As It Happens

Oregon activist says militia group hijacked his peaceful protest

A group of armed militia are occupying a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon, protesting what they call repeated violations of their constitutional rights.
Protesters march on Court Avenue in support of an Oregon ranching family facing jail time for arson in Burns, Ore., Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016. Family members were convicted of the arsons three years ago and served time. But a judge ruled their terms were too short under federal law and ordered them back to prison for about four years each. (Les Zaitz/The Oregonian/Associated Press)
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Tensions are high and there is no sign a militia group is leaving, two days after the men occupied a federal wildlife refuge building in Oregon. The occupation began after a peaceful protest in support of two cattle ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, who were convicted of arson and ordered to begin a new prison sentence on Monday. Prosecutors say the father and son burned about 130 acres of land to cover up poaching. 

A sign of the National Wildlife Refuge System is seen at an entry of the wildlife refuge about 30 miles southeast of Burns, Ore., Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Armed protesters are occupying a building at the national wildlife refuge and asking militia members around the country to join them. The protesters went to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday following a peaceful rally in support of two Oregon ranchers facing additional prison time for arson. (Les Zaitz/The Oregonian/Associated Press)

"We had a nice peaceful rally, which is exactly what I promised the community of Burns," rally organizer BJ Soper tells As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. "I was upset. I'd worked a really long time out in the community trying to build their trust."

The pair turned themselves into the federal prison, while the armed standoff continued.

Soper organized the initial protest but lost control when Ammon Bundy, a Nevada rancher who arrived in Burns, Ore. last month, urged protesters to join his planned occupation.

Ultimately it's a ramped up expression of what I'm calling an 'occupy movement.'- BJ Soper

"As the rally came to a conclusion, back at the starting point, Ammon [Bundy] jumped up on a snow bank and announced what the plan was and that's when all the chaos kind of broke loose," Soper explains.

"It was really devastating to me because I felt that it was the wrong action to take at that time."

Ammon Bundy chats with a protester Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016, during a march on behalf of a Harney County ranching family in Burns, Ore. (Les Zaitz/The Oregonian/Associated Press)

According to Soper, Bundy's aggressive tactics and efforts to mobilize other armed protesters from outside the area have undermined the trust he built with the community.

"I felt they left me standing there holding the torch, to answer to the community for actions that I didn't know they were going to take and that put not only myself, but my children that I had there standing with me, in danger," Soper explains.

Protesters watch from a watch tower at the National Wildlife headquarters in Burns on Sunday, Jan 3, 2016. Armed protesters took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge south of Burns on Saturday after participating in a peaceful rally over the prison sentences of local ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond. The decision to send the man back to prison generated controversy and is part of a decades-long dispute between some Westerners and the federal government over the use of public lands. (Mark Graves/The Oregonian/AP)


Soper insists that he still supports Bundy's attempt to challenge a decades-old frustration with the federal government's regulation of land claims.

"What you're seeing is a huge amount of frustration that's taking place over the entire western United States, not just Oregon or Harney County, coming to a head," Soper explains. "I do not agree with the tactics that they've taken, but as it stands, I do agree that something needs to be done to get that conversation and people to the table to have these hard talks."

As the standoff escalates, Soper says that the FBI agents in the area haven't fazed the armed protesters.

"They're out there prepared for the worst. They've said goodbye to their families because they don't know how the government's going to react."

Brand Thorton, 63, of California, blows into an African spiral horn Sunday, Jan. 4, 2016, at the Malheur National Wildlife headquarters in Burns, Ore. (Mark Graves/The Oregonian/AP)

On Jan. 3, the Sheriff of Harney County, David M. Ward, said that he believes the group occupying the refuge "hope to overthrow the government." But Soper dismisses the claim, as well as suggestions the occupation is a form of "domestic terrorism."

"I believe what they're trying to do is bring two sides together," Soper reasons. "Utilize the occupation to force communication between the government and the people out there."

He adds, "I would be prepared to stand completely unarmed in front and create a buffer within both sides of the line, and there's a lot of people within Harney County that would do the same and there's a lot of people within this country that would rally to do the same."

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