BURNS, Ore. — B.J. Soper rolled into this town with the nation’s founding fathers on his mind, an armed militia in tow and a peaceful protest on his agenda.
“We wanted to come and show our support,” the father of four from Redmond, Ore., said of his two-hour trek to Burns, where he joined hundreds of locals and out-of-town visitors for a Saturday rally to support Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, who where scheduled to report to federal prison Monday after being convicted of setting more than 100 acres of public land ablaze in 2001.
Soper made the trip to the once thriving timber town to back the Hammonds but also to protest what many of those gathered consider a trend of government encroachment on constitutional rights.
The rally started peacefully, locals said, but took a turn when a small group broke away and encouraged demonstrators to join them in the occupation of a federal building on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
“It was uplifting,” Soper said Sunday of the protest that drew 100 to 300 participants, according to local accounts.
But things changed, he said, when Ammon Bundy encouraged protesters to join him and a handful of other militia members in the occupation of the federal building.
“It caught a lot of us off guard,” Soper said. He added that he supports the occupiers’ cause but not their tactics.
It’s a sentiment that rippled through the small town of Burns, where cattle, agriculture and government employment fuels an economy that began to struggle after the timber industry tanked nearly three decades ago.
“That was very peaceful. That was very appropriate,” Patty Hodge, a bartender, said of Saturday’s protest.
“What happened [with the occupation] angered everyone in Harney County, and from what I understand, it angered the militia,” she said.
LaDell Schott, another local, said: “I think the majority are in favor of the Hammonds to put this behind them and move on. They really suffered a lot in terms of their livelihood.”
Schott said everyone knows everyone in Burns, where the town’s main drag takes travelers through a couple of stoplights and then onto more than 130 miles of highway lined with sage and tumbleweed.
Schott’s husband, Nick Schott, said the occupation that shut down local schools prompted his 6-year-old son to write a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
“Because they put my friends in jail and shut down school,” Nick Schott said, quoting his son.
“It molded the mind of a young man against the government,” he said. “And that’s not coming from me.”
Buzz about the situation drifted through local bars, where talk bounced from government overreach to how kids will make up lost school days to how the occupation holds good intent but mindless tactics.
“It’s anarchy,” said Len Vohs, a former mayor of Burns.
“Why are people bearing arms in our city? I would never think of it,” he said.
“There’s no reason to fight here. There’s only reason to communicate.”