Grant County residents filled the John Day Senior Center beyond capacity Tuesday evening for a community meeting that was supposed to feature Ammon Bundy and leaders of the armed militia group occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Instead, Bundy and four other militants were arrested by the FBI on Highway 395 north of Burns before they could arrive. A sixth member of the group was shot and killed during the encounter. The news drew tears and anger from militia supporters at the meeting, who described it as an “ambush.”
Yet the gathering pressed on, evolving into a town hall with the majority of speakers siding with Bundy and venting their frustrations on the federal government. Organizer Tad Houpt, of Canyon City, promised the crowd there would be another meeting in the very near future.
“We’re not going to stop,” Houpt said. “We’re not going to take this anymore.”
Bundy and the militia leaders had been occupying the wildlife refuge near Burns since Jan. 2. They demanded the 187,757-acre bird sanctuary be returned to the county for ranching, while criticizing the federal government’s overall ownership and management of public lands.
The militia also protested the sentences of two Harney County ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, who were convicted of arson and given five years in prison for setting fires that burned onto federal land. Bundy and supporters have called for the Hammonds’ immediate release.
In John Day, the majority of people who approached the microphone during the town hall were supportive of Bundy and the armed protest. A smaller counter-protest was held outside the senior center, with roughly 30 people holding signs directing their ire at both the militia and Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer.
Palmer, who appeared in uniform at the beginning of the meeting, declined to speak with media. When it became clear Bundy would not arrive, Houpt told the crowd it appeared there had been an altercation somewhere between John Day and Burns. News later circulated about the arrests and gunfight.
One by one, residents came to the front of the room to speak their minds. Larry Lent, of John Day, argued the militants had every right to be in Oregon and said government overreach has been going on for a long time.
“I support the Hammonds and the Bundys 100 percent,” Lent said. “To hell with the FBI. They don’t belong here.”
Jerry Larkin, of Canyon City, said he spent a day with the militia on the refuge, describing them as “just like you and I.”
“The federal government has taken away ground that doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to the people,” Larkin said. “These people are genuinely trying to look out for these United States, just like the rest of us.”
Outside, counter-protesters held signs that read, “John Day does not support criminal action,” and “Bundy Bunch — not in Grant County.” Hans Magden, of John Day, held a sign that simply read “Impeach Palmer.”
“He’s not doing his job,” Magden said of the county sheriff. “He’s not abiding by the laws. He’s integrating his own personal beliefs ... I believe he should be removed from office.”
In particular, Magden said it was irresponsible to invite the militia to John Day. He said he believes Palmer sympathizes with their cause.
Kay Steele, who lives in Grant County near the community of Ritter, said she and her husband do nature photography on the Malheur refuge. She said they see the militia as law-breakers.
“These people do not speak for Grant County,” Steele said. “We want the world to know that Grant County people don’t support this. This is a very vocal minority.”
Back inside, militia supporters sat near the front of the room, with counter-protesters mostly in the back of the room. Jim Sproul, a fifth-generation resident of John Day, brought up the recent Canyon Creek Complex of wildfires that burned more than 100,000 acres last summer.
“That wasn’t an act of God. It was an act of negligence,” Sproul said.
Odalis Sharp, of Auburn, Kansas, got up with her children to sing songs during the meeting. She described Bundy and the militia as good people, and urged the crowd to defend their cause.
“You all are going to have to step up right now,” Sharp said. “Somebody was shot on the way here. They were coming over here to tell you the truth ... We’ll stand for you as long as we can.”