Britton recently spent a couple days in Burns, Oregon, as part of a Socialist Workers Party team to bring solidarity to the fight to free the Hammonds and learn more about the efforts. Mary Martin, chairperson of the SWP in Seattle, joined Britton on the platform.
The Hammonds were found guilty in April 2014 of “malicious damaging and destroying, by means of fire” 139 acres of federal land in 2001. “That’s less than one-quarter square mile,” Britton said. Steven Hammond was found guilty of an additional charge for a 2006 fire that burned one acre.
In much of the West, where the government owns 50 percent of the land, private ranches are surrounded by federal lands. Federal agencies, like the Bureau of Land Management, grant generous concessions to big capitalist enterprises, but hinder and harass smaller ranchers like the Hammonds.
“The Hammond ranch is right next to land the government has bought up for the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,” Britton said. “But the Hammonds declined to sell.”
Rusty Inglis, president of the Harney County Farm Bureau, told Britton that wildfires, mostly from lightning, burn hundreds of thousands of acres in Oregon every year. In 2014 one fire alone burned nearly 400,000 acres near Burns.
“Inglis and others told us that controlled fires are commonly used by ranchers to get rid of invasive Juniper trees and to protect farms from wildfires,” Britton said.
The charges were brought under the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, signed by then President Bill Clinton, which established mandatory minimum sentences for many offenses. District Court Judge Michael Hogan ruled that the minimum sentence of five years for arson under the act was not meant for cases like this and “would not meet any idea I have of justice, proportionality.” He sentenced Dwight Hammond to three months and Steven to one year in prison.
Federal prosecutors vindictively appealed and the U.S. Appeals Court ordered the Hammonds sent back to prison to complete the full five-year minimum, citing other sentences imposed under minimum-maximum regulations, including 50 years to life for stealing nine videotapes and 25 years to life for the theft of three golf clubs under California’s three-strikes law.
“Small ranchers and working people in Burns and more broadly see this as a terrible injustice,” Britton said. A Jan. 2 demonstration drew 300. “There are only 7,000 people in all of Harney County. This was a big action.”
After the rally a dozen or so participants led by Ammon Bundy, a businessman from Arizona whose father is a Nevada rancher, began an armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Bundy and others in his group Citizens for Constitutional Freedom demand the Hammonds’ release, as well as advancing schemas such as transferring federal land to the control of local governments.
Most area ranchers and others who back the Hammonds “are for fighting via legal means and say they are opposed to the occupation,” Britton said. “Others are glad for the national attention the occupation brought to the issues.”
The FBI, sheriff departments and the state police are stepping up their presence in Burns. So far they haven’t tried to stop those occupying the refuge from moving freely, Britton said, but calls for a government attack are growing.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown demanded a swift end to “the unlawful occupation” Jan. 20. In an editorial that day the Oregonian, the state’s largest-circulation daily, called for “measured but aggressive actions.”
This is a dangerous sign, Britton said, recalling the April 1993 FBI assault on the Branch Davidian religious sect in Waco, Texas, that murdered 86 people, including 17 children, under the Clinton administration.
“For workers around the world, watching the carnage in Waco was an almost unbearable reminder of the kind of violence the capitalist government, capitalist political parties and their armed gangs … will not hesitate to use,” Socialist Workers Party national secretary Jack Barnes said in a statement at the time. “Today the target may be a marginal religious group. Tomorrow it can be workers who step out of line or their unions and other class organizations.”
‘Bird lives matter’Mary Martin described attending a Jan. 19 protest by environmental groups in Portland, Oregon. SWP members contended with those supporting the jailing of the Hammonds and calling for forcibly ending the occupation of the Malheur reserve. Some held signs that said, “We’re for birds not bullies” and “Bird lives matter.”
“This just contributes to the campaign for another Waco-type assault,” Martin said. “We went there with a large sign that said ‘Free the Hammonds! Socialist Workers Party.’ A few people made faces at us and walked away, but we found no obstacles to engage in civil debate. A couple people gave us thumbs-up and some said they agreed the Hammonds got a raw deal.
“We explained that we live in a class-divided society and need to end the dictatorship of capital,” she said. “We need a workers and farmers alliance like they built in Cuba. We sold nine copies of the Militant in a freezing rain.”
During the forum discussion, one participant asked what he could do to help free the Hammonds and prevent the government from launching a Waco-style assault.
“The most important thing is to get out the truth,” said Militant editor John Studer from the audience. “Help us get out the Militant — the only paper telling the truth — as we go door to door in working-class neighborhoods. Set up speaking engagements for Joel and others who have gone to Burns. If you’re a union member see if your local will call for the release of the Hammonds.”
Oppose FBI raid, killing in Oregon!
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