A group of gunmen seized control of an empty federal building in remote Burns, Oregon, on Saturday, announced they planned to occupy the facility for "years" and called for "patriots" to join them -- and bring more guns. The men now occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge building include at least two sons of Cliven Bundy, the rancher whose legal battle with the government over grazing rights culminated in an armed standoff with federal authorities near Bunkerville, Nevada, in 2014.
"We’re planning on staying here for several years," Ammon Bundy said in a video posted to Facebook Saturday. "We’re calling people to come out here and stand…. We have a place for you to stay warm. We have food planned and prepared. We need you to bring your arms. And we need you to come to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge." His brother Ryan Bundy told The Oregonian's Ian Kullgren the militiamen are "willing to kill and be killed if necessary," Kullgren tweeted Saturday.
The Bundys and other militia members have gathered in Burns in recent weeks to protest the return to prison of Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven, two local ranchers who were convicted in 2012 of arson, imprisoned, released and given new, harsher sentences last year. But there's no evidence the Hammonds are involved in the occupation of the federal building, and they told The Oregonian through their attorneys on Sunday that they plan to return to prison on Monday as ordered. "Neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone within his group/organization speak for the Hammond Family," W. Alan Schroeder, a lawyer for the family, wrote to Burns Sheriff David Ward, CBS News reported Sunday.
Nor does the local community support the militia's actions. "The majority of Burns does not want him here," Sarah Spurlock, a Burns resident who interviewed Ammon Bundy on Saturday, told The Huffington Post via Facebook message. "There are a handful that do, but they are few compared to those that don't." At a community meeting Friday night, Burns residents told militia members who had traveled there to support the Hammonds they worried confrontation with the government could lead to violence. "We are not coming into your town to shoot it up," Brandon Curtiss, an Idaho militia leader, promised, according to The Oregonian's Les Zaitz. "We won't fire anything unless we're fired upon." Curtiss told The Oregonian Sunday he "knew nothing" about the occupation of the federal facility.
In recent statements, the Bundys have de-emphasized the Hammonds, instead focusing on their plan to restore eastern Oregon's economy by forcing the federal government to hand over federal lands to local ranchers, miners and loggers.
The federal lands that the Bundys and their compatriots argue should be "returned" to the local, overwhelmingly white population were once part of a reservation established by President Ulysses S. Grant for the Northern Paiute, an American Indian tribe. The Northern Paiute still live on a now much-smaller reservation north of Burns.
This most recent incident is only the latest confrontation between the federal government and the militia movement, which gained popularity among conservative ideologues in the aftermath of the 1992 Ruby Ridge incident and the 1993 Waco siege, two of the most infamous and deadly standoffs involving federal agents in U.S. history. During the tense Ruby Ridge standoff in northern Idaho, three people died, including a deputy U.S. marshal, as authorities attempted to apprehend a white separatist for failing to appear in court for selling illegal sawed-off shotguns. In Waco, Texas, 76 people died during a 51-day siege after federal officials stormed a fortified religious compound led by David Koresh and his group of Branch Davidian Seventh Day Adventists in an attempt to apprehend Koresh for stockpiling weapons. Both incidents prompted congressional inquiries into use of force by federal officials.
Who's occupying the building?
We don't know much about who's occupying the building. The Bundys initially claimed they had around 150 people there, but a reporter who managed to get close spotted about a dozen. Videos from the scene have depicted Ammon Bundy. Ryan Bundy has spoken to reporters about the occupation. Militia leader Blaine Cooper and Ryan Payne, an Iraq war vet, are both involved in the occupation, according to The Oregonian. Both men have said they were involved in the 2014 Bundy ranch standoff. Last year, the Missoula Independent published an extensive profile of Payne.
Jon Ritzheimer, another militia member, posted a video to YouTube calling people to come to Burns and "take a stand."
"I am 100 percent willing to lay my life down to defend against tyranny in this country," Ritzheimer said. "We need real men here... Americans who have the intestinal fortitude to come here and take a stand and say enough is enough…. To my family, just know that I stood for something. Don't let it be in vain. I love you."
How are local, state, and federal authorities responding?
The building the gunmen seized is closed for the holiday weekend. So far, law enforcement is staying away. One Oregon State Police car was spotted idling outside Burns, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. An FBI spokeswoman told HuffPost the agency was aware of the situation. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson told CNN that federal officials, including the Bureau of Land Management, are monitoring the situation.
What happened at the Bundy ranch?
Ammon and Ryan Bundy’s father, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, held his own standoff with federal officials in April 2014 after refusing to pay cattle grazing fees to the Bureau of Land Management. Bundy was joined on his ranch by hundreds of protesters, some of whom were armed militia members, and the incident drew national media attention. Several Republican lawmakers and conservative radio and television talk show hosts rallied to Bundy’s cause. Bundy was widely condemned, however, after he made controversial comments on live television about “the Negro” and that African-Americans might have been “better off as slaves.” As for the land dispute, BLM officials eventually backed down, allowing Bundy’s cattle to graze on federal lands.
What's all this about arson?
The Bundys and their allies are upset because Steven and Dwight Hammond, two ranchers who live near Burns, are supposed to head back to prison on Monday. In 2012, a jury convicted the Hammonds of arson for setting fires on federal land in what witnesses testified was an attempt to cover up an illegal deer slaughter. Prosecutors said the government spent $600,000 fighting the blazes. A federal judge initially sentenced the Hammonds to short prison terms. But the government appealed the sentences, arguing that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 required the Hammonds serve mandatory minimum sentences of 5 years. The feds won, and last year, a second federal judge ordered the Hammonds to return to prison on January 4, 2016. The Bundys and other militia figures have called the Hammonds' sentences unjust.
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