BURNS, Oregon — Whether they’re being called freedom fighters or “Y’all Qaeda,” the actions of the armed protesters occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Reserve in rural Oregon have elicited strong opinions throughout the country.
But what do the people of Harney County — an area larger than 10,000 square miles with a population of about 7,000 people — think about the situation that has put their home at the center of the land rights debate?
Those protesting have a different answer than those in law enforcement or in the federal government.
LaVoy Finicum, one of the protesters, said that the community is “grateful that we are here.”
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and Harney County Sheriff David Ward disagree.
The truth appears to be more nuanced and lie somewhere in between.
Some see the protesters as outsiders and want them gone; others aren’t happy about the occupation, but agree that the federal government is violating the rights of land owners in the West. Many are frustrated that their everyday lives have been impacted by outsiders, and a handful blame that on the way local authorities responded.
Shelly Daughtery told CNN she felt “lied to.”
“I feel like the whole protest march was a ruse so that they could do what they’re doing right now,” the print shop owner from Burns, Oregon, said.
Charlotte Rodrique, chairwoman of the Burns Paiute Tribal Council, said at a press conference that her organization does not “condone any of their activities.”
“I don’t really think that their message is necessarily bad,” Leslie Odam, a Harney County resident, told CNN affiliate KTVZ . “I understand what they’re saying, but I think they’re going about it all the wrong way.”
To those occupying the reserve, Odam put it more bluntly: “Just go home and stay away,” she said.
Gary, a Burns resident who did not want to give CNN his last name, said he was angry at the protesters.
“The Bundys need to go home. They’re babies,” he said.
One tweet shows a sign in Burns that says “Go Home Bundys!!” referring to one of the protest leaders, Ammon Bundy. That sign is placed next to one that reads: “No Trespassing.”
‘A whole bunch of to-do about a little bit of nothing’
Some people CNN spoke with were angry at local authorities, who closed schools and other public buildings.
“They’re out of school for a whole week? For what reason? I don’t understand, they need education,” Dixie Moulton said.
Burns High School Freshman Patricia Looney called the decision to close school “stupid.”
“My kids are scared, they ask about it. It’s not right,” Heather Moss said. She said she’s not sure what she thinks of the armed protesters.
Robert and Linda Salsbery, who are retired but both grew up in Burns, both think local leaders overreacted, feeding fear and confusion.
“It’s total hysteria. You get on the Internet and there’s so much misinformation,” Linda Salsbery said. “Those guys aren’t here to kill anybody. They just decided to take a stand somewhere. They’re 60 miles from town.”
Still, she said the protesters shouldn’t have taken over the refuge.
“This is a whole bunch of to-do about a little bit of nothing,” Robert Salsbery said. “I agree with their cause but I don’t agree with their tactics.
‘The tide is changing’
Rancher Sandy Potter told KTVZ she supports the protesters.
“They’re sticking up for our constitutional rights,” she said.
B.J. Soper, who helped organize Saturday’s initially peaceful demonstration decrying the prison sentences for Dwight and Steven Hammond, told CNN that his view of the armed protest has evolved over the last few days.
After meeting the Hammonds about a month ago — an introduction organized by Bundy — Soper has been traveling back-and-forth to Burns from his home in Bend, Oregon, in order to bring attention to the their case.
“I promised the community we’d have a peaceful rally,” he said. “I was upset when the others decided to go out to the wildlife refuge.”
Soper said despite his initial rejection of the occupation, he’s encouraged that the debate over land rights has been thrust into the national conversation.
“I’ve calmed down, I’ve talked with Ammon [Bundy] on the phone. We’re trying our best to take what I still consider was a bad decision and make the best out of it,” he said.
“The locals are starting to support what’s going on the refuge,” Soper said. “They were upset initially, but now that they’ve calmed down they’re starting to see that this is their opportunity to let the country know and let everybody know who’s watching that land rights issues are huge out here.”
“The tide is changing out here, and I hope the media will latch onto that and show that that’s true.”