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."