I spent most of Saturday, January 9, at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, one week after a group led by Ammon Bundy had seized control of it. This is the second story I’ve written about my experience, the first is here.
I left my hotel room in Burns early that Saturday morning, got breakfast at a restaurant and then headed south to the refuge.
Just as I pulled up to the main entrance, Ryan Bundy was leading a small group walking up from inside the refuge, carrying with them a couple of adhesive signs to cover both sides of the official sign mounted at the entrance, which, until they changed it that morning, greeted visitors with, “Welcome To Your… National Wildlife Refuge System.” The occupiers, grammar Nazis on top of everything else, were offended by the misuse of the ellipsis and felt it needed to be redressed.
Actually, the sign was being updated to proclaim to the world that the refuge had been wrested from federal control and returned to the control of the local people. Once they were done, the sign read, “Harney County Resource Center.”
As the day unfolded, and I spoke to the occupiers and observed the tensions between them, I realized that the symbolism of changing the sign and renaming the facility was actually part of a plan by one faction to de-escalate the situation. I would watch another faction undermine these efforts at de-escalation, creating drama and confrontations, and it was interesting to see how the conflict was resolved.
Meanwhile, more reporters trickled in, hanging out in small groups at the entrance or huddling around the guard’s campfire. But most of the media wouldn’t appear until right before 11:00 AM, when the day’s first press conference was scheduled, and they began setting up their equipment, cameras and microphones next to the revamped sign.
On guard duty that morning was the infamous Jon Ritzheimer, despiser of Muslims and sex toys. I had the opportunity to hang out with him around the campfire for a couple of hours before I gained access to the refuge. In my next installment I’ll talk more about him and some of the people I met inside, including Ammon Bundy and his family, but now I’d like to focus on what happened during the 11:00 AM press conference and what it revealed about the people involved.
LaVoy Finicum, an Arizona rancher who is a prominent figure at the refuge, was the first to approach the microphones when the appointed time rolled around, but he seemed eager to hand off to a man named Todd MacFarlane, a lawyer from Utah who claimed to be a mediator and liaison. When MacFarlane took his place before the microphones, he said he had come to Oregon to help facilitate a peaceful solution to the standoff, and insisted he was not in cahoots with the occupiers, rather a neutral party trying to help all sides come together.
Unbeknownst to MacFarlane, the number of sides was multiplying while he stood there speaking before the assembled media.
MacFarlane wanted to make two related points that morning. First, he wanted everyone to know that, with his help, progress was being made to resolve the situation peacefully, and they were de-escalated the situation there at the refuge. Second, he wanted the media to see that while he and others were working diligently to de-escalate the situation, the FBI was doing the opposite: escalating the situation in nearby Burns.
“This has been portrayed as an armed occupation, and I think you may be ignoring the other armed occupations that are happening in this community by the federal government,” he argued, “ It’s been portrayed that the public school system was shut down this week for some kind of public safety concerns, but the reality is that the reason the public schools were shut down is because the BLM – excuse me, the FBI – commandeered the junior high school; basically seized local property for federal uses so they could have a command center there – same thing with the airport – and it’s an armed occupation at both locations.
“They’re preparing for war! If you saw what happened in Bunkerville, in Nevada, that’s what they’re preparing to do. It’s an armed occupation. It’s an escalation. While the situation here is de-escalating, and it’s in the process of being resolved, that’s an escalation. That’s a show of force. That’s an attempt to intimidate … So, my message would be, again, as a mediator, as a liaison who’s trying to resolve this whole situation, the federal government needs to back out. The FBI needs to back out. This whole situation is on track for resolution. It’s on track for a very peaceful … transition and handing over of the baton to the local people who are stepping up to the plate. In other words, the Harney County Committee of Safety.”
The “Harney County Committee of Safety” is a committee of six local people, four of them ranchers, formed at the urging of Ammon Bundy on December 15. On that day, Bundy called a meeting in the town of Burns to discuss a federal judge’s resentencing of Dwight and Steven Hammond, the proximate cause of all this bother. Reportedly, “dozens” of local residents attended the meeting, and the six committee members were elected and the “Committee of Safety” formed. The name recalls the committees of safety created during the American Revolution to provide for local defense, policing, and other needs as British authority was challenged and weakened.
Ideologically, the committee is aligned with the basic tenets Bundy and his crowd advocate. Based on specious interpretations of Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 of the Constitution, they advocate the devolution of most federal lands to local control. However, the committee has been at odds with Bundy almost since the first day, objecting to some of his rhetoric and actions, and condemning his occupation of the refuge.
Although it’s not clear if the committee would continue to hold the refuge, or even try to hold the refuge, once all the guys with guns leave, Bundy’s current plan (and, as far as I know, it continues to be the plan two weeks later) is to transition control of the refuge from Bundy’s group to the committee, thus establishing local control, and, presumably, providing Bundy and his out-of-state followers with an exit strategy.
This is the scenario MacFarlane was describing to the media as a responsible, peaceful path of de-escalation, to be contrasted with the FBI’s irresponsible, escalating provocations. Then Pete Santilli tapped MacFarlane on the shoulder, replaced him in front of the microphones, and proceeded to make a mockery of everything he had just said.
Pete Santilli is a “conservative radio host.” That is to say, he has a YouTube radio show. At the refuge, he describes himself as an embedded reporter. He wears a journalist’s vest with the words “PRESS Pete Santilli” emblazoned on the back in neon yellow.
But he also describes himself as “a good, close friend of the Bundy family,” and he is a veteran of the “Battle of Bunkerville” – the standoff between Cliven Bundy and the BLM in Nevada in 2014.
A couple of days before I arrived, there had been a tussle at the refuge, somebody ended up with a black eye, and the occupiers called 911 seeking help from the sheriff in dealing with the brawlers.
Perhaps you should take a moment to fully digest that last clause.
The sheriff’s department did not respond to the 911 calls from inside the refuge.
The sheriff of Harney County, Sheriff David Ward, is reviled by all true Patriots. He is the Scarpia of their horse opera. In their cosmos, Sheriff Ward is the ultimate villain because he has ultimate power in Harney County, has the legal authority to send the FBI packing, and the sacred duty to protect the local population from federal tyranny. He could be their savior and champion, but he has betrayed his own, and cowers before the minions of the Dark One. He is Judas, Brutus, and Benedict Arnold.
Sheriff Ward, for his part, sees the Patriots as trespassers on land owned by the federal government, and as people who have ignored his repeated commands to leave. He’s aware they despise him, and that they’re armed.
None of this stops Pete Santilli from feeling entitled to assistance from Sheriff Ward when his pals start throwing hands. His outrage at the Sheriff’s unresponsiveness suggests a spoiled child who insists he can talk and behave any way he likes without suffering consequences. It betrays a monstrously infantile sense of entitlement, and a failure to understand the basic principles of reciprocity that bind people together in society.
As MacFarlane stepped aside, Santilli proceeded to set the stage for one of the most theatrical entrances I’ve seen in real life. "As you may or may not know, recently we had a physical altercation here at the camp, and we've been concerned about security here because we contacted the sheriff's department. Unfortunately, the sheriff's department did not respond, for whatever reason … If the system breaks down, and the sheriff's department cannot provide security for the people, for the benefit of the people –“
Behind Santilli, as if on cue, a convoy of perhaps 20 SUVs and pickups was moving up the road towards the entrance to the refuge where the press conference was being held. Santilli’s audience began to look past him, trying to see what was happening.
Santilli turned his head to look himself, and then turned back to the microphones. “I personally made contact with a group of individuals that shall make a neutral position here, to provide security for the demonstrators themselves, for the sheriff's department as well, and the members of the public right now that are running around in fear and intimidation.”
The lead SUV reached the entrance and the convoy stopped as one. Engines died, and then, in unison, doors opened and the occupants began to step out onto the road.
“What you see here, ladies and gentlemen, is a response to that request that I put out for that security."
The newcomers call themselves the Pacific Patriot Network, AKA, the “Idaho Three Percenters.” Decked out in battledress and military gear, they bristled with AR-15s and at least one AK-47. Once out of their vehicles, they moved quickly, fanning out to establish a perimeter, because establishing perimeters is kind of their thing.
MacFarlane, who would later use the word “blindsided” over and over, both with me in private conversation and with the press, stepped up to the microphones again to try to spin this new development in a way that didn’t completely negate everything he had said moments earlier. "So, I want to respond to this and I want to express my concerns … My concern is that it appears to be that there are escalations on both sides, ok? So, it looks like we've seen a great escalation by the federal government and the FBI in Burns, and in response to that escalation, now we've got American citizens who feel like they need to respond –“
But he had lost his audience. Video cameras were being removed from tripods and hefted onto shoulders as the reporters abandoned the press conference to rush over to the road to film the guys with guns.
This created a confrontation, because the guys with guns had set up a perimeter, and the eager reporters were charging forward as if the perimeter wasn’t even there. Knowing how critical it was that the perimeter be maintained, the guys with guns started shouting at the news people to stay back, and even shoved some of them backward when they refused to listen. This made some of the news people angry, and they began shouting about freedom of the press and their right to move freely on a public road. I was waiting for one of the guys with guns to fire a shot into the air to startle everyone into submission, which is what always happens in the movies in situations like this.
I mean, come on people, there’s a goddamn perimeter here.
The leader of the newcomers, it turned out, was a guy named Brandon Curtiss, and he stepped forward to make it clear they were totally serious about the perimeter. The reporters decided to accept that the perimeter was actually a thing, and then everybody agreed to go back to where all the tripods and microphones were set up and have another press conference with Brandon and his boys.
As everyone shuffled over to the sign, Santilli couldn’t contain his glee. “This is the safest I’ve felt in a week!” Somebody laughed, thinking it was a sarcastic quip, but this was Santilli. He turned to the person who had laughed and clarified, “Hey, I’m not joking!”
“We’re here. We’re here, brother,” Curtiss assured Santilli.
“Thank you!” Santilli said with emotion, “God bless America.”
Back at the microphones, Curtiss waited patiently for the cameramen and sound guys to get their equipment resituated, refusing to start until everyone was ready. Then he explained what they were doing there, expanding on what Santilli had already told us: “We're here to establish a security buffer between the gentlemen here at the refuge, the community of citizens, as well as law enforcement. So, we're going to start working on negotiating and opening up communications with law enforcement in town, whether that be the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or whether that be the Sheriff's Department, as well as up here at the refuge. That is our role here. As you can see, we've established our security perimeter when we rolled up, and this is how we'll do things when we're in town here."
So, according to Curtiss, the Idaho Three Percenters were there to start a process that Todd MacFarlane had just been telling us was already well-advanced, under control, and moving towards resolution.
It seems to be a theme with these people that they show up uninvited to solve problems that didn’t exist until they showed up.
A reporter asked what they hoped to contribute to the situation. Before Curtiss could answer, Santilli pushed himself back into the spotlight: “Can I respond to that, because I was the one that made one of the initial calls when there was a physical altercation here. The sheriff's department would not respond. We had similar circumstances at Bundy ranch, ok? Where the sheriff's department would not respond, when the BLM were actually taking people to the ground, they deferred to the BLM when we made those 911 calls. A 911 call was made the other night... the sheriff's department failed and refused to respond, and therefore security is a concern."
Curtiss jumped back in to add, “And that’s one of the things we’re going to do, is we’re going to fill that void. Where we can – “
Curtiss was interrupted by LaVoy Finicum, who came forward speaking before he had even reached the microphones. I’m not sure why, but LaVoy Finicum is revered among the group at the refuge and the culture associated with them. He’s a rancher who stood by Cliven Bundy in 2014, but there seems to be something beyond that, and he’s generally treated with great respect and deference, even as people sometimes make affectionate jokes about his age and his folksy, genteel manner (“LaVoy thinks he can just fend them off with his flintlock!”). He seems to be regarded as a source of wisdom, like an old chieftain.
He stepped up and shook hands with Curtiss, saying, “"I'm glad you came, we're so glad you're here to help, ok, but what we're looking for, we're looking for a de-escalation. We're so grateful, Brandon, for you to come, because we got a lot of work to do. We got trash to pick up, things to clean, and fences to do, and stuff.”
Brandon Curtiss suddenly looked glum.
Finicum continued: “But we're not here for any escalation of things. We're feeling very safe down here in the compound, and so, that's what we're here to do. So, thank you and them for coming, and again, we're here to be peaceful, um, and uh, so, but uh, but anyway, um, that's that.”
Brandon Curtiss had stuffed his hands in his pockets and I thought he might start kicking at the dirt with his toe and muttering, “Well, shoot.”
“These guys are good people,” Finicum explained, “but my concern is this, is that there's long guns here, and that's what always gets out in the media, is people packing long guns, trying to look like this is violent, and that sells a lot of newspapers, and what I'm saying probably won't even get out, but we want the long guns put away. We want those put up, ok? We don't want things to look threatening. This thing is not to be threatening, this is to be peaceful. We're calling for a de-escalation... we're here to be neighborly, and stuff."
Then he excused himself and headed toward the compound while Curtiss and his boys, their sails empty of wind, muttered grumpy answers to the remaining questions from the media. Santilli walked away and got in an argument with one of the other occupiers that looked like it might end in fisticuffs, but others intervened and calmed them down.
During the next couple of hours I would get into the refuge for the first time, hang out for awhile, and then return to the main entrance to find the Idaho Three Percenters gone. They had been at the refuge less than three hours, I believe, before agreeing to leave. I talked to Todd MacFarlane who said Ammon Bundy was just as blindsided as he was by their dramatic arrival during the press conference. They had known the Idaho Three Percenters were in town, but hadn’t expected them to show up en masse waving long guns, pushing reporters around, establishing perimeters, and talking like they had come to save the day. Ammon Bundy was grateful for their support, I was told, but agreed with MacFarlane and Finicum that their cinematic entrance had been an unwanted escalation.
“So, are they headed back to Idaho?” I asked MacFarlane.
“Oh no, they’ll be around.”
At this point, I had decided I needed to make a run back to Burns. I needed to buy some gloves. It gets cold in California sometimes, but in California pockets are enough to keep my hands warm. In the high desert of eastern Oregon in January, pockets weren’t getting the job done. I needed gloves.
I drove up to Burns, got my gloves at the Big R, and decided to return to the restaurant where I’d eaten breakfast that morning and have lunch. When I got there, the parking lot was full with the pickups and SUVs of the Three Percenters. Inside, they were gathered at one end of the restaurant with several tables pushed together. They were quiet. They were downright morose. It must be hard to maintain a perimeter in a restaurant if you want prompt coffee refills.
I would find out later that they eventually came up with a plan to lift their spirits. They regrouped and headed out to the airport where the FBI has set up a temporary headquarters. They surrounded the headquarters and the FBI agents came out to meet them, armed and tense. A discussion ensued, and it all ended without gunfire. You might see it as an act of intimidation directed at the FBI, but, in the inverted reality of the Three Percenters, it was a demonstration to prove that the people would not be intimidated by the FBI. It just depends on how you look at it, I guess, but it didn’t sound like they were respecting the FBI’s perimeter.
Regardless, it seemed clear to me the confrontation at the airport was a face-saving stunt, something to restore militia morale after their rejection at the refuge.
Most significant to me was that the leadership at the refuge had rejected an escalation, and had turned away an armed and organized group of sympathizers. They had been able to control the new group, at least around the environs of the refuge, and they had defended their plan to de-escalate. Pete Santilli had not been allowed to derail the progress they were making, and that was a good thing.