The takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon by armed anti-government extremists Saturday was initially a step too far for some other hard-right patriot groups. But with the occupiers, led by Ammon Bundy, commanding national media attention for much of the week, their once-skeptical fellow travelers have started to come around.
It’s a subtle shift, but in interviews this week some of the most strident extremist critics of the move on the refuge have conceded that the publicity the action has produced is helpful to their cause. And some of the critics have even gotten in on the action, claiming to act as back channels for communications among the armed occupiers, law enforcement, and the local community.
Earlier in the week, groups like the Three Percenters Club Oregon and the Oath Keepers posted statements condemning the decision to occupy the refuge center in Oregon after a demonstration protesting the federal jail sentence facing two local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond. While members of those groups were involved in organizing the protest that preceded the occupation of the refuge, they decried occupiers’ tactics in the immediate aftermath and claimed they were unaware of the plans to make a stand at the refuge.
But now, while they still say it was not a part of the original plan to take over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, they agree with the occupiers’ message and even appreciate the attention the siege is bringing to the grievances they have against the federal government.
BJ Soper, of the Central Oregon Constitutional Guard, hasn’t been shy about the betrayal he felt when a group of demonstrators — reportedly led by Ammon Bundy — broke off from the protest he helped plan Saturday to lay siege to unoccupied compound.
“Over the weeks that we were out there we promised the community that nothing would happen without their support, and obviously the community at that time didn’t support that step,” Soper told TPM over the phone Tuesday while driving back the 130 miles to Burns from his home in Redmond. He said he still thinks there were better options, but as time has gone on he understands how they got to that point.
“There’s a lot of frustration built up in the western United States that has to do with out the lands are being managed and regulated and what I am seeing here is that coming to a head,” Soper said.
Likewise, Brandon Curtiss — president of the militia group Three Percent of Idaho — told TPM Monday that “We just don’t agree with the way it was executed. We certainly understand the frustration of the people there wanting to get the message out.”
Curtiss was concerned, like Soper, that Bundy’s group had violated the community’s wishes and had not worked “through the proper channels.”
However, Soper told TPM, some of the residents of the small Oregon town have warmed up to the goals of the siege.
“They’re starting to change their tune out there. The community has settled down, the dust is settling and they’re starting to support these guys — by the dozens if not more,” Soper said.
He said he is returning to Burns, having had gone home after the protest, in order to sit down with the community.
“They’re asking me, how can we support these guys without physically being there with them and that’s an interesting scenario,” Soper said.
Both Soper and Curtiss also said they have been communicating with those inside of the refuge center as well as the authorities on the scene. (Curtiss stressed that he wasn’t an official mediator but was “helping both sides understand” each other)
Soper said he spoke to Harney County Sheriff David Ward Sunday night before heading home and again Tuesday morning.
“I had a very good conversation with him. I offered him any assistance that he would be willing to accept,” Soper said.
He said that Ward gave him the heads up that authorities were planning on erecting roadblocks on the roads leading into the refuge center in order to establish a perimeter.
(When asked for comment by TPM, a public information officer at the Harney County Information Center said, “We can’t confirm anything on that.”)
Soper expected an influx of supporters entering the town in the days to come, noting that it would have taken the few days for supporters to pack up and drive to Oregon.
“If they can’t get out of the refuge to be with them then they’re going to be in the town and that poses interesting scenarios as well,” he said.
Former Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack — who leads the anti-government group the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association — told TPM in an interview Tuesday that he was at the protest Saturday but said he had “nothing to do” with the siege and wished that the occupiers “would just leave and go home.”
“The outrage we all should feel as Americans is definitely there and I’m sorry this is a distraction to what happened to the the Hammonds,” Mack said. “But maybe it will also bring positive attention to what had happened.”