Police Stand By as Armed ‘Militia’ Takes Over Oregon Wildlife Refuge

Activists decry the lenient treatment of the group of gun-wielding white men compared to swift crackdowns on black protesters.

Protesters march in Burns, Oregon. (Photo: YouTube)

Jan 3, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

A protest at an Oregon wildlife refuge has escalated into a full-scale takeover of a federal building at the hands of armed right-wing activists angered at the prosecution of two ranchers facing jail time for arson.

The occupation began Saturday at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, where a building operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 30 miles southeast of Burns, Oregon, was taken over by antigovernment militiamen who have adopted the ranchers’ cause as their own. Government authorities so far have not intervened, prompting criticism from activists who compared the hands-off treatment of armed white men to the use of military-style tactics against unarmed demonstrators protesting police violence over the past two years.

Federal officials told The Oregonian on Sunday that no wildlife employees were in danger from the armed activists. The group is led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the sons of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher whose standoff with the government over grazing rights in 2014 become a symbol of antigovernment sentiment.

“We’re planning on staying here for years, absolutely,” Ammon Bundy told The Oregonian newspaper on Saturday night. “This is not a decision we’ve made at the last minute.”

Oregonian reporter Ian Kullgren tweeted Saturday night that he had spoken to Ryan Bundy by phone: "He said they're willing to kill and be killed if necessary."

Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward issued a statement telling people to stay away from the building as authorities work to defuse the situation. FBI spokesperson Beth Anne Steele told The Associated Press that the agency was aware of the situation at the national wildlife refuge, but made no further comment.

The wait-and-see reaction from authorities has led many to scrutinize the different treatment of armed, mostly white protesters in Oregon compared to the swift police crackdown on demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore who rallied to protest the killing by police of unarmed black men. Many cited the case of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Cleveland boy who was shot and killed by a police officer two seconds after the officer saw him holding a toy pistol.

On Twitter, news of the event quickly spread under the hashtag #OregonUnderAttack, such as these tweets from civil rights activist Linda Sarsour and television host Roland Martin, respectively.

The protest began Saturday as a peaceful rally of around 300 supporters in Burns, Oregon, in support of Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven Hammond, who were to report to California prison after a federal judge ruled that the sentences they had served for arson in 2012 were not long enough under federal law. By Saturday night, the occupation of the federal building was in full swing, with militia members telling The New York Times that as many as 150 people were at the refuge in a show of protest against federal authority on public land use.

In a video posted on his Facebook page, Ammon Bundy is shown asking for militia members to come help him. “This is not a time to stand down, it’s a time to stand up and come to Harney County,” Bundy says in the post. Below the video is this statement: “ALL PATRIOTS ITS TIME TO STAND UP NOT STAND DOWN!!! WE NEED YOUR HELP!!! COME PREPARED.”

In an interview with reporters late Saturday night that was posted on Facebook, Ammon Bundy said the group was occupying 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.

According to CBS News, the Hammonds are planning to peacefully report to prison on Monday, as the judge ordered, and have been distancing themselves from the Bundys’ actions.

“Neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone within his group/organization speak for the Hammond family,” the Hammonds’ lawyer, W. Alan Schroeder, wrote to Ward, according to CBS.