For a town of fewer than 3,000 residents, Burns, Oregon, sees a lot of business. Travelers heading from Boise to Bend on I-20 stop by here, as do visitors to the nearby wildlife refuge and from other parts of Harney County. Some blocks look like a quaint old Oregon town, the rest is “Anywhere, USA.” The residents seem nice but also direct and unafraid to speak their minds.
When armed right-wing paramilitaries took over the headquarters of the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on January 2, this is the town they thrust into the national headlines. The armed group’s apparent leaders—Ammon Bundy, 40, and Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, 54—succeeded in drawing media coverage and pushing their talking points. But their occupation is starting to divide the community, turning neighbors against each other.
It’s easy to assume that Bundy and the other men in cowboy hats represent the majority opinion in places like Burns. But that assumption is not only false, it’s dangerous because it damages progressives’ ability to work together across rural-urban divides. The collaborative ecological restoration projects that the nonprofit High Desert Partnership is conducting in Harney County provide an example of what local activism here can really look like.
The paramilitaries in Malheur do not represent the majority of ranchers or disgruntled rural Americans. Instead, they are part of a decades-old movement that seeks to implement a radical right-wing program of legal and legislative decentralization. Their agenda includes abolishing environmental restrictions, as well as moving power away from the federal government and handing it over to the states, counties, or the militias themselves.
What happened in Burns
The controversy started with father and son Dwight and Stephen Hammond, ranchers whose land in Oregon borders the Malheur refuge. The two have had run-ins with federal officials over grazing rights going back to the 1980s, and Dwight allegedly made several death threats against refuge managers.
In June 2012, the Hammonds were convicted of two arsons—including a fire that spread to 139 acres—and agreed to five-year sentences to avoid other charges. The sentences were longer than normal because the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 requires a mandatory minimum in cases where an arson burns federal property.
This outcome did not sit well with many local residents. “When you start bringing in the terrorism act for God-fearing livestock producers in eastern Oregon, something is wrong,” the president of the Oregon Farm Bureau told The Oregonian.
U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan took a similar view, and handed down greatly reduced sentences, which both Hammonds served.
However, U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verilli appealed those sentences and the Court of Appeals ruled that the Hammonds had to serve the full five-year mandatory minimum. This infuriated many community members, some of whom report longstanding conflicts with the federal authorities over grazing rights. By all accounts, the Hammonds’ community—including the county sheriff—rallied to their side.
What the occupation is really about
But the siege and standoff that’s making national headlines today isn’t primarily about the Hammonds. Ammon Bundy and his allies are exploiting the ranchers’ situation as a way to further their broader, and more radical, agenda.
As the Hammonds’ case was unfolding, radical right-wing activists had been storming around the West, looking for kindling to light their movement on fire. The Bundy Ranch standoff in 2014, led by Ammon’s father, Cliven Bundy, had been a win for them, as the paramilitaries were able to claim they’d been able to militarily hold off the federal government.
In 2015, they attempted to repeat that twice, establishing armed camps in Josephine County, Oregon, and Lincoln, Montana. In both cases, the chief complaint involved mining claims on federal land.
The Bundys and their allies in these standoffs are part of something called the Patriot movement. This is the successor to the 1990s militia movement, which, as author Daniel Levitas argues in The Terrorist Next Door, takes its template from the anti-Semitic, white supremacist group Posse Comitatus. Starting in the 1970s, Posse Comitatus promoted the formation of citizens militias, developed a fictitious parallel legal world based on a white supremacist reading of the Constitution, and rejected the authority of federal and state governments, claiming that the county sheriff was the highest elected official citizens should obey.
And the Patriot movement isn’t just one group. Here’s a quick introduction to the main strands of it:
- Militias in the 1990s style —membership-based groups based in specific locations—still exist, and have increased in numbers since the election of Barack Obama.
- Sovereign Citizens follow Posse Comitatus’ made-up version of constitutional law. In their interpretation, any person can declare themselves a “sovereign” and then decide which laws to obey. Adherents are best known for shootouts with law enforcement officers, but their legal beliefs have influenced the Bundys and the activism around the Hammonds.
- The Oath Keepers are a membership-based group of current and former military, law enforcement, and first responders who pledge to disobey orders they see as unconstitutional. That might sound fine, but consider the list of “orders” they refuse to obey: seizure of privately held firearms, imposing martial law on the states, and putting Americans in “concentration camps” before allowing foreign armies to invade. These are the same outlandish Manchurian Candidate conspiracy theories circulated by the John Birch Society in the 1960s.
- The Three Percenters were founded in 2008 as a decentralized type of militia, to help foil infiltration by authorities. The name refers to the disputed claim that only 3 percent of colonial settlers actively fought in the American Revolution—the implication is that a small, active group can successfully overthrow the government. Three Percenters say they will not allow gun restrictions to be implemented. Besides a streak of Islamophobia, their political views seem nearly identical to the Oath Keepers.
Meanwhile, the small group apparently leading the current occupation seem to be influenced by a brand of radical-right Mormonism. Their group is somewhat different from the others because of its apparent religious basis, although its members are still forwarding the Patriot movement’s political positions. Bundy’s group is using the other four groups for “muscle,” according to researcher JJ MacNab of George Washington University. The group wants the Hammonds released and the Malheur Refuge turned over to the county with guarantees of private rights.
Oregonians aren’t buying it
The Bundys, in conjunction with activists from all of these groups, spent months trying to get their political claws into Harney County’s population through support for the Hammonds. In the end, they were largely unsuccessful.
The majority of the community has roundly opposed the occupation. The Hammonds do not support it; neither does the Oregon Farm Bureau nor the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association. Four hundred people came to a January 6 town meeting with the county sheriff, and in a show of hands an overwhelming number wanted the occupiers to leave. The Burns Paiute tribe, which originally controlled the refuge land, also want the occupiers to go.
Oregonians, including members of the Rural Organizing Project (which I work with), have been speaking out against the Patriot movement. A Patriot convoy leaving from Bend, Oregon, to go to the march in Burns was met by counterprotesters.
There are, of course, some locals who support the occupation. At recent town hall meetings, some community members said the media coverage had finally brought attention to their longstanding disputes over land-use issues. Some have donated supplies, and a few from Oregon have joined the encampment—although, it seems, no one from Burns.
Meanwhile, as the armed occupiers take center stage, the other Patriot factions have been trying to figure out their role. The Three Percenters’ Mike Vanderboegh, the Oath Keepers’ Richard Mack and Stewart Rhodes, and regional Three Percenter groups initially all voiced disapproval of the occupation. But now they are starting to slink back, jealous of the TV coverage, bragging rights, and political support that Bundy’s group has won. The Pacific Patriots Network, which includes the Three Percent of Idaho, came to the refuge wanting to serve as a “security detail,” but Ammon Bundy promptly told them to leave.
At some point the conflict will end, but the community’s scars will remain. At a meeting on January 11, Harney County residents expressed concern about divisions among them; they said community residents were threatening each other, as well as telling Bureau of Land Management employees to leave.
“I shouldn’t have to be scared in my own hometown,” said one high schooler, close to tears.
If there is a tyrannical usurper of the local people here, it is not the federal government—it is the Patriot movement paramilitaries. They may have a passion for destruction, but the creative passion needed to heal this community will have to come from the people of Burns.