Debate Forum 1/12/16

Cattle call

An armed militia in Oregon: crazies or Constitutionalists?

By Sarah Sidlow

Are your friends talking about the mess in Oregon? Here’s what you need to know.

A militia group going by the name Citizens for Constitutional Freedoms is engaged in the armed takeover of a vacant building in a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon near Burns. They say they’re in it for the long haul.

How did we get here? It all started with the Hammonds, a father-son duo of ranchers who are headed to federal prison to serve five-year sentences stemming from a pair of fires they set on their land. You see, the Hammonds’ property interlocks with publicly owned federal government land managed by its Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which means the Hammonds have to work with the BLM to manage the area where the animals graze. Well, the BLM wasn’t too keen on the Hammonds burning a total of 139 acres of federal land in 2001. Nor were they happy with the fire they set in 2006, which was allegedly sparked during a “burn ban.”

So in 2013, a district judge sentenced father Dwight (73) to three months and son Steve (46) to 366 days of prison time.

But the federal anti-terrorism law that prosecutors used to punish the fires includes mandatory minimum sentences of five years for fires that damage public property but cause no injury or death. So, father and son were re-sentenced in October, 2015 to the full five years required by that statute. That’s when ranchers and militiamen from around the western U.S. said, “feel the burn.”

Reports indicate as many as 300 people rallied in Burns on behalf of the Hammonds clan, protesting their treatment by prosecutors and claiming their five-year federal prison sentences are not only unduly harsh, but just another example of the federal government overstepping their bounds on land-related issues in the western US.

It didn’t stop there. A much smaller group of those protesters has since splintered off, and picked up guns, to take over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service facility about 30 miles away.

Their leaders: The Bundys.

Ammon Bundy and his brother Ryan have used the Hammond story to address a more general concern: the alleged overreaching and landgrabbing of the federal government against ranchers in Oregon and elsewhere. They have claimed that they plan to remain in the facility until the federal land in the area is returned to state and local governments—and ranchers like the Hammonds.

They claim the federal facility they’re camping in is symbolic of the way government is claiming and repurposing ranchers’ land, to the detriment of not just individuals, but the community.

Proponents of Bundy’s armed militia claim the Constitution is on their side. They do not believe the federal government has a constitutional authority to manage public lands within a state, and they think the Property Clause of Article IV has their backs. Their message to the Feds: let the state handle permits for drilling, mining and grazing, and get off my lawn.

To wit, the group hasn’t broken, stolen or threatened any physical property or individuals, and continues to claim they are intent on avoiding a “bad situation.”

But opponents of the Bundy takeover say, just because you claim to be peaceful, doesn’t mean you are. They’re calling the group (probably among other things) domestic terrorists, because they’re heavily-armed anti-government protesters who have taken over a federal building.

They’re also a little unsettled about the Bundy background.

This isn’t the first time the Bundy name has been included in headlines with words like “dispute” and “armed militia.” Father Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch was the site of a much larger standoff between hundreds of armed militiamen and federal agents in 2014 in a scuffle over cattle grazing rights. Also, the feds claimed Bundy owed more than $1 million for using federal land.

There’s also another group that’s not too pleased with the Citizens for Constitutional Freedoms’ antics. That would be the Northern Paiute, a tribe that hunted, fished and lived on the land that later became Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. They were there for, oh, 13 centuries. And they’re wondering just who the Bundys think the “rightful owners” of this land area are, exactly.

FYI, the Hammonds and their attorney have been publicly clear that they do not want any help from the Bundy group.

Reach Dayton City Paper freelance writer Sarah Sidlow at

Domestic terrorists and nothing more

By Tim Walker

“Y’all Qaeda.” “Vanilla Isis.” “Yee Hawdists.”

Admittedly, it’s tempting—and all too easy— to poke fun at the men who have orchestrated the armed standoff and illegal occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon. The militiamen call themselves Citizens For Constitutional Freedom, and they’re armed and committed to fighting the tyranny and oppression of the federal government … but they forgot to bring along anything to eat. They’re asking like-minded supporters of their cause from around the country to send them donations of food, money or supplies, either via PayPal or the US postal service. And infighting among the militiamen was widely reported recently when one of their own—Joe O’Shaugnessy, otherwise known as “Capt. O” and allegedly a member of the Arizona militia—allegedly deserted the group to hole up in a local hotel and drink beer purchased with money that had been donated by the militia’s supporters.

What would Henry David Thoreau say? This, evidently, is what armed civil disobedience looks like in the age of YouTube and Facebook. Ammon Bundy has declared himself one of the leaders of the takeover, and in a video posted to Facebook he declares: “We have basically taken over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. And this will become a base place for patriots from all over the country to come and be housed here and to live here. And we’re planning on staying here for several years.” Calling his group “the point of the spear,” Ammon Bundy called on like-minded militants to “bring your arms.” The revolution, it appears, may not be televised, but it will be Tweeted.

What you have on the surface is a laughably inept group of half-assed militiamen who are trying to stage a protest and draw attention to their problems with federal land management in the Western states. But when you dispense with the humor and really look at what is going on here, you can label the Oregon standoff situation to be exactly what it is—an act of domestic terrorism. An armed group of men has commandeered a federal building and is refusing to leave, forcing a standoff situation … where exactly is the humor in that?

Sadly, such acts of terrorism are commonplace in our world today, and the threat of terror has altered the very way many of us live our daily lives. Zealots from a variety of belief systems are all too willing to take up arms and threaten or do actual harm to innocent people in order to broadcast their message to the world. And these militiamen who have decided to forcibly occupy this federal building in Oregon are doing exactly that. It’s easy for us to make jokes about these men, and thereby downplay the seriousness of the situation, but the media coverage of the standoff, as well as the federal government’s response to it, would be markedly different if the men were—for example—militant Islamic terrorists committed to publicizing their allegiance to ISIS, rather than a group of good old boys claiming to represent the interests of downtrodden cattle ranchers.

Under current United States law, set forth in the Patriot Act of 2001, acts of domestic terrorism are those which: “(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; (B) appear to be intended—(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping; and (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.” Agree or disagree with this definition or with the Patriot Act itself as you will—it is still the law of the land. And based on this definition, the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom group is absolutely a group of domestic terrorists.

No one wants to see a violent end to this armed standoff. Ammon Bundy has repeatedly rejected calls to leave buildings at the refuge despite pleas from the county sheriff, from many local residents and from Oregon’s governor, among others. The standoff is becoming a battle of wills between Bundy and Harney County Sheriff David Ward, who has become the public face of efforts by federal, state and local law officials to end the occupation peacefully. Bundy—who is not an Oregonian—insists he speaks for the interests of Harney County residents. But Ward says the community simply wants him to go.

But, as we have seen in the past, armed confrontations with the federal government have a way of turning violent. The 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff, which resulted in the deaths of three people, and the 1993 Branch Davidian debacle in Waco, Texas, which eventually resulted in the deaths of 86 people, have become symbols for our country’s right-wing militants, and the victims are now martyrs.

One hopes that the men behind this current confrontation come to their senses, give up their weapons, and leave the wildlife refuge peacefully now that they’ve garnered the attention of the national media. As homegrown terrorist situations go, that would be the best resolution all of us could hope for.

Tim Walker is 50 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their 2 children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz and black t-shirts.

Terror and tyranny

Don Hurst

Based on the FBI’s definition of domestic terrorism, Ammon Bundy’s Citizens for Constitutional Freedoms are terrorists. But calling them by that label not only accomplishes nothing—it invalidates their concerns.
Intimidating the government doesn’t automatically make them wrong. After all, armed men committing acts dangerous to human life designed to intimidate the government is the basis of our entire society. Would the British monarchy have granted our country independence without the use of violence? Would slavery have ended without the pre-Civil War slave rebellions?
Judging from the tweets and YouTube rants of Bundy’s militia, these guys are not the reincarnations of the founding fathers. They act like extremists, but that does not mean they do not have a real grievance against the government. Underneath the rhetoric hides a glimmer of truth to the militia’s claims that the federal government is using the legal process to steal private land from ranchers.
The tension between the Hammonds and the federal government began almost three decades before the arson trial. Throughout the 1980s the government attempted to purchase ranches adjacent to the Malhuer Wildlife Refuge. Most landowners refused until a mismanaged federal water project overfilled the Malhuer Lakes and flooded over thirty ranches. The ruined ranchers sold their land to the federal government at bargain prices.
The Hammonds hung onto their ranch. In the 1990s they purchased water rights near the Malhuer Wildlife Refuge. The Bureau of Land Management contested the rights in Oregon State Circuit Court. After the court ruled in favor of the Hammonds, the BLM illegally built a fence around the water source to keep the Hammonds out.
A road running through the refuge connects the upper and lower sections of Hammonds’ ranch. The Bureau of Land Management established barricades to keep the Hammonds from accessing this road even though it is the only way to access the upper ranch. When the Hammonds used the road anyways the BLM attempted to file trespassing charges. The judge dismissed the case when the court learned the road actually belonged to the county government, and the BLM’s barricades were actually illegal.
This history served as the context of 2012 arson trial where the government claimed that the Hammonds set fires on their private property with the “malicious intent” to destroy federal property. The conviction was not an easy win. The jury debated for two weeks if Hammond intentionally destroyed federal property, or if the damage was accidental in his effort to save his ranch from wildfires and invasive plants.
Finally the jury found the Hammonds guilty of arson but could not reach a verdict on other charges. The judge ordered the jury to return to deliberations. While the jury deliberated the federal judge and the prosecutor offered the Hammonds a plea deal. The government would drop the still undecided charges and completely close the case if the Hammonds waived their constitutional right to appeal the verdict.
The judge had denied many of the Hammonds’ trial motions related to evidence and witness testimony. The prosecution was allowed six days to present their case while the defense was only allowed one. The judge also refused to allow witnesses and evidence that spoke to the Hammonds’ intentions when they set the back fires on their property. Those denials coupled with the lengthy jury deliberations made the verdict’s overturn during appeal highly possible.
The Hammonds accepted the plea deal with on the record assurances from the prosecutor and the judge that the case was over. Despite the legal precedent of Guevera vs United States that precludes the government from exercising its right for appeal if the defendant has waived their rights, the federal government overturned the sentence. The court determined the short prison time was illegal and ordered the defendants back to federal prison for five years minus time served.
The original judge did impose a jail sentence that was less than the mandatory minimum. However he also added clauses that went beyond the scope of the law. The sentence ordered the Hammonds to pay $400,000 restitution and if they ever sell their ranch they have to give the federal government the option to purchase it.
That last clause is unusual. What does that have to do with justice? Convicted arsonists should serve time in prison. They should pay damages. They should also have the right to appeal their verdicts and retain their property. With the owners in prison and the savings wiped out by paying restitution it is highly likely the federal government will end up owning the ranch even though the Hammonds fulfilled their responsibilities. The irregular sentencing clause combined with the federal government’s past tensions with the Hammonds give validity to the militia’s claims that the federal government is trying to steal land from ranchers.
Bundy’s followers occupying the refuge are criminals. They should be arrested and charged appropriately. However the government should address the real and perceived grievances concerning the irregularities in the Hammond case or more situations like this will occur. Restore the Hammonds’ right to appeal the entire case, not just the sentencing.
The courts need to insure that due process works as intended—in the advantage of the defendant. Due process is what separates government from tyranny.

Don Hurst is a combat vet and a former police officer. He now lives in Dayton where he writes novels and plays. Reach DCP freelance writer Don Hurst at

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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at

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