BOISE, Idaho – When armed protesters took over a remote wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon four years ago to oppose federal control of public lands, U.S. agents negotiated with the conservative occupiers for weeks while some state leaders begged for stronger action.
This month, federal officers sent to Portland to quell chaotic protests against racial injustice took swift and, some say, harsh action: launching tear gas, firing less-lethal ammunition and helping arrest more than 40 people in the first two weeks. State leaders are imploring federal forces to leave the progressive city, saying they're escalating a volatile situation.
The reaction from state leaders, protesters and anti-government groups to the U.S. response to two disparate situations shows the inconsistencies in how both sides view federal intervention, often based on the politics of who's protesting and who's cracking down.
J.J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, said many right-wing extremists who espouse anti-government and pro-gun views have embraced the authoritarian tactics used by President Donald Trump that they denounced under his Democratic predecessor.
“It’s like night and day,” she said. “They hated government when Obama was in office. They love government now.”
MacNab, who's been monitoring social media chatter by supporters of anti-government groups like the Oath Keepers and the militia-style Three Percenters, said she's seen a steady stream of violent rhetoric directed toward Portland protesters.
MacNab said the Oath Keepers in 2015 promoted a conspiracy theory that a U.S. military training exercise was a pretext for the federal government to impose martial law.
“They are literally 180 degrees from where they were in 2015,” she said.
But some of them don't fully support the federal tactics targeting two months of protests in Portland that began after George Floyd's death by Minneapolis police. Large, mostly peaceful crowds had dwindled to smaller groups that have vandalized the federal courthouse and other public buildings downtown, which federal authorities say gives them authority to act to protect their officers and property.
Eric Parker, president of The Real 3%ers of Idaho, supported an armed standoff with federal authorities in 2014 near the Nevada ranch of Cliven Bundy, whose sons led the occupation at the wildlife refuge in Oregon two years later. Both standoffs pushed for states' rights and keeping the federal government out of people's lives.
Parker was charged with pointing a semi-automatic rifle at armed federal agents but ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. He spent about 18 months in federal custody.
“I had to go through due process with my activism, if you’re willing to call it that,” he said this week. “And if you’re going to do activism, you have to be willing to do that.”
Parker, who's running for Idaho state Senate, has some concerns about the federal response to protests in Portland and elsewhere.
“It makes me uncomfortable, sure,” he said. He worries that videos appearing to show U.S. agents grabbing people off the street and whisking them away in unmarked cars could mean people are being arrested without probable cause.
Still, he doesn’t necessarily oppose U.S. agencies taking action.
“If Portland isn’t going to protect its police department or the federal building or what have you, I could see them having to,” Parker said.
Parker, who was in eastern Oregon during the 2016 occupation but said he didn’t take part, criticized the difference in the Democratic governor’s reactions to the federal response then and now.
Gov. Kate Brown has compared the presence of federal agents at the Portland protests to pouring gasoline on a fire.
“This a democracy, not a dictatorship. We cannot have secret police abducting people in unmarked vehicles. I can’t believe I have to say that to the President of the United States,” she tweeted.
But “in 2016 she was begging federal law enforcement to do whatever they had to do to stop the peaceful occupation in the middle of a desert," Parker said. “The idea that now federal agents are storm-troopers of death I find quite hypocritical."
The armed occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge started Jan. 2, 2016, and lasted 41 days. Negotiations began in the first weeks, with Ammon Bundy questioning whether the federal government had the authority to operate in the rural county.
Bundy and others were allowed to come and go as Obama's administration tried to avoid the bloodshed that's characterized confrontations with right-wing groups in the past.
By the end of January, state police and FBI agents used a roadblock to stop Bundy and other protest leaders as they headed to a meeting. During the confrontation, occupier Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was shot and killed by police and several others were arrested. Finicum’s death sparked protests in over a dozen cities nationwide.
The FBI gave the remaining occupiers time to leave the refuge. Most did — though some were arrested — and soon just four holdouts remained. They surrendered as federal agents moved in Feb. 10.
U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Oregon Democrats, had urged the FBI to move quickly to end the occupation. Now, they strongly criticize federal actions in Portland. Wyden described them as “paramilitary assaults” on people's constitutional rights, while Merkley called them “profound offenses against Americans.”
In Portland, the federal response escalated faster. U.S. officers were deployed in early July, and they have repeatedly deployed tear gas and rubber bullets and used force to scatter protesters.
A protester was hospitalized with critical injuries on July 11 after a federal officer struck him in the head with a round of less-lethal ammunition. A video last weekend showed a federal agent hitting a Navy veteran repeatedly with a baton while another pepper-sprayed him in the face. U.S. officials said they're investigating.
Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, author of the 2016 book “To Protect and Serve: How to Fix America’s Police,” said Trump appears to be using “his own private political army” in a quest to “override home rule and local authority.”
“If it’s not unprecedented, it’s extremely rare and as dangerous as I think it is uncommon,” Stamper said.
Stamper said National Guard troops, unlike federal agents deployed by the Trump administration, are trained to respond to civil unrest and operate at the direction of state and local officials.
“For me, the larger question is: Who is in charge of these federal forces?” he said.
Bundy, who lives in Emmett, Idaho, is asking a similar question. He said this week that he planned to attend a local Black Lives Matter rally calling for reduced police funding.
“We have to understand that there is an enormous amount of Black people, you know, that need their rights defended,” he said in an online video. “I do believe, in many ways, the police need to be defunded. We have become a police state because of the funding that they receive.”
Some followers sharply criticized him, which Bundy said disgusted him. He later decided not to go to the protest, saying he feared his presence would increase the risk of violence from opponents.
“There needs to be a defunding of government in general, and especially the police forces, because they’re the ones that are actually going to seek and destroy us," he said in a video. “And there are many people in the Black Lives Matter organization, along with patriots and, you know, libertarians and Republicans and Democrats that understand this.”
Kunzelman reported from Silver Spring, Maryland.