The armed militia led by Ammon Bundy that occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Headquarters for 41 days are gone. Twenty-seven people have been arrested and await trial, including Cliven Bundy, mastermind of the first standoff in Nevada. The hundreds of media, members of various militia groups and array of law enforcement officers that occupied Burns and Hines for the same number of days are gone. The snow geese came and flew their temporary coops. Harney County was packed with birders in larger numbers than before. The headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge remains closed for repairs, possibly until summer.
Friends ask, “What was the occupation all about?” I’m still sifting through the emotional debris. As for others, the ill wind that blew in here still rustles up edgy nerves.
I’m a city gal. Since I moved to Hines/Burns ten years ago, I’ve been out to some of the ranches and met some of their owners, but still do not fully understand the business of ranching. My first inkling of how much I did not know came about soon after my husband and I moved here. I was out in the woods practicing tai chi in some obsidian digging grounds. For three months, I saw no one. Suddenly I sensed someone behind me and turned to see an old geezer, teeth yellowed, battered boots and Stetson, on a large horse. We looked at each other for quite a few moments. Then he bellowed: “’Ya seen my cows?” My face must have gone through quite a few changes, because he bellowed again, “‘Ya seen my cows?” I answered in starched English: “I am very sorry, sir, but I have not seen any cows up here.” He doffs his hat and away he rides. I could only imagine what he was going to tell his bunkmates about the old lady he saw waving her hands in some peculiar dance. It was the first time I recognized that finding and herding cows out on the rangelands might be a primary job.
As I ponder the occupation and its aftermath, I understood once again how misunderstood ranching life here is as seen by outsiders, including media that struggled mightily, and the armed militia that occupied the refuge and our town, so few of whom were ranchers or cowboys, even though the cause they seemed to espouse had a lot to do with ranching.
The range of ideas and emotions the occupation spurred, brought home, yet again, that there is a divide among many of us that live here in the city and the lonelier and harder 24/7 physical life lived by ranchers and their employees. It also showed me that many barricade themselves inside their separate and private islands and live in disparate worlds—emotionally and physically. No wonder we were ill-prepared to communicate with each other when life here got so shaken up.
The Malheur occupation showed us some very dangerous divides, what my husband called, rifts in reality, and their waves continue to radiate outwards.
Whose reality? The occupation revealed a confusing kaleidoscope. And so did almost every public meeting and private conversation, as people aired what they felt and thought.
What was the occupation about? At one level it was about morphing issues: first it was about a peaceful protest against the re-sentencing of father and son Hammond who were convicted of arson by a jury of peers in 2012. Then it became the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Headquarters by armed militia and their presence in town and stories of them following and harassing law enforcement, city and county officials, and employees of federal agencies and their families. Then it morphed into discussions of the occupation of FBI and a standoff mandated by them, with the intent of no bloodshed, neither to militia nor residents of Harney County. The issue morphed again as media and social media exploited the demands for the return of federal land to states, counties or private hands.
As the issues morphed, the rifts among Harney residents grew, and so did the acrimony among family and friends and businesses—almost, but not quite, inciting a hate fest. Anger and hatred were inflamed yet again following roadblocks that were set up by law enforcement against the militants and the arrests of Bundy, Payne and others on their way to John Day, and the death of La Voy Finicum, one of the inner circle, who tried to outrun the roadblocks, plowed into a snow bank, got out of his truck shouting, “Shoot me, shoot me,” refusing to surrender, and was shot. The media controversies about Finicum’s death and arrests of the militia subsumed all other issues for some time. Finicum’s wake still goes on and on as militia and family continue holding gatherings around the country. On April 24, about forty Finicum sympathizers gathered and mounted red white and blue crosses on highway easements from the place he was shot to the refuge (about forty miles).
The meme repeated during discussion of most any issue was that of government hatred.
Many here are still close to being clinically depressed. Some family members are still not talking to each other. I have heard of rifts within church communities. People that are running for local offices are wary of offering opinions on the issues mentioned above for fear of offending those who might otherwise vote for them. They spout the commonest of platitudes: “We want to improve Harney County’s economic prosperity.”
To only argue about issues is to ignore the much larger one that the occupation exposed.
On another level, the occupations was about how a very small group of armed, organized militia, some with past felony convictions, some lying about past military duty, some mentally deranged, some led by the inner voices of God, held a community in fear and loathing for 41 days at a terrible emotional and financial cost. The private, armed militias in our country are growing; they are networked into each other via video, radio stations, and social media; and they are organized and dedicated. Some of the tactics used in Harney County were sending thousands of emails to the sheriff and other county and city officials; and flooding phones and 911 dispatch with messages.
Sadly, the private militia found sympathizers among residents in Harney County who formed a homegrown version, with Bundy’s help, called “The Committee of Safety”.
The takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and our towns exposed our human frailties. We found ourselves not only unable to cope with the occupation emotionally and physically, but very much dependent on law enforcement to save the situation. Many barricaded themselves inside their homes; others left town to escape intimidations and threats of violence. We were shaken out of our complacencies. Some very large rifts in our disparate realities were revealed, and equally, our lack of communication tools to bridge them.
At the highest level, what the occupation was about was exposing our very deep seated fears of change in a world that is rapidly changing in ways that we cannot control: increasing climate calamities, war, population migrations, dwindling natural resources, and global population growing beyond sustainability.
Historically people facing rapid, uncontrolled change have turned to blame and shame; and sought spiritual and political leaders that will ‘save’ them.
Wasn’t that what fascism, Nazism, Mao and Stalin’s brand of communism was about? Hundreds of millions were disappeared and murdered. Isn’t that also the story behind the appalling genocides in such countries as Rwanda, Serbia, Darfur, Guatemala (Mayans) and Cambodia? Many more millions were killed by militias carrying the banners of god and ethnicity.
Visiting a naval museum in Chania, Crete, many years ago, I watched a school teacher leading a first grade class to the second floor, where there was an exhibit of Nazi’s parachuting down into Crete during World War II and killing off a tenth of the population. She shook her finger at them: “Never forget. Never forget.”
We too should never forget the impacts of this armed occupation. I know what I don’t want: a minority of private armed militias ruling over my life.
What should we remember?
Our country was founded on the principles life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—not for a minority, religious or ethnic or political—but for all who find home here.
(Other blogs on this subject are in older posts.)