On Jan. 2, a group of armed men took over the unoccupied headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore. Three of the men involved are sons of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher whose own standoff with government agents made headlines in 2014. Ammon Bundy, the spokesman for the group, has vowed to stay at the site for years if necessary, calling it “the tool to do all the tyranny that has been placed upon the Hammonds,” a ranching family in the area that saw two of its members sent to prison on Jan. 3. Nine observations on these events follow.
1. The current standoff is a reaction to a long list of government abuses. In order to understand this situation, it is necessary to examine the history of the area and the conflict. The area was originally inhabited by the Paiute Native American tribe. President Grant allowed white settlers into the area in 1876, and the Paiutes were forced off their land in 1878. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt created an Indian reservation devoid of Native Americans as a political scheme to create a wildlife preserve and breeding ground for birds. This would become the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
In 1964, the Hammond family purchased their ranch in the Harney Basin. The purchase included approximately 6,000 acres of private property along with four grazing rights on public land, a small ranch house, and three water rights. It was already one of the last ranches in the area, as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had been buying up ranches and adding them to the wildlife refuge. In the 1970s, these agencies revoked grazing permits and raised costs for the ones that remained, making some ranches unsustainable. In the 1980s, the agencies diverted water to flood ranch properties near the Malheur Lakes, then drained the land once the ranchers were forced to sell their submerged lands.
Starting in the 1990s, the agencies started targeting the Hammond family specifically. Susie Hammond researched the situation and discovered a 1975 FWS study which found that the “no use” policies of the FWS on the refuge were causing wildlife to leave the refuge and move to private property, to the extent that private property had four times as many ducks and geese as the refuge and migratory birds were 13 times more likely to land on private property than on the refuge. The Hammonds also obtained a new deed for water rights from the State of Oregon, which the BLM and FWS unsuccessfully challenged in State Circuit Court. The revelation of this study and the court case led to many vindictive acts by government agents.
The next action by BLM and FWS was an arbitrary revocation of one of the Hammond’s grazing permits. When a federal judge ruled that the federal government does not have to observe Oregon state laws which require no obligation on the part of an owner to keep his or her livestock within a fence or to maintain control over the movement of the livestock, the BLM and FWS forced the Hammonds to either build and maintain miles of fences or have their private property rights infringed upon. The Hammonds were forced to remove cattle from their ranch because they could not afford to fence the land. The Hammonds had to sell their ranch and home to get another property with enough grass to feed their cattle. This property also had grazing rights on public land which would also be arbitrarily revoked later. The Hammonds would eventually regain their original ranch after the person who bought it from them died from a heart attack.
In 2001, Steven Hammond called the fire department to inform them that he was going to perform a routine prescribed burn on their ranch. This is a common method used to remove weeds and increase productivity on ranches. The fire spread to public land and burned 127 acres of grass, but the Hammonds put out the fire without help. In 2006, lightning started a wildfire on federal lands which threatened the Hammond family’s land. Steven set a backfire on their private property to stop the wildfire, which was successful. The next day, federal agents accused Steven and Dwight Hammond of multiple charges, which the Harney County District Attorney chose not to prosecute. Dwight and Susan Hammond’s home was raided by federal agents in September 2006, who informed the Hammonds that they were looking for evidence that would connect them to the fires.
In 2011, the U.S. Attorney Office filed terrorism charges against Steven and Dwight Hammond under the Federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison and a maximum sentence of death. During the trial, Federal Court Judge Michael Hogan did not allow the Hammonds to present a proper defense, allowed the prosecution to use a witness who was not mentally capable to be credible, and conspired with the prosecution to tamper with the jury on multiple occasions, including pressuring them into a hasty verdict. Once convicted, the judge sentenced the Hammonds to less than the mandatory minimum sentence, believing the mandatory minimum to be cruel and unusual punishment for the Hammond’s actions. The Hammonds served their sentences (Dwight 3 months, Steven 12 months) starting on January 4, 2013 and were released.
In June 2014, the prosecutor and two BLM employees filed an appeal with the Ninth District Federal Court seeking Dwight’s and Steven’s return to federal prison for the entire five year mandatory minimum. The court re-sentenced them in October 2015 and were also forced to grant the BLM first right of refusal; if the Hammonds ever sell their ranch they will have to sell it to the BLM. Dwight and Steven returned to federal prison on Jan. 4, 2016. The Hammonds are also being forced to pay more fines to the BLM, sell them the ranch, or face further prosecution.
2. Governments do not legitimately own land. Property rights are a logical consequence of self-ownership. A person mixes one’s labor with unowned natural resources and thus establishes a right to exclusive control over them. The owner is then free to use, trade, gift, or destroy said resources as he or she sees fit as long as doing so does not violate anyone else’s right to life, liberty, or property.
Governments do not acquire property in this manner. Because a government is not an individual, it cannot perform labor or make decisions; people can only claim to do so in its name. Therefore, a government cannot legitimately acquire property. Instead, governments acquire property simply by claiming it and committing armed robbery, extortion, and murder against any rightful property owners who resist such a claim.
3. The protesters are justified in occupying federal lands and buildings. Because everything exclusively controlled by governments has been stolen from its rightful owners, it is legitimate for someone to not only occupy the land for a protest, but to permanently seize and re-homestead it to return it to private ownership. To quote Murray Rothbard,
“Suppose, for example, that A steals B’s horse. Then C comes along and takes the horse from A. Can C be called a thief? Certainly not, for we cannot call a man a criminal for stealing goods from a thief. On the contrary, C is performing a virtuous act of confiscation, for he is depriving thief A of the fruits of his crime of aggression, and he is at least returning the horse to the innocent ‘private’ sector and out of the ‘criminal’ sector. C has done a noble act and should be applauded. Of course, it would be still better if he returned the horse to B, the original victim. But even if he does not, the horse is far more justly in C’s hands than it is in the hands of A, the thief and criminal.”
In this case, A is the federal government, B is the Paiute Native American tribe, and C is the Bundy-led protest group.
4. Government courts function through conflict of interest. When the BLM and FWS revoked the Hammond’s grazing permit, a federal judge in a federal court ruled that the federal agencies did not have to observe state laws of Oregon. The conflict of interest involved with being the plaintiff, the judge, and the court operator in a case would never be considered acceptable in a case not involving the government. The prosecutor and judge would later conspire to obtain a conviction in the criminal case against Dwight and Steven Hammond.
5. This is a conflict between two groups of statists. The Bundy-led protesters have expressed support for the United States Constitution and do not question the validity of the state as an institution. They are only asking for certain remedies for grievances committed by the federal government against ranchers in the Western United States. As such, there is no good side in this conflict from a libertarian perspective, only a bad side and a much worse side. “What we’re doing is not rebellious. What we’re doing is in accordance with the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land,” Ammon Bundy said on Jan. 2. “We’re out here because the people have been abused long enough, their lands and their resources have been taken from them to the point that it is putting them literally into poverty.”
6. The government is the terrorist organization, not the protesters. Many people in the lapdog media and on social media have denigrated the protesters as terrorists, labeling them #YallQaeda and #VanillaISIS. The most parsimonious complete definition of terrorism is the use of violence, threats, fear, and intimidation to achieve political, social, and/or economic goals. As explained in point #1, the federal government has a long history of this. The protesters, on the other hand, have yet to resort to violence and have announced that they will only do so if attacked by government agents. To the extent that the protesters are using threats, fear, and intimidation, they are doing so in an effort to defend against state aggression.
7. This is different from Black Lives Matter protests because it does not interfere with private property. Many leftists in the pundit and political classes are claiming that the Bundy-led protesters are benefiting from white privilege because according to them, blacks or Muslims who behaved identically would be gunned down by police by now. Aside from the fact that this is a counterfactual and therefore unprovable, the Black Lives Matter protesters have interfered with private businesses and caused harm to innocent third parties in the process. The Bundy-led protesters, on the other hand, have a clearer idea of who their adversary is and are only targeting government-held property with their sit-in.
8. The Hammond family’s statements are being made under duress. “Neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone within his group/organization speak for the Hammond Family,” the Hammonds’ lawyer W. Alan Schroeder wrote to Sheriff David Ward. This has been represented by the lapdog media as a rejection of the Bundy-led protests, but even if this were clearly the case, the Hammonds are under duress. When one is being ordered to report to prison to serve another four-plus years on a charge based on an anti-terrorism statute, advocating violent resistance to government is not conducive to one’s well-being, especially when five years is the minimum sentence and the maximum sentence is death.
9. The Bundy’s cause is just, but their tactics are unwise. Governments are not competent at much, but they are quite capable of destroying centralized opponents. Just as they did at Ruby Ridge and Waco, federal agents may yet lay siege and murder some or even all of the people who dare to defy their rule. If they do, the lapdog media will cheer for the costumed criminals and demonize those who were defending innocent people and private property rights against their assault. The protesters are correct to resort to force; they are dealing with a violent aggressor that vindictively bullies innocent people and uses underhanded means to corrupt peaceful efforts to resolve disputes. But a centralized foe of the strength of the United States government can only be fought through decentralized methods, such as guerrilla warfare waged with the intent of expelling government agents from a geographical area and maintaining a functioning society by continuing to defend against any further threats to people and property.