Story highlights

Ammon Bundy is leading the group. He is the son of a Nevada rancher who clashed with the feds in 2014

Group says federal government should give back land to people

CNN  — 

Saturday night, armed men broke into the desolate headquarters of a federally owned wildlife refuge in Oregon and said they weren’t going to leave until the government stops its “tyranny.”

It just got weirder from there.

The group’s spokesman is Ammon Bundy, the son of anti-government Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. The father made national news when he led a huge standoff against the feds in 2014 in which he and his brother participated. The standoff took on racist shades when the elder Bundy wondered aloud to a New York Times reporter whether black people would be better off enslaved.

That is the backdrop against which a very complicated, confusing and tense situation continues Monday with Ammon Bundy and dozens of supporters who have answered his call on social media to join him at the remote outpost about 30 miles from Burn, Oregon.

In a press conference in which a few followers rambled for a long time about constitutional rights and against the federal government, Bundy said the group had decided to call themselves the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom.

Who is Ammon Bundy?

Bundy won’t say how many armed people are at the refuge. CNN’s Sara Sidner is near the headquarters building – a tiny building at the remote wildlife outpost near Burns, Oregon, and has interviewed Bundy. She has seen mostly men, but said there were at least two women – one of them a wife of one of the men.


The Oregonian has reported that Ammon’s brother Ryan Bundy is there. The two participated in their father’s fight against the Bureau of Land Management in 2014 when the federal government tried to get Cliven Bundy to move his cattle off protected land. Back then the Bundys encouraged like-minded anti-government folks to join them and many responded. The ordeal ended when the government retreated and the Bundys declared themselves victorious.

Who is with him?

Ammon Bundy, who has lived in Arizona with his wife, sent an appeal for supporters to join him in Oregon.

The Arizona Republic reported that three from the area have answered the call.

One of them, the newspaper said, is Jon Ritzheimer, an avowed anti-Islamist and former Marine who served in Iraq. In 2014 he organized a protest outside a Phoenix Islamic community center during which he wore a T-shirt that said, “F— Islam.” He said his goal was to provoke. “I’m trying to achieve exposing Islam,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper at the time, and compared himself to the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Ritzheimer appears to have posted a video of himself at the refuge on Sunday. It is difficult to follow because of abrupt editing, but in it he says, “We went there. It was completely open. …We just rolled right in.”

Arizonan LaVoy Finicum is also with Bundy. He spoke at the press conference, standing in the snow, flanked by at least a dozen supporters. He repeatedly said he was interested in defending his rights under the Constitution.

Finicum is a rancher who lives in the Kaibab Plateau area of northern Arizona, and has publicly stated he is no longer paying federal grazing fees, which he calls “extortion,” the Republic reports.

Ryan Payne is also there, the Oregonian reports. The military veteran from Montana worked security to defend Cliven Bundy in 2014, and told the Southern Poverty Law Center that he was in charge of putting snipers in position when the standoff came to a head.

The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks hate crimes and militias.

What do they want?

Though the group’s goals have so far seemed hazy, Ammon Bundy has said that they essentially want two things.

First, they want the federal government to relinquish control of the wildlife refuge so “people can reclaim their resources,” he told CNN early Monday. And second, they want an easier sentence for Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, ranchers who were convicted in 2012 of committing arson on federal lands in Oregon.

The group’s armed action came after they broke off from a group protesting that the pair were being forced to serve more time than their original sentence.

The Hammonds said they started a fire on their property in 2001 to protect it from wildfires and reduce the growth of invasive plants, but that the fire got out of hand, CNN affiliate KTVZ-TV reported. Prosecutors said they set fires to cover up evidence of poaching.

The U.S. Department of Justice issued a statement Monday: “The jury convicted both of the Hammonds of using fire to destroy federal property for a 2001 arson known as the Hardie-Hammond Fire, located in the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area,” it said.

“Witnesses at trial, including a relative of the Hammonds, testified the arson occurred shortly after Steven Hammond and his hunting party illegally slaughtered several deer” on Bureau of Land Management property. “Jurors were told that Steven Hammond handed out ‘Strike Anywhere’ matches with instructions that they be lit and dropped on the ground because they were going to ‘light up the whole country on fire.’”

Federal law mandates that the offense carry no less than a five-year sentence. The first federal judge to oversee the case thought the mandatory minimum was too harsh. He gave Dwight Hammond three months and sentenced Steven Hammond to two 12-month sentences, to be served concurrently. The men served those sentences.

In October 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the Hammonds had to serve the mandatory minimum.

Bundy has said the case illustrates the government’s “abuse” of power.

What do the Hammonds want?

The Hammonds are cooperating, their attorney has said, adding that father and son do not support what Bundy and the others are doing. They turned themselves in Monday to begin serving their sentences at a federal prison in California, according to CNN affiliate KOIN.

The attorney’s statement doesn’t seem to hold much sway with Bundy and the others.

“At the heart of this is a complaint that the federal government owns so much land, and that feeling is typical in a lot of Western states,” said Heidi Beirich, a lead researcher with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “But that land doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to all of us and the government is working to preserve it.

“And I don’t know where they get off thinking that the land doesn’t belong to those who originally had it,” she quipped.

CNN’s Sara Sidner asked Bundy and other supporters what they think about the argument, widely made on social media, that if they wanted the federal land to go to the people, it should go back to Native Americans.

The men paused for a moment and told Sidner that they’d welcome anyone to join them, including Native Americans.

Where is law enforcement?

The short answer: nowhere in view near the occupied wildlife refuge headquarters. Sidner and her crew were logistically unable to drive into the park where the headquarters are located. The building looks like a place you’d stop to grab a bite and use the bathroom on a long road trip, she said. It’s away from the road, and in every direction there’s tremendous empty expanse. If law enforcement showed up and wanted to be seen, they would be, she said.

The FBI has said it is taking the lead on the situation and is working with state and local authorities toward “a peaceful resolution” to the situation, the agency’s Portland office said in a statement.

Citing “safety considerations for both those inside the refuge as well as the law enforcement officers involved,” the FBI declined to comment further.

How and when could this end?

Some have criticized law enforcement for this approach, especially on Twitter, where the most strident comments have been posted. Many are using the hashtag #OregonUnderAttack to say there’s a double standard applied to Bundy and his supporters. If they weren’t white, many say, there would be a harsher and swifter response.

Many have said the Black Lives Matter movement has been penalized for far less than what’s happening at the wildlife refuge. If they were Muslims, the law enforcement response would be different, others argued.

But several in law enforcement have said there are circumstances to consider. This is a remote area in Oregon in a building where no one – except those who’ve voluntarily occupied the building – are in immediate danger.

“What’s going to happen hopefully [is] … we don’t go out there with a big force, because that’s what they’re looking for,” said CNN law enforcement analyst Art Roderick, a retired U.S. marshal who investigated anti-government militias for years. “The last thing we need is some type of confrontation.”

Bundy has said he and others are prepared to stay in the building for days, weeks or months if necessary. They have enough food and other supplies, he said, to see them through for a long time.

Bundy has repeatedly warned that the armed occupiers don’t intend to harm anyone, but if law enforcement or others try to force them from the building, they will defend themselves.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the Hammonds’ original sentences for destroying federal property with fire. Dwight Hammond was sentenced to three months; Steven Hammond was sentenced to two terms of 12 months, to be served concurrently.