KALISPELL – Armed members of Oath Keepers have shown up at the Bundy standoff, the Ferguson, Missouri, protests and during a dispute between two Montana miners and the U.S. Forest Service.
But the founder and president of the anti-government patriot movement group is imploring members to steer clear of the people now occupying a national wildlife refuge south of Burns, Oregon.
“No patriot has any right to force a confrontation around that family when they don’t want it,” Stewart Rhodes of Kalispell, Oath Keepers’ founder and president, says in video and text postings on the group’s website. “Oath Keepers will not be involved in an armed standoff that’s being manufactured by hotheads who want a fight.”
The armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge began Saturday following a rally in support of local ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, whose prison sentences for arson convictions in 2012 were lengthened following an appeal by the federal government.
The Hammonds voluntarily surrendered to authorities and, through their attorney, disassociated themselves with occupation organizer Ammon Bundy and his small group.
Ammon is a son of Cliven Bundy, whose 2014 standoff with the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada drew armed support from anti-government groups, including Oath Keepers. Ammon Bundy has called on other self-identified “patriots” to “come to Burns and defend this family.”
Rhodes says “The fight is going to come to us, but how it comes to us matters. Forcing yourselves on a family that doesn’t want it, and going against a jury’s verdict, will be perceived as having the least amount of legitimacy you could possibly imagine.”
Rhodes calls the Oregon occupation “exactly the opposite” of the Bundy Ranch incident.
“This is a situation where you’ve got people who don’t want this, and you’ve got outsiders trying to force it on them,” Rhodes says.
“Anybody thinking they’re going to cause the second American Revolution by kicking it off here, with this situation in Oregon, needs to take a good hard look at what the families did.”
Rhodes said the situation is no different from when Oath Keepers offered to provide armed protection for Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses, when it appeared she might be re-jailed for contempt of court.
Davis declined the offer.
“In the Kim Davis situation, Oath Keepers offered her our protection against being arrested again for contempt, by order of the willful federal judge who was abusing his power,” Rhodes said. “But Kim Davis, through her legal counsel, declined our protection, and we had to respect her wishes and stand down and go home. It is the same here.”
Rhodes is critical of Ammon Bundy for not making it clear that the Hammonds do not want the help of Bundy and his group.
“I think Ammon needs to be real clear about what he’s doing,” Rhodes says. “If he wants an armed confrontation, he should just say it. But he should also make it clear the family does not want that and he’s going against their wishes. I think he’s wrong for doing that and I hate to say it, because he’s a good man.”
The Hammonds were convicted of setting Oregon wildfires in 2001 and 2006. They maintained they were trying to burn off invasive species in 2001, and the fire got away from them and burned onto public land. But the government produced witnesses who said the Hammonds were trying to cover up the illegal killing of several deer on BLM property.
Steven Hammond was also convicted of arson for setting back fires while a burn ban was in effect in an attempt to protect the ranch’s winter feed in 2006. That fire burned onto public land and placed firefighters battling other blazes in danger, the government maintained.
The Hammonds were convicted “by a jury of their peers,” Rhodes notes. The sentencing judge agreed that mandatory minimum sentences of five years for the convictions were unconstitutional and imposed sentences well below that.
The federal government successfully appealed, leading to Saturday’s protest.
Rhodes is by no means advocating that Oath Keepers members shy away from confrontation – just that they avoid the one in Oregon.
“All of you who are impatient and itching for a fight, put your thinking caps on and use your heads. Keep your cool, and don’t worry, the fight will come to you soon enough,” he wrote on the group’s website. “(President Barack) Obama, and the other anti-gun idiot politicians such as the governor of (Connecticut), will not be able to resist the temptation to attempt to violate our right to bear arms by executive decree, such as barring anyone put on no-fly list and other ‘government watch lists’ from owning guns.
“Clearly their intent is to eventually put all of you ‘dangerous’ veterans, patriots and constitutionalists on such watch lists, designate you as someone who is barred from owning guns, and then use that to disarm you, one at a time.”
He encourages followers to “form minuteman companies and Quick Reaction Forces in your town and county. Then let ‘them’ come and try to take your guns. ... That is how you do it. Not by trying to force the people of Harney County, Oregon, to take a stand they apparently don’t want to take, over land use issues most Americans don’t even understand.”
Oath Keepers’ presence at the Bundy standoff in Nevada, at the Ferguson riots and at disputes between miners and federal agencies – including last summer in Lincoln – were all welcomed and/or requested by some individuals involved in those situations, Rhodes says.