Lessons From the Oregon Standoff

I’ve been intrigued by the Oregon standoff since it hit the news, more than six weeks ago. It’s not national security in the sense of most of what we write at Nuclear Diner, but it overlaps.

The group who occupied the refuge intended to overthrow parts of the federal government on the basis of their interpretation of the United States Constitution and perhaps other documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the Bible. Part of their interpretation of the Constitution encourages armed force against the government.

News outlets gave them several designations, including protesters, militants, and occupiers. Their ideology is incoherent, and their organization and planning minimal, but the desire to overthrow the government by force combined with occupation of a government facility also fits the definition of insurgent. So the handling of the Oregon occupation may hold lessons for both law enforcement in the United States and governments elsewhere.

Overreaction by the Assad government to demonstrations led to the Syrian civil war. Within the United States, overreaction by local police departments to people of color is now obvious. That overreaction, in Ferguson, Missouri, and in the standoffs at Waco and Ruby Ridge also informed the response in Oregon. The response needed to discredit that revolt and to avoid further inflaming it.

Initial news reports by national reporters frequently missed a great deal that local reporters, and those of us who live in the western part of the United States, understood. I still see misunderstandings, or accommodations to a predetermined viewpoint, in articles on the standoff. For the best coverage on Twitter, I followed reporters from The Oregonian newspaper and Oregon Public Broadcasting.


The Occupation

The occupiers used a peaceful demonstration in Burns in early January as cover for seizing the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Among them were several people who had been involved in actions at the Bundy Ranch in Nevada in April 2014, when Cliven Bundy defied government grazing regulations and invited armed insurrectionists to defend his cattle from legal seizure by the United States Government. Ammon and Ryan Bundy, Cliven’s sons, were leaders in the Malheur seizure.

Much of the initial public reaction was in favor of a rapid and forceful response to the Malheur occupation. This was neither possible nor desirable. Equipment and trained law enforcement officers were not immediately available, although they could probably have been brought to the area within a week. Any action needed to take account of the possibility of a broader conspiracy, including political organizations, funding from beyond the immediate area, and the many self-styled militias who might choose to appear on site.

Finding a way to connect Malheur to the April 2014 Bundy Ranch standoff was highly desirable. I’m applying hindsight, obviously, but I also said shortly after the occupation that it could be an opportunity to arrest Cliven and bring that case to closure.

US law enforcement agencies have known that rightwing militia groups have presented a danger for some time; Timothy McVeigh, the 1995 Oklahoma-City bomber, held views similar to those of the Malheur occupiers. A 2009 Department of Homeland Security report assessing that rightwing extremism was likely to increase was politically suppressed, but tracking of such groups has continued, and another report was issued in 2015. Participants in the Bundy Ranch standoff would have been watched, and information to support indictments would have been available, as was illustrated by Cliven Bundy’s arrest.

Statements from Malheur occupiers indicated a readiness to use their guns and possibly suicidal mindsets. Deaths of adherents can be magnified into martyrdom for a cause, which law enforcement would have wanted to avoid, especially in light of Waco, Ruby Ridge, and Ferguson. Careful planning and execution would count for more than rapid action, however emotionally satisfying the latter might be.


Law Enforcement Moves

The arrest of the group’s leaders on January 26 was well planned and executed. Their freedom to leave and return to the refuge and the apparent support of the sheriff in John Day, their destination on that trip, made them complacent. The location was far from where others might be injured and limited the number of occupiers to be engaged. Tragically, LeVoy Finicum died, but it appears that the Oregon State Police acted responsibly. A press conference held shortly after with release of aerial photography of the incident maintained law enforcement credibility.

Free passage was then allowed to the group at Malheur if they would leave immediately and had no outstanding warrants. Decreasing the numbers decreased the threat to law enforcement if Malheur had to be retaken forcibly and opened the possibility that all would clear out. None of this precluded the possibility of later charges or arrests after evidence was collected at Malheur.

Four chose to stay. Law enforcement surrounded Malheur and continued to negotiate with them, bringing in Franklin Graham, whom the four trusted. Michele Fiore, a Nevada state legislator, negotiated with the group for long periods during the last twenty-four hours and helped to keep them calm and willing to surrender peacefully. KrisAnne Hall substituted for Fiore when she was unavailable. After a very tense last hour on February 11, the last holdout, David Fry, emerged.

Cliven Bundy, who had urged the four to continue the occupation, was arrested in the Portland airport as he arrived to support them with his presence. The charges against him stem from 2014. Again, good planning by law enforcement put him in a position of being away from his guns and others with guns.

Law enforcement officials held another press conference after the occupiers were taken into custody. FBI Special Agent In Charge Greg Bretzing noted that they had trained a number of people in negotiations, naming Graham but not others. Bretzing sent a clear message that the occupation of the refuge was illegal and that those hoping to repeat it elsewhere will be arrested.


After The Occupation

Malheur will be swept for boobytraps, damage will be assessed, and evidence collected. More indictments and warrants are likely to be issued, and charges will be added to those already indicted. So far, twenty-five people have been arrested. A trial is scheduled for April 19.

We don’t know the full story. My sense is that law enforcement had full control of communications to and from Malheur, and the fact that the livestreams were allowed out was intended to allow the occupiers to show the weakness of their ideas. We know quite a bit about the traffic stop on January 26 and the death of LaVoy Finicum, but some of those in the cars tell a different story from what the overhead videos seem to show. Information coming out of the cleanup of the refuge will be limited because so much of it is likely to be evidence in trials.

We also don’t know to what degree law enforcement manipulated people and circumstances versus an outstanding ability to improvise and sheer luck. For example, Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer sympathized with the occupiers and set up the January 26 meeting for them in John Day. He is now facing investigation by the sheriffs’ association and has gone silent. Michele Fiore’s arrival in Portland and her willingness to negotiate with the occupiers came at an opportune time.

Information was made available quickly. FBI Special Agent In Charge Greg Bretzing was superb in the press conferences. Harney County Sheriff David Ward was not afraid to show his emotions and love for the community. County Judge Steve Grasty was steadfast. It’s going to take some time for Burns to recover.

In contrast, the occupiers showed themselves in a poor light: whiny, poor planners needing snacks and supplies, espousing an ideology that is inimical to most of the rest of the country. They called for others of their ideology to support them, but few showed up.

We can hope that much has been learned that will inform future standoffs. But there will necessarily be differences. For example, the free passage initially allowed to the occupiers, which bolstered their self-confidence to the point of making mistakes, will be more difficult to monitor in a city; cities do not have long lonely roads where people can be stopped without danger to others.

The biggest lesson is that smart planning saves lives.


Update (February 13, 2016): A legal scholar examines the occupiers’ claims about the federal government’s ownership of land.

Photo: Sheriff David Ward at the mic, Bretzing and Grasty in the background.


One comment

  1. The Blog Fodder · February 13, 2016

    Glad it is over. Will more people understand the danger from right-wing extremism? Criminals with guns don’t bother me much but I am terrified of “responsible, christian fundamentalists” with guns.


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