Oregon occupation is over, but issues raised are still unresolved

As the standoff draws to a close, the Oregon standoff is a tale of friendship, support, and humanity. 

Jim Urquhart/Reuters
A sign thanking the FBI hangs in Burns, Ore., Thursday. The four holdouts in an armed protest at a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon surrendered on Thursday, with the last occupier repeatedly threatening suicide during an intense phone call with mediators before he finally walked out, ending the 41-day standoff with the FBI.

The last Oregon protesters surrendered on Thursday. As the town of Burns, Oregon, breathes a sigh of relief, the curtain is drawing to a close on a very human story. The nation now knows the names of dozens of men and women on both sides who sincerely believed they were in the right.

It all started with the Hammonds, a locally beloved ranch family that many believed were unfairly prosecuted for starting fires on federal land. Dwight Hammond and his son Steven each face at least four years in federal prison for arson.

Supporters of the Hammonds, including those who eventually occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, say that the Hammonds have been unjustly prosecuted for protecting their land. One of the two fires that the Hammonds have been accused of was set by Steven in order to counter a wildfire that threatened his crops. It then spread to public land.

Although both Hammonds were originally sentenced to one year in prison, which they served, they were ordered back to prison in October after authorities ruled they had not been sufficiently punished for their crimes under mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Protesters came to the Hammond’s home turf of Harney County, Ore., where Burns and the Malheur Refuge are located, to protest the October ruling. Although the protesters proclaimed their support for the Hammonds, both Hammonds distanced themselves from the group.

It quickly became clear that the occupation was led by a family that is no stranger to national notoriety. Ammon Bundy was the leader and primary spokesperson for the occupiers. He was accompanied by his brother Ryan.

Both Bundys are ranchers, and the sons of Cliven Bundy, who made national news due to a standoff with federal law enforcement officials on his home ranch in 2014. Law enforcement officials were later criticized for backing down in that standoff.

After a month of rising tensions with the townspeople of Burns, Ammon and Ryan were arrested alongside three other protesters in a highway stop in late January. Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was shot in the encounter when law enforcement officials say he reached for a gun.

Finicum was known for having said “I would rather die than be caged.” He was known as a spokesperson for the occupation. The FBI released a video of his death last month.

Without their leader, all but a handful of the protesters surrendered soon after Ammon Bundy’s arrest.

Meanwhile, although some locals sympathized with the occupier’s aims, many had become restive with the group’s presence nearby. Local sherriff David Ward was vocal in his opposition to the occupation. A veteran of combat tours in Afghanistan and Somalia, Ward is up for election in November. Harney County Judge Steve Gratsy was also vocal about the fact that the occupiers had worn out their welcome.

Although Ammon Bundy called for the remaining occupiers to leave the Refuge, the four holdouts refused to capitulate. The youngest of them, David Fry, had been friends with Finicum, and even helped him publish a novel.

“I’m actually feeling suicidal right now,” said Mr. Fry, echoing Finicum, “I will not go another day as a slave to this system. I’m a free man. I will die a free man.”

The other three, Jeff Banta and Sean and Sandy Anderson were coaxed into leaving the refuge after conversing with unlikely negotiators Reverend Franklin Graham and Nevada state legislator Michele Fiore.

Rev. Graham, the son of prominent evangelist Billy Graham, came to the refuge after his presence was requested by the holdouts. Fiore, a conservative lawmaker from Las Vegas with a record of supporting gun rights, was an unusual candidate for negotiator in Oregon.

Slowly but surely, Graham and Fiore encouraged first the elder occupiers to leave the Refuge, and then spent over an hour persuading Fry to leave without harming himself. They did this all with over 60,000 people watching as their conversation was live-streamed to the world.

Another man, Peter Santilli of Ohio, was charged with a felony count of conspiracy to interfere with federal workers. He live streamed coverage of the Oregon standoff and publically supported to the occupation.

Ammon and Ryan’s father, the still infamous Cliven Bundy, left his ranch to join the occupation on Wednesday. He was arrested when he arrived at the Portland airport on Wednesday. He has now rejoined his sons in prison.

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