Dozens of militants, several of them armed, took over a federal building in an Oregon wildlife refuge in the northwestern US over the weekend, and are now using social media to try to gather more supporters.
The group is led by Ammon Bundy, the son of rancher Cliven Bundy, whose longtime refusal to pay grazing fees in Nevada ended in a clash with federal agents in 2014. It was organized to support the Hammond family, local ranchers who were convicted of starting fires that spread to public land, and due to go back to prison on Monday (Jan. 4), Ammon said in a public video:
The militants took over the federal building after a march on Saturday in Burns, Oregon.
They have pledged to remain until the wildlife refuge land is turned back over to the public. Local media published photos of militants inside a watchtower on the refuge on Sunday afternoon, looking through a scope of some kind.
Protesters were moving freely in and out of the facility and “bringing children onto the grounds,” Maureen Peltier, a member of a self-described “patriot movement” who visited the occupied building on Sunday, told The Oregonian.) The Oregonian said it could not determine whether the children were related to militants. Peltier didn’t immediately respond to a request for an interview.
Peltier also wrote on her Facebook page:
Fear gripping my heart earlier on, but I remain prayerful that God leads them through this peacefully and successfully.
Children are on the refuge now. Good men & women. Please make peaceful, responsible choices. But do not hang them out to dry.
The Hammond ranchers who sparked the protest said they were not connected with the group who had occupied the building in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, nor did they support them. “I don’t really know the purpose of the guys who are out there,” Susan Hammond told Oregon Public Broadcasting. She added she hoped they had warm clothes. Temperatures were below freezing in Burns at 7pm on Jan. 3 and expected to fall further overnight.
“Don’t get uninformed and misunderstand what’s going on here,” Melvin Lee, one of the organizers, said in a video posted to Facebook, calling the occupation a “peaceful protest.” There is “nobody in camouflage,” Lee, who was wearing a camouflage jacket, said, adding “well other than my jacket.” Then he called for supporters to join the movement. “But we do need you here, we need bodies, we need people here to support this,” he said.
The younger Bundy said in a later video that occupiers would stay until the land in the refuge could be used by local residents “as free men” and that they would not leave until that happened. The Malheur refuge was established in 1908 by Theodore Roosevelt.
Local schools will be closed all week, and the local sheriff’s department has urged the public to stay away from the situation, caused by “outside militants.”