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Oregon militia taking a stand

A stand-off in southern Oregon is the latest in a growing number between the far right militia movement and the US federal government.

Burns, Oregon: Standing by a sign reading Employees Only on the doorstep of the remote federal government building he helped to seize and has vowed to defend with force of arms, LaVoy Finicum could not be more civil.

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Activists occupy Oregon Wildlife Refuge

A group of activists and militia members occupy the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in the US, protesting the federal prosecution of two ranchers.

"I'm just a cowboy, defending the constitution," he said on Thursday when asked how he came to help lead the stand-off with government authority in the high desert of remote southern Oregon.

Earlier, Finicum, a Mormon with 11 children and nearly twice as many grandchildren, a strong, gentle voice and a firm handshake, said he would die before being arrested.

He'd grown up with the wind on his face, he explained. He had no intention of spending any time in a concrete box.

In the days since Finicum and group of armed men with grievances against the federal government – particularly the Bureau of Land Management – seized the headquarters of a federal wildlife sanctuary, the fear of violence remains, though the site remains peaceful.

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The occupiers welcome both locals who come to talk and sympathisers who deliver supplies. Aside from the odd handgun carried in a holster, weapons are kept out of sight.

Finicum, who has become a spokesman of sorts, answers questions generously or deflects them easily. "We will address that tomorrow," he says when I ask why they had chosen to ignore requests from local townsfolk that they abandon the buildings and leave.

The stand-off has again concentrated attention on the role guns play in American lives and comes as President Barack Obama wept on Tuesday announcing new gun-control measures to a White House audience that included shooting survivors and families . "Every time I think about those kids it makes me mad," he said of the 20 first-grade children murdered in Sandy Hook in 2012.

But the central measures he announced in a package of 10 gun-control provisions could be generously described as modest, and fairly described as almost meaningless: they require people "in the business of selling guns" via the internet or at gun shows to register as licensed gun dealers and to conduct background checks and increase funding to hire more Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agents to better enforce existing laws and make it easier for doctors to report mental health concerns about their patients. The government will also consider how new "smart gun" technologies could lower the risk of gun accidents.

Indeed, it the reforms are so modest that research suggests they are supported not only by a majority of Americans but a majority of Republicans and even a majority of National Rifle Association (NRA) members.

You can trace the Oregon stand-off all the way back to 1993, when Cliven Bundy, a rancher in Nevada, decided quixotically that the federal government had no authority over federal government land.

He decided not to renew his grazing permits and refused to pay fees or fines or obey court orders to repay what eventually stacked up to be $1 million in fees.

Finally in March 2014 a judge ordered that his cattle be impounded. Cliven responded with a call to arms to the far right anti-government militia movement. Members of a handful of militias, who arrived and turned their weapons on police and BLM agents.

The government backed down and the Bundys and militia groups claimed victory in their war against tyranny.

Republican politicians and conservative media formed a cheer squad for the Bundy stand, but later distanced themselves when he told a public meeting that "the Negro" was better off under slavery.

As the Bundy stand-off slipped from view another land dispute was festering outside the flyspeck town of Burns in Harney Country, Oregon, one of the largest and most sparsely populated counties in the US.

Father and son ranchers, Dwight and Steve Hammond, had been in legal dispute with the BLM for years over two fires they had started that spread onto federal land. They claim one was lit to fight invasive weeds and the other was backburn to fight a wildfire.

Prosecutors contend that the first was started to cover up evidence of illegal deer hunting, and the second endangered local firefighting volunteers.

Either way, the Hammonds are both popular members of the local community, and viewed by some as sympathisers of a conservative anti-government movement that has spread through the western states during years of land disputes with the federal government.

As far back as 1995 the wife of a local wildlife refuge manager in conflict with the Hammonds told the Village Voice that he had been told in a threatening phone call that his son would be wrapped in a shroud of barbed wire and stuffed down a well.

A Hammond supporter told the Voice that he had urged other ranchers to call the refuge staff and express their disapproval, but Dwight has been accused of his own string of death threats over the years against refuge and government workers.

Finally the Hammonds were charged and convicted with arson in 2010 and sentenced to prison terms. The judge said the mandatory minimum of five years was too harsh and both served less than a year.

That prompted the Oregon state attorney to appeal and before Christmas both were ordered to turn themselves in after the holidays to serve out five-year terms.

This did not sit well with many local ranchers, who have little sympathy for the BLM. Tensions already run high in Burns and across the Harney County, where ranchers believe the BLM is overbearing – the iron fist of a remote government that neither understands nor cares to understand life in the high desert.

The forestry industry has already collapsed in the region and many locals resent the growing federal nature reserves, particularly the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which was created in 1908 by Teddy Roosevelt, but since expanded to encompass a third of the county, much of it on former grazing land. The Malheur (misfortune in French) refuge now nearly surrounds the Hammond land.

A protest movement formed in defence of the Hammonds sometime in December attracted the attention of the Bundy family.

Sometime before Christmas two of Cliven's sons, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, as well as Finicum – their neighbour and supporter from Nevada, turned up in town.

They were accompanied by militia figures including Jon Ritzenheimer, a military veteran known for his passionate opposition to the BLM, Islam and the CNN host Anderson Cooper. He posted a tearful video explaining to his daughters why he could not be home for Christmas and why one must be willing to die in the fight against government tyranny.

Others included Ryan Payne, another veteran who had claimed to have arranged snipers to protect the Bundy ranch during the 2014 stand-off, and Blaine Cooper, a member of an Arizona militia.

A tense situation turned ugly. According to Sheriff David Ward, government workers in town, as well as sheriff's deputies and their family members, were followed home in the dark. Tyres were slashed. A preacher heckled in the street.

Demands the sheriff could not meet were made. Why had he not defended the Hammonds against the federal government? Why had he not created a sanctuary? Why was he so cowardly?

Nonetheless last Saturday there was a big turnout for a protest march for the Hammonds, due to turn themselves in on Monday. The townsfolk, as well as the Bundys and militia allies, listened to speeches and marched to the Hammond home via the Sheriff's office, before Ammon Bundy turned to the crowd in the car park of the local Safeway and called upon them to join him in convoy.

The militiamen drove through the snow the 30-odd miles down gun barrel roads to the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and occupied the buildings, which were empty of staff over the weekend. God, Ammon explained in a YouTube video posted the day before, had ordered him to take action.

"The Lord was not pleased with what was happening to the Hammonds," Bundy, also a Mormon, said in the video. "If we allowed the Hammonds to continue to be punished, there would be accountability."

Inside the refuge buildings the occupiers, now calling themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, set up their headquarters in the office of Linda Sue Beck, a biologist and civil servant, Reuters reporters who were allowed entrance reported. They soon came to resent the biologist and her interest in carp.

"She's not here working for the people," declared Ryan Bundy, Reuters reported. "She's not benefiting America. She's part of what's destroying America."

The armed group arranged their security, declared they would defend themselves to the death, demanded that the federal government cede control of all its lands to local authority and called for freedom for the Hammonds.

They called for "patriots" from around the US to arm themselves and join the cause.

On New Years Eve one of the occupiers, Blaine Cooper, provoked national tittering when he asked via Facebook that supporters send "snacks". To be fair this was a line item in a list of more martial provisions, including energy drinks and camouflage gear suitable for snowy conditions.

Local schools were closed as media and militia descended and the Sheriff's office was reinforced by deputies from around the state.

Asked about the stand-off on Tuesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest did as much as he could to downplay and distance. Yes, the President was aware, no it was not occupying his mind, nor his scheduled meeting with the Attorney General that day.

This is hard to believe. The administration is well aware of an increase in militia activity, and the deaths of 76 in the 1993 siege at Waco, Texas, haunts federal authorities.

Sheriff Ward quickly – deliberately – became the face of the official response. If the FBI was present at all – and everyone presumed they were – they were invisible.

Clint Van Zandt, a retired FBI profiler and negotiator who took the lead in negotiations with David Koresh during the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, told Fairfax Media that this was the proper response.

"Having seen bodies stacked like burnt cordwood at Waco, I know they don't have to go in. The FBI can always resolve a situation tactically if it needs to, the question is, why?"

In this case, he said, without hostages and with winter setting in, the occupiers should be waited out.

Another security consultant, Daryl Johnson, agreed with that analysis, but he believes the extremists in Oregon present a broader security threat to the nation.

Back in 2009 Johnson wrote an intelligence report for the Department of Homeland Security, which was soon leaked to outraged conservative media.

Commentators on Fox News and other outlets thundered that it was politically motivated slander. Questions were asked in Congress.

The report's thesis was that economic collapse and the election of an African American Democratic president from a city known for its tough gun laws had created a ripe environment for recruitment for right wing extremist groups.

Johnson has been vindicated. A slew of reports chart the growth of right wing extremism in American since then.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist and hate groups in the US, the number of far-right anti-government groups leapt from 149 in 2008 to 1360 in 2012, the final year of Obama's first term before declining to 874 in 2014, the least year for which data is available.

Johnson thinks the Bundys could well be all talk, but the movement they energise through actions like this is dangerous.

Just as Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal government building in Oklahoma, killing 168, in response to those killed by the FBI in the Waco siege, Jerad and Amanda Miller shot dead two Las Vegas police officers last year having been radicalised on the Bundy ranch.

Johnson believes that authorities should do anything they can to resolve the stand-off peacefully, but later those involved should be prosecuted, as should those who were involved in the Bundy's last stand-off.

While conservative critics of the Obama administration rage that the President refuses to use the term "radical Islamic terrorism", Johnson believes it is a more dangerous failing that the administration refuses to name and target domestic right wing terrorism.

On Wednesday night hundreds gathered at Burns Fairground for a public meeting called by Sheriff Ward.

He was cheered when he said to the meeting, "You don't get to come here from elsewhere and tell us how we're going to live our lives.

"Go home, work your differences with whoever through proper channels."

But others expressed support for the Bundys, saying they had achieved more in days than ranchers had in their land disputes with the BLM going back decades.

One of those was Daniel Williams, a 61 year-old who hails from Washington but lives locally while maintaining his membership of the 3rd Idaho Militia.

We met in a coffee shop the next day. He arrived in camos and a black T-shirt. Around his neck was a tiny silver cross and gigantic bear claw, cut from the paw of a beast that wondered into his fiance's mum's garden one day.

The Bundys, he said, were fighting tyranny, and if necessary, he would join them. He would certainly die in defence of the second amendment.

He joined the militia movement way back in the 1970s because he felt the government was encroaching on his rights. Asked which ones he finds it hard to specify, beyond the seatbelt laws. He just feels that the government thinks "it can look after you better than you can." He has been on a pension these 20 years or so.

He planned to visit the occupiers later that day.

The headquarters of Malheur Reserve is a collection of trim stone buildings sitting amid a grove of trees in the lee of a barren snow-covered hill 30 miles from town.

The occupiers have mounted a checkpoint at the gates up the hill. There is a fire pit, a Gadsden flag flies from a blue tarp shelter and the entrance is blocked by a four-wheel-drive, which is moved back to admit those welcomed in.

On Thursday afternoon Finicum addressed federal officials via the media gathered at the top of the hill, telling them his daughters were planning to visit and he wanted no harm to come to them.

After the press conference the militants received guests bringing supplies and curious locals, including an 11 year-old-boy who wanted to interview Ryan Bundy for his school paper.

Ryan told him that desert cattle need Brahmin blood, and that he and the other militants were "just here to establish some rights and help you guys out."

"I appreciate that," said the boy, snow falling on his broad brimmed hat as he took laborious notes.

Nearby I came across Pete Santilli, host of a popular right wing online radio show.

Like all the others I had met at the site he was friendly and welcoming, though he is not always that way.

He once attracted Secret Service attention after he said of Hillary Clinton on his program, "I want to shoot her right in the vagina and I don't want her to die right away.

"I want her to feel the pain and I want to look her in the eyes and I want to say, on behalf of all Americans that you've killed."

I asked him if everybody who felt their rights had been infringed upon had the right to take up arms against the government.

No, he said, just those that were true to the constitution. He had a copy handy in his top pocket.

Isn't it for the courts to interpret the constitution?

No, he said. The government has weaponised the courts against the people.

Now that the people of Burns had asked them to go, should they not leave?

No, he said, the people of Burns had been manipulated by the government.

As we finish talking a drone fizzes slowly overhead.

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