In what is starting to look like a genius move, the federal government and local law enforcement have mostly kept their distance in the two weeks since an unknown number of out-of-town, rag-tag militiamen stormed the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and vowed to stay until the federal government turned over its land to local ranchers.
So far authorities have declined to confront the men or to put the squeeze on them by restricting movement to and from the refuge or even to turn off the electricity, which might help draw the men out of the compound in the freezing January days.
But the lack of confrontation by federal officials has not only prevented it from becoming the next Waco or Ruby Ridge but transformed it into a peculiar and mundane sideshow, a one-sided standoff where the militiamen’s days are marked by visits from wacky outsiders like pretend judge Bruce Doucette coming to sniff out “evidence” against the federal government and from disgruntled community members ready for the men to leave already.
By leaving the would-be revolutionaries to their own devices, authorities have given them enough rope to hang themselves.
In the last week alone, the militiamen have made headlines–not for forcing the government’s hand on federal lands or helping free the Hammonds–but for throwing boxes of dildos on the floor in protest against the mocking mail they have been receiving, for getting arrested after allegedly driving an official refuge vehicle into town to get groceries, for ransacking government files and for using government computers.
With each odd incident, the media and the public gets more insight into the individuals holed up at the wildlife preserve and their puzzling and incongruent motivations. It does not appear that all of the men at the refuge subscribe to one ideology or another. A report from the Anti-Defamation League actually chronicles that the men hold a hodgepodge of views and have some varying disagreements on how to tackle the standoff.
By taking a hands-off approach to the incident, the government has actually given the militiamen room to stew, to fight with one another and ultimately, to undermine their cause.
Take for example Jon Ritzheimer, the man who recorded himself throwing boxes of sex toys onto the floor at the compound. Before he appeared in Oregon standoff videos, Ritzheimer was not known for taking up land disputes, but for putting together threatening, anti-Muslim protests and videos. He was well known in Arizona for organizing a protest where more than 200 individuals –many with guns– showed up outside of a Phoenix mosque. In November, he once again came on the FBI’s radar for announcing he planned to travel to a Muslim hamlet in New York.
Kenneth Medenbach, the man arrested for allegedly driving a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service vehicle into town, was actually out on bail for another seven-month government land occupation he was allegedly involved in last year. According to the Guardian, he was also convicted of squatting on government land in 1996 when the 62-year-old now chainsaw sculptor resided in a tent on government land and guarded his assumed property with “50 to 100 pounds of the explosive ammonium sulfate, a pellet gun, and what appeared to be a hand grenade with trip wires.”
The more outspoken, bold and hungry the militiamen are for attention, the more peculiar their standoff becomes. While federal officials have been wildly criticized for leaving the militiamen to their own devices, those still at the compound are giving feds plenty of evidence to help government officials charge them later.
In one bizarre video released last week from inside the compound, an ISIS-sympathizing, self-proclaimed video gamer from Ohio, David Fry, recorded himself using a Linux flash drive to circumvent password-protected government computers. And there are several photographs of de facto standoff leader Ammon Bundy ripping apart government fencing with his bare hands.
Over the weekend, one of the most outspoken standoff participants LaVoy Finicum– a Mormon rancher who has ceased paying grazing fees and has penned a right-wing conspiracy-ridden cowboy thriller – had several foster children removed from his family’s custody back in Arizona.
He claimed the federal government was taking aim against his family in retaliation for his involvement in the standoff in Oregon, but questions have now been raised about his motivations for fostering such a large number of children and whether such an activity is his major source of income.
Another man affiliated with the Oregon militiamen, Californian Darrow Burke, 57, crashed his vehicle outside of Hines, Oregon, in an embarrassing display for the militiamen Sunday. He was cited for driving without a license. A man who in the first few days of the standoff served as Ammon Bundy’s bodyguard – and who goes by the name of ‘Fluffy Unicorn’ – was arrested last week in Maricopa County, Arizona, for an outstanding warrant. One by one, the militiamen’s pasts are catching up with them.
Even the father and son pair they claimed to be fighting for – Dwight and Steven Hammond– have turned themselves into authorities and have begun serving five-year sentences for setting fire to federal lands. The Hammond family has said it wants nothing to do with the standoff at the refuge.
The longer this standoff drags on, the more the militiamen do that further undermines that cause and the more the federal government begins to look like they may have made the right move when the opted to deescalate the situation. Isolated from the rest of the country, the militiamen enter the third week of this standoff, free to cross legal lines and incriminate themselves on video tape.