Armed protesters refuse to leave federal building in Oregon

Posted at 6:45 AM, Jan 04, 2016

Two days after taking over a federal building, armed protesters in Oregon are refusing to budge until they get what they want.

The problem is, they haven’t specified what it would take to get them to leave.

What started Saturday as a rally supporting two local ranchers led to a broader anti-government protest and now the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge building near Burns.

“We will be here as long as it takes,” protest spokesman Ammon Bundy told CNN by phone from inside the refuge.

“We have no intentions of using force upon anyone, (but) if force is used against us, we would defend ourselves.”

Bundy is the 40-year-old son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who drew national attention last year after staging a standoff with federal authorities.

And like his father, Bundy said he is standing up to the federal government over land rights.

“This is about taking the correct stand without harming anybody to restore the land and resources to the people so people across the country can begin thriving again,” he said.

Here’s what led up to occupation, and what may happen next:

It started with a march for ranchers

Protesters gathered in Burns on Saturday to denounce the five-year sentencing of Dwight and Steven Hammond — father-and-son ranchers who were convicted of arson.

The Hammonds have said they started a fire in 2001 to reduce the growth of invasive plants and to protect their property from wildfires, CNN affiliate KTVZ reported, but that the fire got out of hand.

The father and son are scheduled to turn themselves in to prison Monday afternoon to serve their sentences.

Bundy said officials are unfairly punishing the Hammonds for refusing to sell their land. He said it’s an example of the government’s overreach, especially when it comes to land rights.

But according to Billy J. Williams, the acting U.S. attorney in Oregon, the Hammonds were rightfully convicted after setting fire to about 130 acres of public land in an attempt to cover up poaching.

In an opinion piece for the Burns Times Herald, Williams wrote that the five-year sentences are actually the minimum for the crimes the Hammonds committed.

Then came the occupation

After the rally supporting Hammonds, some of the protesters broke into the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge building near Burns.

“This refuge — it has been destructive to the people of the county and to the people of the area,” Bundy said.

He said the refuge has taken over the space of 100 ranches since the early 1900s.

“They are continuing to expand the refuge at the expense of the ranchers and miners,” Bundy said.

He also said Harney County, in southeastern Oregon, went from one of the state’s wealthiest counties to one of the poorest.

CNN has not independently corroborated Bundy’s claims.

No employees were inside the building when protesters broke in, officials said.

Bundy said his group is armed, but said he would not describe it as a militia. He declined to say how many people were with him, saying that information might jeopardize “operational security.”

What the protesters want

When asked what it would take for the protesters to leave, Bundy did not offer specifics.

“The people will need to be able to use the land and resources without fear as free men and women. We know it will take some time,” he said.

“I would tell any federal agent that the people are enforcing their rights and expressing their rights to restore their land and resources back to the people.”

Bundy did not explicitly call on authorities to commute the prison sentences for the Hammonds. But he said their case illustrates officials’ “abuse” of power.

“We are not terrorists,” Ammon Bundy said. “We are concerned citizens and realize we have to act if we want to pass along anything to our children.”

The Hammonds keep their distance

But the Hammonds say they don’t want help from Bundy’s group.

“Neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone within his group/organization speak for the Hammond family,” the Hammonds’ attorney, W. Alan Schroeder, wrote to Harney County Sheriff David Ward.

What authorities are doing

As of early Monday morning, there was no police presence at the building. But the FBI said it is taking the lead on investigating the situation.

“The FBI is working with the Harney County Sheriff’s Office, Oregon State Police and other local and state law enforcement agencies to bring a peaceful resolution to the situation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,” the agency’s Portland office said in a statement.

“Due to safety considerations for both those inside the refuge as well as the law enforcement officers involved, we will not be releasing any specifics with regards to the law enforcement response.”

How the community is reacting

The protest has prompted Harney County School District 3 to call off classes for the entire week, Superintendent Dr. Marilyn L. McBride said.

“Schools will open on January 11,” she said. “Ensuring staff and student safety is our greatest concern.”

The federal Bureau of Land Management office in Burns is also closed until further notice, the agency said.

And even though Bundy is not calling his group a militia, others in the community are.

“I don’t like the militia’s methods,” local resident Monica McCannon told KTVZ. “They had their rally. Now it’s time for them to go home. People are afraid of them.”

What might happen next

Bundy’s call for supporters to join him might “turn into a bad situation,” said CNN law enforcement analyst Art Roderick, a retired U.S. marshal who investigated anti-government militias.

“What’s going to happen hopefully (is) … we don’t go out there with a big force, because that’s what they’re looking for,” he said. “The last thing we need is some type of confrontation.”

He said that over the years, law enforcement has learned how to handle a situation like this — one in which a law may have been broken, but that hasn’t erupted in violence and has not yet threatened anyone’s life.

The best approach now, Roderick said, is to wait the group out and try to figure out how to bring a peaceful resolution.