The armed occupation of a federally owned wildlife outpost in remote Oregon has entered its fourth day. A self-styled right-wing antigovernment militia calling itself the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday in support of two ranchers sentenced to prison for setting fires that burned federal land. The wildlife refuge is located outside the town of Burns, Oregon, about 300 miles southeast of Portland. Leaders of the occupation include Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who refused to pay decades’ worth of cattle grazing fees, prompting a standoff with federal rangers in 2014 in Nevada, during which an armed militia rallied to his support. Cliven Bundy declared victory after the federal government backed down and released cattle they had seized from him. The Oregon occupation also stems from a fight over public lands in the West and comes as a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found the number of militias in the United States jumped 37 percent over the past year. We speak with Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: The armed occupation of a federally owned wildlife outpost in remote Oregon has entered its fourth day. A self-styled right-wing antigovernment militia calling itself the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Saturday in support of two ranchers sentenced to prison for setting fires that burned federal land. The wildlife refuge is located outside the town of Burns, Oregon, about 300 miles southeast of Portland.
Leaders of the occupation include Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. Cliven Bundy refused to pay decades’ worth of cattle grazing fees, prompting a standoff with federal rangers in 2014 in Nevada, during which an armed militia rallied to his support. Cliven Bundy declared victory after the federal government backed down and released cattle they had seized from him.
The Oregon occupation also stems from a fight over public lands in the West. On Monday, the two ranchers whose cause the Bundys have embraced – Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven – turned themselves over to federal authorities in California for setting a series of fires on federal land, including one allegedly intended to cover up evidence of deer poaching. At a press conference Monday, Ammon Bundy spoke out in defense of the Hammonds.
AMMON BUNDY: As you may know, Dwight and Steven Hammond are being forced to report to prison today for a crime they did not commit and they’ve been put twice in jeopardy for. They’ve already served prison time for this already, and now they’re being forced to go back again. They are a good ranching family, that ranches not – not but just a few miles from here. And myself and many, many, many others, for weeks on end, put all the energy we possibly could to try to keep them from having to go into this prison, and we feel that we have exhausted all prudent measures and have been ignored. And it has been left to us to decide whether we allow these things to go on or whether we make a stand so they will not happen to other people across this country, so they will not come into our homes and take away our rights, and they will not come into our children’s home and take away their rights.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ammon Bundy. The Hammonds say he doesn’t speak for them.
Well, federal authorities have so far made no attempt to break up the armed occupation of the remote wildlife refuge in Oregon. Harney County Sheriff David Ward urged the militia to end its occupation.
SHERIFF DAVID WARD: I want to talk directly to the people at the wildlife refuge. You said you were here to help the citizens of Harney County. That help ended when a peaceful protest became an armed occupation. The Hammonds have turned themselves in. It’s time for you to leave our community, go home to your families and end this peacefully. Thanks for your time.
AMY GOODMAN: The Oregon occupation comes as a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center found the number of militias in the United States jumped 37 percent over the past year. The center identified 276 militia groups, up from 202 in 2014.
Joining us now is Richard Cohen, president of Southern Poverty Law Center. He’s joining us from Montgomery, Alabama.
Richard, talk more about what you found.
RICHARD COHEN: Well, you know, Amy, the number of militia groups, the number of extremist antigovernment groups, has really skyrocketed since Barack Obama took office in 2009. There was a bit of waning between 2011 and 2013, but in the last couple of years we’ve seen a big increase, particularly in the number of militia groups – as you said, from about 200 to about 275. And this, I think it can be traced directly to what happened at the Cliven Bundy ranch, that you mentioned, in April of 2014. You know, the government was there to collect grazing fees, or really to confiscate Bundy’s cattle. Hundreds of armed militiamen came to his aid and pointed guns at federal – people from the Bureau of Land Management. And it really, you know, was an armed standoff. And very wisely, the federal government backed down. And immediately, not just Cliven Bundy declared victory, but the entire militia group – militia movement, rather, declared victory. One militiaman, who was very well known, said, “Courage is contagious.” And it really energized the militia movement, and that’s what was responsible for the big increase that you referred to, a 37 percent increase.
AMY GOODMAN: So talk about Cliven Bundy’s sons, Ammon and Ryan, moving from Nevada to eastern Oregon.
RICHARD COHEN: Well, you know, these are two young men whose – where the apple didn’t fall very far from the tree. They seem to be cut from the same cloth as their father. They are true zealots, true fanatics. Ammon is talking about being on a mission from God. And I think they are enjoying their newfound celebrity. This is not the first time that they’ve ventured across state lines in an effort to supposedly come to the aid of others. They were involved, or people connected with them were involved, in another incident in Oregon at a mine where federal regulators were attempting to impose additional restrictions. People connected with the Bundys have been to the Mexican border to stop so-called illegal immigration.
And, you know, really, Ammon Bundy, I think, is someone whose own actions energized the movement. What happened shortly before the April standoff, April 2014 standoff, was he got into a confrontation with some people from the Bureau of Land Management, tried to kick one of their dogs. They couldn’t restrain him. And they ended up tasering him. And that was caught on a YouTube video that went viral in the militia movement and was responsible, as much as anything, for drawing hundreds of people to the Bundy cause.
AMY GOODMAN: So explain the fire that the Hammonds set, and then talk about their relationship with the Bundys. They’re saying that the Bundys don’t speak for them. But explain why they were sentenced to jail.
RICHARD COHEN: Well, they were sentenced to jail in connection with two fires, one in 2001 that burned over a hundred acres and one in 2006 that was much smaller. They claimed they were burning their land in order to protect it from other forest fires. But the federal government had a very different view of it: They said they did it to cover up evidence of poaching. They were originally sentenced to much – the son was sentenced to a year and a day, and the father was sentenced to three months. And then the government appealed that sentence, and they were resentenced under federal guidelines that required a mandatory minimum of five years. And, you know, that tremendous increase in sentencing was, I think, the thing that really sparked the hundreds of people coming to, you know, kind of their side. And now, that whole thing has kind of morphed into a dispute over, you know, kind of the federal regulation of land, long-standing friction between ranchers and the federal government relating to the use of federal land. So that’s how we got to where we are today.
I think that – I’m sure that the Hammonds were heartened, or I assume the Hammonds were heartened, I should say, to have hundreds of people rally to their cause – you know, a lot of controversy surrounding federal minimums. But I think when they saw, you know, the violence associated with it, or the threats of violence, that they recoiled, very wisely, from that.
AMY GOODMAN: Richard Cohen, The Guardian is reporting that Jon Ritzheimer, a prolific creator of online propaganda against Islam, has joined the crew of militiamen in Oregon. Southern Poverty Law Center has written about Jon Ritzheimer.
RICHARD COHEN: Yeah, you know, I can’t tell you, Amy, that I know a lot about that. I’m sure it’s available on our website, SPLCenter.org.