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Explainer: Why are a group of gun-carrying ranchers staging a siege on government property?

Protesters in Oregon claim to be fighting the cause of two men who have been charged with arson on government property.

CBS This Morning / YouTube

OVER THE PAST two days a situation has developed in Oregon that has seen a group of anti-government protesters occupy a government-owned wildlife refuge.

Numbering at around 100, the militia group is made up mostly of heavily-armed ranchers protesting a legal decision that has seen two men imprisoned for burning government land.

Currently, the group is continuing its supposed siege, despite the two men whose cause they are fighting disassociating from them.

With the group committing to continuing the stand-off for years if they have to, here is what you need to know.

Who are they? 

The whole action is probably best described as anti-government.

The catalyst has been charges against a man called Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son Steven Hammond, 46 – both of whom were sentenced to additional time in prison for burning government land in 2012.

While that might seem straightforward enough, the group providing support to the pair has much grander ideas about taking back government-owned land.

In a video posted to Facebook on Saturday, it called on patriots to join its cause and hit out at the “tyranny” of the United States federal government.

Among the group’s most prominent members are Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the sons of ClivenBundy who led an armed standoff with the US government in 2014 over cattle-grazing rights.

Interestingly, many of those partaking – including the Bundy brothers – are not locals but form a small group who have taken up anti-government causes in other parts of the country; generally their grievances are focused on land rights.

ammond bundy Ammon Bundy YouTube YouTube

The local sheriff’s department said in a statement on Sunday that the building’s seizure was an effort by the group to instigate a confrontation with authorities.

“These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers, when in reality these men had alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States,” said the statement from David Ward, sheriff of Harney County, where the refuge is located.

What are they there for?

Dwight and his son Steven Hammond have already served prison sentences for arson committed in 2012, and now face a further four and five years respectively. This follows a judge’s ruling that they had been sentenced illegally the first time around.

The pair burned 139 acres of what was deemed to be government-owned land, although this is what the dispute centres on.

The group believes that the US government holds too large a share of land in the west of the country, which is a complaint which could be said to be backed up by the numbers.  Large swathes of the land in the region is federally owned, including more than half of all land in Oregon.

The occupation began on the Malheur reserve, after a protest against the treatment of the Hammonds around 50km away in the town of Burn.

How big a deal is this?

It’s a pretty big deal.

As Vox puts it, the confrontation is “an armed militia using the threat of violence to get the federal government to change the law”.

Regardless of the fact that many of the men are armed and and refusing to rule out a confrontation with government security services, mainstream US media has not centred in on the violent aspect of the protest. 

Across social media there has been puzzlement at the incident not being classed as a terrorist action, with speculation that reporting would be much different if those taking the action were Muslim or black.

How long do they plan on staying?

While members of the militia are still holed up on the wildlife reserve, it would seem that the Hammonds’ case – which instigated the occupation – is now at an end.

After initially accepting the group’s offer of help, the pair later changed their minds and are expected to hand themselves in today. Reports this afternoon are that the pair are on their way to a federal prison in California.

The Oregonian is reporting that the group remains on the land, but that there is no interaction between the police and the 20 to 30 militiamen present at the site, who have been seen coming and going as they please.

Despite this, the central demand of the anti-government group is that areas of federal land be returned to private ownership – meaning that, even without the support of the Hammonds, things could still continue for some time yet.

Contains reporting from AFP 

Read: Oregon school shooter asked students to state their religion before opening fire

Also: Militiamen seize wildlife reserve – and won’t rule out violence if police storm them

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