Ammon Bundy, leader of the armed right-wing militia group that invaded the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon, has been arrested after a shootout on Tuesday with federal agents that left one militia member dead and led to the arrest of six others. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents are currently blockading the refuge, advising the remaining militia members hiding in the thick Oregon forest to surrender. This effectively ending the weeks-long occupation of the building which has created a national discussion on the dynamic between state versus the citizen, the definition of terrorism, and role of race in media’s and government’s reaction.
We here at In Loco Politico have covered the Bundy family’s fight against the oppressive federal government before. But last time, it was the 69-year-old Bundy patriarch, Cliven Bundy, who was leading the charge against the state after Bureau of Land Management (BLM) agents rounded up his cattle in the Mojave desert for not having paid grazing fees. Cliven rallied so-called patriots from around the country for his cause and threatened to use violence against the BLM agents. His sons Ammon and Ryan drew inspiration from their dad and saw an opportunity to defend helpless citizens from federal overreach two years later.
The standoff began on January 2 when Bundy and friends took over a federal outpost after separating from a peaceful march that was protesting the conviction and re-sentencing of Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond for arson on federal land. Back in 2001, the Hammonds started a fire on federal land after being witnessed illegally slaughtering a herd of deer in the area by some hunters in the area. While they claim that they started the fire to stop an invasive plant species from growing on their grazing fields, prosecutors believe they did it to hide the illegal slaughter. Five years later in 2006, the Hammonds ignited another fire “without BLM permission, as a back burn to stop a lightning-caused fire threatening the Hammonds’ winter feed,” according to a writ of certiorari submitted by the Hammonds’ lawyers to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court Of Appeals. The men were tried in 2012 on the federal level for multiple charges and were found guilty on two counts of arson on federal land and not guilty on two lesser chargers. The men accepted a plea deal to have the four remaining charges dropped in exchange for surrendering their right to an appeal. District Judge Michael Robert Hogan rejected the prosecution’s request to give the men the five-year mandatory minimum under the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) and sentenced Dwight to three months and Steve to a year and a day in prison, which both men served. However, U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall successfully appealed the sentence to the Ninth Circuit Court Of Appeals, which upheld the mandatory-minimum law and vacated Hogan’s ruling. The men appealed their case to the Supreme Court but had it rejected and were re-sentenced to five years in prison, with credit for time served. They voluntarily turned themselves into a California federal prison on January 4th, 2016.
The armed militia, Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, apparently saw this as an infringement of the Hammonds’ constitutional rights and vowed to hold the refuge hostage until the feds released them and relinquished control of the Malheur National Forrest to the locals. The group also threatened violence against the federal agents if they tried to do anything. With the sieges of Waco, Texas and Ruby Ridge as an example of what not to do, the federal agents took a less direct approach and conducted a routine traffic stop on U.S. route 395 near the refuge. The Bundy brothers and three other militants were stopped while on their way to a nearby community where Ammon Bundy was scheduled to give a speech. Reports indicate that the other three members complied with orders from state troopers to surrender, with Ammon and Ryan being the only ones not obeying. A shootout between the militants and the troopers occurred shortly after, leaving Robert LaVoy Finicum, prominent member and spokesperson of the group, dead.
The occupation of federal land by these armed right-winged extremists sparked a conversation of the definition of terrorism in the United States and the role of their race in the federal government’s response. Though the men did not injure anyone or cause much damage during their initial siege, they stormed a federal building and took it by force, they held public land hostage until their demands were met, and threatened the use of force against federal agents. This sounds awfully like something a terrorist group like the Daesh (ISIS) would do, so what makes this group any different?
Despite their forceful takeover of federal land and their threats of using force, not one single major news media network or political pundit labelled the group as terrorists, even though they meet the criteria to be labelled as such. If anything, the media glamorized them as patriots fighting the evil unjust government. The militia group wasn’t shot immediately on sight, the building that they were occupied wasn’t bombed, and there was no fiery raid that ended the occupation. In fact, the Bundy brothers and several members of the group walked around freely in public and attended a community meeting in the nearby city of Burns, during which the majority of those present spoke out against the group’s gun-toting tactics and expressed their desire to see the militant leave their town. Mayor Craig LaFollette made it very clear that “our community does not want you here,” a statement that elicited an applause from the crowd. Even the Hammonds, the family at the epicenter of this entire standoff, distanced themselves from the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom and does not condone the occupation.
If this group were composed of African Americans who were protesting the deaths of their own people at the hands of law enforcement or Muslims protesting the deaths of Muslim civilians at the hands of U.S. drone strikes, they would have been quickly denounced as terrorists and promptly gunned down by the authorities. But since they were white men (the majority of them anyway, there was a couple women in there) protesting not being able to use public land for their own private use, this did not happen. Rather than being called “thugs” or “radical extremists”, the media made it out to seem as if they had legitimate grievances against the federal government, which they didn’t.
There are actual injustices carried out by the federal government that do threaten the sovereignty of American citizens. Mass collection of our data that infringes on our privacy, the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, voter ID laws, rising income inequality, the list goes on. Yet these militia members were not using their Second Amendment right to protest any of these violations of our rights by a tyrannical government. Rather, they saw a perceived injustice, threw a tantrum to get the spotlight, and rallied these so-called patriots from around the country for their own personal use. This standoff ended with a lot less bloodshed compared to previous sieges, but it will nonetheless galvanize like-minded patriots to also take up arms in an attempt to take back America from the clutches of Obama, but for all the wrong reasons. Now it’s just a matter of which side blinks first before bullets begin flying.