MALHEUR NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Oregon — Ammon Bundy came here to preach.
But Bundy is not spreading the word of God, though he’s a devout Mormon. Instead, Bundy is telling local residents that the federal government is illegitimate, that the county government is the highest authority in the land, and that they should arrest their local sheriff and subject him to a citizen grand jury if he sides with the treacherous feds.
This is the gospel of the sovereign citizen movement—and Bundy is winning converts.
I’m from rural Utah. You can’t grow up in rural parts of America and not know militia types. I’ve met five people from southern Utah up here already; Bundy’s brother, Ryan, lives in my hometown. When Ammon and his supporters took over Malheur a week ago, I started calling around to find out what was going on and was asked to tell the “real story.”
It started when Dwight and Steven Hammond were ordered back to prison after apparently not serving enough time for an arson conviction for burning some federal land. The Hammonds have been fighting the Bureau of Land Management for decades after BLM gained control of a strip of land between their range and pasture, refusing to let them drive over it. Thanks in part to this fight, Rep. Greg Walden got legislation passed to rein in the BLM. The bureau ignored it, according to Walden, and then charged the Hammonds and other ranchers exorbitant fees to access their own land.
If Congress can’t even control federal agencies, what’s a rancher supposed to?
Ammon Bundy had an answer.
He has been here for months, educating ranchers about the tenets of the sovereign citizen movement. See, the feds don’t listen to the law, but you don’t have to listen to the feds, he told them. The U.S. government is not legitimate; the highest authority here is the county and the sheriff, who can tell BLM and FBI to get lost.
“The sheriff has a sworn duty to protect his citizens,” Ammon Bundy says as another man finishes his sentence, “against all enemies, both foreign and domestic.”
These ideas are taken chapter and verse from the sovereign citizen bible, a bizarre tributary of right-wing ideology that believes the federal government has been illegally occupying American land since at least the end of the Civil War.
These ideas have inspired militias over the past four decades, paramilitary-style groups that often allow would-be demagogues to present themselves as representatives of the original “divinely inspired” form of government. These forces fueled deadly standoffs at Ruby Ridge and Waco, culminating in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. That terror attack hurt the militia movement, but it has grown dramatically during the Obama years.
Ammon’s men says Harney County Sheriff David Ward is nothing less than a collaborator with the real enemy: the U.S. government.
“Sheriff, your oath was not made to the federal government nor any of their corporate entities such as the BLM or Forest Service etc,” the men wrote in an open letter. “Where were you when a foreign entity not having any constitutional power, authority and jurisdiction within your county abused your citizens?… Have you taken sides with the Feds?”
If the sheriff does not say “no to the Feds and rid your county of their presence and tyranny that they have spread across your County,” then locals should form a citizen grand jury and indict him.
Some ranchers are listening, because they’ve tried everything else and feel screwed by the government. When people come to give the feds a taste of their own medicine by taking over some of Uncle Sam’s land, the ranchers hope this will be the thing that finally forces the government to obey its own laws.
Security is tight at the compound. Men with anti-government patches, holding assault rifles, patrol the buildings in full tactical gear. There’s a truck parked crosswise across the road at the entrance. Two guards in ski masks survey the area from a tower.
Some of the guards are provided by a militia group called the Three Percenters. They take their name from the idea that only 3 percent of American colonists fought in the Revolutionary War and it would only take the same slice of America to liberate it from its federal oppressors today. The militiamen patrol the perimeters and even drive through the closest major town, Burns, 30 miles away.
Brandon Curtiss, president of the Idaho Three Percenters, said they’re here to “make sure this doesn’t turn into a Waco situation, but we’re also here to make sure that extremist elements, people who really do want to start trouble, don’t come in.”
Many people carry guns: a Ruger P89, a Makarov .9mm, a .45 revolver. The handguns never leave their holsters except for cleaning except when people gathered around to admire some beautiful engraving on one sidearm.
Bundy has expelled people for carrying long arms openly, as it was an unnecessary escalation. He is playing a long game, mindful of PR. There is also no alcohol in the buildings. You might see an occasional flask up the hill, outside (I was offered a slug of moonshine to ward off the cold). Nobody wants Ammon to see them drinking.
Inside the encampment, more than two dozen men, women, and children occupy stone and wood buildings surrounded by snow-covered trees and picnic tables. There’s a bunkhouse, offices, a kitchen. The beds are meant for firefighters and visiting biologists, but they serve armed occupiers just as well.
The occupiers are resupplied by locals friendly to the cause. Cupboards burst with jerky, trail mix, crackers. If you’re going to conduct an armed takeover of federal buildings, you need lightweight things filled with calories, especially in the winter. When one driver announced he was carrying doughnuts, laughing men raided his back seat while a child begged his mom for permission to join in. One rancher brought a whole cord of wood and another brought winter jackets. Resupply happens hourly, depending on what the ranchers have to spare.
Someone found the keys to the wildlife refuge’s trucks, although only trusted people get the keys. “This belongs to We the People,” you hear over and over. Militia members and supportive locals have already renamed the national wildlife refuge as the “Harney County Resource Center.”
Similarly, the occupiers say the buildings are open to anyone but they aren’t friendly to outsiders except locals. Perfectly polite, always, but not friendly. In fact, they don’t talk to press outside of canned responses for the most part. The meetings are closed; paranoia is running high. Who is coming, and when, and what will we do? What is the plan?
But walking around, you hear snippets of conversation. Some people appreciate the snark of “Y’all Qaeda” and laugh at “Vanilla ISIS,” too. They’re not without humor, but they spend most of the time talking tactics and politics.
“We have to wake up the residents,” one says.
“We can only pray that they will see how much strength they have,” another says.
“Article II, though…” a different man begins to implore.
“You know this is all not the real problem,” says one of the newcomers around the campfire at night. “It’s those Muslims coming in here, the government is letting the terrorists in and calling them refugees.”
John Ritzheimer, an Iraq war veteran fond of wearing “fuck Islam” T-shirts and protesting mosques, shuts that chatter down.
“You know, I agree with you. That’s what I do for a living, when I’m not here, try to tell people about this [radical Islam] threat. But that’s not why we’re here, and we’re not going to get into it now.”
The discussion turns to the United Nations, Agenda 21, the New World Order, and the Illuminati. One man covers all the cameras on his devices so the government can’t turn them on remotely, he says, which Edward Snowden revealed was not a paranoid fantasy.
People are frustrated that the press coverage is focusing on the guns and the crazy talk. The story is supposed to be about Harney County, the plight of the ranchers. Ammon’s actions were meant to bring attention to the injustice and overreach by the government. While everyone sort of knew that city folk might misinterpret things, locals are astonished that they only hear about guns on the news.
These people are cut off from the rest of the country, really; the days melt into each other just like the seasons. Civil unrest in cities, and the idea that perhaps the fourth estate isn’t as responsible as it once was, are new and frightening things. The ranch family I stay with has discussions long into the night about how they are learning more about the country than they ever wanted to learn. When I showed them footage of police brutally cracking down in Ferguson they were shocked to their core, even knowing how malevolent power can be.
I never expected to hear the same emotions and philosophies from a 15-year-old gang member in Missouri and a 67-year-old rancher in rural Oregon, but close your eyes and you’ll hear it.
“Why don’t they just follow the law?” asks the rancher, who prefers to remain anonymous for fear of BLM retribution. “We’re not being violent, we’re just trying to get justice.”
The media is starting to go home, and the ranchers surrounding the refuge are now left with the fallout: People come to see what the fuss is about and nobody can deny that these people are all very nice.
At first, the rancher was cautiously supportive of the Bundys, even bringing supplies to the men. Now that attention has been brought to the plight of Harney County, the rancher would like to see the Bundys go home.
People living here want respect, not a revolution.