihoods as ranchers and loggers.
His statement continued to add “when this [is] done and the cameras’ glare turns away from rural Oregon, the healing process will be a long one. Widespread frustration will continue until people in rural American feel like they are being heard and meaningful changes are made to federal land management policy.”
A handful of militiamen remained at the refuge as of Thursday morning.