A group of militiamen occupied a federal building at an Oregon wildlife refuge late Saturday and vowed to stay there indefinitely to protest rancher rights. The standoff came after protesters and militia members converged on the small town of Burns to show support for a pair of ranchers jailed on an arson conviction, according to NBC affiliate KTVZ.
It's been nearly two years since the armed confrontation between federal law enforcement and Cliven Bundy's well-armed supporters in Nevada. The Obama administration, in the interest of public safety, chose not to escalate matters against the controversial rancher, who claims not to recognize the legitimacy of the United States government, and the underlying dispute remains unresolved.
Twenty one months later, a related story is unfolding, this time in Oregon with two of Bundy's sons.
It's worth backing up and understanding how we got to this point. Two local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, set fires to federal lands several years ago, were convicted, and served several months behind bars. Recently, however, a federal judge ordered the father-and-son ranchers back to prison because, under federal law, there's a mandatory minimum for arson on federal land that they had not yet served.
The Hammonds are set to report to prison today.
On Saturday, militia members protested the Hammonds' conviction, which wouldn't have been especially noteworthy, except some of these militia members then drove to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and took control of its headquarters, posting armed men in camouflage outside.
Among the extremists is Ammon Bundy, Cliven's son, who posted a message to Facebook over the weekend saying he and his group pose "no threat to anybody," though the truth is a little more complicated.
A reporter for the Oregonian talked to Ammon Bundy's brother, Ryan, who also said they're willing to kill and be killed if necessary. They're joined by another militia member who posted a video online in which he appears to say goodbye to his family while explaining his rationale for his extremist tactics.
As of now, no shots have been fired and there do not appear to be any hostages at the wildlife refuge. We don't yet know exactly how many militia members are occupying the building or what they've brought with them in the way of supplies.
We do know, however, that we're talking about armed anti-government radicals who have seized a building that's not theirs to take. And while the Hammonds' case was the basis for Saturday's protest, Ryan Bundy told the Associated Press the goal of the occupation had little to do with sentencing and everything to do with turning over federal land to local authorities so it could be used "for ranching, logging, mining and recreation."
At a certain level, when armed extremists seize a building, it's tempting not to care what their "demands" are, but I mention this because of the underlying irony: the anti-government radicals are, as a practical matter, seeking a government handout from Washington in the form of free land.
Given the finite amount of food the militia members brought with them, it seems likely that this standoff won't last too long, though the Bundys told the Oregonian, "We're planning on staying here for years, absolutely."
As for the politics, I haven't heard President Obama's critics blame this mess on the White House -- I assume that's only a matter of time -- but I also haven't heard any of the Republican presidential candidates, at least one of whom cozied up to Cliven Bundy in 2014, weigh in on the developments in Oregon. For now, they're "staying mum," though that may not be sustainable much longer.
Postscript: A variety of readers reached out over the weekend asking what the national conversation would look like right now if a group of armed Muslims -- or a group of armed Black Lives Matter activists, for that matter -- took control of a federal building, threatening possible violence. As the story in Oregon continues to unfold, it seems like a point worth considering.