On January 2, a group of anti-government extremists—who would later dub themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom—seized control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in remote southeast Oregon. The seizure, led by Ammon Bundy, son of a Nevada rancher who had himself engaged in a standoff with the federal government in 2014, was ostensibly conducted to protest the resentencing of a father and son pair of southeast Oregon ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, on federal arson charges.
For more than a week now, Bundy and his two dozen or so followers—the numbers change daily—have held the headquarters, claiming they will relinquish it only when the Hammonds are released and the federal government turns control of federal land over to the “people.”
Yet the confrontation desired by Bundy and his followers has not gone very well for them so far. Faced with derision, lack of support, and internal bickering, as well as the distinct absence of the federal government they had sought to visibly confront, the occupiers now seem somewhat confused and hesitant. The scenario has so far not played out in a manner that they hoped for or expected.
While the situation at Malheur is still tense and there are plenty of ways that it could worsen—for example, frustrated extremists could try to escalate the situation—it is clear that Bundy and the other occupiers have made several key miscalculations in their planned coup-de-main. These include:
- The occupiers did not secure the support of the Hammonds. Though Ammon Bundy and some of the other future occupiers were in touch with the Hammonds over their plight as early as November 2014, they failed in their efforts to get the Hammonds to cooperate. Reportedly, the Hammonds would not let protesters use their property, which may be one reason why Bundy and his companions chose to seize the wildlife refuge headquarters instead. After the seizure, attorneys for the Hammond family released a statement saying that the Hammonds “respect the rule of law.” Dwight and Steven Hammond reported for prison as ordered.
- The occupiers chose a poor target. The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is not far from the Hammond ranch. Moreover, it was empty at the time, meaning that it was a symbolic federal building that could be seized by Bundy without effort. However, the building is in a remote area away from population centers and also most extremists. In taking the headquarters, the extremists voluntarily isolated themselves. Moreover, the building is not important in any way, nor does its occupation particularly hinder the federal government, or even the wildlife of the refuge. And, of course, the building has nothing to do with the Hammonds, nor did seizing it affect their situation in any positive way. In their own paranoid fashion, even some of the extremists eventually began to do some second-guessing about the decision to seize the headquarters. On January 7, Joe O’Shaughnessy (at first an occupier, then staying in Burns, Oregon, to organize support for them) posted to Facebook asking if anyone had “stopped to think how did they get some of the greatest men in the Patriot movement to go out in the middle of nowhere to [occupy] a small building…at the coldest time of the year at a time [when] everyone is broke because of the holidays. I don’t know about you but this is all starting to look fishy to me.” O’Shaughnessy speculated that the federal government had deliberately left the place empty and the electricity on because “the place was already pre-bugged.” In other words, somehow the federal government “tricked” them into occupying the refuge headquarters.
- The federal government did not act as expected. It is likely that the occupiers expected some new version of the 2014 Bundy standoff, in which anti-government extremists were able to engage in a direct armed confrontation with government and law enforcement and get the government to back down, thus energizing the extremists and their supporters. However, because of the poor target chosen by the occupiers, the federal government has time on its side. Barring other circumstances intervening, the government can, in effect, bide its time and let attrition take its toll. Almost immediately, the federal government adopted a deliberately low-key approach, employing restraint and avoiding media attention. It has not given the extremists what they sought the most: a confrontation.
- The occupiers failed to get local support. Ammon Bundy and his followers assumed that their action would get the support of the people of Burns and the surrounding area, many of whom were to varying degrees sympathetic to the situation of the Hammonds. However, the majority of the occupiers were not from the local area—or even from Oregon—but were outsiders primarily from Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. Moreover, they seemed to be seeking attention for themselves as much as, if not more than, for the Hammonds. The local fire chief told an Oregonian reporter that the group “seems like a bunch of people ready to shoot. I don’t want that in my county.” Bundy and several of his followers also alienated some of the local citizens who originally had been willing to work with them. Locals who had helped organize a pro-Hammond rally shortly before the seizure subsequently issued a statement claiming that the activities of the Bundy group were “unfortunate and not related to and contrary to” their own wishes.
- The local sheriff “failed” the occupiers once again. For some years, Ammon Bundy and other members of his family have argued that it is the role of the county sheriff to “protect” the people from the federal government and have repeatedly called on local sheriffs to intervene in conflicts with the federal government—without success. Harness County Sheriff David Ward came out early as a vocal opponent of Bundy and his actions (and whose family reportedly got death threats as a result). In fact, Ward helped to crystallize community opposition to Bundy and his followers in a key community meeting. Ward subsequently met with Bundy to offer him “safe passage” out of the county, in an attempt to end the standoff, but Bundy refused.
- The occupiers failed to get substantial support from other extremists. Not only did the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom fail to get support from the Hammonds, local law enforcement, or the local community, but they have so far failed to get substantial support from other right-wing extremists, whether locally or further afield. While some anti-government extremists have indeed supported the actions of Bundy and the other occupiers, such support has been far less than the occupiers clearly hoped for. Bundy had already burned bridges with the anti-government Oath Keepers thanks to feuds during and after the 2014 Bundy Ranch standoff, so it was no surprise that the Oath Keepers did not support the Oregon seizure. But many other anti-government extremists also condemned the actions of the Oregon occupiers, on a variety of grounds. Others stated that they disagreed with the “operation,” though they would come to the aid of the occupiers if they were attacked by the federal government. One reason that many extremists were less than excited about the refuge headquarters occupation was because it didn’t seem to be doing anything to help the Hammonds but would simply put extremists in harm’s way.
- Media attention did not always work to the occupiers’ advantage. As in the 2014 Bundy Ranch standoff—at which a great many of the refuge occupiers were present—Bundy and the others hoped to attract media attention to their actions. That certainly happened, especially in the early days of the standoff, with media vans crowding the grounds of the headquarters. However, while the media brought them attention, it wasn’t always positive attention. Very early on, reporters on the scene brought down to earth claims by the occupiers that they numbered around 150, observing that the true number might be as little as one-tenth of that figure. Reporters wandered around the refuge, seeking interviews with any and all occupiers—and the extremists did not always come out of the interviews looking good. Moreover, journalists exposed the criminal histories of some of the occupiers and, in the case of occupier Brian Cavalier, revealed that his claims to have served in the United States Marine Corps were false. Cavalier allegedly left the refuge soon after.
- Social media is a two-edged sword. Bundy and the other occupiers did not rely solely on the traditional mainstream media. From the beginning, many of the occupiers have assiduously used Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites to communicate to their friends and followers and get their message out. However, as many corporations and politicians have learned, social media messaging sometimes has a way of getting out of control. In this case, non-extremists, who vastly outnumbered the extremists on social media, began to use the platforms to mock and deride the occupiers, creating hashtags such as #YallQaeda and #VanillaISIS. After a couple of occupiers entreated their supporters to send supplies such as food and “snacks,” the notion of snacks became a viral meme with which the occupiers were mercilessly pilloried. “Will commit treason for Funyuns” was just one of hundreds of mocking “snack” references.
- The occupiers have suffered from internal bickering. Never particularly organized to begin with, the occupiers have not showed any real cohesiveness. As time has worn on, different occupiers have argued and bickered over a variety of issues, ranging from tactics to the presence of women and children at the refuge. At least one of the occupiers left the refuge as a result. The odds of such bickering are likely to increase with time.
- The occupiers have no practical end game. As the one-sided standoff wears on, time is likely to take its toll on more and more occupiers. Some have already left, temporarily or permanently, to deal with “real life” issues such as work and family. Because the federal government seems hardly likely to release the Hammonds based on the demands of Bundy and his followers, and because it certainly will never engage in some sort of mass giveaway of federal land, the occupiers are unlikely to get any sort of satisfaction from the government. And though a couple of the most volatile occupiers have given indications that they would welcome some sort of armed encounter with the government, others seem to have become more wary as the standoff has progressed. The possibility that the occupiers, especially if more attrition occurs, will attempt to come up with some sort of face-saving rationalization for standing down seems like a real possibility. As long as cooler heads prevail, it may be the best opportunity for ending the standoff with no one being hurt and no “martyrs” or “heroes” created, around whom other extremists could rally.