The armed militia occupying a wildlife refuge in Oregon said they would surrender to the FBI in front of the world’s media on Thursday, after several hours of tense and at times frantic negotiations that were broadcast live on YouTube.
The remaining militia members at the Malheur national wildlife refuge tentatively agreed to walk off the refuge at 8am, appearing to back down after the FBI dramatically closed in on their occupation.
“We are not surrendering, we’re turning ourselves in,” Sean Anderson, one of the remaining militia members at the site near Burns, Oregon, said on a phone call with mediators, which was live-streamed on YouTube on Wednesday. “It goes against everything we believe in, but we’re going to do it.”
In another dramatic twist late on Wednesday, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, whose 2014 standoff with the federal government inspired the occupation in Oregon, was arrested, apparently en route to Burns. The FBI said Bundy was taken into federal custody in Portland but declined to disclose the charges.
Shortly before setting off to Oregon, Bundy, 69, had told the Guardian in a phone interview that he was heading to the standoff to protect the holdouts. “I hope I save some lives,” he said. “I guess if they wanted to murder somebody tonight, that’d be a good way to do it.”
Cliven Bundy’s two sons, Ammon and Ryan, were both arrested in connection with the standoff in Oregon two weeks ago, following a firefight with federal authorities that resulted in the arrest of close to a dozen militia members and the death of the occupation’s spokesman, LaVoy Finicum.
Fear of another fatal confrontation was clear in the phone calls that were broadcast live on the internet earlier on Wednesday after the FBI effectively squeezed the noose around the remaining members of the militia.
David Fry, a 27-year-old anti-government protester at the standoff, began screaming on a phone call with a conservative activist from Washington at 5pm. In a frantic status update, the activist on the other end of the line, Gavin Seim, told his 20,000 followers on Facebook that Fry was on the line, sharing a frightening message with him.
“He says a armored vehicles have surrounded them and are demanding they surrender but they will not,” he posted on social media at 5.03pm. “The FBI is on loudspeakers and asking them if they want to see their family again. They are cornered and in a verbal confrontation right now.”
Twelve minutes later, Seim posted a live YouTube stream on his Facebook page, letting listeners hear directly from Fry, who said law enforcement officials were closing in on him and the three other remaining holdouts at the armed occupation of the Malheur national wildlife refuge.
Within minutes, listeners across the country were tuning into the chaotic live-stream, listening to the dramatic events unfold.
Seim’s phone call with the occupiers, broadcast live, provided a dramatic and at times surreal window into the deliberations ongoing at the site, as the militia debated the merits of surrender. At times, they appeared bordering on panic and hysteria, convinced federal agents were about to ambush them.
“The black hawks are here and they’re going to kill us,” said one man at the refuge, after they heard helicopters circling above. “If they fire first, my weapon is in reach and I’m going to take them with me.”
The Andersons, a husband and wife from Riggins, Idaho, discussed whether they should leave the occupation.
“They’re just looking for a reason to kill us,” Sean Anderson declared early on. “Please don’t let us die in vain tonight,” added his wife, Sandy, one of the other four militia members still on the site.
Later, after they calmed down, Sean Anderson was heard saying: “At what point do we say ‘we’ve done enough’? And enough is enough is enough?”
The other occupier believed to be on the site, Jeff Banta, of Elko, Nevada, was not heard on the broadcasts, which at their height were pulling in more than 60,000 listeners. In addition to speaking on the phone call, the occupiers appeared to have a separate, closed line of communication to an FBI negotiator, and they frequently relayed the snippets of their negotiations.
As word of the live broadcast spread, the FBI confirmed in a statement that it had moved in on the occupation after militia members were seen driving outside the grounds. The FBI signaled it had run out of patience with the militia on their 40th day occupying the federal building.
“It has never been the FBI’s desire to engage these armed occupiers in any way other than through dialogue, and to that end, the FBI has negotiated with patience and restraint in an effort to resolve the situation peacefully,” said Greg Bretzing, special agent in charge of the FBI in Oregon.
“However, we reached a point where it became necessary to take action in a way that best ensured the safety of those on the refuge, the law enforcement officers who are on scene, and the people of Harney County who live and work in this area.”
The negotiation that led to the shaky agreement to bring the occupation to an end on Thursday was a roller coaster of screaming matches, prayers, constitutional debates, desperate pleas for helps and occasional breakouts in Christian song.
One crucial turning point appeared to be the intervention of a mediator on the call: Michele Fiore, a Republican member of the Nevada assembly.
Fiore, who supported Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy in his 2014 standoff with the federal government, had just arrived in Portland for an event to support the jailed Bundy sons.
Fiore jumped on the call and immediately tried to calm down the protesters, who were continuing to declare that the FBI was trying to murder them and that they were ready to fire. “We cannot afford more bloodshed,” she told the agitated protesters. “I’m willing to negotiate with the FBI for a peaceful resolution.”
But Fiore acknowledged that she faced a major obstacle to a speedy in-person negotiation. Calling from the Portland airport, she had a nearly five-hour drive ahead of her to get to the refuge in rural Harney County on the other side of the state.
Mike Arnold, Ammon’s lawyer, also joined the call, and Fiore said they would be “speeding” as fast as they could to get to the standoff. In between lengthy prayers, Fiore repeatedly told the occupiers that if the call dropped, they should stay calm and rest assured that the FBI would not move in on them.
Fiore also tried to persuade them that she would fight for them in the weeks and months ahead as they faced prosecution and imprisonment.
A federal grand jury recently indicted the four holdouts on conspiracy charges, which carry possible six-year sentences.
“I’m just afraid once we’re in prison, there’s nothing anybody can do for us,” Sean Anderson said, at one point asking if they could surrender without facing punishment. “They can drop charges – they do it all the time.”
“Jail or no jail,” Fiore continued, “I need you to stay alive. The only way we’re going to be able to write your story and write your book is if you’re alive.”
The occupiers said they were also in contact with Franklin Graham, a reverend from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association who said he wanted to help negotiate a resolution.
While the Andersons appeared to be coming around to a brokered surrender, Fry became increasingly irate, refusing to quiet down when the other occupiers said they couldn’t hear Fiore and Seim on the other end of the call.
“Sit the fuck down! Shut the fuck up! I’m trying to work this out,” Fry yelled at one point. Around 8pm, Fry said he spotted more FBI vehicles approaching, adding: “They’ve broken through our other barricade!”
As the hours ticked by, the tension receded.
At one point, Fiore asked: “Did you guys eat dinner?”
“No, we’ve got some snacks, ,” Sean Anderson responded. “A thousand granola bars.” Fiore offered to bring them McDonald’s.
Later, Sandy Anderson noted that the tens of thousands of listeners would soon start going to sleep. “They all get to go to bed while we’re standing for their freedom,” she said.
By around 9pm, the occupiers agreed that they would stand down and wait to leave at 8am Thursday morning, on the promise that they would be met by Fiore, Graham, and the TV cameras at an agreed checkpoint.
By around 9.45pm, Seim shut off the live-stream, cutting off the channel into their pained deliberations about what to do next.
Before the broadcast ended, Sean Anderson relayed to Fiore the terms under which they had agreed to stand down. They would relinquish their weapons, he said, and emerge into the sunlight in a group.
“We’re going to walk one after another, with the flag, and we’re going to turn ourselves in,” he said.
Shortly before midnight, Arnold – Ammon’s Bundy’s lawyer – told the Guardian that he worried Cliven Bundy’s surprise arrest could derail the apparent resolution forged for a surrender on Thursday.
“It’s unfortunate timing considering all the progress that we made this evening, but I hope that the folks at the refuge find some positive observations out of it,” he said. “Cliven was arrested safely and without incident, without harm.”
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