Some condemned it as “militia terrorism” at its worst, while others saw in it American courage and rebellion against tyranny at its best. But where in this continuum does the truth lie? A new primetime film documentary, featuring interviews with virtually all the key players, shines a bright light on what really was behind the 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in rural Eastern Oregon that erupted in early 2016, ending in mass arrests only after law enforcement fatally shot one of the occupiers.
The documentary, “American Standoff,” starts airing on DirecTV Thursday night and continues for the next week on several channels.
For most people, the film’s director Josh Turnbow told WND, “it’s mostly a headline – ‘Armed Standoff’ – but that conceals that there are real lives, really affected.”
Those real lives include, most prominently, Dwight and Steven Hammond, Oregon ranchers who were controversially convicted and sentenced for setting a controlled land-management fire on their property that went out of control onto federal land. But after they served their sentences and were released, a judge – at a federal prosecutor’s insistence – ordered them back into court where they were sentenced to further time in prison – where they are today.
Sympathetic ranchers and others – encouraged by the federal government’s stand-down from a previous armed confrontation in Nevada two years earlier on the land of rancher Cliven Bundy – protested the new injustice and ended up staging an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. They succeeded in keeping federal officers at bay until they were finally taken into custody when police staged a highly dangerous highway stop of vehicles carrying the protesters and shot two men.
Ryan Bundy, one of Cliven Bundy’s sons, was injured, while LaVoy Finicum was killed.
Eventually, seven of the others who were arrested were acquitted of federal charges related to the standoff, and the feds even dismissed charges against a self-described independent broadcaster, Peter Santilli, who documented the occupation near Burns, Oregon, but was accused by prosecutors of being part of the protest group.
“My opinion of the Hammond story,” Turnbow told WND, “is it’s sad and tragic and it needs to be revisited, not only by the audience, but potentially by the court system.”
After all, the Hammonds remain in prison. “Does the audience feel OK with that?” asked Turnbow.
In addition to conducting in-depth interviews with pretty much everyone involved on all sides of the conflict, Turnbow also tapped WND’s vice president and managing editor, David Kupelian, to offer a journalist’s perspective and analysis.
“I think Josh Turnbow did a terrific job in ‘American Standoff,’” says Kupelian, who has seen the movie’s final cut, “not just in fairly and sensitively presenting all sides of a complex and troubling situation, but in telling a riveting, deeply thought-provoking true story about today’s America. The documentary captures the classic modus operandi of an oppressive government: Perpetrate injustice, provoking widespread public outrage, which always includes a small number of people who seriously overreact and, however well-meaning, do something illegal or irresponsible – and then portray them as the real problem, or in this case as ‘criminals’ and ‘terrorists.’”
Specifically, says Kupelian: “The main provocation in this story was convicting two Oregon cattle ranchers, a father and son team whose controlled burn on their own property had gotten out of control and migrated onto federal land, with arson under an anti-terrorism statute that mandates a minimum five-year prison sentence. Even the presiding judge said such a severe and unjust sentence would ‘shock the conscience.’ Well, it did shock the conscience of a lot of other ranchers – and the Malheur standoff was the result.”
Bottom line, said Turnbow, is that he would like people to know the facts, talk about the issues and consider what they think really happened, and what the right outcome should have been – especially with regard to the still-imprisoned ranchers, serving a five-year “terrorism” sentence.
“We should be talking about it,” Turnbow says.
The AUDIENCE original documentary, “American Standoff,” featuring never-before-seen footage and exclusive interviews, premieres Thursday at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT on DirecTV, DirecTV Now and AT&T U-verse.
The larger issue at hand – federal control over land in the American West – continues to loom large. The federal government is the largest landowner in the Rocky Mountain and Western states, sometimes owning contiguous parcels of millions and millions of acres. Conflicts between ranchers, who sometimes have owned and worked their land for generations, and a federal government seemingly always hungry for more, are common. Possibly President Donald Trump’s recent executive order on “national monuments” – a designation his predecessor Barack Obama used to lock up literally millions of acres in western states for the federal government – will help defuse the longstanding tensions between America’s ranchers and the government.
See the trailer for “American Standoff”: