On a Friday morning there was a traffic jam outside the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, renamed the “Harney County Resource Center” by armed militants who’ve seized the facilities.
Atop a firewatch tower, two figures walked around inside a glass box with sweeping views of the Harney Basin. From the vantage point of a car, the occupied refuge buildings that have captivated national attention were hidden behind a hill. The entry road to the refuge was barred by a truck parked perpendicularly. Two other pickup trucks were ahead in line, the occupants being questioned.
After ten minutes, Jason Patrick came over and kneeled by the driver’s side door. On his belt was a solid metal badge that read, “Second Amendment Right to Bear Arms: Gun Permit U.S.A.,” which he said was a Christmas present. We said we were from The Raw Story and other reporters informed us there was a daily press conference at 11 a.m. Patrick, a roofer from Georgia and a fixture at the occupation initiated by Ammon and Ryan Bundy on Jan. 2, explained the pressers were now once a week on Wednesday, but we could come into the occupied refuge.
“You can walk around, just don’t go into any buildings without permission. There’s different meetings happening. You can take photos, but ask permission.”
The facilities include about a dozen buildings and structures along a dirt road, part of which the occupiers paved with gravel this week, much to the consternation of officials involved in archeological preservation. There were cars and trucks with license plates from Oregon, Missouri, Idaho, California, Arizona, and Ohio in addition to government vehicles.
A woman walked out of one of the main buildings and hopped in an SUV. Around the other side, four men in a circle offered tense greetings. Most wore camo gear, one had a patch sewn on his jacket with writing about defending the constitution, and a hefty gentlemen with a beard and mirrored shades, who later identified himself as “Rino,” took the lead. He said reporters were no longer free to come and go. They must make an appointment and provide their name, phone number and outlet.
After handing Rino our information, we walked down the road. Through a window of a large equipment shed four people were visible. The sound of a woman’s laughter echoed. On the outside a hand-drawn sign read “Drop Off,” inside were cots, sleeping bags, a heater, personal gear, and a large arc welder.
Sitting by the shed was an ATV with government plates and tires half-wet, indicating it had been recently used, Nick walked by. Wearing coveralls and a Dakota cowboy hat on his head with a camo bandana wrapped around the base, he had just arrived from Missouri. Between streams of tobacco-flecked spittle, Nick explained he was too poor to afford to make the trip sooner. He drove through the night across Wyoming, barely able to see the highway for the blowing snow. “It must be government-owned land. If it was ranchers they would grow vegetation on each side to catch the snow.”
Nick joined the Army after the Sept. 11 attacks and served three years, lamenting his tour was in South Korea rather than combat. “I am here for the Constitution. Finally someone is standing up to defend freedom. I’ve been waiting for this for five years.” An older brother had influenced him. “I thought I was a patriot, but he pushed me to open my eyes. He told me to listen to Michael Savage.”
Nick believed one day soon soldiers like him would be ordered by the feds to invade the homes of fellow Americans. “Are we going to follow their orders?” When it was suggested the soldiers could go AWOL, he responded, “We need the soldiers to stay in their unit. They know who the bad guys are, and then turn around and kill them.”
He wanted the government to “follow the Constitution and stop taking power from the people.” Adding, “I had to be here,” Nick referenced the Gospel of Luke, “Jesus said sell your coat and buy a sword.”
A couple of hours of walking around and talking to supporters of Ammon and Ryan Bundy indicated there were at least 30 occupiers, if not significantly more, and many arrived in the last few days from all over the country. They made comments like “I support the cause. I’m here to fight for freedom and get our Constitution back. This is entirely peaceful.” Robert, a father of six from Idaho, said, “I would support this to the death, literally.”
Badges, patches, and pocket constitutions were standard issue, as were open weapons. The presence of a handgun strapped to a thigh, an Uzi dangling over the shoulder, an antique revolver holstered on the hips was surreal but did not feel menacing. Many militants were friendly and eager to talk, others were wary, but nearly everyone was polite. We dutifully mentioned we were reporters for The Raw Story, which was met by genuine curiosity or comments such as, “I may not agree with you, but I support freedom of the press so please be honest.”
Scott Willingham, 48, strode down the road, scanning both sides as he grasped an AR-15 with the barrel pointed down, loaded with “NATO ammo, 5.56.” The pouches on a green utility belt were full, a radio was clipped to the left shoulder of his vest that was covered in patches from state militias, a camo 12-gauge shotgun was slung over his right shoulder, a six-point sheriff’s star was pinned to his gray hat, and a half-smoked Camel dangled expertly from his lips.
Scott lived near Fort Worth and had worked for a decade in the defense industry. He talked of it as a life long past. He called the occupation, “A group of men who understand that the problem is tyranny. It’s not a bunch of armed fundamentalist radicals running around, yelling, ‘F*ck Bush.’ We’ve got all types here, all colors, religions, people from all over the world. It’s impossible to tag this as white supremacist.”
Scott said he came “for freedom, the people, the nation. I’ve got a lot of education since I’ve got here. It’s opened my mind, opened my heart.” He said “we need to talk to everyone, even our opponents.” When asked who the opposition was, he said, “Tyranny.” Specifically, he explained, it was “The Rockefellers, Chases, Rothschilds, people who own the media companies, defense contractors.”
Many militants described the occupation as a transformational experience. They say it’s a life-changing and mind-opening education as to how tyranny is trampling on freedom and why their armed rebellion is redeeming the land, Constitution, and America itself. In his widely seen video before joining the occupation, anti-Islamic campaigner Jon Ritzheimer, said Ammon Bundy “spent hours and hours and hours begging and pleading with the sheriff (of Harney County), trying to educate them and empower them.” Ryan Bundy indicated education was part of their mission as well. During a 90-minute conversation that afternoon in the cab of his pickup truck, across a cupholder nestling two magazines loaded with .223 ammunition, Bundy said education needed to happen in Harney County for it to stand on its own feet before the occupying militia would be able to leave.
Some came for practical reasons. Adrian, a baby-faced 36-year-old rancher and father of three, runs 100 head of cattle on 34,000 acres of National Forest Service land in Southwest New Mexico, but “they won’t permit me any more.” He said the case of Dwight and Steve Hammonds, who were sentenced to five years in prison for arson on BLM land, was not an isolated case. “There are a million other instances where the same persecution, same threats have been going on all over the Western United States. I don’t know what the resolution is other than turn the land over to the state, let the ranchers use it. This is all based on the Constitution.”
Everyone at the occupation agreed the conflict was about the Constitution. But that is apparently the strategy of the Bundys. The brothers are said to carefully vet those allowed inside, wary of disrupters and infiltrators. Some outliers do filter through. David, who drove from Ohio, said he defended the Bundys’ interpretation of the Constitution, but his goal was to expose the U.S. government cover-up of radiation poisoning from the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. If the Bundy occupation succeeded, David hoped it would crack the dam of government oppression and freedom would pour forth, washing away the lies.
Suzanna, 68, and Corey, 32, a married couple from Selma, Oregon, were supporters of the State of Jefferson, a seal of which was plastered on their truck door. The proposed merger of Southern Oregon and Northern California into a new state is one of many Pacific Northwest secessionist movements that go back to the mid-1800s and often overlap with white supremacist groups. Before leaving with Suzanna “to pick up my 12 gauge,” Corey mentioned he was a train-hopper who had been active in Occupy Eugene. David had mentioned Occupy Wall Street as well, seeing it as similar to the Malheur takeover and stating Occupy had been infiltrated and hijacked by the government.
Duane Ehmer, 45, from Irrigon, Oregon, was one of many who had left families and an angry or perplexed spouse behind. “My wife is mad that I’m here because I’m not at home making her money.” He was accompanied by Hellboy, his 5-year-old horse, that carried him on a security patrol around the refuge every morning. A Caterpillar forklift roared by, hauling railroad ties. Ehmer said it was probably for a barricade. “If we could put up a fence to protect ourselves that would be beneficial. It’s good to hide behind. You can’t really shoot through a couple of those, unless you have a cannon. Self-preservation might be important in all of this. I’d like to stay alive and see my family again.”
At the end of the road was a mess hall outfitted with an upside-down American flag. Nearly a dozen militants were out back chatting, gathered around a small wood fire. A few feet away others dug through a box of mail, throwing items, mainly sex toys, into an oil drum fire. One held up a large white cardboard cutout of a cock and balls, saying of the flag and eagle drawing on it, “At least it’s patriotic,” before feeding it to the flames. Another militiaman walked by with a black butt plug adorned with googly eyes, saying, “I didn’t even know what this was before someone told me,” as he sacrificed it. We were handed a fake plastic turd as a memento.
The mood started to curdle. “Mama Bear,” one of at least a half-dozen women present, repeatedly warned she didn’t want any reporting “to put us in danger.” She specifically asked us not to mention the barrel of flaming dildos. It is unclear how knowledge of that would put them at risk for anything more than internet ridicule.
Blaine Cooper and Jon Ritzheimer appeared by the firepit. There was a barrage of accusations The Raw Story was spreading slander, false claims, propaganda about the Malheur occupation. Ritzheimer said little. Cooper, after denouncing the online news site, focused on his notoriety, “You know who I am. You know I’m Blaine Cooper,” he said multiple times. I answered truthfully; I had heard the name but knew little more.
The crowd melted away as did respect for freedom of the press. Rino fumbled with the now-crumpled note I handed him earlier, thrusting it toward my face, “I have your name. I know your number.” He declared, “I am your full-time escort. You are not to ask anyone any questions. You are being recorded.”
Ryan Bundy was close by. He called us over. “Would you like to ask me some questions? Jump in my truck, we’ll take a slow drive.” We climbed aboard. Rino’s mouth opened and closed without uttering a word, as if his prey had wriggled away. From up in the cab, Rino looked smaller. He seemed confused, walking in one direction and then the other. Ryan eased the truck down the muddy road.
Additional reporting by Paul Roland
Arun Gupta contributes to The Washington Post, YES! Magazine, In These Times, The Progressive, Telesur, and The Nation. He is author of the forthcoming, Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste, from The New Press. Follow him @arunindy or email at arun_dot_indypendent_at_gmail_dot_com.