NPR is reporting that the armed antigovernment activists who have taken over a federal wildlife refuge building in Oregon, after promising to stay there “for years,” are now saying that they will call a meeting with the local community within a day and leave “if the county people tell us to leave.”
What made a group that was just a few days ago willing to die rather than give up the building create this easy escape loophole for themselves?
It might have something to do with the fact that they were rapidly losing support among fellow members of the “Patriot” movement, many of whom have slammed the building takeover as stupid at best or a false-flag government plot to incite civil war at worst.
The takeover of the building in Burns, Oregon, grew out of a protest against the imprisonment of two ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, who were convicted of arson on government lands, possibly to cover up illegal poaching. The Hammond story has been reverberating around the far-right media for several weeks, and eventually led to “an estimated 250 anti-government Patriots, III Percenters and assorted armed militia members” gathering at a protest in Burns on Saturday. Then, without warning, a splinter group led by Ammon Bundy, the son of rancher Cliven Bundy, took over the wildlife refuge building.
The event had obvious echoes of the 2014 standoff at the Bundys’ ranch in Nevada, where armed antigovernment activists gathered to face down the Bureau of Land Management. Unlike the Bundy family, however, the Hammonds never asked for an armed standoff.
As we reported yesterday, Stewart Rhodes, the head of the extremist Oath Keepers group, urged his followers to “stay out of” the Oregon standoff, saying his group “will not be involved in an armed standoffs that’s being manufactured by potheads who want a fight.” Even before the group took over the building, Rhodes warned that Ammon Bundy was “sending out confusing and contradictory messages” and that what was billed as a peaceful protest could become “some form of armed direct action.” Along with tactical concerns, Rhodes objected to taking part because the Hammonds had not asked for a confrontation.
Richard Mack, the leader of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association and a prominent figure at the Bundy ranch , was at the protest in Burns but, like Rhodes, backed away from Ammon Bundy’s splinter faction, writing in a press release that his group “does not support or condone the occupation” and urging Ammon Bundy and his allies to “immediately vacate the building and to go home to their families!”
Sam Bushman, a “Patriot” movement radio host who was also at the rally, complained in an interview with Pete Santilli, the extremist radio host who has acted as something of a spokesman for the militia group, that he felt like the rally was “almost a trap.” (Bushman rejects the “Patriot movement” label and insists that we instead call him an “American that believes in and wants to promote God, family and country and wants to protect life, liberty and property and believes and advocates that this nation shall endure.”)
“We all felt like we were going to a peaceful rally,” Bushman said, “and he’s almost undone a lot of the good we did there with this action. Most of us were not part of it, were not aware of it and we were kind of led into it almost like a trap. I’m not comfortable with that at all and that’s kind of my frustration there is that a lot of us feel like, hey, it was kind of a ruse to have this peaceful rally only for this other eclipsing agenda.”
Santilli told Bushman that he would “have to agree with that” but that because of Ammon’s action “now we are on to the next phase” and he considered it his duty to stop the FBI from using force to end the standoff.
Brandon Smith, who runs the far-right site Alt-Market, had a similar complaint, writing in an article that was reposted on the Oath Keepers website, “Obviously the goal was to lure as many protesters to Oregon as possible to the event in the hopes that they would jump on board with the stand-off plan once they were more personally involved. Numerous protesters were rightly enraged once they discovered the ultimate motives behind the event.”
Brandon Curtiss of the extremist group III% of Iowa told Bushman that his group had helped to organize the Burns rally but had nothing to do with Ammon Bundy’s side project, which he also portrayed as a tactical error. “This situation, even though we all agree, we all understand Ammon’s position, it’s really created a divide within the Patriot movement and it’s really unfortunate,” he said.
In a movement in which conspiracy theories thrive, it was no wonder that some began to wonder if the group occupying the wildlife refuge building was infiltrated by government “provocateurs” trying to pick a fight.
Mike Vanderboegh, the founder of the Three Percenters movement (named after the three percent of colonists whom he says were brave enough to fight the British crown) and an enthusiastic participant in the Bundy ranch showdown, wrote on his blog that the Oregon takeover was led by “federal provocateurs, sociopaths and idiots with a John Brown complex,” but that if a violent confrontation were to be started, he would have no choice but to join Ammon Bundy and his friends “in a ghastly civil war.”
Smith also feared that Bundy’s action could draw the “Patriot” movement into a civil war, with them at a tactical disadvantage. “What I do fear is that they are cannon fodder beckoning a nationwide government crackdown to which I and others will then be forced to personally respond to with equal f*cking measure,” he wrote. “And all of this on the worst possible terms and at a very inconvenient time (executive actions on gun control mere weeks from now).”
Radio conspiracy theorist Alex Jones similarly wondered if the group was infiltrated by government agents hoping to launch a “false flag” incident that would pave the way for the imposition of martial law.
As the Bundy ranch standoff showed, these activists are hardly pacifists. It’s just that when what they assume is the inevitable civil war comes, they want to be in the best position possible. And Ammon Bundy came in and messed it all up.