Just two weeks ago, it looked like the standoff at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was nearly over. Eight of the armed occupiers who’d seized the federal property had been arrested, and one had been shot and killed. Militia leader Ammon Bundy, one of those arrested, had called for the occupiers to disperse. Only four were left, and they were surrounded.
On Tuesday, day 39 of the occupation, stalemate is back. And with Cliven Bundy possibly on his way to Oregon, it’s hard to imagine tensions will get lower any time soon.
Cliven Bundy is the patriarch of the family of anti-federal-government crusaders who became nationally famous when he got into a standoff of his own in Nevada in 2014. Federal Bureau of Land Management officials planned to move in and round up Bundy’s cattle, which had been grazing on federal land though he’d refused to pay $1 million in grazing fees. They were met by armed men determined to stop them.
Whether or not he shows up, Cliven Bundy’s looming presence illuminates some things about the standoff as it exists today. As I noted early on, Ammon Bundy and his brother Ryan, who were at the heart of the Oregon standoff, had learned some lessons from their father’s turbulent fight in Nevada. Despite being in clear and flagrant violation of the law during that Nevada standoff, Cliven Bundy had initially gained support from many national conservatives. But once he started offering racist soundbites, they abandoned him. Ammon Bundy was careful not do the same, with message for the most part carefully controlled.
But what Ammon Bundy was attempting was more audacious. He wasn’t just trying, like his father, to prevent federal agents from seizing his cattle on a remote ranch. He mounted an armed takeover of a federal wildlife center, complete with federal computers and federal vehicles, and demanded that Washington relinquish it. He did that in a state in which he didn’t live, against the will of the local community. Since his arrest, Ammon Bundy has called on the four people remaining at the refuge to surrender. They have refused to do so, demanding that the FBI agree to let them leave without pressing charges. In a series of videos over the past few days, the holdouts have steadily escalated their rhetoric while refusing to back down. They’re now espousing a kind of Fusion Bundyism, incorporating elements of both generations.
Cliven Bundy, unlike his son, has encouraged the remaining occupiers to stay put—though he appeared ambivalent about the takeover when it first occurred. In a video released Sunday, David Fry, a 27-year-old Ohioan, says the FBI has told him the remaining gang will face additional charges for “fortifying” the site, which he identifies in the video as “Camp Finicum,” after LaVoy Finicum, the man shot and killed by police in January. Fry brags about using government vehicles (incorrectly identifying a Chevy HHR as a PT Cruiser), and then gets into a pickup truck. “I want the FBI to see this, y’know, because this is how I want to say, ‘Screw you. Piss off your little charges.’ It’s a U.S. government vehicle. You see that? It’s a U.S. government vehicle! I think I’m gonna to take it on a joy ride,” Fry says, getting increasingly agitated. “Now you got another charge on me, FBI! I am driving your vehicle!” (There’s some profanity in the video.)
Fry and others remain upset about Finicum’s death. His funeral in Utah drew fellow travelers from hours around, but it remained peaceful. But the Bundy gang’s supporters continue to argue that Finicum was shot with hands up. That’s hard to square with a video released by the FBI, which shows Finicum reaching for his jacket pocket before being shot; police said he had a loaded gun in the pocket. Shawna Cox, one of those arrested when Finicum was shot, also told The Oregonian that Finicum was “running away from the vehicle, screaming, ‘Shoot me, shoot me, shoot me.’” (Cox also accused law enforcement of murdering the man.)
Given that they are a tiny group, besieged by federal officers, called on to quit by their erstwhile leader, and hated by the local community, the impetuousness of the remaining four seems even more delusional than it did in the early days, if that’s possible. Is there anything to suggest the feds are close to their breaking point, and will simply give up and allow the occupation to keep the “Harney County Resource Center,” as they call it? But, this, too, might reflect the influence of Cliven Bundy. Bundy pere stood up to the BLM in Nevada, and he won: The BLM left, and Bundy still hasn’t paid his fees.
Federal officials have been understandably reluctant to head into Malheur with guns blazing, unwilling to risk a replay of Waco or Ruby Ridge, and they now seem content to wait out a siege on Malheur, especially with just the small, beleaguered remnant in place. Still, it’s hard not to wonder how much Cliven Bundy’s triumph in Nevada encouraged his sons and their supporters, creating an expectation that the federal government would easily roll over when challenged by a group of outlaws with guns.