Why Oregon’s Militia Standoff has Taken over Social Media

By Solomon Hammerly '16

As the ever growing-in-popularity hashtags “#OregonUnderAttack” and “#YallQaeda,” along with  discussions of domestic terrorism, appear across social media and television, one of the most talked about disputes of the new year has given spotlight to a small county in southeast Oregon.

Tensions between the federal government and an armed group occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge 30 miles south of Burns, Oregon have brought numerous sociopolitical discussions from 2015 to the forefront in 2016.

The controversy started when the federal government attempted to renew the sentences of Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven Hammond for setting numerous arson fires on government land between 2001 and 2006. Hammond and his son, having initially spent 12 and three months of jail time respectively, anticipated to be free immediately after their initial sentences. According to federal law however, arson on government land carries a mandatory five year sentence minimum and the Hammonds were immediately sentenced upon finishing their initial time.

This news was received by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, leaders of the large armed militia group that occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and part of a family of cattle ranchers from Nevada with an “anti-government tyranny” activist background.

“Once they can use these lands as free men, then we will have accomplished what we came to accomplish,” Ammon Bundy told USA TODAY at the beginning of January, referring to the divisive issue of the Hammonds committing arson to “protect the forest against future fires.” The group of militia appeared at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in early January, with firearms and without the intention to evacuate.

This is not the first example of the Bundy family’s call to action to revolt against federal government, as Ammon and Ryan’s father, Cliven Bundy, attracted mainstream media attention in 2014 after tensions between Cliven Bundy and the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) hit its peak when an armed group of protestors advanced on BLM officials. This incited a conflict similar to that of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge Occupation occurring recently, and while it garnered brief media attention, it pales in comparison to this year’s major standoff story.

That said, many have argued that the federal government has been temperate and less concerned with the events occurring in Harney County, Ore., regardless of the amount of views, comments, or reception from an online article or video related to the event.

“Ultimately this is a local law enforcement matter and the FBI is monitoring the situation and offering support to local law enforcement officials,” White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said during a briefing on Jan. 4, which since then has not dramatically changed. The White House also stated that President Obama is aware of the issue and hopes that it can be resolved peacefully.

The front of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge Headquarters, where numerous armed protestors stood (Wikipedia)

The front of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge Headquarters, where numerous armed protestors stood (Wikipedia)

Though it may appear to be a civil land conflict in a lower populated area of Oregon and simply an inconvenience in the eyes of the U.S Government, conversations about legitimacy of the militia’s anti-government agenda have become a primary talking point on social media. Users of Twitter, Facebook, and other web resources across the country have begun following the events that occur outside of Harney County, with a close eye kept on the Bundy family’s every move. This can be best attributed to the exponential growth and attention paid towards social justice movements in the United States today.

While the situation may appear a simple, tense feud over exercising federal land laws in a rural area, the Bundys and accompanying unorganized militia very much see themselves as social activists, in particular against large government that they believe overexerts its power. However, Bundy still stands by the idea that he’s, “not anti-government” as he told CNN. “A government’s role is to serve the people. Whenever those governments step out, then that’s when we step in,”

Members of the armed militia led by the Bundys actively encourage the idea freedom under government, drawing parallels to the Black Lives Matter movement. As one member who only identifies himself as “Fluffy Unicorn” told The HuffingtonPost, “The Black Lives Matter movement, they can go and protest, close freeways down and all that stuff, and they don’t get any backlash, not on the level that we’re getting,”

Many in support of Black Lives Matter have pointed out the treatment of these armed militia as a racial double standard based on the shooting of Tamir Rice and death of Eric Garner at the hands of police, seeing how the police’s more diplomatic treatment of armed white men as an example of white privilege and institutionalized racism.

Others have found instances of white privilege in how the Citizens of Constitutional Freedom claim the government is infringing on their rights, while others focus their frustration on the lack of national guard support in the area.

“The federal government’s hyper-passive response to such flagrant acts of menacing and threats of domestic terrorism,” says columnist Sally Kohn regarding the government’s lack of urgency in dealing with the occupation.

Others have been more explicit in their desires to stop the militia movement, seeing the conflict as insulting compared to the examples of police brutality occurring elsewhere, “I hope they pull a M.O.V.E. on those terrorists in Oregon,” wrote twitter user Jess Nevins, in reference to a 1985 Philadelphia bombing of a building holding a black militant group, which ended up killing 11 people, including five children.

While the time period of this event played a prominent role in how this story unfolded and was discussed towards the public, but as the tension and movement continues into 2016, perhaps the event will play a role in progress social movements in the United States.