Credit: Les Zaitz/The Oregonian via AP
On Friday, a group of heavily armed men descended upon and occupied a federal building in Oregon to protest the sentencing of two ranchers for arson.
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, was overtaken by a group of approximately 300 protesters – many of them armed with assault rifles – this weekend. They have vowed to potentially stay at the refuge “several years” if need be until their demands are met.
The armed militia – which is being met with a bevy of scrutiny on social media – is protesting the prison sentences of Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son, Steven Dwight Hammond, who were re-sentenced in 2015 for two fires they set to public lands in 2001 and 2006. A judge ruled the initial sentences served by the father and son was not long enough under federal law.
A video – which is no longer available – posted to Facebook by Sarah Lee Spurlock, a militia spokesperson, said, “While we’re here, what we’re going to be doing is we’re going to be freeing the lands up and getting the ranchers back to ranching, getting the miners back to mining, getting the loggers back to logging where they can do it under the protection of the people, and not be afraid of this tyranny that’s been upon them,” according to Mic.com.
Among the militia are Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who in 2014 led an armed standoff with Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials who had been ordered by courts to seize 500 head of Bundy’s cattle after he improperly allowed the animals to graze on public lands without a permit and repeatedly refused to pay proper taxes.
The Bundy children have taken up the cause of the Hammonds in Oregon in a similar struggle between the private and public ownership of land.
The case against the Hammonds stems from several incidents.
The Hammonds own approximately 12,000 acres of land in Diamond, Oregon, as well as grazing rights of near 25,000 acres of BLM land. In 2001, they illegally set fire to part of the BLM land in order to “burn off invasive species,” according to the Tri-State Livestock News. The fire spread and ended up burning 139 acres of public land. This followed a similar incident in 1999, to which the government warned the Hammonds of “serious consequences” if they made another mistake like that again. In 2006, the Hammonds once again caused damage to public lands. The BLM brought charges against the family in 2010.
“It wasn’t until 2010 that the BLM brought charges against Dwight and Steven under the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Act, according to the Idaho Press. As the Oregonian reported, the two were found guilty of perpetrating arson on government land after a two-week trial in 2012, and were expected to serve the mandatory minimum of five years in prison for the crime.
“However, then-U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan thought the punishment “grossly disproportionate” to the ranchers’ offenses, according to TSLN. In their sentencing hearing, the Register Guard reported, Hogan awarded Steven Hammond one year and one day behind bars for the two fires, and Dwight Hammond three months in prison for his role in setting the 2001 fire.
“According to the Register Guard, Hogan’s ruling didn’t sit well with the Oregon government, which appealed his decision on the grounds that it disregarded the legal minimum sentence for such a violation. In October, the father and son were given five years of prison time each, “with credit for the time they already served” following their 2012 sentencing, according to the Oregon District Attorney’s office.”
Though the armed insurgents are protesting the sentencing, the Hammonds themselves had agreed to their punishments.
The occupation of the federal building has drawn much scrutiny from users on social media, where they have pointed out the differences in responses from the media when non-whites have guns and when a group of white people walk around with assault weapons and other guns in plain view.
Users dubbed the Oregon militia, “YallQaeda,” an obvious play on the terrorist group, al Qaeda, as well well “VanillaISIS,” and “WhiteSIS.”
As of now, nobody has been injured in the standoff, but with tensions running so high, the situation remains unstable.