The armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, Oregon, may have looked spontaneous to the outside observer when it started, but according to former members, it was all part of a plan developed in secrecy over a period of two months.
The Oregonian reported that the standoff is no accident or spontaneous action, but rather part of a larger strategy by Ammon Bundy and Ryan Payne, the two main leaders of the self-styled militia group, to garner media attention, spread their ideological message, and even trigger government intervention.
“Bundy, the son of controversial Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, and Ryan Payne, a militia leader from Montana, came to believe that an armed occupation was the only way to bring enough attention to a pair of local ranchers heading to prison and change the underlying problem: federal land ownership.”
It all began so simply — the occupation is ostensibly intended to call attention to the plight of two ranchers, Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven Hammond, headed to prison on charges of arson on federal property. The Hammonds, according to prosecutors, set a fire that burned 130 acres of land in order to cover up poaching back in 2001. The Hammonds maintain they set the fire to control invasive plant growth and to protect their land from wildfires. They were sentenced to five years in prison in 2012 under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, a law passed to combat domestic terrorism, but they were given a lighter sentence by a judge who felt ranchers should not be equated with terrorists. However, Oregon’s U.S. attorney appealed the sentences, and the Hammonds were ordered to report back to prison to serve out their full original five-year terms.
It was in this context that Bundy and Payne stepped in to offer their “help.”
The entire scheme was calculated right from the beginning. Bundy, Payne, and their supporters encouraged organizers to plan a rally to support the Hammonds while they “scoped out potential sites for a takeover,” according to the Oregonian. Bundy spent time interviewing the Hammonds, while Payne scoped out federal offices in the city of Burns and visited the wildlife sanctuary multiple times. Bundy blogged a direct message to federal officials, warning of civil unrest should the Hammonds be arrested.
“Their presence in Burns, and the growing support for the Hammonds online, rattled the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service enough that it began making safety arrangements for its 17 employees at the refuge — a horseshoe-shaped bird sanctuary that surrounds the Hammonds’ ranch. A photo of Payne was posted in a refuge building for workers to be on the lookout.”
It’s worth noting the pasts of the men leading this small, determined band of extremists. As early as the 1980s, Ammond Bundy’s father Cliven Bundy, a rancher, clashed with federal authorities over water and grazing rights. In 2014, in what became known as the “Bundy Standoff,” or more dramatically, the “Battle of Bunkerville,” there was a similar armed incident on Bundy Ranch in Clark County, Nevada, between anti-government militia and the Federal Bureau of Land Management. The tense deadlock happened over Bundy’s refusal to pay $1.2 million in fees for grazing his cattle on federal property. When the courts upheld the case against him, Bundy repudiated federal police authority and jurisdiction of the court system over Nevada, citing the libertarian theory that he was a “sovereign citizen” of the state of Nevada and the federal government had no right to the land. The elder Bundy became infamous not only for the standoff, but for racist remarks he made during the course of the incident, as the Inquisitr previously reported. Payne organized the militia aspect of the incident.
When the 2014 Nevada situation was defused with an ongoing legal dispute and no bloodshed, the Bundys were seen as victorious by the militia movement. Ammon Bundy and the others had been looking for a story like this ever since, a story that would get the militia’s message into the media spotlight once more. The Hammonds were the answer.
After meeting with the Hammonds, who favored a community-based rally against Bundy’s initial suggestion of a human circle around their home to prevent their arrest, Payne started a communications network of militias called Operation Mutual Defense. After the Hammonds refused their help, the board voted 4-1 to do nothing more, but Payne still pressed for more aggressive action, causing member Tim Foley to resign.
“Ryan said, ‘I’m going to do it on my own,’ ” said Foley to the Oregonian.
Payne still insisted occupying federal buildings would send the message.
“You can’t do that work from a rally,” he is quoted as saying in November, “It takes more time. Luckily, we the people have been provided the means to do that because the federal government has provided facilities through legal plunder.”
During this time, local, state and federal law enforcement became aware that outsiders were moving into the Burns area, and employees at the Wildlife Refuge noted that Payne spent an unusual amount of time scoping the place out. Bundy, for his part, posted a series of letters online, held meetings, got to know community members, and became very vocal about his views on the federal government. Payne was the operations man and Bundy was responsible for propaganda — it was all part of a plan.
During late November, the Hammonds started pulling back from Bundy and Payne, but events had already been set in motion. Bundy openly ran the idea of an occupation by a group of Burns community leaders formed under the rally organizers for the Hammonds, called the Harney County Committee of Safety. Bundy stated he could call up a militia if necessary. He received a less-than-thrilled response according to Tim Smith, a member of the committee who spoke with the Oregonian.
“Ammon explained how they had the ability to back us up,” Smith said. “But we had decided that was not the way we wanted to go.”
Payne also posted a video to YouTube on December 31 (below), in which, disturbingly, he clearly anticipates use of force by the government.
“When they take the actual folks who have turned their lives into public service and declare them as terrorists, we now know how they plan to deal with us, which is they are not going to negotiate with us,” Payne says. “They are going to use force.”
The Hammonds’ January 4 deadline to return to prison was fast approaching, and it was time for the protest. But as Bundy and Payne’s rhetoric grew more inflammatory, residents began to worry the incident would turn violent. A meeting was called on New Year’s Day to soothe their worries.
Payne attended, but Bundy was not there. He was too busy meeting locals and trying to recruit them. Residents described him introducing his occupation plan, which was interpreted as a joke, and they declined to join. Bundy and Payne were not joking, however.
“Increasingly, rally organizers said it became clear Bundy and Payne supported an occupation and that they identified the target: the wildlife refuge,” reported the Oregonian.
The occupation has thus far not managed to win over significant popular support, either from anti-government groups or community ranchers and farmers, whose participation was limited to holding the initial public rally. In fact, when the armed occupation started, the organizers of the peaceful rally for the ranchers felt double-crossed by Bundy and Payne, saying they had hijacked the movement.
Most frightening of all may be that the position of Bundy and Payne has a cold logic to it: their continued armed standoff against the federal government puts law enforcement in an impossible position of either continuing to do nothing and walking away, which damages their legitimacy and emboldens the militia, or responding with force and facing the very real possibility of casualties. The militia have already begun using women and children as human shields, according to Quartz.
Bundy himself was quoted by CNN as saying that not only would they occupy the federal building for “as long as it takes,” but that “if force is used against us, we would defend ourselves.”
The Hammonds themselves seem to want no part of the potentially violent proceedings, reporting to prison peacefully, according to ABC News.
[Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]