'You People Are Clowns': Welcome To The Armed Takeover In Oregon

Some of the citizens of Burns back the militants who've occupied a federal building there since Saturday.
The view from the road on the way to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
The view from the road on the way to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Dana Liebelson

BURNS, Oregon -- "You people are clowns! You people are clowns!"

Jorge Calzadilla drove up the long, icy road to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to tell the armed men there exactly what he thought of them. He's a slim Arizonan in his 30s who claims to have served in Afghanistan and worked in Iraq. He wore a face mask to beat back the freezing cold.

"I've been following these people. I was at the Bundy Ranch," he said, referring to the 2014 armed standoff between federal officials and Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher whose sons led the group that seized control of the federal wildlife refuge's headquarters on Saturday. Calzadilla used to be sympathetic to the Bundys' cause, but he changed his mind. "They're dressing up, being all stealthy, what kind of signal does that send? People see that and think these guys are whackos," he added.

In the parking lot of the headquarters, Calzadilla heckled Pete Santilli, a conservative radio talk show host from Cincinnati. Santilli wasn't involved in seizing the facility, but he said the local community supports the occupants. “The federal government has been terrorizing ranchers, now they’ve spun that into these guys being terrorists," he said. "They’re actually defending the land that has been taken."

Like the Bundys, Calzadilla and Santilli aren't from anywhere near Burns, Oregon. (An address associated with Ammon Bundy leads to a collection of trailer homes and chickens in Idaho.) They're outsiders. The local sheriff has said the militants have "alternative motives." But although many people in Burns oppose the seizure of the federal building, Santilli's comments have a grain of truth: Some of the locals back the Bundys.

Harney County, with a population a little over 7,100, has an economy traditionally centered around ranching and timber industries. But the area is increasingly downtrodden. Ranchers who seek grazing permits and leases see the federal government as blockading their efforts to make a living. They see what happened to Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven -- two local ranchers who were convicted of arson, imprisoned, released, and given new, harsher sentences last year -- as a symbol of their own oppression. The takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has driven a wedge between ranchers and those in the community who have government jobs.

There is a combination saloon and restaurant a few miles from the refuge headquarters. On Sunday night, a 30-year-old woman named Jennifer, who owns a 160-acre ranch nearby with her husband, sat with her two boys, wearing a camouflage sweatshirt and drinking a beer. Her children are home from school this week because the district has closed over safety concerns. Jennifer sees that as an effort to turn the ranchers against the militants.

She says she's applied for land permits at the Bureau of Land Management multiple times, but has always been denied. "You can go to the court all day long, where's it going to get you?" said Jennifer, who didn't want to give her last name. "I'm fully supportive of what they're doing. It takes an eye opener, and they have the guts to do it." (Like most of the supporters I spoke to, Jennifer is very unenthusiastic about the presidential contenders, but likes Donald Trump best.) Another local told me that there are a number of people in the community who support the occupiers, but they're worried about backlash.

Jennifer, a rancher, at a saloon near the occupation site.
Jennifer, a rancher, at a saloon near the occupation site.
Dana Liebelson

Robert McKnight, 38, who was born and raised in Burns, had parked his truck outside of the wildlife refuge headquarters. He had a dead coyote in the back, and planned to sell the pelt. When McKnight was a teenager, he said, there were jobs everywhere, and the community was thriving. But he blamed spotted owl preservation for shutting down logging. (The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the species endangered in 1990, requiring timber companies to preserve a portion of old-growth forest.) The people who are against the Bundys and the other occupiers all have government ties, he said.

"If it was 10 years ago, I'd be here armed and ready to go with them," McKnight said. But child protection services took his three kids, he added, and he worried he won't get to see the oldest one if he participated in the standoff.

The Bundys' tactics have been too extreme for some. The Hammond family has not approved of the takeover, and they were expected to report to prison Monday. BJ Soper, who lives in Oregon and attended a march on Saturday in support of the Hammonds, disapproved of the decision to occupy the federal building. "You mislead the people of this county, and took advantage of the trust that had been built," he wrote on Facebook. "I still do not condone what's been done," he added later. "But understand that there are people there I consider friends and family."

As of Monday afternoon, the Bundys and their followers -- who are now calling themselves "Citizens for Constitutional Freedom," Ammon Bundy, one of Cliven's sons, said in a press conference -- still controlled the refuge's headquarters.

It's unclear how many armed people are inside the building -- Bundy declined to comment on the number on Monday -- but the most reliable estimates seem to be less than a couple dozen. There was no visible law enforcement at the facility -- for now, the feds are staying back -- and Bundy said he did not believe police would forcibly remove his group. On Sunday, I asked Ben Matthews, a man from Michigan who was in the parking lot of the refuge headquarters, if he's staying in the building. "No comment." How many others are there? "No comment." Is he armed? "No comment."

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