#OregonUnderAttack: Update on Harney County

January 5th, 2016

Rural Oregon has been making national news after militia and “patriot” groups from across the country descended on Harney County and led to the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County.

For weeks brave Harney County residents have repeatedly and publicly asked for militia and “patriot” groups to not invade their community.  Local residents were alarmed when they saw a call for militia groups from out of state to mobilize to their town, and began to panic when they saw that the responses to that mobilization call included disturbing enthusiasm for shootouts with law enforcement.  The Hammonds, the Harney County ranchers these actions supposedly support, publicly asked these groups to respect their community’s wishes.  The Harney County Sheriff has been targeted for not being a “constitutional sheriff”, resulting in death threats, the harassment of his family, and vehicles following him around and parking outside of his home, monitoring his and his family’s movements.

On Saturday, January 2nd, hundreds of folks ignored the pleas of Harney County residents to leave them be and drove in from around the country to rally, march, and to throw coins at the Sheriff’s office to symbolize him “selling out to the Feds”.  A group, led by members of the Bundy family of Nevada, then occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge buildings on federal land.

For us at ROP who have been organizing with rural and small town communities on the frontlines of the growing militia and “patriot” movement, these recent events demonstrate an emerging pattern of activity that disrespects local communities’ wishes to handle conflicts civilly and democratically, relies on out-of-state people who declare they know what is best for rural Oregonians, and the targeting of people who disagree with them through threats and intimidation tactics.

We hope that this ROPnet can help provide some context about what is happening in Harney County and offers you some resources to help navigate the important conversations our neighbors are hungry for right now.  Check out our Facebook page for continuous updates, information, and resources as events unfold.

Who are the Hammonds and why are they going to prison?

The Hammond family of Harney County is a prominent and wealthy ranching family with property that borders the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land.  The Hammonds were indicted in 2010 for two burns that encroached on federal land.  The Hammonds allege that the burns were accidental while the BLM claims the fires were used to cover up extensive poaching.  The Hammonds were indicted under the Federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which carried a minimum sentence of five years after they rejected an offer to plead to lesser charges.

The Antiterrorism Act was introduced by Senator Bob Dole in 1996 and was signed by Bill Clinton after the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing and the 1995 Oklahoma City Federal building bombing by Timothy McVeigh.  The Act was aimed largely at foreign terrorists, although McVeigh was clearly a domestic terrorist.  One section of the act (Section 707) provides that,

Whoever maliciously damages or destroys, or attempts to damage or destroy, by means of fire or an explosive, any building, vehicle, or other personal or real property in whole or in part owned or possessed by, or leased to, the United States, or any department or agency thereof, shall be imprisoned for not less than 5 years and not more than 20 years, fined under this title, or both.

A jury in Federal District Court in Pendleton convicted the Hammonds.  The trial level judge found the five year minimum sentence to be unconstitutional as “cruel and unusual punishment” and sentenced Dwight Hammond to three months and Steve Hammond to one year. They served those terms.

US Attorney Amanda Marshall took the unusual step of seeking permission from the Solicitor General to appeal the District Court judge’s sentence, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the statute did indeed require a five year sentence and remanded to the District Court.  The US Supreme Court refused to take up the case, so the District Court was forced to impose a five year sentence.  As of Monday, January 4th, the Hammonds have surrendered themselves to a federal correctional facility in California to serve the remainder of the five year sentences.

At ROP, we do not support the idea of mandatory minimum sentences in any type of criminal case and believe that juries and judges are in the best position to assess the severity, intent, and impact of any particular crime.  The original trial court judge in the Hammond case did not believe a mandatory five year sentence was a rational punishment for the crime of setting fires on or near federal rangeland and imposed a more lenient sentence which the Hammonds served in 2012.  We would support and in fact urge a reconsideration of the US Attorney’s decision to appeal that sentence or alternatively a possible commutation of the sentences.

A national call for militias to mobilize

On Christmas Day, the call went out across the networks of militia and “patriot” groups that a march and rally to “support the Hammonds” was planned for Saturday, January 2nd in Burns, organized by the Bundy family of Nevada, the Three Percenters of Idaho and Oregon, and the Pacific Patriot Network, a network of groups across Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and California formed during the last national mobilization of militia groups to rural Oregon in April 2015.

Soon, word traveled that the community of Burns did not support the action, quickly followed by the news that the Hammonds did not want them to come to their aid.  Some groups appeared dissuaded, some insisted that the Hammonds wanted them there despite clear public statements to the contrary, and others suggested that even though the Hammonds did not want the action to happen that they’d be persuaded that armed action could save them.

As January 2nd drew closer, groups and leaders began to squabble over tactics.  Some groups wanted to lay flowers at the Hammonds’ home in Burns while others quipped, “is this a funeral?”  Some folks wanted to throw coins at the Harney County Sheriff’s office to symbolize how he has “sold out to the Feds” and others who knew the community was already feeling disrespected and felt that targeting a local leader wasn’t strategic.

The day before the rally, Oath Keepers founder and President Stewart Rhodes of Nevada sent an email out to their base, leading with: “the Hammond family does NOT want an armed stand off, and nobody has a right to force one on them”.  The Oath Keepers are arguably one of the largest and most well known “patriot” groups in the country and this email shook the entire event, causing many out of state Oath Keepers chapters and other out of state groups to cancel their travel plans.

Hundreds descend on Burns

Long-time human dignity group leader and ROP volunteer Mike Edera drove out to Burns to observe the march.  Here is his report:

Organizers claimed to have come to Burns ‘weeks’ before the march to try to build local support.  This had been pretty unsuccessful.  During this time the Hammonds publicly stated that they would surrender to prison and disassociated themselves from the militia campaign.  Organizers claimed that local residents ‘were too afraid’ to speak out, and the local Sheriff refused to intervene in the case.  On the eve of the march, concerned local residents held a town hall with the event organizers where they secured a promise that the event would be peaceful and there would be no civil disobedience.

On Saturday, January 2nd, more than 300 folks showed up for the rally and march.  Ammon Bundy from the Bundy Ranch standoff was greeted like a minor rock star.  He gave a talk that is worth thinking about because it had a broader reach than condemnation of the Hammond verdict; he said that the BLM and Federal authorities were driving ranchers, miners, and loggers off the land.  That this was the cause of the bad rural economy.  He asserted that reclaiming land from the Feds and ‘letting ranchers farm, loggers log, and miners mine’ would create an economic renaissance.  ‘How many loggers in the crowd?’  A couple of hands went up.  ‘How many miners?’  Another one or two hands.  ‘How many ranchers?’  Another one or two.  The whole crowd cheered.

What this little exchange said to me was that this was not a crowd of rural ‘producers’.  The strategy might be about opening up Federal lands, but this movement didn’t make its living off the land.  The real ranchers were off watching from a distance in their Muck boots, their trucks with sheep dogs and tools and welding rigs in the flatbeds.  Also on the outskirts of the crowd,  a group of young Native people  watched the rally intently, with no sign of  wanting to participate, and no acknowledgement from the rally organizers. The protesters were wearing ‘tacticool’ clothing, carrying $500-1000 worth of hardware on their belts, and driving late model, clean full size pickups, often with custom militia decals.

So who are these people?  Clearly middle-class, and mostly male.  My guess would be that the majority were ‘movement’ people, people who got their information, community, and world view from the increasingly diversifying and multiplying internet right wing media culture.  In this sense, they were the mirror opposites of the people who turn out for climate change marches and anti-globalization rallies, etc., only better-off economically.  They were activists whose personal bacon was not directly in the fire, and they were there for ideological reasons.

However, there was another significant group.  There appeared to be a big contingent of young veterans involved.  Were they there for the opportunity to re-capture some community and meaning in stupid materialistic America after being deployed?  Did they imagine putting their fighting skills to use righting wrongs and fighting an evil Federal government, the same people that sent them to Iraq and Afghanistan, defending the Constitution?

As of January 2, 2016 in Burns, I believe the line-up of forces were:

  • A militia leadership promoting an anti-government ‘producerist’ agenda of taking back federal land for the benefit of ‘loggers, miners, and ranchers’.
  • Actual ranchers who were not taking the bait and appeared to withholding support.
  • Movement activists motivated by a rash of right-wing conspiracy motivations.

Within this mash-up, the drama that has captured headlines began.  Ammon Bundy and some pals violated the pledge made by the militia leadership to the community to renounce civil disobedience.  They set up an occupation of a Malheur Wildlife Refuge building and issued a call to occupy the land until the BLM returns it to the ‘ranchers, loggers, and miners’.  The march organizers were stunned and were left apologizing to the crowd, and the few local supporters they had engaged were furious.

The last question remains: who is the real opposition to the militia challenge in rural communities?  Right now the fight is between the established good-old-boy network that has developed a working relationship with Federal land managers, and an upstart elite that would like to overthrow environmental protections for the benefit of landowners.  But who speaks for the majority of folks who are not landowners, who have no voice in the community? And where are the legitimate claims of sovereign Native Nations, whose lands have been so encroached by the ranching and mining industry, and whose accounts have been so criminally mismanaged by the Bureau of Indian Affairs?

In the 1990s a similar struggle emerged in rural Oregon.  Then, the political leadership of moderate Republicans was challenged by the political religious right wielding the ‘Gay Agenda Threat’ as a weapon to dislodge long-time leadership.  In that struggle, the ROP was built on the intuition, proven to be true, that the voiceless – in this case the queer community and their families — would be the hardest fighters against bigotry.  The ROP showed that the voiceless existed in small towns just like in big cities. So who are the voiceless in this new struggle, with its economic overtones?  Who they are is easy – they served me my breakfast at McDonalds, pumped my gas, clerked the checkout stands in the supermarket, cleaned the hotel rooms.  They work on all the farms, do the construction and teaching and child care. Who speaks for them? That’s the ROP’s challenge going forward.

The folks continuing to occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge include folks from the Arizona State Militia and the Bundys of Nevada.  Immediately after occupying the building, they began issuing calls for people to join them from across the country “to avoid bloodshed” as well as issuing requests for supplies to sustain their effort long-term.

Yesterday after the Hammonds turned themselves in for their prison sentence, the Harney County Sheriff read a statement to the press that said that it is time for these groups to “go home”The occupiers have announced today that they will leave if the community does not want them there, but details around when they will finally listen to the community’s outcry are unclear.

How are progressive and community-minded Oregonians responding?

Bend marchCentral Oregon human dignity leaders kicked into action when they learned that militia and “patriot” groups would be using Bend as a meeting place before traveling down to Harney County.  They organized a peaceful demonstration of 20 folks who “greeted” the militia groups and called attention to the local media that rural Oregonians have a different idea about how we solve problems in our state!  They held signs reading “Build Community not Encampments”, “We are a Welcoming Community” and “We Solve Our Problems Peacefully”.  An article in the Bend Bulletin covered their rally:

Earlier Saturday in Bend, on the corner of Greenwood Avenue and 27th Street, a group of about a dozen people stood with signs in a kind of peaceful counterprotest, facing traffic as it passed.

Among them were local activists and Central Oregon residents, including Greg Delgado and Michael Funke.

“We are exercising our democratic right to express our opposition and concerns about the militia,” Funke said.

Delgado made clear that they aren’t necessarily against militia members, but that the message of the Constitution shouldn’t be co-opted from the rest of the community by one particular group, especially when that group is made up of many people who aren’t from Bend, or even Central Oregon.

Funke and Delgado said everyone in their group lives in Central Oregon.

Delgado added that some militia people had come over to shake hands, and he felt there was a sense of understanding during the interaction. Still, Funke pointed out what he believes to be discrepancy in the militia movement.

“I think it’s important to recognize that, with the militia, on the one hand they’re saying they stand for the Constitution, on the other hand they appear to want to pick a fight with the BLM wherever they go,” Funke said. “I find that to be a contradictory message.”

How can groups take action today?

Communities across Oregon and across the country are embroiled in discussions about what this moment means.  Together with our friends at Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), we put together this Organizing Action Kit that shares the context of rural communities where defunded and destabilized community infrastructure has left a vacuum that militias are attempting to step into.  The kit is full of links to background information and articles, tips for how to dig into meaningful and transformative conversations, and action steps.  If you’re looking for a way to process what’s happening, connect with others in your community, or move into action, read through Calling our Communities: an Organizing Action Kit from ROP and SURJ.

If you have other ideas for action, please send them our way at jessica@rop.org and we will share them with others!

We will continue to post updates on our Facebook page.  Keep an eye out for updates, information, and resources as events unfold!