BURNS, Ore. (KOIN) — More than 100 protesters took to the streets of Burns on Saturday to support a pair of Oregon ranchers who will return to prison for arsons on federal land — even though the ranchers have publicly said they don’t want their help.
Supporters of ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond gathered at the Safeway in Burns at noon. One speaker said there were attendees from Idaho, Washington, Montana, Texas, Ohio, Michigan and Florida in the group.
For about 40 minutes, organizers addressed the crowd at the Safeway, then began a 1-mile march to the Hammonds’ house after singing the Star-Spangled Banner. They stayed a few minutes once they arrived at the house, and continued their march after the Hammonds made a brief appearance.
Dwight Hammond told KOIN 6 News, “Remember: It’s not about me, it’s about America and somehow we have to get the wheels back on this wagon because they are flying off.”
At 73, Hammond said he feels his upcoming prison term is a life sentence.
“I’m not very happy about that. Just don’t know what to say,” Hammond said. “It just seems like a little overreach for having burned 127 acres.”
Marchers returned to the Safeway parking lot around 1:30 p.m. There was no visible police presence at any point during those 90 minutes.
Not all residents on board
While some locals did march with the protesters, others felt it was too much. Some posted signs to protest the protesters.
“I want them to go home,” resident Bee Bee Sitz said. “We take care of ourselves.”
Another resident, Kainan Jordan, said, “I don’t think all of these outsiders coming here is necessary. I think they intimidate the local people.”
How it began
Organizer Pete Santilli, an online right-wing talk show host, was at the center of the protest. When KOIN 6 News photojournalist Bill Cortez arrived, Santilli peppered him with questions about why he was there and whether he supported the US Constitution. Cortez replied he was just there to do a job, which Santilli took to mean Cortez was against them.
A convoy of cars, trucks and marchers convened at the local Safeway, which organizers said stocked up on flowers for the protesters to deliver to the Hammonds.
A number of protesters did buy flowers.
In a symbolic move to show they were buying back their government, the protesters threw pennies onto the sidewalk in front of Harney County Sheriff David Ward’s office.
Children later scooped up all the pennies.
The reason for the protest
Dwight Hammond, 73, and his 46-year-old son Steven said they burned the land to stop invasive plants from growing onto their grazing fields, but the fires spread to federal land. They were convicted and served time in prison, but a judge ruled they must return to prison to serve more time.
The Hammonds plan to surrender next week.
But protesters who support the Hammonds also supported Cliven Bundy in his standoff with federal officials in Nevada. They say the federal government is overreaching in this case.
The Hammonds’ new sentences touched a nerve with far right groups who repudiate federal authority. The son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a standoff with the government over grazing rights, is organizing opposition.
In 2014, after the federal Bureau of Land Management sought to remove Bundy’s cattle from public rangeland, armed militiamen confronted federal officials. Bundy stopped paying grazing fees over 20 years ago and owes more than $1 million.
This month, his son Ammon Bundy and a handful of militiamen from other states arrived in Burns, some 60 miles from the Hammond ranch.
Ammon Bundy and other right-wing leaders have called on armed militia around the country to come support the Hammonds. The groups held that rally and protest in town Saturday.
“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,” Ammon Bundy wrote in an email, referring to the federal government.
The Hammonds have not welcomed the Bundys’ help.
“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.
Burns is located in Harney County, with a population around 2800.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.