Just as they have been since January 2, an armed, mostly White, mostly male group of radical right-wing paramilitaries are still occupying the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. So far, local and federal authorities in nearby Burns, Oregon, have taken almost no action. At press time, the buildings are not surrounded by law enforcement. They have electricity, heat and Internet access. Members of the press, supporters and FedEx workers can drive right up to the occupied territory.
A nearby restaurant called The Narrows is still open, too. One can walk in and see a number people—mostly a mixture of media and armed occupiers—enjoying the warm food, Wi-Fi and bar. The atmosphere recalls the cantina scene from the first “Star Wars.”
I visited Burns a couple of weeks ago and ended up at The Narrows on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Each time, the same men from the camp were there, sometimes joined by a bigger crowd. They included Bruce Doucette, a self-proclaimed superior court judge who in real life is a computer repairman.
He was accompanied by a number of armed men such as Joe O’Shaugnessy—better known as “Captain O”—who became Internet famous for going into town to drink away donations from followers. Several women—assumedly from the small number who are taking part in the occupation—joined them.
The Thursday I was there, I took a call in The Narrows’ parking lot before driving to the camp for the daily press conference. Afterward, I quizzed Captain O on his interpretation of the Constitution. At first, I was surprised when he said he believes in the 14th Amendment, which guarantees birthright citizenship and was originally passed to ensure that newly freed slaves were citizens. However, he then pulled me aside, said he’d been “briefed” on me, and barred me from the camp’s press tour. When I got back to my hotel in Burns, a researcher of far right movements tweeted that in camp circles it was rumored that a federal agent, posing as a journalist, was asking questions at the restaurant. Apparently, in their minds, I was that “fed.” Paranoia was widespread in the camp, and it was seeping into the town.
“Remote” is a term frequently used to describe the area. From the west, it’s a 45-minute drive through snow-covered fields to Burns, a town of less than 3,000. The refuge itself is another 40 minutes away through more snowy fields and plateaus. The county is 92 percent White, sparsely populated, and one of the largest in the country. In the 2012 presidential election, voters favored Mitt Romney 3-to-1 over Barack Obama.
Progressive media have covered some of the background on how structural racism and White privilege are related to the Malheur Refuge occupation. It has been discussed how Oregon was intentionally founded as a White state—a clause in the 1859 state constitution, barring Blacks from residency, remained until 1926. Some media have also discussed the role of White privilege in the occupiers’ blatant settler mentality regarding the rights of ranchers to the land, and federal law enforcement's’ astounding racial double standard has been the object of much criticism. But when I was in Burns talking with different people, closely watching local and state coverage of community opinion, and attending a meeting of 300, I never once heard local White residents address these questions about race.
The only local organized group of people of color that has spoken about the situation is the Burns Paiute Tribe, whose historical land includes the refuge. Noting that the occupiers are desecrating one of the tribe's most important sacred sites, tribal chair Charlotte Rodrique told The Washington Post, "Armed protestors don’t belong here." She also didn't mince words with NPR: “If I, as a Native person, a person of color, were to go down there and do the same thing, they would have hit me on the forehead with a baton.”
The core of the occupiers is an ideologically motivated vanguard from Nevada and Arizona, and include rancher Cliven Bundy’s sons Ammon and Ryan. The occupiers have made two demands. Foremost is that the land be transferred to the county government so local ranchers can use it without federal grazing or environmental restrictions. They also want two members of a local ranching family, Dwight and Steven Hammond, to be released from a mandatory minimum sentence for arson. (The family's attorney, however, has said the Hammonds don't want the occupiers' help.)
In addition to the occupiers at the refuge, Burns has been flooded with radical right-wingers including Sovereign Citizens and Three Percenters. Last week, the paramilitary Pacific Patriots Network deployed armed members up and down the block near the county courthouse in Burns and met with the county sheriff. They then they went to the airport, where the FBI was stationed. This meeting between armed gunmen and the FBI was billed online as a “historic ‘militia’ moment,” implying this was the first such meeting.
Comments from the occupiers and their allies about people of color have ranged from openly White supremacist to more measured statements. The Harney County Committee of Safety, a faux-governmental structure originally set up by the Bundys, refers to Native Americans as “savages” in one document.
In 2014, Ryan was part of a Utah ATV protest ride on federal land that contained Native American artifacts. Motorized vehicles weren't allowed on the land. Now Ryan seems to be more careful. He's said that the occupiers would be “delighted” to give the thousands of Native artifacts stored at the refuge headquarters back to the tribe. But he has also said we "recognize that the Native Americans had the claim to the land, but they lost that claim. " He is also quoted as saying. "There are things to learn from cultures of the past, but the current culture is the most important.”
A number of commentators have compared the heavy-handed police treatment of Black Lives Matter protests to what’s happening at Malheur. Brian Cavalier (a.k.a. "Fluffy Unicorn") has said the armed occupiers are being treated more harshly than Black Lives Matter protestors. Ammon, meanwhile, has claimed they are less intrusive in public life. “We’re not obstructing schools,” he told The Huffington Post. He has also compared his occupation to Black Lives Matter actions: “I would imagine there is [sic] probably some similarities."
Some of the other occupiers have not been so politic. One named Ryan Payne is reported to believe that slavery never really existed. Jon Ritzheimer is a well-known Islamophobic organizer known for his extreme rhetoric. Rance Harris reportedly has neo-Nazi tattoos on his fingers. A couple of occupiers have endorsed anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. The 3% of Idaho, part of the Pacific Patriots Network, have organized several rallies in Idaho against Syrian refugee resettlement.
Meanwhile, Brandon Dowd, one of the only Black occupiers, has said he wants Black Lives Matter activists to learn the crank legal theories being taught at the refuge. The Oregonian reports that on this past Tuesday Ammon announced that the occupiers had “reached out to the Burns Paiute Tribe to hear their claims and concerns.” But on Wednesday (January 20), the occupiers released a video of themselves rifling through Paiute artifacts, which are stored on the refuge, outraging tribal leaders.
What the feds’ game plan is, no one knows. Although a couple arrests have been made in town, the authorities are still standing aside at the refuge. In a real sense the paramilitaries are the main armed force in town.
This is a continuation of what I saw when I was in town. Oregon county sheriffs cruised the streets and guarded the public buildings downtown, while the FBI was based at the airport. However, the various radical right-wingers were trying to take over the town, setting up what looked like a shadow government. The “judge” from The Narrows presided over one of the kangaroo courts. The Committee of Safety was being enlisted to aid in redistributing publicly owned land.
Trucks, apparently loaded with food and clothes bound for the refuge, could be seen rendezvousing in business and hotel parking lots. Paramilitaries were visible in the bars and stores, their decaled trucks parked prominently outside. Community members had been threatened or menaced, including a local pastor, the county sheriff and local police. The sheriff’s wife fled, and a key refuge employee was whisked out of town by law enforcement. Local schools were closed for a week due to safety concerns.
I heard numerous accounts of federal employees fleeing the county. Bars like the Pine Room were branded “militia” hangouts; locals who oppose the occupiers said they avoided it. Every time I walked into a business, I scanned the room, wondering, Is that just a local hunter in camouflage? And, Does the 20-something man in the black hoodie work for public radio, or is he a militia kid who’s been turned to the dark side by late-night conspiracy talk radio? A few weeks ago, people on the street and in cafes said hello. By the time I left, no one made eye contact with me.
The national media keeps reporting that the majority of residents want the occupiers gone. That seems right—but my impression is that most believe the tactics are bad but the occupiers’ goals are sound. At the community meeting I went to, some residents agreed that occupiers should go, but only because they had succeeded in forcing their demands into public discussion.
State officials from Nevada, Oregon and Idaho have visited the refuge, over objections from local officials. Meanwhile, the crank trials apparently continue in secret. In "The Terrorist Next Door," author Daniel Levitas wrote that these kinds of fake legal proceedings were originally developed by Posse Comitatus, a White supremacist group founded in the early 1970s that developed a fictitious and openly racist interpretation of the Constitution. After the Malheur occupiers find their unnamed suspects guilty of unnamed crimes in secret kangaroo courts, it can only be assumed they will dispatch their followers to render judgment, whether that means making their version of arrests, somehow "jailing" offenders, or—as some fear—assassinating them.
In progressive centers like Portland, Oregon—a state which is almost 88 percent White—is just starting to come to terms with its racist legacy. In Burns, not so much. If the Bundys and the other occupiers triumph, it will be a huge setback for Harney County’s people of color. They have nothing to gain, and, indeed, a fair amount to lose. An occupier victory would also be a huge setback to the process of recognizing and grappling with White supremacy in a state built on racism.