What the Oregon Standoff Reveals About Militias, Counter-Terror Laws and the Rural West
Armed groups co-opt grievances, alienate locals
A small group of armed men have occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon. The group is led by Ammon Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy who became famous during an armed standoff at his own ranch in 2014.
Though the Nevadan had been in Oregon for awhile now, the takeover of the refuge by a group of armed men was a shock to many. They broke into a vacant federal building in the reserve and turned it into their operations center. So far, there hasn’t been any actual violence, but lots of harsh words by both the militiamen and government officials.
The militamen — many of them not even Oregonians — say the occupation is in response to the re-sentencing of two Oregon ranchers convicted of starting fires which spread to federal land. Now residents of Harney County and the small town of Burns are caught in the middle of a standoff between a handful of militiamen from out of town and law enforcement agencies.
The strange saga is an awkward collision of the tense relationship many rural westerners have with the federal government, questions about the aggressive application of anti-terror laws and an increasingly bold militia movement.
Above — a sign for Harney County, Oregon. Ken Lund / Flickr photo. At top — Ammon Bundy in June 2014. Gage Skidmore / Flickr photo
Wildfires and terror accusations
The trouble started when a jury convicted Dwight Lincoln Hammond, 73, and his son, Steven Dwight Hammond, 46, of arson during a contentious 2012 trial held in Pendleton, Oregon. The Hammonds, owners of Hammond Ranches, Inc., started a series of fires on lands under the control of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, where the Hammonds had grazing rights leased to them for their cattle operation.
The first was in 2001, a blaze known as the Hardie-Hammond Fire, located in the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area. The Hammonds insisted that the fire started as a controlled burn on their own land to clear off invasive species, but that they lost control of the blaze which then spread to federal land, though they admitted they’d failed to notify the BLM.
But during their arson trial witnesses, including a relative of the Hammonds, testified the group had started the fire shortly after a hunting party led by Steven Hammond illegally slaughtered several deer on federal land. The witnesses alleged the Hammonds started the fire to hide evidence of poaching.
The second incident was during 2006 fire season. August lightning storms had sparked several fires in the area and the BLM put a burn ban into effect as firefighters worked to contain the blaze. Worried that the nearby fires could threaten their winter feed, the Hammonds lit “back fires” to protect their property. They did not notify firefighters of their intentions.
The fire spread from their property and moved toward BLM firefighters camped nearby. The firefighters repositioned themselves and reported the fires as arson. The blaze damaged both the Steens Mountain Area and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Ultimately, the Hammonds reached a plea deal and agreed not to appeal their sentences. Dwight Hammond served a sentence of three months in prison and Steven did 11 months. Presiding judge Michael Hogan decided that a full five-year sentence would be “grossly disproportionate.”
But last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals re-sentenced the ranchers under a 1996 anti-terrorism law, which enforces a minimum sentence the court argued Hogan could not contravene. Hogan had argued the full sentence would violate the Eighth Amendment, which protects Americans from cruel and unusual punishment.
The Hammonds surrendered to authorities without a fight on Jan. 4.
“This was hardly a terrorist act,” wrote Randal O’Toole, a researcher at the Cato Institute who studies land use. He argued that while the fires — particularly the 2006 blaze — were reckless and criminal, the Hammonds had already served their time and upheld their end of the deal with authorities, and haven’t broken the law since.
“The Hammonds, who have paid $400,000 in fines related to the fires they lit, probably should not have been re-sentenced to four more years in prison,” O’Tool added. “But that’s a problem with mandatory sentencing laws and overly aggressive prosecutors, not federal land management.”
Several community members were quick to rally around the Hammonds. Disputes over environmental regulations and land rights frequently clash with attempts to bolster struggling rural economies resulting in a sometimes uneasy relationship between rural Oregonians and federal authorities — particularly the BLM. Many residents of Eastern Oregon depend on the land for their livelihood, particularly as farmers, ranchers or loggers.
The rallies had overwhelmingly been peaceful, but it didn’t take long before armed people began arriving. Weapons aren’t an uncommon sight in rural Oregon and many eastern Oregonians are staunchly protective of gun rights, but many organizers became concerned as more radical groups from out of state joined the movement.
“These folks are looking for an opportunity to galvanize support for their cause and this particular case obviously is an attractive one for them because there are concerns that people have about federal intrusiveness and regulations,” said Kenneth Stern of the Justus and Karin Rosenberg Foundation and author of A Force Upon the Plain, a book about the rise of American militia groups.
“These are folks who came into Burns are from the outside,” Stern said. “The local community is very concerned about these two men who are being sent back to jail for something they’ve already done time for and it’s the out-of-towners who came into town with this militia agenda.”
Though some initially welcomed Ammon Bundy and his followers, many Hammond supporters have expressed frustration with the militiamen. They’ve accused the Bundy camp and other militia groups of hijacking the community’s grievances into a larger anti-government agenda.
The Hammonds have for the last month tried to distance themselves from Bundy. Their lawyers made that clear when Bundy demanded that local authorities take the Hammonds into protective custody to guard them from federal officials. Many in the Patriot movement who identify as sovereign citizens consider the county sheriff the highest legitimate authority, Stern explained.
“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. “Dwight Hammond and Steven Hammond intend to voluntarily report to the designated facility on January 4, 2016 as required.”
But that didn’t dissuade Bundy and other groups from staying in the area.
“The militias have been looking for any kind of potential conflict where they can interject themselves,” explained Devin Burghart of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights in Seattle, which tracks far-right groups. “We did expect them to use the Hammond’s situation as a jumping off point to advance their cause — whether the Hammonds were interested in that or not didn’t really matter.”
This isn’t the first time militias have tried. Bundy and other groups were involved in a 2015 dispute between miners and the BLM at the Sugar Pine mine near the Oregon coast.
“I think it’s always important to understand first and foremost that militias themselves are private armies designed to intimidate the enforcement of federal and local law,” Burghart told War Is Boring. “They are using arms to threaten and intimidate others into their particular point of view, and that point of view varies.”
Both Burghart and Stern cited racism and religious extremism as major drivers of the militia movement. While many members of the Patriot movement do have ties to radical right groups, others see themselves in wildly different terms.
In reality, there’s a wide range of reasons why people join and form armed militias.
For instance, during rallies marking the first anniversary of the Ferguson riots, stories emerged on social media of a group of armed white men identifying themselves as militiamen reportedly telling skeptical Black Lives Matter supporters they were on the same side. Many members of militia groups in the post-9/11 era have cited government mass surveillance and police militarization as reasons why they joined.
“On the outer rim there are people who are attracted by basically mainstream ideas like the Brady Bill, federal intrusiveness, things that will get people animated and would get people into the door,” Stern said. “Once they are there, then the conspiracy theories in the funnel further down became more animated.”
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge visitor’s center in Oregon. Cacophony / Wikimedia photo
Even members of the Patriot movement have expressed skepticism of the militiamen in Burns. The Oath Keepers, a group which describes itself as pro-Constitution and which the Southern Poverty Law Center considers to be “far right,” made a deliberate decision not to be involved in the Hammond case.
“The main disqualifier is when you tell us you do not wish to have our help, so of course we’re going to honor that — and they did indeed say they did not want our help,” Oath Keeper member Allen Lardieri explained in a Dec. 31 video posted on Facebook. “[The Hammonds] are agreeing to go back to jail, this is something they’re doing on their own.”
“We’re not going to impose ourselves on people who don’t otherwise want our help. If they do later on we will be there,” Lardieri added. Oath Keeper leaders have said that Oregon members of the group who helped organize rallies in Burns may face discipline.
Though the militia in Malheur has claimed that about 150 members took part in the takeover, local sources and community members suggest it’s probably closer to 15-20.
“What we see here is kind of an inchoate loosely knit social network rather than a fully formed organizational operation,” Burghart explained. “So in that kind of mix you see a lot of the kind of bickering and infighting and internal disputes, and they’ve erupted at each one of these occupations.”
The group occupying the federal building is small, but its members are already infamous. Along with Bundy are several men who took part in the standoff at his family’s ranch in Nevada, including those who bragged about aiming rifles at federal agents. Bundy family patriarch Cliven had alienated mainstream support during the standoff after suggesting that black Americans were better off as slaves.
“[They] have this premise that the constitution is divinely inspired, but only up to the first 10 amendments,” Stern explained. “The Bundys in particular have a history of talking about this slavery aspect of it and those [amendments] that they see as vile, sinful and not legal, because their view is the Constitution is just to give white folks a certain amount of privilege that others don’t have.”
Many Americans have expressed frustration at the government’s cautious response to the armed men. Some have called the occupation a terrorist act or insurrection. Burghart said that he thinks people should consider whether the militia would be treated the same way if they weren’t white. Still, he said he doesn’t think a rash solution would be wise.
“I don’t think that the feds should go in guns blazing, because I think the folks inside are looking for a fight.”
Federal authorities have become more cautious in dealing with militias and sovereign citizen groups since the 1990s. Rushed operations led to the Ruby Ridge tragedy and the disastrous Waco siege — which claimed the lives of 86 people, both of which further fueled anti-government sentiment and were cited as by Timothy McVeigh among his reasons for the Oklahoma City bombing.
Stern said that a better blueprint for success would be the the 1973 standoff between the federal agents and American Indian Movement members at Wounded Knee. “At Wounded Knee you had, though it was blatantly illegal, you had the military there,” Stern said. “The military basically became a calming influence.”
Stern explained that while federal agents on the scene were inclined to resolve the situation as quickly as possible, the military members were accustomed to prolonged operations in the field and had convinced law enforcement to be patient.
But Burghart stressed that he would like to see consequences for the group. “I think when they come out, you have to throw the book at them,” he asserted. “You have to enforce the law. You have to be clear that doing this stuff, threatening law enforcement officials, isn’t going to be tolerated.”
The Hammonds have already turned themselves in as they promised they would. Harney County Sheriff David Ward released a statement in which he left little mystery about his thoughts about the militia.
I want to directly address the people at the wildlife refuge: you said you were here to help the citizens of Harney County. That help ended when a peaceful protest became an armed and unlawful protest.
The Hammonds have turned themselves in. It is time for you to leave our community. Go home, be with your families and end this peacefully.
It’s hard to know how long it will last. Bundy said that they are prepared to occupy the land for “years.” But many members of the militia have already been putting out posts on social media, asking for “snacks” and cold weather gear.