A protest in support of Oregon ranchers facing jail time for arson has escalated into an armed takeover of a federal wildlife building and an anti-government call-to-arms.
The protest and takeover is being led by Ammon Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a previous standoff with the government over grazing rights, and two of his brothers. The brothers are calling on anti-government militia members from all over the country to join the seizure of the headquarters building of the remote Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, some 300 miles southeast of Portland.
“We’re planning on staying here for years, absolutely,” Ammon Bundy toldTheOregonian on Saturday. “This is not a decision we’ve made at the last minute.”
Bundy posted a video on his Facebook page asking for militia members to come help. He said, “This is not a time to stand down. It’s a time to stand up and come to Harney County,” where Burns, Ore., the nearest town, is located.
The occupation came after an estimated 300 marchers — militia and local citizens — paraded through Burns to protest the prosecution of two Harney County ranchers, Dwight Hammond Jr., 73, and Steven Hammond, 46, who are to report to prison Monday, according to The Oregonian.
The pair said they lit the fires in 2001 and 2006 to reduce the growth of invasive plants and protect their property from wildfires. They were convicted of the arsons three years ago and served time — the father three months, the son one year.
But a judge ruled their terms were too short under federal law and ordered them back to prison for about four years each. Dwight Hammond has said he and his son plan to peacefully report to prison Monday, as the judge ordered.
Through their lawyer, the Hammonds have distanced themselves from the Bundys, according to CBS News. “Neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone within his group/organization speak for the Hammond Family,” lawyer W. Alan Schroeder wrote to Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward, according to the network.
Still, the new sentences generated controversy with Bundy and some far right groups that repudiate U.S. federal authority. Saturday’s protest started peacefully but soon led to the takeover of the refuge headquarters.
In an interview with reporters late Saturday night posted on Facebook, Bundy said he and others occupied the building because “the people have been abused long enough.”
“I feel we are in a situation where if we do not do something, if we do not take a hard stand, we’ll be in a position where we’ll be no longer able to do so,” he said.
Sheriff Ward told people to stay away from the building as authorities work to defuse the situation, The Oregonian reported.
“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,” Ward said in a statement.
On Twitter, news of the event quickly spread under the hashtag, #OregonUnderAttack, with many users mocking the light treatment of the armed protesters by law enforcement, after heavily armed reactions to protesters in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore. Most of the Oregon protesters are white.
“Did I miss the call for the National Guard in Oregon? I recall them in Ferguson and Baltimore,” TV host Roland Martin tweeted.
Bundy’s father told Oregon Public Broadcasting on Saturday night that he had nothing to do with the takeover of the building. Cliven Bundy said his son felt obligated to intervene on behalf of the Hammonds.
“That’s not exactly what I thought should happen, but I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “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.”
Beth Anne Steele, an FBI spokeswoman in Portland, told the Associated Press that the agency was aware of the situation at the national wildlife refuge. She made no further comment.