Oregon Occupiers Formally Surrender After A Tense Night Nearly Turned Violent

CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

A militiaman and a videographer outside the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon

More than a month after armed men and women first seized an Oregon wildlife refuge, federal agents moved in on the last stragglers from that group on Wednesday night and demanded their surrender. The group reportedly agreed to yield on Thursday at roughly 8 a.m. local time, with two conservative public figures shepherding the handover. Two hours later, after a drawn out negotiation with one last occupier, David Fry, the occupation finally ended.

The four holdouts from the original group set up a live stream on YouTube during the tense, hours-long standoff Wednesday, allowing tens of thousands of people to listen in to their end of the climactic encounter. The four repeatedly refused to exit the building they were in, saying they believed the feds were only pretending to allow them to surrender so that they could get a clean shot and kill them all. They also vowed to fire live ammunition at police if they launched tear gas. For long stretches of time, the situation seemed likely to veer in a deadly direction.

But in the end, the occupiers agreed to disarm and surrender themselves in the morning so long as the right-wing Reverend Franklin Graham, who spoke with one occupier by phone during the standoff, was on hand to physically escort them off the refuge. It took more than an hour from the first time that possibility was raised for the group to agree to it, in part because they remained convinced that the FBI would come in shooting overnight and in part because they said they would never agree to go to prison or give up their guns.

Around the same time that the live stream ended with the refuge holdouts apparently agreed to yield in the morning, their movement’s figurehead was himself surrendering to authorities. Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, the figurehead of this extremist movement and the father of the two men who initially led the Oregon occupation, was arrested upon arrival in Portland, Oregon late Wednesday. Bundy’s refusal to pay more than a million dollars in grazing fees and trespassing fines has made him a hero to a radical, defiant fringe within the largely law-abiding ranching industry.

Last night’s standoff was small potatoes compared to the one Bundy provoked at his Nevada ranch nearly two years ago, when scores of militiamen forced federal land management officials and later bragged about how easily they could have killed the agents. And Wednesday’s events in Oregon had exactly the opposite balance of power, with multiple armored vehicles and a large number of agents surrounding the four armed, agitated holdouts.

At one point, the rowdiest member of the group started yelling about the movie Braveheart, saying he’d rather die than betray the beliefs that drove him to the refuge in the first place. The occupation began when Bundy’s sons splintered off from a peaceful protest over harsh prison sentences imposed on a pair of local ranchers and brought a small group of militants to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to dig in for a confrontation.

Credit for walking the group back from what seemed at times like a collective death wish goes primarily to an unlikely figure: Nevada state Rep. Michele Fiore (R), a radical right-wing lawmaker and one of the most prominent elected officials to argue that federal authority over public lands is illegitimate.

Fiore has become something of an avatar for the Bundy movement, both through her public work as a lawmaker and in more symbolic ways like sending the occupiers a copy of a calendar illustrated by pictures of her posing with guns. She has also said that arming women is the solution to rape culture, that Barack Obama’s White House win meant racism is over, and that occupier Lavoy Finicum’s death at police hands after trying to run a barricade and appearing to reach for a gun was a pre-planned FBI execution. She has supported the Bundys both personally and legislatively.

Some of Fiore’s ideological recklessness was audible Wednesday, as when she repeated the right-wing notion that local sheriffs trump federal criminal justice officials.

But on the whole, for one night at least, Fiore served as a calming influence, joking at times that the four needed to stay alive to pay the speeding tickets she expected to get on the drive from Portland.

In a more significant moment, Fiore told the occupiers they were incorrectly interpreting the Constitution. The Nevada lawmaker told them that the judicial branch of the government was the only legal and legitimate means for resolving disputes of this kind, urging them to surrender and pursue their cause in court. It’s a straightforward legal point for most people, but something of a coup in this community where crackpot alternative legal theories often lead patriots afoul of the actual law.

The tense, hours-long conversation was peppered with miniature arguments about history, the law, and the Constitution, as the occupiers sought to rationalize their actions or resist Fiore’s urgings to surrender themselves to a court system they distrust. “We have the right to defend ourselves,” the lone woman among the occupiers said at one point. “Even Moses said that, and he was a Hebrew.” A man in the group expressed frustration that other self-styled patriots had failed to show up and rescue them from their self-created plight, leading to a meandering and impassioned speech that culminated with “They’re trying to take your guns!”

UPDATE FEB 11, 2016 12:51 PM

Almost two hours after the expected surrender, just one militant is left in the refuge. Jeff Banta and Sean and Sandy Anderson have surrendered, but David Fry is refusing to come out, saying he feels "suicidal."

Meanwhile, militia supporters arrived to protest:

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UPDATE FEB 11, 2016 12:51 PM

After threatening to kill himself and expressing his fear of going to prison, Fry finally relented around 11 a.m. PST, agreeing to come out if everyone said hallelujah. He was taken into custody peacefully.

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