A group of armed militia and survivalists have been occupying uninhabited federal buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon. What began as a protest against the re-imprisonment of two local ranchers has become a mini-insurrection against the U.S. Federal government.
This has prompted calls of hypocrisy against the response by authorities, the media coverage, and of the right-wing occupiers. It all started with the enforcement of minimum sentencing for Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond, who had been convicted in 2012 for arson by burning almost 140 acres of federally owned land in order to cover up alleged poaching. The fire had been set on land owned by the Hammonds, but spread directly to federal land. Both had served their original sentence but upon review at the appellate level, it was determined that they had been sentenced too lightly, and that the mandated minimum sentences would require them to serve more time. The protests were not violent, though the protesters were visibly armed.
Led by Ammon Bundy and his brother, Ryan Bundy, sons of infamous Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, the protest morphed into opposing the “tyrannical federal government” and the policies of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) by organizing a seizure of the unoccupied structures at the Wildlife Refuge. As it turns out, the Hammonds actually denounced any affiliation to the actions of the protesters. Though there were some local supporters of the Hammonds, the Bundys and the other occupiers/militia are not, coming to Oregon as habitual dissidents to the federal government, particularly over Western land rights issues.
The American West was settled much differently than the East Coast, with a key difference being the amount of land held by the Federal government rather than being administered by the state or sold to private citizens. The Federal ownership seems to be at the heart of the standoff from the perspective of the Bundys. They perceive the Bureau of Land Management as a tyrannical agent keeping the land out of the hands of citizens – citizens who somehow rightfully deserve the land. Bundy has called for the BLM to relinquish the land to Oregon, local farmers, ranchers and miners. Omitted from all of this was any acknowledgment of the claim that the Paiute Tribe have on the land as its original inhabitants. The Malheur Refuge was originally set up by the U.S. government as a reservation for the Paiute tribe following their ethnic cleansing as America settled the West. The Bundys are also glaringly unaware of the irony of all the benefits they and other ranchers receive from the Federal Government they oppose so much, including their policies concerning Federal land use. For example, Ammon Bundy’s transport business was bankrolled over $500,000 by a Federal small business loan guarantee program in 2010.
The Federal government leases grazing rights at a fraction of the cost of state or private land fees. However, there are additional associated costs borne by ranchers to have grazing permits on federal land, such as being responsible for maintaining fences and water troughs – generally the same expenses as someone using their own land would assume. On private land the fee is higher but maintenance gets included in many cases. Critics opposed to the BLM’s administration also omit consideration of federal infrastructure and resources dedicated to Western lands, like roads, rail-roads, and emergency response to combat forest and grasslands fires. They also provide irrigation infrastructure in order to expand the amount of land available to graze. More broadly, the Federal government is also willing to pay much more to compensate failed ranches who have often depleted their private lands.
Considering the force police have used against other protests, including many unarmed and peaceful demonstrations, it has many wondering would the authorities show such restraint if African Americans or Muslims had seized the wild life preserve. Another issue is whether the media would give such leniency in the characterization of armed protesters who have threatened force against authorities, when the terms “thugs” or “terrorists” are used all too readily for those without the complexion for protection. The humour of this double standard has thankfully not been lost, with satirists coining the terms (and Twitter hashtags) “Y’all Queda” and “Vanilla ISIS”, among others. In another lighter moment, despite claiming they were prepared to stay “for years”, some of the militia members went to social media asking for various supplies, including winter socks, snacks and energy drinks, which tends to undermine the rugged survivalist nature of the group’s image. To top it off, they gave a postal address through which to send supplies, which would theoretically be done through the United States Postal Service.
So far, Federal authorities have sat back to almost concerning levels. Members of the occupying force have even traveled freely back and forth into the nearby town. The fear of having another Waco looms, when in 1993 the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Bureau) were repelled with lethal force by a religious cult called the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. An ensuing stand-off with the FBI and US military lasted 51 days and ended with a total of 86 casualties, 76 of which were in a fire on its final day, started by the cult itself. Ultimately, federal authorities would be playing right into the group’s claims of being a tyrannical regime seeking to oppress its people with deadly force. Perhaps it’s the fear that if the government were to be perceived as fulfilling these right wing proclamations, more would rally to their cause. Isolated in the wilderness away from the general public, they may just be hoping it will fizzle out without the need to re-take the refuge by force. Local law enforcement is acting as the contact point with the Bundys, and media has been covering the story on location.
On Jan. 7, it was reported the Bundy group rejected the local sheriff’s offer of being escorted out of state if they ended their occupation peacefully.