The Bundy militia claim to be simple patriots guarding the US constitution. But 48 hours into their occupation of a wildlife refuge in rural Oregon, it has emerged that the band of armed protesters includes at least one prominent anti-Islam activist.
Jon Ritzheimer, a former US marine, was one of the guards posted at the gate of the Malheur wildlife reserve on Monday, and he was happy to espouse his virulent opposition to the Islamic faith.
“I am very outspoken against it because I see the threat that it poses,” he said of his opposition to Islam. “There’s a lot of people out there [who say] ‘Hey you’re an infidel whether you like it or not’ if you don’t believe in Islam.”
He added: “Islam is a tyrannical ideology. It cannot coexist with the constitution here in America.”
A prolific creator of online propaganda against Islam, Ritzheimer came to the attention of the FBI in December after he reportedly posted a video of himself holding a gun and threatening to drive to Hancock, New York, to confront journalists at a Muslim publication that had criticised him. The FBI, after initially dissuading him from the confrontation, notified state police of his potential arrival, according to reports.
Earlier in the year Ritzheimer also courted controversy when he organised an armed protest outside a mosque in Phoenix, Arizona, his home town.
Ritzheimer is especially prominent online. He reportedly created an anti-Muslim website that sells offensive propaganda such as T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan ‘Fuck Islam’ and regularly posts videos making incendiary remarks about Muslims. Asked about his views by the Guardian, Ritzheimer said: “I am not a racist, I am not a bigot.”
Ritzheimer’s presence is indicative of the potential appeal of the occupation among a rag-tag bag of fringe rightwing actors. Some prominent US militia leaders are distancing themselves from the armed occupation, which is a protest against Monday’s incarceration of two local ranchers, father and son Dwight and Steven Hammond.
Ammon Bundy, a key leader among the group of occupiers, is calling on likeminded Americans to travel to the remote corner of Oregon to join the group, who are calling themselves “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom”.
At Monday’s press conference, there were 17 militia present, including women and several children – some of whom looked younger than 10. When asked if the children were camping on site, Bundy replied: “No, but I welcome them.” Bundy said he had had “indirect contact” with law enforcement officials, and third parties had informed him that “they will not come upon us”.
The siege at the wildlife refuge, near the town of Burns, appears to be entering a new phase; after two days of relative quiet, dozens of reporters are now at the scene, with SUVs and satellite broadcasting trucks blocking the entrance to the federal wildlife facility.
This has led to some sophisticated media management from the militia, which has promised daily news conferences at 11am.
Bundy is an eloquent, affable-seeming spokesman for the group, and has been quick to broaden the set of grievances beyond the two local ranchers who served in prison over charges relating to fires on federal land. The two ranchers, Dwight L Hammond and his son Steven D Hammond, surrendered to federal authorities on Monday, the Associated Press reported.
He and his brother, Ryan Bundy, others are portraying the standoff as a confrontation between impoverished cattle ranchers and federal land authorities denying them their rights to the land.
The Bundy brothers are sons of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada ranchers who had a similar standoff with federal authorities in 2014 over cattle grazing rights.
The Bundy ranch became a haven for rightwing militia groups from across America in what came to be a symbolic confrontation between ranchers and federal authorities.
The Bundys, it seems, emerged victorious after that dispute with the US government, and are emboldened to replicate the success at the wildlife refuge in Oregon. After he answered questions, Ammon Bundy turned the media for tours of the occupied site.
Reporters were led to a messy, rat-dropping infested storage area – intended to show federal government mismanagement of the site. Journalists were also shown the militia group’s supply room, which was surprisingly meagre for a group talking about months of occupation.
The militia leaders struggled to prevent reporters from wandering around the site, and talking to militia members who, it seemed, they had hoped to keep away from the media.