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Standoff in Oregon: 'Militia movement's second wave'

Anti-government militants occupying a US wildlife refuge have surrendered to police. Though the 41-day armed standoff ended without large-scale bloodshed, the incident could fuel further militia activity.

Dwight and Steven Hammond didn't want to become martyrs. When a federal judge sentenced the Oregon ranchers to prison for arson, they accepted their fate without protest.

But Ammon Bundy, an anti-government activist in Idaho, saw a threat to the rancher way of life and took it upon himself to act. He called for armed men from across the United States to descend on the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and take a stand against the federal government.

"If what is happening to the Hammonds is allowed, it will set a standard of what these powerful people will do to all of us," Bundy wrote in an email to supporters, published by the Associated Press.

Ammon Bundy Porträt

Ammon Bundy called on armed men to protect what he called the rancher's way of life

Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son Steven, 46, had already served short stints for burning 140 acres of federal land, supposedly to keep an invasive plant species off their property. But a judge handed them with another four years under an anti-terrorism law requiring a higher mandatory penalty for arson.

Defying federal authorities, Bundy and his handful of armed followers occupied the Malheur Wildlife Refuge on January 2 in protest of the sentence and a standoff with law enforcement ensued. The 41-day confrontation ended on Thursday when the four remaining armed occupiers surrendered to police.

But the surrender came too late to avoid bloodshed.

Bundy was arrested

two weeks earlier while making a trip outside the wildlife refuge with a group of his followers. A shootout ensued and the group's spokesman,

Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, was killed by law enforcement officers.

"I wish that arrest had gone more cleanly than it did," Robert Churchill, a professor at the University of Hartford and an expert on the origins of the anti-government militia movement in the US, told DW. "Whether that's going to have repercussions in the future is very difficult to judge.

"There are some folks who have seized on Finicum's death and are trying to parlay it into a rallying cry," Churchill added."A lot of that is stuff that's done anonymously on the web, and it's hard to judge what people's real feelings and motivations are about that."

'Militia movement's second wave'

The occupation of the wildlife refuge wasn't the Bundy family's first confrontation with the US government. Ammon's father, Cliven, was at the center of an armed standoff with authorities in Nevada in 2014. The 69-year-old rancher refused to pay fees for his livestock to graze on federal land.

Oregon Besetzung Naturpark Bürgerwehr USA

The FBI has largely been commended for how it handled the Oregon standoff

When federal authorities moved to round up Cliven's cattle, armed militiamen descended on the ranch. Law enforcement eventually backed down to avoid violence. Cliven still owes more than $1 million (1.13 million euros) to the government in fees dating back to 1993.

According to Churchill, the showdown at the Bundy ranch in Nevada and the occupation of the Oregon wildlife refuge are manifestations of a broader resurgence in far-right activity in the United States - what he called the "militia movement's second wave."

Anti-government militia activity peaked in the 1990s and then declined through the start of the new millennium. The emergence of the Tea Party, however, has played an important role in bringing far-right ideas closer to the mainstream.

"The was an effort by a lot of very mainstream figures within the Republican Party, in response to [President Barack] Obama's election, to essentially bring the far-right back into the Republican tent," Churchill said. "The way in which those ideas have now been semi-institutionalized and legitimated has reinvigorated the militia movement.

"The idea of taking up arms to defend America and the American way of life is now more of a mainstream idea within the Republican Party," he said. "As a consequence I think people feel that behavior has become more normative."

Extremists emboldened?

Cliven Bundy was arrested on Wednesday upon arrival in Portland, Oregon. The elder Bundy has been charged with assault, conspiracy and other crimes over the 2014 standoff at his ranch.

USA Oregon National Wildlife Refuge Besetzung

Militia members have expressed their displeasure with federal government regulations and land use fees

Prior to Cliven's arrest, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit organization that tracks extremist groups, criticized the government for failing to take legal action after the original standoff in Nevada.

"We believe these armed extremists have been emboldened by what they saw as a clear victory at the Cliven Bundy ranch and the fact that no one was held accountable for taking up arms against agents of the federal government," said Heidi Beirich, director of the center's Intelligence Project.

But Churchill said he believes law enforcement generally handled the situation with the Bundy family well. The occupation ended and the perpetrators were arrested without a bloody confrontation.

"In essence, the message has been sent, and the FBI managed to send this message in a way that didn't involve large-scale roundups that would have led to a highly unstable situation," Churchill said.

Scars of the past

During 1990s, the federal government had two infamous confrontations with religious fundamentalists in Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho. Three people died at Ruby Ridge, and the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco left 76 people dead.

Timothy McVeigh, an anti-government extremist, cited those bloody incidents as motivation for detonating a truck bomb next to a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people and wounding more than 680. The Oklahoma City bombing was the worst terrorist attack in US history until September 11, 2001.

"That's why everybody was so concerned that this incident not turn bloody," Churchill said. "A lot of people feel that back in the 1990s, the government in enacting pretty horrific violence at Ruby Ridge and Waco sort of brought on the huge retaliation in Oklahoma City and nobody wanted to see that happen again."

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