Oregon Standoff

Blood, Delusions, and Corruption in the American West

"This country is now full of men and women with long-term personal experience of contemporary guerrilla insurrection."


Shadowlands: Fear and Freedom at the Oregon Standoff, by Anthony McCann, Bloomsbury, 448 pages, $30

On January 2, 2016, Ammon Bundy and a few dozen armed militiamen seized control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County, Oregon. Their aim, they said, was to protest the imprisonment of Steven and Dwight Hammond, two ranchers convicted of committing arson on public property. More broadly, they had a host of complaints about the federal government's ownership and management of Western lands.

But Anthony McCann sees a kaleidoscope of deeper meanings in the 2016 standoff—crises of work, race, manhood, and history swirling together in a "whacked out American story." McCann, a professional poet, admits that his natural allegiances going in to the story were more with the liberal-progressive side, although he doesn't seem the type even before diving into the story to get quite as radical as those who crudely mocked the Malheur militants (by, for example, mailing them plastic penises) or wished them grievous harm. In Shadowlands, his nuanced account of the occupation and its aftermath, he treats the occupiers and the loose "patriot" movement surrounding them mostly fairly. Meanwhile, the feds' behavior frequently appalls him.

An occupier offers one of the story's blunter morals when he tells McCann, "The government might kill you if you tried to form a commune." McCann concedes the point. The "experience at Malheur," he writes, "seemed to bear this out."

The government's case against the Hammonds revolved around two occasions when the ranchers set fires on public lands. The Hammonds insist that they set the first fire to control invasive plants and the second to keep a wildfire from reaching their property. The government insisted the first fire was actually meant to hide evidence of illegal deer hunting and that the Hammonds had a record of threatening federal agents. Many Westerners believed the Hammonds, and a judge deliberately gave them a shorter sentence than the legal mandatory minimum. They were already out of jail when an appeals court overturned that decision, ordering them back into custody to serve additional time.

The Hammonds would eventually receive a presidential pardon from Trump (something he has only done 10 times, nearly always for people seen as key parts of his political and ideological coalitions). But that didn't happen until July 2018. As the ranchers returned to their cells in late 2015, many militia types gathered in the nearby town of Burns, Oregon, to protest the revised sentence. They were angry, but most of them did not support Ammon Bundy's plan—divinely inspired, he insisted—to occupy the Malheur headquarters and turn it, possibly for many years, into a mutual-aid commune for ranchers and for anyone else who wanted to help recreate true American freedom via a thinly conceived effort to "unwind" all federal land ownership.

Ammon, a Nevada native, had never been to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge before. He was a son of Cliven Bundy, the 21st century's leading crusty symbol of sagebrush rebellion. The Bundys had been at the center of an earlier land-use drama stemming from their refusal to pay federal grazing fees; it came to a head in 2014, when the family fought the government's attempts to take their cattle as a penalty. When a YouTube video showed a Bureau of Land Management agent tackling Ammon's aunt and then tasing Ammon when he tried to intervene, the footage inspired sympathizers across the nation to assemble at the Bundys' Nevada ranch. Many of those new arrivals were armed. The government then appeared to give up its plan to take the Bundy's cattle.

In fact, the feds were merely biding their time: In 2016 they arrested the Bundys and some of their allies. But before then, the Bundyites were ecstatic with the feeling of having made tyrants blink. Chasing the dragon of that feeling led many of their fans to follow Ammon to Malheur—though many of the people who ended up there had personal motives with little if any connection to the Bundys. Some, McCann reports, had a vague sense of liberties curtailed. Others were conspiracy theorists. A few, he argues, just seemed to be suffering from a crisis of the modern American man unmoored from meaningful work or community.

The occupiers included old hippies, Mormons, disillusioned veterans, libertarians protesting police brutality, Ren Faire diehards, a man who believed literal angels had led him to the refuge, and only one practicing rancher. (Even Ammon before this Malheur adventure had relocated to Idaho and was running a truck maintenance business.) They also included several federal provocateurs and informers, including the militant who seemed most obsessed with weapons training.

McCann provides plenty of perspectives from locals who thought their uninvited visitors were an aggravating and sometimes scary nuisance. But with an impressive act of imaginative sympathy, McCann also sees and describes an admirable humanity in the rebels, even as he finds many of their ideas perplexing, absurd, or dangerous.

Such ideas include the notion, derived from the radical right-wing group Posse Comitatus, that the sheriff is the sole legitimate vector of political authority over the people; an interpretation of the "enclave clause" of the Constitution in which it bars most federal land ownership; jury nullification (a power McCann concludes is real and important, yet also best kept mostly mum about); and Ammon's brother's belief in the dizzyingly baroque legal doctrines of the "sovereign citizens," who deny that the federal government has any authority over actual living human beings and who file a lot of nonsensical paperwork to that effect.

The moment in the Malheur story that bears the most emotional weight is the murder by Oregon state troopers of LaVoy Finicum, but it gets strangely short shrift in a book that can get very emotional at times about distant buttes and surging mountain weather. Police blocked a road that Finicum and other occupiers were driving on to meet a sympathetic sheriff in a neighboring county. He pulled over abruptly at the side of the road and got out of the truck, at which point FBI agents started shooting; state troopers then killed him as he stumbled about in the snow.

McCann doesn't discuss the ensuing indictment of an FBI agent for lying about firing on Finicum. McCann does note that at times the public rhetoric of the occupiers could make them feel like a death cult. It is, he writes, "disorienting to recognize how, in writing this book, I've become entirely used to watching people publicly declare their readiness, even eagerness, to die."

McCann recounts at length the Northern Paiute Indians' history in the Great Basin containing the Malheur refuge, including the 1880s trail of tears they followed as they were driven from their ancestral lands. The occupiers awkwardly attempted to pal up to the Paiute, but the tribe would have none of it. The tribal council's sergeant-at-arms, Jarvis Kennedy, tells McCann that although some supporters of the occupation tried to bond with him over their support for the Standing Rock pipeline protests happening during the first trial of Malheur occupiers, he hoped to "see 'em hang." The occupiers may have felt a kinship with the displaced Indians, but for Kennedy they were simply re-enacting the tribe's displacement as farce.

In the end, no occupier was hung, literally or figuratively. Some pleaded guilty before trial, but in the first group trial, not a single conviction was won.

The government wanted to hit the seven occupiers on trial with a felony charge for standing around armed in a federal building. So instead of the easier-to-prove trespassing, the defendants faced the trickier charge of conspiracy to intimidate federal employees. This required delving into the intent of the men and woman on trial. McCann notes that he "had no desire to see federal power grow more comfortable with deciding what protest activity was unlawful conspiracy to intimidate." It didn't help the government that not a single named federal agent claimed to have been intimidated.

McCann thinks the occupiers' vision of devolved control over federally owned land would lead to a corporate hellscape in which no American would ever set foot in nature again. But for all of McCann's disagreements with the occupiers' ideas, he was repelled by the police corruption exposed in the later trial of the Bundyites for their original 2014 stand in Nevada. As he writes, the government "willfully withheld substantial evidence that the Bundys had been, at least partly, telling the truth" about federal agents' "surveillance, snipers, and provocations." The government also tried to hide four separate assessments, "none of which characterized the Bundys as a threat." (Environmentalist fears about Bundy cattle harming desert tortoises also turned out to be undocumented.) A judge threw the case out in January 2018, citing "flagrant prosecutorial misconduct."

The public conversation around the Malheur occupation made McCann feel that, "beyond a common allegiance to the Dollar and the Pentagon, 'We' were little more than a bunch of people who hated each other." It's possible this book could help some Americans see past that hate and begin to understand one another. But another of McCann's comments casts a darker shadow: Noting that not just the Malheur occupation but America at large is rife with veterans of our forever war in the Middle East, he observes that "this country is now full of men and women with long-term personal experience of contemporary guerrilla insurrection."

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  1. Ren Fair diehards?


    1. Somebody’s unfamiliar with Rule 34.

    2. “Ren Fair diehards? WTF?”

      Yeah, that one through me for a loop at first reading. On the other hand, I have met a handful of folks at Ren Faires, over the years, who, at least in spirit, really would like to recreate the Middle Ages, or, more accurately, their “interpretation” of the Middle Ages.

      1. Middle Ages with electricity, running water, central heat, internet, cars, etc.

        1. Well, of course. And of course, they actually bathe more than twice a year, too. But they certainly are more fun than most “county fairs.” I mean, anytime one can get 18 different flavors of mead, it can’t be all bad.

          My main beef is the damned “Norsemen” with the horned helmets. Silliness.

        2. electricity, running water, central heat, internet, cars, etc.

          And where they’re on top of the social order.

    3. The tribal council’s sergeant-at-arms, Jarvis Kennedy… hoped to “see ’em hang.”

      Tolerant and inclusive alert!

  2. Sounds like this might be an interesting book, as long as you look at it as a narrative rather than straight factual reporting. But then, reporters tend to miss the forest for the trees and good writers have a way of getting to the truth of things. Plus, if all you know about the event is what you read in the papers, Gell-Mann is a thing. (I am somewhat concerned about that “surging mountain weather”, though – there’s only so much purple prose one can take.)

    1. It was a dark and stormy night. His deep, dark skylark-blue eyes drank her salacious curves in hungrily, but his heart was freshly-driven-snow-pure and geographic-north true, and his jaw was manly and square.

    2. You may be right. This part bothers me:

      The moment in the Malheur story that bears the most emotional weight is the murder by Oregon state troopers of LaVoy Finicum, but it gets strangely short shrift

      What else gets short shrift? There’s only so much I want to read about corrupt government (but I repeat myself), and I’d hate to put much effort into this if I’d only end up with a partial account and even less interest in a later more complete book on the subject.

  3. Past reason article with some interesting takes


  4. “this country is now full of men and women with long-term personal experience of contemporary guerrilla insurrection.”

    As opposed to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when we were coming back from Viet Nam in big bunches?

    1. To the extent that the Military was dealing with guerrilla insurrection in Vietnam, it is my impression that it was doing so badly. Individual soldiers and small units may have done quite well, but the Pentagon Brass were learning nothing. I think our successes in the Middle East (in spite of muddle headed or flat out idiotic political decisions) come in part from the career soldiers whose experience in Vietnam lead to changes in how the Brass made plans for this sort of thing.

      At least, that’s my impression. But I have never served in the military, and so many of the historical accounts of the Vietnam military actions are Far Left hogwash that I find it hard to read up on the subject.

      1. The lessons weren’t learned very well. When the insurgency heated up in Iraq military brass copied many of the same mistakes made in Vietnam. Drive the insurgents out of village, return to a centrally fortified position. Insurgents move back in. Rinse, lather and repeat. The Marines and David Petreaus changed the tactics to take a village, leave forces there and drive the insurgents from the next village. Train the locals to police their own villages and give them ownership in policing it. We wanted to avoid looking like occupiers (which is stupid) so we never occupied anything. To a degree we are still using a modification of the original Vietnam style of strategy in Afghanistan.

    2. There’s a significant cultural difference now. Back then they called us baby killers. Now they thinknua for our service.

      In the 60-79’s even if you aligned with someone ideologically your time in uniform was a black mark against your character. Now those with these experiences are much more likely to be idoliized by or sympathetic with those with grievances against the government.

      There’s also very little resistance to the power of government on any ideological ‘side’ now. Both the left and right seek powerful and intrusive government. The last thing they want is making an enemny of the people who have living memory of where that leads and the abilities to resist.

  5. The battle over public lands suffers from an overabundance of horses’ asses on both sides. The Ranchers and allies are frequently somewhat sketchy characters, which doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get better treatments from the Government. The Government’s side all too frequently includes people so sure of their righteousness that their actions make the loons surrounding the Ranchers look like angels.

    The core fact is, the Government owns entirely too much land, and manages it poorly. Certainly, it should be discouraged from acquiring more. An argument exists, and not wholly on the fringe, that private ownership of most current public lands would serve the ecology better.

    And there go the Greens’ heads like so many popcorn kernels.

    1. ” that private ownership of most current public lands would serve the ecology better.”

      Not necessarily. Let’s say we sold Yellowstone park to the Chinese. Within a few years they’d harvest every last grizzly bear gall bladder, killing the poor bears in the process.

  6. “And there go the Greens’ heads like so many popcorn kernels.”
    Nice analogy LOL.

  7. Black Cat Dead KhumPhiang

  8. OT:
    After whiffing on “THE RUSSKIS!!!!”, and “OBSTRUCTION!!!!!”,
    the NYT is making a valiant effort at a 3rd strike, pimping a recession with every bit of hint and innuendo they can get away with (and to the lefty imbeciles, that’s quite a bit):

    “Recession or Slowdown? Why You Should Care About the Difference”
    “The United States is on recession watch as market signals flash red. Manufacturing is straining under President Trump’s trade war, business investment is slowing and consumer confidence is showing cracks….”

  9. And Bloomberg piles on! Can they be far behind Krugman?

    “Recession Already Grips Corners of U.S., Menacing Trump’s 2020 Bid”
    “The moment usually comes during Greg Petras’s commute through the rolling hills and cornfields of southern Wisconsin. Somewhere between his home near Madison and the factory he runs on the edge of the small town of Brodhead, the news will turn to the trade wars and Donald Trump will again claim that China is bearing the cost of his tariffs. That’s when Petras loses it.
    “It’s just an outright lie, and he knows it,” says Petras, president of Kuhn North America, which employs some 600 people at its farm-equipment factory in Wisconsin. For Kuhn, Trump’s trade war has produced a toxic mix of rising costs and falling revenues. “You’re slamming your fist on the steering wheel and saying ‘Why would you tell people this?’”

    The Green New Deal will make America great again!

  10. If only teh government would treat antifa like they treat right wing protesters. i guarantee Antifa would not be a thing for long or would the media say those dead antifa had it coming

  11. An occupier offers one of the story’s blunter morals when he tells McCann, “The government might kill you if you tried to form a commune.” McCann concedes the point. The “experience at Malheur,” he writes, “seemed to bear this out.”

    Lol, wut?

    Look, if you want to argue that the government doesn’t like communes, go for it.

    But in this story, they were on government land, in government buildings, preventing government employees from going to work. Government hostility to communes has nothing to do with this case.

    1. There’s no such thing as “government land” – it is public land, owned by the public.

  12. He pulled over abruptly at the side of the road and got out of the truck, at which point FBI agents started shooting; state troopers then killed him as he stumbled about in the snow.

    this was the SECOND time he and the passengers in his truck had been fired upon. The earlier one was a few miles back up that same road. As the bullets began to fly, LaVoy took off, mainly to protect the five innocents in the truck from the gunfire. At the second roadblock, they had already begun firing upon him as the truck came near enough. The roadblock had little warning, and on slippery snow one does not stop on a dime….. he exited the truck mainly to draw the fire away from his passengers. He was NOT armed, the nine mm semi automatic pistol attributed to him was not recognised by any of his family members or closest friends.. he was a wheelgun guy. Other testimony revealed that he and the others had deliverately chosen to take this trip unarmed. All had left their weapons back at the Reserve. WHY did Kate Brown authorise this excessive use of force ? What crime had he committed that warranted a full on tactical roadblock, Oregon State Police wiht RIFLES, as if they were out bear hunting?

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