An armed anti-government group over the weekend seized control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. The activists made their move following a peaceful demonstration in Burns, Ore., involving more than 100 people, who marched in support of two ranchers the protesters claim were unfairly treated by the government.
Dwight and Steven Hammond, father-and-son ranchers convicted of arson for covering up poaching, were ordered back to prison by a federal judge who ruled they had not served the minimum sentence required under federal law. The Hammonds are not involved with the armed protesters and intend to surrender peacefully, according to their lawyer.
Among the members of the occupying group are the family of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who had his own disagreements with the government after the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) moved to seize a herd of cattle that Bundy illegally grazed on federal land. The armed protesters, who have vowed to hold the building for years if necessary, have declined to identify themselves as a militia, but they have some of the hallmarks of one.
History of the Socialiest Movement in the United States
The group claims to be nonviolent. No employees were in the building at the time of the occupation, and no property has been damaged. "We have no intentions of using force upon anyone, (but) if force is used against us, we would defend ourselves," Ammon Bundy told CNN.
It's impossible to ignore the fact that the group is able to carry out its occupation because it is armed. Ryan Bundy echoed his brother's statement and took it even further by saying his cohorts were willing "to kill or be killed if necessary," according to the Oregonian. The threat of violence fits them more appropriately with a militia than a nonviolent protester group.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has published a number of articles on the new militia movement within the United States. From the FBI's 2011 posting on militia extremism:
"Many militia extremists view themselves as protecting the U.S. Constitution, other U.S. laws, or their own individual liberties. They believe that the Constitution grants citizens the power to take back the federal government by force or violence if they feel it's necessary."
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That statement encapsulates the efforts by the Oregon activists. Although the Oregon group claims to be occupying a federal building in support of the Hammonds, the organization's demands appear to be part of a broader anti-government agenda. Indeed, Harney County Sheriff David Ward states his belief the militia arrived not simply to support local ranchers but instead had "alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States." Backing the sherriff's statement is a video message from the Bundys asking for outside support.
There is a case to be made that the Oregon group is in fact not strictly a militia. In 1997, the FBI published its Militia Threat Assessment Typology, used to classify different categories of militia groups. The one quality that binds all of the different types of militias together is paramilitary training, and it isn't clear that the Oregon group has the training or the structure of a true militia.
In past confrontations with the federal government, the Bundys have invoked language that resembles the "soveriegn citizen" movement. From the FBI:
"Sovereign citizens are anti-government extremists who believe that even though they physically reside in this country, they are separate or ‘sovereign' from the United States. As a result, they believe they don't have to answer to any government authority, including courts, taxing entities, motor vehicle departments, or law enforcement."
"I believe this is a sovereign state of Nevada," Cliven Bundy said in an interview last year. "And I abide by all Nevada state laws. But I don't recognize the United States government as even existing."
According to the FBI, "Sovereign citizens are often confused with extremists from the militia movement. ... Guns are secondary to their anti-government, anti-tax beliefs. On the other hand, guns and paramilitary training are paramount to militia groups."
Anti-Government Sentiment on the Rise?
Whatever the most appropriate name for the armed activists in Oregon, they are part of a growing movement than began in 2009. Following the inauguration of President Barack Obama to his first term, the number of anti-government militia groups surged, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). In 2008, there were 149 such organizations operating in the United States. In 2012, that number reached an all-time high, with the SPLC recording 1,360 militia groups.