An armed militia group has broken into and occupied a US government building, declaring its desire to break free from the shackles of federal control and saying it is willing to “kill or be killed” in doing so.
The takeover of a remote refuge centre near Burns, Oregon, has prompted a huge reaction on social media but limited mainstream coverage, prompting many to question whether it is yet another incident of “white terrorism” going unreported.
So was this a local dispute over land use that boiled over, or is Oregon really “under attack”? Here are the facts:
White militia occupies federal wildlife refuge
Led by the son of a prominent rancher, a group of self-proclaimed “patriots” occupied the remote headquarters of the federal Bureau of Land management (BLM), the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge around 50 miles outside the small town of Burns.
Though the outpost was unoccupied and shut for the weekend at the time, at least some of the men were armed and the group has declared in phone interviews to local reporters that they are willing to “kill and be killed” for their cause.
A reporter said he had seen evidence of no more than a dozen people with a similar number of vehicles at the scene before he was made to leave, while the group itself has claimed to have 100 to 150 members involved in the action.
Sheriff denounces “outside militant” force
The site of the takeover itself is a long drive through ice and snow away from any major town or city, meaning the response from authorities or journalists was limited as of Saturday night.
But the Harney County Sheriff, Dave Ward, released a statement to local Oregon Live warning local residents to “stay away” and promising more information as it comes.
MILITIA UPDATE: Sheriff Dave Ward: "Militants drove to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, where they seized and occupied the refuge headquarters."— Les Zaitz (@LesZaitz) January 3, 2016
It read: “For the time being please stay away from that area. More information will be provided as it becomes available. Please maintain a peaceful and united front and allow us to work through this situation.”
Group says takeover is start of separatist movement
According to videos and local media reports, among the occupiers was Ammon Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy who was involved in a recent standoff with the government over grazing rights on federal land.
In a video posted to Facebook, Ammon Bundy said the building they had taken over represented “tyranny” of central government control and described the start of what would effectively amount to a separatist movement.
Unarmed, he told a local resident filming on a phone that the place would be a “base” for the militia and that the occupation would last “several years”.
According to Oregon Live, the militia is already planning to expand its occupation to a fire station near the town of Frenchglen, currently closed for the winter.
A “call to arms” across the nation
In a video, Ammon Bundy said he wanted to reach out to people across the US to join the movement “for the people”.
He said: “We’re doing this so the people can have their land and their resources back where they belong. We’re calling people to come and stand. We need you to bring your arms and we need you to come to the Malheur National Wildlife refuge.”
I talked to Ryan Bundy on the phone again. He said they're willing to kill and be killed if necessary. #OregonUnderAttack— Ian Kullgren (@IanKullgren) January 3, 2016
A second man in the video, seen wearing full military-style camouflage and branding a walkie-talkie, said: “This is the power of America right here. People got together for this and it doesn’t have to stop here. This could be a hope that spreads through the whole country. Everybody’s looking for this hope because the government has beat us, oppressed us and took everything from us. They will not stop until we tell them no.”
Action follows peaceful protest
The takeover involves some members of a group who protested the impending imprisonment of two Oregon ranchers earlier on Saturday in a peaceful demonstration outside the Harney County Courthouse.
The scene in Burns Saturday morning as protestors gather in support of 2 ranchers going to prison. pic.twitter.com/ec6tmdeTik— Les Zaitz (@LesZaitz) January 2, 2016
Popular local figures Dwight Hammond and son Steven controversially had their sentences extended for arson involving fires that spread to government lands, igniting resentments that have been bubbling for years.
That case resonated with similar disputes in neighbouring states, and in December Ammon Bundy and a handful of militiamen from outside Oregon arrived in Burns and spoke with the Hammond family.
Bundy and other right-wing leaders have previously called on armed militia around the country to come support the Hammonds, and locals were already concerned that Saturday’s planned protest would escalate into something more serious.
Speaking to local media, Ammon’s brother Ryan Bundy said the group had taken no hostages and its actions was “not rebellious… [but] in accordance with the Constitution, the supreme law of the land”.
He said the militia was demanding the release of the Hammonds, and that the federal government give up its claim to the Malheur Forest area.
Social media response
Since Saturday night, the phrase “OregonUnderAttack” has been trending across social media, with users alarmed at the events and dismayed at its coverage in equal measure.
Part of the issue seems to be the sheer remoteness of the refuge in question – few journalists or officials have been able to reach the site of the takeover itself.
But there has also been anger from those who see the incident not as an escalation of a local dispute, but as an example of illegal force being used to further a political goal.
Did I miss the call for the national guard in Oregon? I recall them in Ferguson and Baltimore. #OregonUnderAttack— rolandsmartin (@rolandsmartin) January 3, 2016
What's the difference between a terrorist cell and a militia? Religion and skin colour, apparently. #OregonUnderAttack— Brian G. Rice (@bgrice) January 3, 2016
I blame all that violent country music they listen to. It's part of their culture. #OregonUnderAttack— Celia Boyce (@C_BOYCE) January 3, 2016
Pay close attention to what mass media decides to cover - and "how" they cover it. It matters #OregonUnderAttack— Kim Kane (@KimKane1) January 3, 2016
Oh, I get it. When it's white men with guns it's "patriotism"- and yes, violence with political aim is exactly terrorism #OregonUnderAttack— Sarah Wood (@SarahWoodwriter) January 3, 2016
As of Sunday morning, the incident was beginning to gain greater traction among the US media – and the sheriff’s office promised “a collective effort from multiple agencies” at first light.