Amidst media coverage of the upcoming presidential election, an important event seems to have slipped through the cracks: an armed militia took over a government building. The militia takeover—an event stereotypically associated with the Middle East or Latin America—is going on in rural Oregon. The dispute stems from two ranchers: Dwight Hammond, Jr. and his son Steven Hammond. Together, they ranch on a large space of land adjacent to land publically owned by the Bureau of Land Management. The two committed arson in 2001, which led to the destruction of 139 acres of BLM’s property. According to the United States Department of Justice, the two set the fire in order to mask their illegal deer hunt, though the two claimed it was to destroy invasive species on their land. Additionally, a second fire was started in 2006 during a “burn ban”—all firefighters in the area were fighting a large blaze, and controlled fires were not allowed to be set during that time.
Dwight Hammond eventually served three months in prison and his son served 366 days in 2013. Federal law, however, holds that fires that cause damage to public property but result in no injury or death are domestic terrorism. The domestic terrorism charge carries a minimum sentence of five years—a big difference from the sentences the pair originally served.
Ironically, a Republican Congress enacted the law used to prosecute the Hammonds after the Oklahoma bombings, pushed forward by the same right-wing ideals that the militiamen hold. The harshness of the Hammond’s punishment that is being protested by those militias is one their political ancestors fought for.
In response to this sentencing, a group of protestors led by Ammon Bundy—the son of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher known for instigating an armed standoff with government officials in 2014 over his refusal to remove cattle from government land—took over Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 2, the headquarters of this federal land.
Although federal law enforcement has jurisdiction on the matter, no federal or local law enforcement approached the building until Tuesday Jan. 26. The most recent development showed that Bundy and his militia were on the move toward another Oregon city and planned to make an appearance at an anti-government rally. Officers arrested the group after exchanging gunshots resulting in one militia member being killed and one officer injured. According to Katu News, the seven members are facing charges of “conspiracy to impede officers of the United States from discharging their official duties, through the use of force, intimidation or threats.” For a politically charged event like this, it is interesting to think whether the militiamen would have been seized earlier or if media coverage would’ve increased if they were of a minority group.
It may be difficult for citizens in the Northwest to understand such passion for land, but it isn’t hard for us to understand the difference between lawful protest and radical takeover. It is a disgrace to see lawful American political protest overwhelmed by those fighting against “federal tyranny.” If we refer back to any of the protests in Baltimore or Ferguson, Missouri we saw military equipment used and curfews set in place very soon after the protests began.
The law enforcement-discrimination debate is one used sparingly, but it is interesting that this hostile takeover went on for this long without any swift action. It is frightening to see Americans abandon lawful and civil discourse so willingly in exchange for violent and anarchical means.