As December wore on, more denizens of Ammon’s and Ryan’s patriot’s FaceWorld were trickling into the county. Some of these folks were of considerably different temperament than mild-mannered Ammon. Jon Ritzheimer was one of the more widely known and more troubling of these newcomers.
Before coming to Burns, the young Iraq War veteran had ended up on the national news for leading an armed protest outside a Muslim community center in his home state of Arizona. At the rally he’d sported a fuck islam shirt, the principal product of his online business, Rogue Infidel. In the coming months he’d recant on the shirts and claim, in emotional videos posted to the internet, to regret the whole thing. It wasn’t that he’d mellowed, exactly; around the same time he’d also been making threats to personally arrest a Michigan senator who’d supported the Iran nuclear deal, an act he promised to follow up with more arrests, including a citizen’s arrest of the president if necessary.
A scroll through his internet videos reveals, unsurprisingly, an emotionally volatile man. Sometimes he’s ranting, angry and shirtless, at the camera, but in other videos you can find him in happier moods, like the one where he cheerily shoots up a Koran—with a pink rifle, for the added humiliation factor—alongside his friend Blaine Cooper. Cooper, originally named Stanley Hicks, had made his own contribution to the mini-genre of social media Koran-desecration videos; in his, he’d wrapped some Koran pages in bacon and “roasted” them. Next he shot the whole book with a compound bow and burned that too. By December, both these men were being seen regularly around town. Ritzheimer was spotted following a BLM employee in the Safeway; his unidentified companion shouted threats of following her home and burning down her house. Dave Ward reported being followed by Ritzheimer and Cooper around another store; at the time, the sheriff was Christmas shopping with his eight-year-old son.
While Ritzheimer seemed to cause plenty of turmoil in person around town, the true focus of his public engagement remained where all the real action was, in the new incubator of all America’s ugly and unruly feelings: the World Wide Web. In the weeks between his arrival in town and the Bundy Revolution’s big strategic move into the Harney Basin, he shot a number of videos. These were some of the strangest, most emotionally extravagant, and, in the case of one video in particular, most watched documents of the entire occupation saga. This is no small feat; he had a tremendous amount of competition. The hours of web documentation shot at Malheur, if anyone were ever really able to gather all the footage and splice it end to end, would likely rival or even surpass the actual event in total duration.
A video from late December went viral and made Jon Ritzheimer a favorite target of comedians and internet wits during the early days of the occupation. His gift for high drama made him irresistible; that gift is on display from the moment he hits record. Even before he begins speaking, he’s pulling back his head, breathing in deeply, trying to contain all the emotion. He’s in the cabin of his truck, so the sonic effects of all this feeling—and all this breathing—are amplified. (Parked cars make excellent impromptu sound booths and are a favored location for Patriot video-missives.) “This is going to be one of the tougher videos I’ve had to make,” he begins, already struggling to get the words out, eyes already tearing up. As we “eavesdrop” on this video he’s posted for the wide world to watch, Ritzheimer directly addresses his family, telling his wife how proud he is “of the mother you’ve become” and explaining to his daughters how “Daddy swore an oath,” which is why he’s been away so long. “You are only three and five now, and you have no idea,” he says, shaking his head with the weight of it all. There’s more silence, more tears, a heavy, dramatic sigh, and another look away before he turns back to the camera and brandishes his pocket Constitution. “Your daddy swore an oath,” he repeats, wagging the pamphlet in the foreground. “He swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. And that’s why he couldn’t be with you on Christmas.”
It can be hard not to laugh when he lands on Christmas—hard not to laugh at all the staged feeling, no matter how genuine it may also have been. As Ritzheimer’s holiday message found its pathways through the ether, many would be laughing—a lot—and passing it on. Some people didn’t just laugh. The internet responded rapidly with the giddy malice of parody; the imitable form of Ritzheimer’s video made it all too easy. In early 2016, men responding to the hashtag #DaddySworeAnOath hopped in their own cars to make their own oaths: pledges to be a better lover “to your mother,” to return books to the library, or to go down to the strip club “to give these dollars to Sinnamon with an S.” The parodies were heavy on the silences, the breathing in, the tearing up. Across America, thanks to Ritzheimer, men were sitting alone in their cars and pretending to have feelings.
Parody aside, the level of overwhelming emotion in Ritzheimer’s many online communiqués makes it hard to be a witness to him: it’s a little like watching a stranger in desperate mourning, or a child in the throes of feelings he can’t control or understand. It’s easy to imagine Ritzheimer as a child. He’s a small man physically, overtaken at times by tears, storms of rage, spasms of righteousness, and puerile obscenity. His shiny, egg-shaped skull adds to the impression; it seems a full size too large for his body, like many a screen actor’s. And while Ritzheimer may not be the most articulate speaker, his many silences are pure theater. Throughout his “Daddy Swore an Oath” video, his face shifts in anguish or disgust as words fail him yet again, or as he performs the full weight of the failure of language to express the size of what he has to say to us. Sometimes it’s simply because he seems to never have learned all that much about what was actually behind the particular cause he’d so forcefully embraced. He runs out of details very quickly. It didn’t really matter though. He had just enough talismanic syllables—Freedom, BLM, Tyranny, Oath—to get him out of his sinkholes of silence and on to what seemed to be his true point: his death. I’m ready to lay down my life was the main message I heard in Ritzheimer’s Malheur missives. I’m ready to die. Are you?
It’s disorienting to recognize how, in writing this book, I’ve become entirely used to watching men publicly declare their readiness, even eagerness, to die. Sometimes, as I peruse the hours and hours of video of the occupation, I don’t even notice that it’s happened again—the pledge is so constant. Ritzheimer supplements the weight and meaning of his own oath with the oath from the final lines of the Declaration of Independence, the part right before the unrolling of all those glorious, foundational white men’s names: “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” he reads.
Having joined his troubled American life, ritually, to those of the most magically significant of all Americans, he stares again in silence at the camera, eyes reddened, before closing the pamphlet and turning away.
I asked David Ward about all the oath-taking going down in Harney County that fall. He’s a man familiar with oath magic. As a sheriff and a military veteran, he’s taken some very solemn oaths, but in the fall of 2015, all this oath-taking had started to seem to him like the liturgical magic of some kind of death cult. The Bundyites, he thought, “were setting up Ammon as a prophet.” As a devout Christian, he’d begun to find this very troubling. While he had still taken all the official oaths in question, something about it all didn’t seem right to him theologically. One passage in particular from the scriptures gnawed at him. He quoted some of it to me, and later I looked up the rest. It was from the Gospel of St. Matthew:
But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply “Yes” or “No”; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
He’d also tried to remind Bundy supporters—who often harangued him about his oaths as a sheriff and soldier—that, leaving points of Christian doctrine aside, the oaths in question didn’t really say exactly what Ammon and Ryan said they did. For one, the military oath of service included a key passage about swearing to heed the orders of the president. “Those guys didn’t like Barack Obama, so they leave that part out.”
There’s another, less-known video of Ritzheimer’s from around this time that I actually enjoyed watching. The more I watched this one, the stranger it got—I found it had effects well beyond Ritzheimer’s patriot intentions. Its lack of deathly oath magic was a plus—nobody swears any oaths or promises to die. Also, Jon’s outdoors in this one, and that seems to be a good thing for his mood.
He’s pulled his truck out into the desert and parked it under an especially craggy and regal-looking butte, its coating of snow only adding to its aloof, aristocratic air. Dressed in desert combat fatigues, Jon has an assault rifle slung across his back. He’s not alone this time; another camo’d-out dude is standing in the snowy sagebrush holding up a big colorful map of the United States—yellow, pink, green, and blue. A third compatriot, Arizona militiaman Joe O’Shaughnessy, watches in the foreground, bemused, as Ritzheimer launches into his routine. Let’s call it the Great American Unfuck, because that—unfucking, as he’ll explain—is what he and the boys are here to do.
First, though, he needs to locate himself, and all of us, on the earth and on the map. To unfuck, you’ve got to know where you stand. He’s pointing at the sky, seeming to use the sun to orient himself in relation to the map, even as we see the sun is shining dimly behind him, smeared and grayed by a thin layer of cloud. “We’re here,” he says. “Yeah, we’re here in Oregon, and the mission is to UNFUCK allllll of this.”
As he says this, his gloved hands sweep diagonally southeast across the continent. “So... I’m hoping the rest of the militiamen and everyone out there is ready cuz, uh,” he concludes, “we’re going to initiate this mission.”
Next, pleased with himself, he just does it all over again. “We’re here in Oregon,” he repeats, to the chuckles of his buddies, pointing to the sky again and then, again, the map. “Yep,” he says, as if confirming that they definitely aren’t lost. “We’re here in Oregon, and we’re gonna unfuck ALLLLLLLL this.”
Again, his dark-gloved hands move like cloud shadows across the map, gliding west to east across the continent, pulled by his elongation of “ALL” until the spell is complete, punctuated by the sibilant precision of “this.”
I say “spell” because, however improvised and dumb whatever it is Ritzheimer and friends are doing, and it is both, this is some kind of rite, and all who watch are participants in its hokey witchery. Magic is always at least a little hokey, but the more I watch, the more it occurs to me that whatever is meant by unfucking has also got to be some seriously occult stuff. An undoing of the fucked?—it certainly sounds elemental. Then there’s this: in the movement Ritzheimer traces across the map, he’s recapitulating, in reverse, the arc of Manifest Destiny, the path of Ammon’s Beautiful Pattern, the old route of the Oregon Trail. What would unfucking this entail—its dis-conception? I know he means something else, maybe the opposite—more like a reenactment, a restoration of Ammon’s Beautiful Pattern, but it’s not really what he’s done.
At this point my cinema-colonized imagination takes over: all those would-be pioneers who died out there along the way—do they spring back to life in some other universe, reassemble out of the dust into coherent flesh, walking backward, zombied-out, to the east, as Jon traces the great messianic reversal, and rewinds America, erasing it? As I hit play again and again, another witchy thing is happening to me. It takes a while for me to notice, but with each viewing, the silent world around Ritzheimer and his friends gets more present. Soon my attention is riveted to the craggy rim of the basalt bench. That butte lurking above them begins to leak in from the background to take over the whole frame. By my fifth or sixth time through the clip, I’m not listening to Ritzheimer at all anymore. More than that, it’s like I actually can’t hear him, or even see him. Fucked or unfucked, all I see is stone.
Excerpted from Shadowlands: Fear and Freedom at the Oregon Standoff by Anthony McCann. Copyright © Anthony McCann, 2019. Published by Bloomsbury USA. Reprinted with permission.
Anthony McCann is the author of the poetry collections Thing Music, I Heart Your Fate and Moongarden. He currently teaches creative writing at the California Institute of the Arts and in the Low-Residency MFA program of the University of California, Riverside. Born and raised in the Hudson Valley, McCann now lives in the Mojave Desert.