In a story that is likely to drag on for weeks, if not months, gun-loving patriots in the US (aka terrorists) have really outdone themselves this time.
A group of around 150 armed militia have overtaken a federal government property in Oregon in the west of the United States earlier today.
It’s a major escalation of a long-running battle between the federal government and a growing number of ‘ranchers’ (farmers) unhappy with the way the US government manages public land.
At the centre of the battle is the Bundy family, led by Cliven, an elderly rancher who has been in dispute with the government for years, and has already sparked numerous stand-offs with federal authorities, sometimes backed by hundreds of self-styled ‘militia men’.
At least two of Bundy’s sons are involved in the raid on the federal government-owned Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a remote outpost in the north west of the United States.
The story will have a major impact in America, and could potentially drag on for months. It’s likely to affect the US presidential elections, with the group vowing to occupy the refuge for years.
That’s, of course, unlikely to be achieved, if past US government handling of these sorts of incidents is anything to go by (see Ruby Ridge and Waco below).
In an ominous sign, one of the gunman – former US marine Jon Ritzhemier – has posted a Youtube video farewelling his family.
You can read more about the background to the story here.
In short, an Oregon farming family are being prosecuted by the US government, after lighting fires that spread from their property to public lands.
Dwight and Stephen Hammond (father and son) lit fires in 2001 and 2006. Both fires spread onto public land owned by the federal government.
The men were eventually charged under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, and both have already served time in prison – Dwight served three months, and Stephen served one year and one day.
However, the US government appealed the leniency of the sentence, and a subsequent re-sentencing means the men will spend another five years in a federal jail.
They’re supposed to present themselves to jail on Monday, but the Hammond’s battle has become the latest rallying point for a small but determined militia movement in the US, who believe the US government is “tyrannical” and that their duty as patriots is to stand in defiance against it.
The group has very little popular support among Americans – Cliven Bundy briefly became a cause celebre, particularly among right-wing commentators on Fox News, until it emerged that apart from being a ‘patriot’, Bundy was also a racist.
The siege clearly has the potential to escalate – a similar standoff narrowly avoided disaster in early 2014 when dozens of militia trained weapons on government officials near a small community called Burns, which is 50 miles from the current siege.
Then, Cliven Bundy and hundreds of armed supporters prevented the Bureau of Land Management from removing his cattle, which were illegally grazing on publicly owned land.
This latest siege has all the hallmarks of past tragedies in the US, sparked by ‘patriots’ and private militias – code in the US for terrorists, a phrase media pointedly avoid using, despite the fact the groups are armed, prepared to kill and politically motivated.
Ruby Ridge and the Waco siege in Texas are the most famous and resulted in a widening of the militia movement.
Ruby Ridge in 1992 saw four people killed – two government agents and two members of the Weaver family – after Randy Weaver was accused of the illegal sale of firearms. An attempt to raid his home was bungled, and Weaver was later cleared by the courts, although his wife and son were killed.
The Waco siege in Texas occurred less than a year later, when Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agents – many of whom were involved in the bungled Ruby Ridge siege – tried to storm a religious compound known as the Mount Carmel Centre, led by David Koresh. Koresh was the head of the Branch Davidians, a sect which split from the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
Four ATF agents were killed during the initial raid on February 28, and 16 were wounded. Six Branch Davidians were also killed, and a 51-day siege ensued, ending in the deaths by fire of 76 more Davidians after a failed attempt by the FBI to storm the compound.
The US government’s handling of the incident – in particular that of the ATF and FBI – was severely criticized by subsequent reports, although Koresh was also found responsible for the deaths (he died in the fire).
This latest stand-off involves hard-core members of the patriot militia movement, and is unlikely to be resolved easily.
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