When armed occupants stormed a federal wildlife refuge in Harney County, Oregon, on Saturday, protest leader Ryan Bundy told Oregonian politics reporter Ian Kullgren that he was willing to kill and be killed if necessary to sustain the occupation.
Now, he's receiving support in some influential circles. The Oath Keepers, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as "a fiercely antigovernment, militaristic group," has come out in support of the of the Bundys, with Oath Keepers founder and president Stewart Rhodes posting a passionate letter to the group's website Tuesday.
"This is an armed occupation of a government building and the only people staying there should be the armed men who are willing to die there with Ammon Bundy and his brothers and a couple of embedded reporters," said Rhodes, who stressed that women and children stay away from the scene. "If adults want to visit them and put themselves at risk, that is their choice, but don't bring children. If a dozen men die in a shootout, that is one thing, but if children die, there will be a civil war."
In his open letter, Rhodes claimed that his sources within U.S. Special Operations indicated a "detachment" from the Joint Special Operations Command had been dispatched to the area to handle the occupation. In warning of a violent demise, Rhodes invoked the stories of Waco and Ruby Ridge, two similar standoffs ultimately broken up with deadly and controversial force by the federal government.
Rhodes' strident sentiment, however, was not universally shared on the ground. Dwight and Steven Hammond, the ranchers whose prison sentences for arson sparked the original protest, turned themselves in to federal authorities on Monday afternoon. Through their lawyer the Hammonds publicly distanced themselves from the Bundy occupation, the lawyer writing to the local sheriff, "Neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone within his group/organization speak for the Hammond Family."
Local Oath Keepers and aligned organizations also said that they had reservations about the operation.
"The Oath Keepers [and] the Pacific Patriots Network did not endorse nor do we support the way they took over or occupied the refuge." Joseph Rice, a coordinator for a local Oath Keepers branch and co-founder of the PPN, told Mic. "If there are media standing around watching everything, cooler heads should prevail. Nobody wants any type of armed standoff or conflict."
With the occupation joined, Rice said that the Oath Keepers were providing logistical support including a call to action for individuals to go to the protest area and serve as a neutral buffer between government forces and the occupiers, and to donate what they could.
"I witnesses ranchers coming and donating supplies to the folks at the refuge," he said. "I witnessed one guy come in and give 50 pounds of elk meat."
White also said that his group was united with the grievances of the Bundys, the heart of which lay in a land dispute between the federal government and locals. In Oregon, the U.S. owns more than 50% of all land, which is administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Bundy and the Oath Keepers want that control delegated to local government.
Despite differences in tactics, Rice was overall praiseful about the renewed attention to the issue. "You are having a dialogue and conversation with me," he told Mic. "If those guys hadn't don't this, you'd never call me."