BURNS, Ore. -- Hundreds of locals from Harney County, Oregon, packed a fairgrounds building on a freezing Wednesday evening to urge armed militants occupying a federal building to go home.
But even though the attendees disagreed with the occupiers' aggressive tactics, some said they were grateful to them for drawing attention to the community's economic struggles.
"Let's just knock this crap off and go back to being friends and neighbors," said lifelong resident Jesse Svejcar. He said he disagreed with the protesters, but added: "I will thank them, if nothing else, they gave a lot of good people in this county a voice."
The meeting, hosted by Harney County Sheriff Dave Ward, opened with a prayer. The sheriff walked to the front of the room to resounding applause, with some boos in the back. He told the crowd that his deputies had been followed home, and his parents were tailed. He said someone flattened a tire on his wife's car, and she had left town due to stress.
"When I wake up tomorrow, I want to have pleasant thoughts about you -- that you did the right thing, that you packed your bags and you went home," Ward said of the anti-government protesters.
The militants, led by the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, have been holed up at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, about 30 miles from Burns, since Saturday.
"They are desecrating one of our sacred traditional cultural properties," Charlotte Rodrique, chair of the Burns Paiute Tribal Council, said at an earlier meeting on Wednesday. "They are endangering our children and the safety of our community."
The occupiers claim the federal land belongs to the mostly white population of eastern Oregon, but Harney County was largely Paiute territory prior to white settlement.
Ward asked people at Wednesday night's meeting to raise their hands if they wanted the occupiers to peacefully leave. The vast majority did, with a rogue shout of "Let them stay!" Some attendees asked the sheriff to personally pass the message to the occupiers.
"I heard a rancher come in today and say, 'We'll send a hundred guys on horseback,'" said one man.
But the community seemed to have a complicated relationship with the Bundy brothers. Some shared the protesters' concerns about federal land access, and the imprisonment of two local ranchers. And ranchers seeking federal grazing permits and leases see the government as blocking their efforts to make a living.
"I don't agree with the way that this has all turned out," said Bill Winn, who said his family had lived in the area since the 1800s. "I do appreciate this being put before America. ... I'm glad those guys did it," he added.
The protesters have claimed the community is behind them.
"We haven't had anyone come out here and tell us that they want us to go home," said a man at the wildlife refuge on Tuesday, who declined to give his name. He said the protesters were getting food from locals, including hamburgers and jerky.
On Tuesday evening, Michael Stettler, from Christmas Valley, Oregon, said occupiers received six pizzas from an address in town.
The sheriff said he was unimpressed by the claims. "If one person gives them a Snickers bar, they’re going on national media and claiming that the community supports them,” Ward told Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Wednesday's meeting ended with no clear plan about how law enforcement and the community planned to move forward. And at least for now, the occupiers were staying put.
"There is a time to go home, we recognize that," Ammon Bundy said at a news conference Wednesday morning. "We don't feel it's quite time yet."
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