Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the brothers behind the Jan. 2 takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, have contacted the FBI in a possible attempt to negotiate a withdrawal -- while they are simultaneously escalating the conflict with the feds and creating a shadow government in Harney County, Oregon.
Talks with inside sources as well as a media event Saturday at the refuge indicate the Bundy militia is making new grabs at federal land, expanding its presence near the Malheur Refuge, and forming extralegal judicial and legislative bodies in Harney County to displace the existing government, even as its external support and options appear to dwindle. It is also building fortifications with railroad ties and concrete barriers.
In the latest development, Burns, Oregon -- the town nearest to the Malheur Refuge -- cancelled a planned community meeting on Jan. 25 after threats by militants to protest and block the event. The previous week many residents in Burns were angered after Ammon Bundy and his supporters showed up with guns to one of the community meetings that have occurred regularly since the Bundy militia seized the refuge.
The Bundys' goals keep shifting. Initially, they were seeking the release of Dwight and Steven Hammond, local ranchers imprisoned for five years for arson on government lands. Then it was the return of the entire Malheur Refuge to Harney County. Now it seems they hope to make the county the crucible of a rebellion that will “honor and restore the Constitution of the United States.” That means returning all federal control over the land -- from which, in their view, all powers and resources flow from -- to local control as a step toward abolishing most federal powers and institutions.
The highlight of Saturday's event was said to be ranchers tearing or burning up their grazing contracts with the government. The festivities began with the Sharpe family, a single mother and six of her 10 children, singing "The Star Spangled Banner" and a Christian spiritual, and Jeanette Finicum, whose husband LaVoy is the spokesperson for the Bundys, offering a prayer. Despite the presence of a few gun-packing ladies, the cultural program fit with a worldview in which female roles are limited to children, church, and kitchen.
It was time for the menfolk to move on with the serious business, which was delayed as they carefully decorated a table with war medals, a dress uniform, and a memorial flag. A teary-eyed Ammon explained the significance of each one and how it was bestowed in honor of his family’s fight for freedom and the Constitution.
Next up Ryan Bundy said, “We’ve been here three weeks now, we’ve been teaching the principles of the Constitution of the United States, the supreme law of the land.” A large blue sign was unveiled with the Harney County seal, a map of the state of Oregon with Harney highlighted, and text reading, “Harney County Land: Welcome and Enjoy a Free Land by the People.”
They said the sign will go nine miles out to replace a Malheur Refuge sign. The Bundys have gotten this far because they know how to exploit the media. However much ridicule they’ve received, they have used narratives, spectacles, and mythologized cowboy violence to keep the U.S. government at bay for weeks. Putting up the sign is a new challenge. Like an army planting its banner on a captured hill, they are expanding their territorial claims and daring Washington to respond.
When it came time for Adrian Sewell, 36, of New Mexico, to renounce his grazing contract, it was anticlimactic. Sewell merely signed a letter that was notarized, informing the U.S. Solicitor General he was terminating his contracts with the BLM and National Forest. He said he was grazing 85 cattle on 33,000 acres in Southwest New Mexico, but claimed he could run 200 head while providing better care of the land. Sewell claimed he gained grazing rights to the federal land by purchasing 160 acres from an unnamed widow whose husband was mysteriously murdered. He would not reveal how much the land cost or what his fees were. Based on data from the Associated Press, Sewell pays the BLM $144 a month for grazing fees, while the agency spends nearly three times as much on average to run the program. When Sewell showed his notarized letter to the media, it was missing all the information except his signature, rendering it invalid.
The dark heart of the show was Joaquin Mariano DeMoreta-Folch, a self-anointed “God-Grace Administrator” -- in essence a judge -- who bases his powers on the Magna Carta. Active in the Tea Party in Florida, DeMoreta-Folch said “common law grand juries” are now investigating Harney County officials. His statements and that from other militia sources made it sound like the county sheriff, judge, and two county commissioners will be charged with crimes and then supposedly removed from office.
Other militia sources say they want to hold emergency elections to replace Harney County Sheriff David Ward, who they believe is trashing the Constitution and serving illegally because he was appointed just days before the occupation began.
The common law grand jury is an extralegal tactic used by the sovereign citizen movement, which means adherents pick which laws to obey according to their legal musings. DeMoreta-Folch is so extreme he has been denounced as “a tyrant” and “unlearned and unstable” by other proponents of the common law grand jury.
When DeMoreta-Folch was asked on what legal basis he was using the Magna Carta if the Constitution was the supreme law of the land, he yelled, “The Magna Carta is the supreme law of the land! The Bible is the supreme law of the land!” When reporters asked him the names and numbers of grand jurors, Demoreta-Folch threatened to charge the reporters with felonies in his Star Chamber.
Accompanying Demoreta-Folch was Lee Rice, who is also involved in the sovereign citizen movement, was involved in the Wisconsin Tea Party, according to a source, and apparently played bit roles in 1980s action flicks, including a guard to Tina Turner’s character in "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome."
The grand juries are latest instance of the Bundy’s rejecting local government even as they praise local control. The Bundys believe only those who subscribe to their radical view of the U.S. Constitution should control the land. At the media event the Bundys said they want to return the 187,700 acres of land in the Malheur Refuge to the people of Harney County. In a one-on-one discussion earlier, Ryan Bundy rejected having the land go to the current county government. He said control will go to the militia’s hand-picked allies, the Harney County Committee of Safety.
The Committee of Safety selected six members in mid-December, and issued its founding proclamation after the armed occupation began. The committee, which says it is based on frontier colonial militias that safeguarded property and lives “from the savages,” decries how today “Federal agencies are constrained and at the mercy of small but vocal groups of radical.” It has drawn up plans for “full capacity” timber and grazing on all federal lands in Harney County, which it says will require “common-sense changes” to environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act. But at the event Ammon Bundy said the militia was going to open the land to everyone: ranchers, loggers, sportsmen, hikers, and birders.
Ryan Bundy also said even if Washington gave all federal lands to the Committee of Safety, the militia would stay to “help them.” That’s probably because on Jan. 8, six days into the takeover, the Committee of Safety read Ammon Bundy a letter at a town meeting, asking him to hit the road with his militia because “you choose to take the aggressive action of occupying the refuge and did it without our knowledge or any other local approval.”
There was little evidence of significant support from Harney County residents at the refuge event. It may be why the Bundy militia is allying itself with volatile characters like DeMoreta-Folch. The core of the Bundy group appears to be cohesive, having known and worked together for a couple of years now, as well as sharing common religious and political motivations. But as they expand their ranks, the militia draws more supporters who have a tenuous grasp on the gravity of the situation -- as well as reality.
One pair who have been regulars at the camp spoke as if the revolution has already begun, but it was hard to separate fact from fiction from fantasy from delusion. One claimed “asymmetricals” are joining up. By that he meant lone wolves radicalized over the Internet were flocking to the Bundy crusade. He said 300 to 400 militia members were bunked out in nearby towns and homes ready to strike, and local law enforcement and sheriff’s deputies in other counties were providing covert support. He also asserted there were plans to move on Bureau of Land Management holdings in 20 different counties.
The pair warned “it’s going to come to bloodshed,” and when it does it will be “officer against officer” as police and soldiers joined their cause. The two were eager to discuss how “our food, water, medicine, and energy are all poisoned,” and “when sodium fluoride in the water combines with mercury-thimerosal vaccines, it leads to brain changes.” The discussion was not complete without a brief foray into 9/11 conspiracy theories and talk of other mysterious murders.
Given Waco, given Ruby Ridge, given the presidential election this year, it’s simple to guess the government strategy toward the Bundy militia takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge: Wait them out. Maybe they will get tired and collapse or descend into infighting.
The government may also be hoping for a casus belli: a shooting, a fire at the refuge, assault on public officials to justify bringing the hammer down. In the meantime local police have largely disappeared from the streets of Burns. They are hunkered down in a fortified Harney County Courthouse surrounded by a hastily thrown-up chain-link fence, earthen berms and concrete barriers -- the type of set-up to stop car-borne suicide bombers.
There and at the FBI outpost at the Burns airport, one armed guard carrying an automatic rifle and vest bulging with ammo intercepts visitors before they reach the checkpoint, with a second guard lagging back. It’s a type of protocol used to neutralize armed threats. At the courthouse they won’t say which law-enforcement agency they are with, but reportedly that is the bunker for the state police and county sheriffs. They and the FBI refuse to give information beyond the number for the media line.
While the Bundys appear keen to live to fight another day, the same can’t be said of gun-toting followers who’ve told the Raw Story they are willing to be martyred. The Bundys have created all the conditions for an inferno, and they can’t seem to figure out whether to douse it or keep stoking the flames.
With additional reporting by Paul Roland
Arun Gupta contributes to The Washington Post, YES! Magazine, In These Times, The Progressive, Telesur, and The Nation. He is author of the forthcoming, Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste, from The New Press. Follow him @arunindy or email at arun_dot_indypendent_at_gmail_dot_com.