Whose land is it, anyway? Critics, supporters of armed Oregon occupiers agree protest must end

Ammon Bundy (L), and Wes Kjar depart for a news conference from an office at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon January 6, 2016 © Jim Urquhart
After five nights and four days of occupying a federal facility in Oregon, both critics and supporters of the armed protesters are calling for the demonstration to end. How to de-escalate remains a debate, however, as time seems to be running out.

The armed protest group, sometimes characterized as a militia, has taken on the name Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, but most of the members are not citizens of Burns, Oregon, where a standoff of sorts has held for nearly a week.

Wednesday night, at a Harney County community meeting, residents cheered when Sheriff David Ward called for the “outsiders” to “go home,” according to a tweet by JJ MacNab, a writer on anti-government groups who attended the meeting.

How that will be accomplished is unknowable at this point, though many have put forward ideas.

Aligning the varying factions of the wider community touched by this development is difficult. For instance, the armed protesters led by Ammon Bundy – the son of anti-government rancher Cliven Bundy – are demanding the federal government relinquish its claim to about three-quarters of the land in the county, then “return” it to the local residents. The trouble is, the feds never stole it from the locals living there now, so much as they did from the indigenous people there nearly two centuries ago.

"The protesters have no right to this land. It belongs to the native people who live here," Charlotte Rodrique, chair of the Paiute tribe in Burns, told reporters earlier on Wednesday in front of the tribe’s cultural center.

The Burns Paiute accused the Bundy-led group of "desecrating one of our sacred sites," according to the Associated Press.

Sharper words have also appeared on social media and in traditional media, sparking debate about whether to call the armed occupiers “terrorists” or not. One retired police chief with decades of experience in training SWAT teams urges the latter.

"If we demonize them, if we make them domestic terrorists, then the political ability to deal with them harshly increases," Steve Ijames said in an NPR interview.

The Associated Press has gone from describing the protesters as a “militia” to “armed men” or “armed ranchers,” saying the word “militia” confuses its international audience.

Two leaders of national groups favorable to the principle of militias are working to prevent an escalation. Upon allegedly receiving a tip that US military special operators were assigned to the area, Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, released an urgent message to those occupying the federal facility, including in his headline: “Keep Women and Children Out of There.”

“If a dozen men die in a shootout, that is one thing, but if children die, there will be a civil war,” Rhodes wrote on the Oath Keepers website. He added a statement of disapproval, saying the armed occupation “is not in keeping with the moral imperative of only using the threat of force in defense when people’s lives are at stake, as at Bundy Ranch in 2014.”

A local “Committee for Safety,” which coordinates with Oath Keepers, has approached the protesters and asked them to leave.

Rhodes also referenced Mike Vanderboegh, founder of the Three Percenters movement, agreeing with him that the Bundy-led activism in Burns has been a New Years gift to the Obama administration.

Although the occupied building is property of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, federal law enforcement is letting the local police take the lead in ending the protest peacefully. Still, at this point, with no law enforcement present at the occupied facility, the standoff seems one-sided.

Meanwhile in Washington, DC, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Oregon) spoke on the House of Representatives floor on Tuesday. While suggesting “it is time for them to realize they have made their case and to go home,” Walden gave voice to the frustration behind the protesters’ actions.

Walden delved into the matter of the Hammonds, a father and son with a ranch along federal land in Burns, Oregon. At the end of December 2015, they voluntarily went back to prison after already serving a one-year sentence for setting fires on their land without permission. A US Attorney successfully appealed the previous sentence, requiring them to serve another four years as mandated by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, under which they were charged.

Walden empathized with the Hammond ranchers, whom he had worked with in the past, but not just for their personal history. Walden spoke of the Bureau of Land Management misinterpreting a law on multiple occasions, a law he himself helped to write, all to go after the ranchers gratuitously.

“This is a government that has gone too far for too long,“ Warden said.

The Hammonds, through their attorney, have distanced themselves from the protesters who took them up as a cause.

One novel solution, put forward by Ray Penny Jr writing at The Federalist, challenges President Obama, who recently pardoned 140 nonviolent drug offenders, to pardon the Hammonds who too were jailed under a mandatory minimum law.

“If mandatory minimum sentences are wrong for non-violent drug offenders, then they’re also wrong for Oregon ranchers,” Penny wrote.

A more practical idea came during the community meeting in Harney County Wednesday night. Residents simply volunteered themselves to go down to the occupied buildings and tell the occupiers to leave town.