Once upon a time in the west
“Harney County has a lot of open space – it is the largest county in Oregon, but has the smallest population – but for the six weeks of the standoff it felt pretty claustrophobic. The world was watching.
The occupation began as a peaceful protest in the town of Burns. There was a march there in support of local farmer Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven. The Hammonds had been convicted of arson on federal lands and had already served time in prison; they were released, but a judge ruled this was too lenient and they were ordered back on 4th January. This resentencing angered anti-government groups across the country and Burns became a magnet for activists. Among the new arrivals were militant brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy from Phoenix, Arizona and Robert “LaVoy” Finicum from Utah.
The initial protest was a couple of hundred people, a mixture of locals and outsiders. At the end of the protest, Ammon Bundy announced his plan to occupy the federal-owned wildlife refuge. The Bundys and their followers, who were armed, headed there immediately and took over a series of unoccupied buildings. From that point on it didn’t feel like the whole thing had much to do with the Hammonds, who released a statement saying they’d serve their time and didn’t need the support of the occupiers. It became about trying to reclaim federal land. Bundy, Finicum and their supporters believe that rather than being in the hands of the federal government, local land like the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge should be managed by locals. It was an odd situation: you had people travelling across the country to demand land be returned to the people of Oregon. That caused some tension among the locals. Some of them agreed with the occupiers’ message, but not the way they were getting it across, some disagreed entirely and a few joined the occupation themselves.
I was shooting in Portland and headed to the refuge as soon as I could, but thought the whole thing would probably be over by the time I got there. As it turned out, I didn’t need to hurry. To everyone’s surprise the local law enforcement officials didn’t crack down on the takeover straight away and the occupiers dug in.”
“The refuge is a 30-minute drive out of Burns and what surprised me was that there was no police presence either on the road or at the refuge. I drove right up to the front gate, walked up to the blockade and started talking to the armed occupiers, who had set up a perimeter. They were nearly all happy to talk.
This guy called himself ‘Joker Jay’, he was from North Carolina. He was talking about the militia actions he’d been involved in all over the country. Historically, US militia go all the way back to the revolutionary war. The initial armed forces that fought off the British were organised militia – they weren’t an army. So the bill of rights enshrines the right to form an armed group, just as it does the right the bear arms. In the last ten years you’ve seen a rise in the visibility of these militia groups and also more cases of them aligning themselves with radical causes. I appreciate the idea of non government-regulated people running around the woods with guns and representing themselves as the true defenders of the country is difficult to fathom.
A lot of these groups say they are preparing to fight off the federal government from the inside because it is coming to take their guns or limit their freedoms. They use a lot of symbolism of American patriotism which muddies the waters for a lot of people. If a bunch of Black Lives Matter activists had taken over the refuge with guns, I think it would have been a different story.
Jay seemed surprised when I said I’d not heard of him. He’d marched on Capitol Hill, been involved in standoffs in the Midwest… He’d drop whatever he was doing at the time and head to the latest flashpoint. He seemed to be enjoying the media attention in Burns – he saw it as his opportunity to get his message out.
[Name to come] This guy was at the blockade every day, walking around with an AR-15. He was loud, opinionated and a little intimidating. In contrast, Duane Ehmer was one of the most charming people I encountered. Every morning he’d ride out on his horse, Hellboy, say hello, comment on what a beautiful day it was, and ask how you were doing – he seemed more personable than most of the others. He was one of the few occupiers who was actually from Oregon.
The militia were surprisingly media savvy. Almost every day at 11am they would hold a press conference in front of the reserve. Here you can see LaVoy talking to the press. He was talking about how they were good stewards of the refuge and why lands like these should be returned to local people. After the conference he led us down into the refuge and showed us one small area where the occupiers were fixing up buildings and cleaning them out, but it felt like a farce. Photos that emerged after the standoff showed they had pretty much trashed other areas. There was human faeces and rubbish everywhere. They left the refuge in a pretty bad way.”
“It was hard to secure a hotel room in Burns, and not just because of the visiting news media. A lot of out-of-town militia were there, claiming they were a buffer between the occupiers at the ranch and the law enforcement agencies who were mostly in the town. State police and the FBI all needed rooms too and there aren’t many hotels in Burns. So you had a strange situation where the militia, the police and the media were all sharing the same hotel. It made for some interesting moments around the vending machine.
When I checked in to the hotel the lady at the front desk said, ‘You’ll be safe, I’m putting you next door to a state trooper’. This is his patrol car in the car park. Nearby was another vehicle with a sticker used by the Three Percenters, a north-west militia who showed up within hours of the standoff starting. The name comes from the idea that only three percent of colonists at the time took up arms and fought against the British.
Since there was no significant law enforcement presence around the refuge, the occupiers and people supporting them were free to travel out and bring in supplies. They must have underestimated how cold it would be, or how many people would show up – they were really under-resourced. So every night they would send out a sort of shopping list – food, water, extra socks, jackets, etc. This became a bit of a running joke. These people wanted to overthrow the government, but they hadn’t packed enough snacks.
I don’t know if the authorities had planned to play the long game from the start, but I think it worked to their advantage. The occupiers got so used to commuting from the siege to the town that they got a false sense of freedom. I would finish shooting and head to the bar and see people there that were supposed to be occupying the refuge. They got used to moving around without any trouble from the authorities: but they were being lulled into
“When I returned to Burns in April, two months after the standoff, the whole physical and emotional landscape seemed to have changed. It was spring, the snow had melted and the countryside felt fresh and alive, but the mood in the town could not be have been more different. Whereas before everyone was happy to share their opinions, now nobody really wanted to talk about the occupation. It’s like the old adage that you never discuss religion or politics at a dinner party – the siege had revealed everyone’s political stance and caused arguments within families between people with different opinions on the occupation.
Before it was a small community where people looked out for each other, but were independent and didn’t get into each other’s business. But during the siege a line was drawn in the sand, meaning the community had had to pick sides. They are trying to reconcile things as they still need to live with each other, but the divide is definitely there. Meanwhile, 800 miles away in southern California the Hammonds are still in prison.
The spot where LaVoy was shot has become a sort of shrine. People have left a lot of trinkets. It’s a strange mixture of symbolism – you’ve got a cross, you’ve got the American flag, you’ve got the confederate flag, you’ve got cowboy hats… Some people in Burns told me they want to go out there and tear it all down. If they did I think all hell would break loose.
It was then that I met members of the Burns Paiute tribe, the forgotten people in this story. This is Cheryl Halley Melbin – a member of the tribe. The occupied refuge is on tribal land – there’s a burial ground here. The occupiers did a lot of damage. There’s a road that runs from one building to the next, but not taking the most direct route. The occupiers thought “well, that’s kind of stupid” and put in a straight road between the buildings. But the reason the original road was indirect was to avoid all these native American artefacts, a lot of pottery and other rare archeological finds, some of which hadn’t yet been excavated. The occupiers destroyed them by building this new road. Melbin was heartbroken. She said ‘if you mess with the archaeological sites, bad juju will go with you’.
Initially the occupation was a really exciting thing to witness. This is one of the biggest events to have ever happened in Oregon and I’d never shot anything like it before, but it was when I returned that the real impact on the community hit home. This whirlwind of outside forces came through – first the militia and then the media – and tore everything up. Now it’s all over and these people are trying to pick up the pieces and reevaluate the way they treated each other.
This is also the first time I’ve shot something with fatal consequences for those involved. I don’t think LaVoy gave law enforcement a lot of choice – he was known to be armed, he resisted arrest and the vehicle he was driving almost hit FBI agents as he was trying to escape. Americans get shot by law enforcement all the time for a lot less than what he did, and if you look at the history of these standoffs – Waco, Ruby Ridge – the death count tends to be a lot higher. There was so much posturing with guns involved that the loss of only one life is perhaps a good result. That said, it’s a funny cause to die for.”
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