In January 2016, in a corner of the Oregon high desert called Harney County, a group of anti-government militants walked into a federal wildlife refuge known primarily for protecting endangered birds. It probably took the men all of three minutes to seize the facility: they carried assault rifles, though they looked like they were auditioning for white hat roles in a Western, all pale Stetsons and snap-front shirts.
The men had demands. A ranching family named the Hammonds, who shared a militant ideology with the Bundy’s, had just been jailed for setting fire to public lands, their sentence extended to a couple of years under a 1996 anti-terrorism act. Their leader, Ammon Bundy, wanted the Hammonds to be released and even more impossibly, he wanted to demolish the refuge permanently and return it to ranch land. (The Hammond’s later disavowed the Bundy’s tactics.)
The definition of terrorism—according to the US Code of Federal Regulations—is the use of violence against people or property to intimidate for political or social aims.
The reaction of federal law enforcement present after the storming of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was to wait and see. It’s hard to imagine a group of radicalized Muslims taking over a federal facility with semi-automatics to make a political statement and garnering the same reaction.
It goes to show how much a person can get away with if they are dressed like a cowboy. As noted by the Washington Post, the words overwhelmingly used by the national media to describe the participants in the Harney county insurrection were “occupiers” or “armed activists.”
Apparently, cowboys can’t be terrorists.
The men looked like cowboys, but a lot of them were not. They were militiamen, part of a loose affiliation stretching from Montana to Pennsylvania known as Operation Mutual Aid. It wasn’t the first time they had used force to fight federal authority either. Previously, they had rallied around a Nevada rancher named Cliven Bundy when he got in trouble with the Bureau of Land Management for illegally grazing cattle in 2014.
Donald Trump, then teetering on the brink of announcing his candidacy, tweeted that he liked Cliven’s “spunk.” He loved to support bucking government control in those days—all part of the line of breadcrumbs leading to his campaign, giving off an impression he was the same kind of political outsider as the Bundys and their followers.
It worked, despite the fact that Trump supports federal control of public lands. Right before the election, some called Trump the suit-and-tie version of Cliven Bundy.
Just as soon as the militiamen had the wildlife refuge locked down, the organizers sent out a call for food. For several weeks, the story was everywhere. “Dear Dad (Government), I hate you and am running away. Please, PLEASE send snacks,” wrote one Twitter commenter. The Daily Show sent them a care package on national television.
No one sent out for snacks at the OK Corral. Or at Waco. By the end of the Harney County insurrection, one terrorist—I’ll be calling them terrorists— was hiding under a truck alternating between threats and bleating for pizza.
The Harney County insurrection had the flavor of a joke, an elaborate one. Like Ziegfield’s Follies was doing a parody of a cowboy standoff.
The cowboy act was not sufficient to accomplish their aims, so they drew from the terrorist playbook: martyrdom. One evening in late January, when the occupation was just beginning to stale, several of the terrorists decided to attend a community meeting outside the reserve. Along a desolate back road white with snow, the FBI halted the first truck, which a man identified in the press as both Mike McConnell and Mark McConnell was driving. McConnell claims to have immediately surrendered. An Arizona rancher named Robert “LaVoy” Finicum was driving the second car. Video footage shows his car ignore the FBI’s orders and attempt to run over an agent on foot before crashing into a snowbank.
After Finicum’s car crashed through the roadblock, the terrorists sat inside the car and debated what to do. At last, Finicum got out of the car and reached into the inner pocket of his jacket for his firearm. And then he was gunned down. News outlets played the story of Fincium’s death on repeat, the same way suicide bombers make a point.
I spoke with NBC correspondent Gisele Lamarre, who told me that in the more than an hour she spent talking with Finicum—also known as #tarpman for speaking to reporters from a rocking chair with a shotgun and a blue tarp over his head—it was apparent he was certainly “a hothead.” He told her he “was not going to be taken alive.”
It was either a great publicity stunt or a terrific con job, depending on your point of view.
Several years ago, I stayed in the cookhouse of a ranch by the Alvord Desert, one of the more desolate stretches known in those parts—a plain of poisonous alkali, which nearly killed my ancestors when they crossed in 1853. The scrubland ran along the edge of this desert. At dusk, a stream of cattle came over the butte, the cowboys outlined against the fading sky. I had never seen this before but felt like I had.
The next day, the ranch manager took me to Harney County to attend a cookout for Country Natural Beef, the collective this ranch belonged to. I was interviewing founders Doc and Connie Hatfield for a piece about Portland food on a local radio show, but secretly, I just wanted to meet some real cowboys. The party was at the Hatfield’s place, a low white 70s-era farmhouse on what must have been hundreds of acres of gray-green pasture. Rows of steaks were laid over a pit of red coals. There was a lassoing contest for the kids, tiny versions of their parents, who all seemed to sport Stetsons. I had pierced through to the other side of a thin veil that separates city and country people, comprised of one part politics and one part mystique.
The allure of the cowboy is real. Especially out in Oregon, where I am from. But I suspect it is powerful everywhere in America: all of our cowboy and Indian games, country-western songs, Saturday morning cartoons. Clint Eastwood. The little girl in True Grit, standing her ground for her land, with John Wayne as her champion.
Connie Hatfield was no different from any of us, though she’d been ranching since a young woman. She, too, had some inner picture reel of what it meant to be a cowgirl. She told me when the Hatfields started their ranch in the Basin in the 70s, they had both seen themselves like they were in a Ford flick: “We still felt we were John Wayne and you know, strutted around.”
Connie and Doc inhabited this mental movie until the late 80s, at which time the American public went through a phase of deep paranoia about red meat. We have moved on now to a morbid fear of gluten, but at the time, the red meat scare took a deep bite out of their profit margins. They began to go backwards on their loans, a trajectory that is a death spiral for most ranchers and farmers. So Connie did the unthinkable. She drove into the nearest city and visited a health club.
In her typical no-nonsense fashion, she asked to see the most health-conscious trainer they had. “This guy’s name was Ace, and he kind of came skipping out. He was a twenty-five-year-old Jack LaLanne type with big muscles and stuff.” She proceeded to ask Ace what the problem was exactly with their product.
It turned out there was no problem with beef, other than perception. Meatheads, as gym rats are often called, eat a lot of meat to build muscle—frequently referred to as beefing up. There’s a reason for all these meat metaphors. This particular meathead had advised his clients to eat massive quantities of grass-fed beef flown all the way in from Japan. So they were still eating beef; it was just that at that juncture American beef didn’t have a great reputation. Ace hadn’t realized that the same exact thing could be bought about fifty miles away: beef from cattle who spent their lives eating sagebrush and wild grasses on the open plain.
Connie soon set him straight, glimpsing a way out—all those years they had been selling their beef to a McDonald’s wholesaler, a much more lucrative market had been sitting right next door. It required a leap of faith: they had to raise their calves to adulthood and trust that the health food market would be there. And that’s when the Country Natural Beef ranching collective began, at a meeting between a desperate rancher and her salvation, a man who could not be less like a cowboy.
Before long, Ace had all his health club clients signed up to buy more beef than the Hatfields could produce. So Connie did something that sounded even more unthinkable. She organized an egalitarian collective where all the ranchers, both husbands and wives, sat in a talking circle until they reached consensus. Some of the wives had never called themselves ranchers before.
I pointed out to Connie how radical this all sounded—practically leftist. She said: “Oh no. I’m conservative.”
There was a lot I didn’t know about ranchers, as it turned out. They have less in common with the Lone Ranger than with Wobblies and trade unionists. The first ranching collectives were the Granges, a secret order founded in 1867 to collectivize nearly everything. They bought things in bulk—farm machinery to women’s dresses—and fought rail monopolies through lobbying for regulation. The first anti-trust laws owe their existence to these efforts, also known as the Granger Laws. The conservatives of the day called them communists.
You will not find any of this in a John Wayne movie.
This is certainly not the story the Bundys tell about the frontier. They don’t mention how often federal subsidies have kept small ranchers from going out of business, though Cliven has accepted government handouts often enough that his neighbors treated him with derision.
It’s as if Cliven publicly played a cowboy and at home, acted like a rancher. It was a great con.
I wandered out to the edge of the Hatfield’s party and got on a haycart to tour their land. The guide, a watershed expert in khakis and tie-dye, pointed out the space between the juniper trees, the thick brush along the streams that cast pools of darkness for the fish to hide in. This is what land looks like when ranchers follow environmental regulations. The Hatfields also follow the teachings of Allan Savory, a Zimbabwean ecologist who espouses holistic ranch management as a means to reverse climate change.
It didn’t matter that a portrait of Reagan hung like an icon in their living room.
The comments sections of the videos linked up to the Bundy Ranch YouTube channel are brittle with fear. Not days before the 2014 standoff, one commenter wrote: “I don’t know how it’s in the best interests of the land, the public, or the man with grazing rights, to do this to a family’s livelihood.” Other commenters are distrustful of federal jurisdiction in any capacity, as if playing parts in the John Wayne flick Who Shot Liberty Valance? in which Wayne’s character tried to hold off statehood and hang on to “the law of the hired gun.” In other words, local rule is the only just rule.
The Waco references had a lasting effect on me. I stayed up late breathlessly searching the Internet for transcripts of interviews with Waco survivors. Then I found Waco: Rules of Engagement, an Academy Award-nominated documentary that makes use of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s own footage to piece together what most likely happened: the federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency—under scrutiny at the time for the massacre at Ruby Ridge—went after the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas on weapons and statutory rape charges, despite the fact that rape is not under their jurisdiction. They approached serving a search warrant like a publicity stunt, tipping off the press the night before. The Branch Davidians’ leader, David Koresh, denied the feds any access to the compound at all, and a gun battle ensued.
The FBI were put in charge of what had turned into a siege. They declared their official objective to be the rescue of the children inside. But no one had any wish to leave Mt. Carmel. The FBI gave Koresh a video camera to prove the people inside were doing well and were not held against their will. The most affecting of these interviews were the mothers. One woman holding her tiny baby said: “We the people don’t run this government anymore. They do, and they tell all the lies they want.”
According to a Department of Justice evaluation, the FBI didn’t release the tape because they were concerned “Koresh would gain much sympathy.”
Outside the compound, agents blasted Nancy Sinatra lyrics: “You keep thinking that you’ll never get burnt, / I just found me a brand-new box of matches.” Someone called the compound and asked how many fire extinguishers they had. These were the same people asking the Branch Davidians to give them their children.
Once the FBI began the final assault, tanks ripped holes in the outer walls of the compound and pumped in tear gas, although they knew that gas masks do not fit little kids. The mothers huddled in a concrete bunker under wet blankets, but the FBI pumped more gas into their hiding spot, leaving the children they were there to rescue barely alive.
I had never heard this story before, but the Bundys were very familiar with it, and so were the militiamen who supported them at their ranch in 2014 and again at the Malheur Refuge in 2016. “What really ignited the [militia] movement was the violence in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas,” wrote Larry Keller for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
It seems likely the Branch Davidians were initially targeted by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) for the simple fact that they were odd, according to expert testimony at the 1993 Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing. They thought the way the rest of us lived was wrong. Koresh seems to have enjoyed a beer at live music shows from time to time, and the Branch Davidians ran a legal gun dealership, the Mag Bag. The local sheriff liked them. The sect itself, a splinter group of Seventh Day Adventists, had lived in the compound since 1959. Aside from the disturbing fact that Koresh most likely married underage women in multiple numbers, the Branch Davidians were not that different from any other religious group. For many, the story of Waco called into question how real our freedom of religion is, among other freedoms promised by the Constitution, and these views have since gone mainstream. A 2010 CNN opinion poll found that 56% of the American people now believe that the federal government poses a threat to the freedoms of ordinary citizens.
An eyewitness to the final Waco assault, Timothy McVeigh, perpetrated the Oklahoma City bombing on the anniversary of the tanks riding over the fallen timbers of Mt. Carmel. After his execution, militia groups rose from the ashes, the love child of paramilitary organizations and a new, anti-government ideology. They spread quickly.
They were only suppressed by the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act—the same law the Hammonds were prosecuted under.
It worked. The number of militias had dropped from a peak of 858 to 35 by 2005.
Then Barack Obama got elected.
Racism as a motive to rebel against the government has always been a part of the frontier mentality. Much of the West is white, white, white because settlers were too racist for slavery; most didn’t want to live around black people at all.
In 1844, settlers freed any slaves brought into Oregon Country—which then stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Rockies—and then encouraged them to leave, by threat of public whippings. By1850, it was illegal for black people to claim a homestead under the Land Donation Act or to live in Oregon Country at all.
In other words, the frontier was not open for all.
Nearly two hundred years later, Trump asserted that Obama had faked his birth certificate. Therefore, Obama did not belong in the White House.
Due in part to such rumors, militias reached a record high of 1,360.
And then came the 2014 standoff at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch, and its sequel in Harney County.
NBC correspondent Gisele Lamarre told me Ammon and Ryan Bundy to “get attention for their movement.” In other words, the cowboy terrorists sought to place themselves in the lineage of Waco. Yet there’s a critical difference. The 2014 standoff posed militias in the light not of martyrdom, but of success.
“The bottom line about the Bundy standoff is that a large number of people in the militia movement pointed scoped semi-automatic weapons at the heads of law enforcement officials and ultimately forced them to back down,” Southern Poverty Law Center Senior Fellow Mark Potok commented to the Retro Report section of The New York Times, an online documentary series. “It made people feel that you could win against the federal government, and you needed to do it with a gun.”
This emboldened many on the far right whose views overlapped with Cliven Bundy’s, particularly militias.
The Bundys would be nowhere without militias. They were able to take back their cattle from the BLM because of militias’ manpower, firearms, and tactical guidance. The whole affair would have been over quickly were it not for Operation Mutual Aid, whose members drove through the night to be there. At one point, the Bundys and their followers trained sniper rifles on federal agents guarding a highway. The response of the BLM was to wait and then go away.
The BLM could not have done otherwise because of Waco—because any federal takedown of cowboy terrorists will only breed more Timothy McVeighs.
Tellingly, it was Cliven Bundy and his family who spoke to the press, not Payne. His son Ammon was not even a rancher himself at the time. He was a car salesman from Tucson. But he looked the part, at least having grown up on a ranch. Payne didn’t; he looked like a redneck in dark camouflage fatigues, someone doubtful and dangerous.
It was the image of the cowboy that Republicans politicians like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Michele Fiore latched onto. Fiore flew out to pose while cuddling calves rescued from the BLM, her highlighted hair over the collar of her canvas duster.
We do not see cowboys as terrorists, but as ourselves, as “us.” The cowboy is the original “us,” the image America learned to love as its twin, after the Yankee, that is.
The Yankee was the first American, though, as any review of old folk stories will reveal—Uncle Sam in striped trousers, a businessman with country manners who could hold an audience with his fantastic stories of trades made at the bottom of a river or in the jaws of a bear. He was a wise-cracking door-to-door salesman who left whatever small town he came to with everyone’s money in his pocket; in other words, he was a con artist. As he set out across the newly opened frontier, he grabbed what land he could, dispossessing those who stood in his way.
The cowboy is what the Yankee turned into as he moved West.
The Bundys have never been described as “terrorists” in the press because we no longer support gassing people who look like us—the people for whom the Constitution’s promise of freedom is supposed to apply.
Everyone else has to take their freedom where they can.
Both cowboys and militiamen are everywhere out here in the West, beyond the cities. Once, near the Alvord Desert, my then-husband Ben and I stopped at a hot spring. We were on the kind of vacation Portland urbanites take in Oregon: a jaunt into the wilderness in overpriced hiking boots and fleece underwear. The point is to get away from people.
At the hot spring, a pair of ranchers were already sitting, fully clothed, in the water. Ben and I looked at each other and kept silent, a form of camouflage. The smell of boiled eggs from the sulphur in the water rose around us. We climbed over the wooden timbers framing the spring and eased ourselves onto the benches that ringed this square hole cut into the desert. The men talked commodities market: McDonald’s was down again. They were now paying pennies on the pound for range-fed beef. One of the men told me that their good beef was mixed in with questionable meat from all over the continent. “It’s a waste,” he said.
Down the road, a convoy of Hummers approached, dust rising behind them. They parked by the hot spring, and an entire extended family got out. Everything they had on was in camouflage, from diaper covers to a string bikini. A man with a long white beard and a heavy teenage girl slid into the water next to me. They had recently gotten married, they informed me.
The old man leaned back on the timber frame of the spring and looked across the cracked white surface of the desert. A dry weed blew by our side of the pool. “God’s country,” he remarked.
I wanted to ask the man if they were some stripe of Mormon, but thought better of it.
Like many Utopian leaders, Brigham Young came out here because there was no one to object to what he was doing. In particular, doing to very young women. The Mormons had just escaped from a government attack in which their founding messianic figure had been killed. At the time, this land was not even part of the United States.
The West is a part of the country where certain people still think they can have the kind of freedom Thomas Jefferson advocated for, the kind that Tea Party Republicans like Ted Cruz say is promised by the Constitution: the right to pursue happiness in your own way, on your own terms, whatever that means for you.
This notion of the frontier raises my hackles. The questions come: what is this freedom for, and who has it? For this man to marry a sixteen-year-old means the encroachment of her freedom to grow up before making a decision that will surely draw a circle around the rest of her life.
One person’s freedom to do anything they want can mean the absolute negation of another’s freedom.
I can understand why Waco struck a chord that fueled the Harney County terrorists. It is horrifying to watch the grainy orange flames dancing in footage of the firestorm engulfing the families inside the buildings at Mt. Carmel. If I frame the concerns of anti-government militias as a fear of oppression, I find that I am sympathetic.
It’s an easy narrative to harness, and Trump has done it better than anyone. Those three million voters who turned the electoral tide were concentrated in the middle of the country: largely rural, white, poor—those feeling dispossessed. It’s what political scientist Katherine Cramer calls the “politics of resentment,” the same people who join militias.
One day on the campaign trail, Trump pulled into Las Vegas. A group of Black Lives Matter protesters showed up at his rally to register their disapproval. One was dragged from the ballroom across the floor by a knot of security guards. Trump supporters called out encouragement: their ideas including kicking him, shooting him, and lighting “the motherfuker on fire.” Some yelled out “Seig heil.” Trump’s response was that “maybe the protestor should be roughed up.”
The next time Trump was in Vegas, he lamented the passing of a time when protesters would have been “carried out on a stretcher.”
Trump has convinced his supporters he will give them a frontier America again—the “good old days” as he put it, when anyone was free to run someone out of town simply because they were not us.
The Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation unraveled quickly after Finicum went down in the blood-pink snow. When he stormed the roadblock, he had emerged from the car drawing his weapon like something from an old Western—a classic suicide by cop.
The Bundy brothers, Ryan Payne, and two other key figures had already been arrested. Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore—always eager to be seen as rural, though she was raised in New Jersey—flew out to help talk the remaining terrorists into coming out of the wildlife refuge.
Over the phone line, with FBI helicopters circling overhead, came Fiore’s consciously down-home phrasing: “We’re putting our big-girl panties on now, and we’re taking America back.” Like Trump, Fiore often promises to help her supporters revive a lost golden era in American history—some mashup of the 1950s, the frontier, and Jim Crow.
By this point, the cowboy terrorists had become hysterical. One man and his wife were shouting at the FBI to get it over with already and shoot them dead. The overtones of Waco in their voices were clear as day. Fiore reassured them that “people are watching,” over 64,000 on a live-streamed conference call. In other words, “we” would not allow them to be massacred.
Then Cliven was arrested.
The Bundy brothers and another five terrorists were in the end acquitted of all charges in Oregon. Apparently a bunch of armed white men dressed as cowboys can take over a federal facility by force, and nothing will happen to them.
Trump would not have won without people like this. Despite any indication to the contrary, they believed in his sincerity.
Thus far in his presidency, Trump has not acknowledged the situation of the Bundys and their followers, nor their property rights—though one thing is clear. He is not, in fact, on their side. During the last days of the Malheur occupation, Trump said that if elected, he would just tell the Bundys: “You gotta get out.”
This was not him being protective of the cowboy terrorists. This was him asserting there would be consequences for subverting federal authority were he in charge.
Maybe the Bundys would have been “carried out on a stretcher.”
It calls into question whether Trump was ever concerned about their freedoms at all.
Rumpus original art by Becca Shaw Glaser.