Negotiation in the News: In Oregon standoff, allies of occupiers broker a resolution

Negotiations at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge hinged on finding mediators the protestors could trust.

By on / Conflict Resolution

How can you end a conflict with someone who doesn’t trust you? Consider bringing in someone the other party does trust to mediate the dispute, as the FBI and the occupiers of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon did to promote a peaceful end to their standoff this past February.

Strategic patience

On January 2, an armed group of protestors took over the wildlife refuge in objection to the U.S. government’s ownership of land. They demanded that the federal government cede ownership of the land to locals and release two Oregon ranchers recently reimprisoned for burning federal property.

Rather than immediately confronting the occupiers, federal authorities allowed them to come and go from the refuge and to speak to the media. In learning from previous violent confrontations with antigovernment protestors, such as the Ruby Ridge standoff, the FBI had established a policy of “strategic patience” in such situations. The strategy involves giving protestors time to cool off in the hope that they will surrender voluntarily. In allowing the Oregon occupiers to vent to the press, the authorities knew they were also creating opportunities for the occupiers to make incriminating statements that could be used to arrest them, reports National Public Radio.

A brief negotiation

On January 21, the occupiers’ leader, Ammon Bundy, traveled to the FBI’s operations base at a nearby airport and asked to speak to an FBI crisis negotiator named Chris. According to Bundy, Chris had left him 14 voice-mail messages in previous days. Told that Chris wasn’t at the base but could be reached by phone, Bundy borrowed a cell phone from an FBI agent and put it on speaker to allow others present to hear.

For about an hour, Chris listened to Bundy’s complaints about the federal government and, without making any commitments to meet Bundy’s demands, asked questions about how they could end the standoff.

“The conversation sounded in some ways like acquaintances catching up,” according to the Oregonian. The two men agreed to speak again the next day.

The following day, however, Bundy abruptly changed his mind, saying he believed the FBI did not have the authority from the local sheriff to lead the negotiations (an assertion the sheriff denied).

Violence, then mediation

On January 26, FBI agents and Oregon state police officers stopped Bundy and other occupiers on a highway outside the refuge. When one of the occupiers, LaVoy Finicum, allegedly reached into his jacket pocket for a gun, two of the Oregon police officers shot him dead. (The U.S. Justice Department later opened an investigation into possible misconduct by FBI agents on the scene. Although the agents didn’t hit anyone, they stood accused of failing to disclose that they had discharged their weapons during the confrontation.) Bundy and other occupiers were arrested. In court the following day, Bundy asked the remaining occupiers to “stand down” and leave the refuge. All but four acquiesced.

Negotiating with the FBI around the clock, the remaining four occupiers demanded to be allowed to leave the refuge without being arrested. A breakthrough came when the FBI enlisted Christian evangelist Franklin Graham, the son of well-known evangelist Billy Graham, to try to mediate a resolution by phone. Over the course of a week, Graham worked to bring the occupiers “to a point where they were ready to leave of their own volition,” according to National Public Radio.

The FBI moves in

On February 10, FBI agents in armored vehicles hemmed the last four occupiers into their camp and ordered them to lay down their guns and surrender. The four streamed audio of their talks with the FBI live on YouTube. Sounding panicked and enraged, they accused the FBI of betraying them and rejected the demands.

The FBI’s special agent in charge of the standoff, Greg Bretzing, released a statement saying that the bureau had attempted to negotiate the situation with “patience and restraint” but had “reached a point where it became necessary to take action” to ensure the safety of the occupiers, law enforcement, and local citizens, the Oregonian reports.

Finally, the four holdouts announced they would surrender at a checkpoint the following morning but said that they first wanted to meet in person with Nevada state legislator Michele Fiore and with Franklin Graham.

A reassuring voice

That afternoon, Fiore, a vocal supporter of the occupation’s leaders, had been flying to Portland with plans to speak out against Bundy’s detention with his lawyers at a news conference the next day. But after landing at the Portland airport, the conservative lawmaker found her phone was “blowing up” with messages to “call the refuge, call the refuge, they’re asking for you,” she told the Oregonian. Inside the airport terminal, Fiore plugged in her cell phone and began speaking with the remaining occupiers. She was assisted by one of Bundy’s lawyers, who reached out to the FBI by phone.

Soon Fiore and the lawyer, Mike Arnold, were racing by truck to the refuge. “We need to stay calm,” Fiore told the occupiers. “I need you to be alive to make a change.”

An FBI agent called Arnold to say that Fiore was doing a good job and should continue to try to get the occupiers to calm down. Fiore repeatedly paused the talks to engage the occupiers in prayer. She reassured them that many of their fellow protestors had already been released from jail, suggesting they might follow a similar path. Eventually, she convinced the four that the FBI would not move on them overnight. Finally, they again agreed they would surrender in the morning.

The final hours

Early the next day, the FBI brought Fiore and Graham to the outskirts of the refuge. The four holdouts spoke by phone with Fiore, Graham, and some anti-government activists. All of the mediators urged the occupiers to surrender, according to the New York Times, as up to 30,000 people listened to the live-streamed conversation.

“A dead man can’t talk, a dead man can’t write,” Fiore reminded the holdouts.

Three of the occupiers emerged with their hands raised around 9:30 a.m., leaving 27-year-old David Fry of Ohio alone at the refuge. The mediators asked him to think about what Jesus would have done in his situation. By 11 a.m., he, too, surrendered.

“I’m really glad they’re safe,” Fiore told the Oregonian, noting that Fry was about the same age as her daughter. “And I also have to give kudos to the FBI agents out there. No one got hurt.” According to the Times, Fiore then vowed to help the protesters take their fight to “the next battleground, which is the court system and legislation.”

Lessons from a tense standoff

Business negotiators stuck in a conflict with a distrustful party may find the following lessons from the Oregon standoff helpful:

  • Exercise strategic patience. Resist the urge to respond immediately to provocative acts. A slow-paced approach to conflict resolution can help de-escalate tensions while also strengthening parties’ motivations to end the dispute.
  • When possible, meet in person. Bundy cut off talks with the FBI after it failed to provide him with a negotiator he could meet with face to face. Business negotiators would be wise to meet with counterparts in person when possible. More so than phone calls, face-to-face meetings humanize negotiators and foster rapport.

Enlist those the other party trusts. Thanks to their conservative credentials and sympathy to the occupiers’ cause, both Graham and Fiore played crucial roles in resolving the standoff. Look for people you and your counterpart both trust to mediate your dispute.

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