With a group of armed, anti-government protesters in control of federal buildings near here, law enforcement officials are again facing a choice they confronted in past standoffs: whether to act cautiously and risk looking weak and emboldening others, or to react forcefully and risk turning a small group of people into martyrs for their cause.
The past confrontations at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992, and Waco, Texas, in 1993 turned into sieges and ended in violence and death, fueling extreme anti-government views in some quarters. Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, was motivated in part by those clashes.
In contrast, the government retreated from the 2014 confrontation with Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher, when supporters rallied around him and threatened a gun battle with federal officials. For more than two decades, Bundy has refused to pay fees for grazing his livestock on federal land, becoming a symbol of resistance to people who object to federal control of vast acres in the West.
At a glance, the stakes here would appear to be low. The armed group, led by two of Bundy’s sons, took control over the weekend of the unoccupied headquarters of a wildlife sanctuary, miles from any town, in the dead of winter. Their numbers are small – how small is unclear, with local news reports suggesting as few as 15, and the group saying up to 100 – and those who have been identified are from outside the area and appear not to have much local support.
For now, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies have taken a low-key approach, and the people occupying the buildings vow that they will not go away.
Heidi Beirich, the director of intelligence with the Southern Poverty Law Center who oversees the center’s tracking of extremist groups, said the last Bundy standoff set a bad precedent.
“They were emboldened by their ability to run federal officials off at the point of a gun,” Beirich said. “Now, a year and half later, there have been no prosecutions whatsoever. Pointing a gun at a federal officer is a crime.”
The lesson, she said, is that “you can beat the federal government, you can do what you want with federal lands and you won’t be punished.”
The FBI said in a statement that while state and local agencies would remain involved in the current standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the bureau would take the lead.
“Due to safety considerations for both those inside the refuge as well as the law enforcement officers involved,” the statement said, “we will not be releasing any specifics with regards to the law enforcement response.”
The clash stems from the arson convictions of two local ranchers, Dwight L. Hammond and his son Steven D. Hammond, who set fires that burned federal lands. The ranchers said they were fighting wildfires and invasive vegetation, while federal officials said they were covering up poaching on federal land.
This is a sparsely populated region – heavily dependent on ranching and logging – where the federal government owns much of the land. Such areas are common in the West, with frequent conflicts between federal officials who control access to the land and people who want greater freedom to use it.
The Hammonds served prison sentences and were released, but a federal court ruled that they were improperly sentenced, and ordered them to serve more time.
The case became a cause célèbre for anti-government groups, including those calling themselves militias, who contend that the federal government has usurped powers that belong to people and the states. A protest was held here in support of the Hammonds, and some of the protesters broke away and occupied the wildlife refuge buildings.
The Hammonds have distanced themselves from the group and its actions, and it was not clear whether any of the group were from the area.
“This county isn’t supportive of what’s being done here at all,” said Dan Nichols, a county commissioner who is a neighbor of the Hammond family. “Once again, it’s a bunch of those who live (outside) the county telling us what we need to do, how we need to be doing it and the repercussions if we don’t.”
In a statement captured on video, Ammon Bundy, a son of Cliven Bundy, said Sunday that his group was “prepared to be out here for as long as need be” and would leave only when the people of Harney County “can use these lands as free men.”
The incident added to a fierce debate on social media, with some offering support to the anti-government group, and others arguing that if the people involved had not been white, they would have been dealt with harshly.
Kirk Johnson reported from Burns, Ore., and Richard Pérez-Peña and Erik Eckholm from New York.