The Darkness in Burns, Oregon

A reporter visits the area where armed white militants have taken over a wildlife refuge, and feels like a "sitting black duck"

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Oregon; Burns; 2016; Milita
A demonstration in Burns, Oregon, where hundreds have gathered to support the armed occupation of a nearby national wildlife preserve. Molly Young/AP

Supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

The far-flung high-desert town of Burns, Oregon, is not, strictly speaking, where followers of Ammon and Ryan Bundy took over a federal building and plotted the overthrow of the American government — that's 30 flat and lonely miles south. Still, Burns is out there, in the middle of nowhere. Though it's well within the Pacific Northwest's boundaries, Harney County has little in common with hip, laid-back Portland, where I live. The last marijuana dispensary is in Bend, 130 miles away. As the distance to the Idaho border shrinks, the roadside snow gets deeper, and the people get whiter.

On January 2nd, a few dozen folks calling themselves Citizens for Constitutional Freedom holed up at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The Bureau of Land Management, the longtime nemesis of the conservative West, manages much of the county, and its sister agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is in charge of the nature preserve — home to Native American artifacts and endangered plants and animals. The occupation was purportedly started to support jailed Harney County ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond, who are now imprisoned in California for illegally burning government land. The occupiers invited comrades from across the country to join their festival of militarized religious fervor and heavy weaponry.

Harney County measures a little over 10,000 square miles and has about 7,000 residents. It feels like a small place, but the armed takeover has caused a palpable ripple effect. With the ubiquitous presence of law enforcement, endless public meetings about the occupation and the whole country watching, Burns, the nearest town of any considerable size, finds itself converted into an ideological proving ground. Poverty here stands at 18.6 percent. Thirty years ago, the place had seven timber mills; today it has none. The county's hard tilt from timber to ranching brings local sentiment sufficiently in line with the anti-government Bundys.

Here is my dilemma: American populist rebellion turns me on. Straight Outta Compton — the revolutionary 1988 cassette tape, not the slick cinematic hagiography — blew my mind. I covered Redwood Summer and turned up on day one of Occupy San Francisco. Anarchy is like dope to me. So I'm naturally drawn to Harney County.

On the other hand, the ignorant white motherfuckers at the wildlife refuge seem crazier than cat shit.

They blend in," John tells me of the occupiers who've come to Burns, as we sip our beers. John and I — along with Jim, a friend of his who's also from the Burns Paiute Reservation — are sitting in the corner of Central Pastime, a downtown establishment. It's Friday, my first night in town. I don't see any guns in the bar, which, in Burns these days, is no small thing. 

I took up the stool next to John and Jim because if you want to get to the heart of American unrest, you best ask a person of color. (I'm not using their real names, given the tensions in town.) But there is a deeper truth, too: I feel safer with them. Oregon is the only northern state admitted to the Union that prohibited free blacks from taking up residence. Even in Portland, I stand out. And now I'm more than 100 miles beyond cell phone range, and I feel like a sitting black duck.

It's not just the occupiers I'm worried about; even before the Bundys showed up, there were more guns than households in Second-Amendment-loving Eastern Oregon. Guns are everywhere. Until recently, militia members — calling themselves names like the Pacific Patriots and the 3% of Idaho — and various unaffiliated Harney County residents were dining at nearby establishments with their sidearms on full display. Now, nightlife in town is ebbing; local law enforcement say many business owners are now shutting down after dark, in the name of security. Just a week before my visit, between 35 and 50 armed militants poured into a town meeting of 100 fretful residents and, by all accounts, silently intimidated the gathering into acquiescence. "They're bullies," Jim tells me.

Burns; oregon; Protests
Law-enforcement supporters and anti-government protesters argue outside the Harney County Courthouse on February 1. Matt Mills McKnight/Getty

John and Jim had been keeping their eyes on the militants' televised press conferences from outside the preserve's entrance — how could they ignore the spectacle, at first? But they've since given up on that. The day after we talk, they learn the Bundy followers may have desecrated their people's sacred remains at the refuge. Of course, there's no press conference for that.

As we leave Central Pastime, I tell them about my plan to go out to the nature preserve and ask the patriot leadership, "How long do you think this insurrection would last if it was me leading it?"

"Or if it was me?" asks Jim.

Outside my motel door, I can sometimes hear the word "media" hurled like a slur from the parking lot. Dirty media. I come across a couple staying in the room next door who support the occupation, and who also ooze this antipathy toward journalists. Still, on Saturday, they engage me in a discussion about life on the Ranch, as the Bundy followers now call the preserve.

I ask the wife — a thin, middle-aged woman who wears shades on gray days and has an air of uppers about her — if fellowship among the conservatives who had traveled from Kansas and New Mexico and beyond was as central to the Bundy road show as their grudge against the feds.

"Well, if you did your homework..."

"I'm a reporter," I tell her. "This is my homework."

This right-wing hatred of journalists is at least partially understandable — these folks may not love being all but taunted in the news. But in another sense, it's misguided: These people are the media, too. Insurgent websites such as Defend Your Base helped inform and organize support networks for the occupation across the West. Many thousands of dollars and supplies have flowed through them. (The Defend Your Base website is now down, though its YouTube channel remains up.)

The motel is flush with the weekend's arrivals. The lady next door says she and her husband have met "tens of thousands" of folks, online and in person, who support the insurgency. The militants and their supporters have a certain vibe. The ones not high on liberty strike me as high on meth. (And there may be some overlap: Everyone talks a great deal about the price of gold.) Some have lawn chairs, and many have dogs. They all seem to have plenty of time. Burns' gathering of the indignant feels, above all, like Burning Man for readers of The Blaze.

The least white part of Eastern Oregon is the sky, as endless and melodramatic as a telenovela. Sun bounces off the snow at the nearly 187,800-acre Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which, a sign out front proclaims, is now called the Harney County Resource Center. It is in this Sunday morning light that I'm met at the gate by a young man who tells me Ammon Bundy is at church, that I should come back in a few hours. Then, without explanation, he lets me in anyway. I park my rental car, and a man in a rally-style Jeep finds me. Everyone smiles politely. I'm led to Duane Ehmer.

Duane Ehmer; Oregon; Militia
Duane Ehmer with his horse Hellboy Joe Raedle/Getty

Ehmer, 45, is wearing a Desert Storm veteran's cap atop his close-cropped hair. Around us languish abandoned government vehicles and a bunch of brick houses, where some of the occupiers sleep. Over yonder is the refuge's gift shop — still pristine, as Ehmer points out. An American flag flies above it. Ehmer and his auburn American Cow Horse Hellboy brought the flag down from Central Oregon's Morrow County, where he operates a welding business. He tells me he initially came to the preserve because he opposed the occupation; when news reached him of a terrorist invasion in Harney County, he and Hellboy hit the road. "I'm a cowboy," he says, "so I loaded up all of my guns and came here to stop them."

Then, Ehmer says, he was told about the Bundys' unacknowledged efforts to rally support for the Hammonds by appealing to legislators and the newspapers. The occupation of the refuge, he decided, was a last resort. He was won over to the cause and made a trusted insider. He says he was given the codename Q1, based on the James Bond character, and because of his reconnaissance expertise. Ehmer has an unsettlingly gregarious nature, suggesting a man who has seen and done regrettable things.

Ehmer grabs a stick, and starts drawing in the mud. There we are, a dot at the center of the struggle. A half-circle around us represents the city of Burns and the hundreds of supporters there: a buffer zone. These people function as eyes and ears on law enforcement, who are using the local Superior Courthouse as a command center. "I'm going to know when 20 black SUVs move out," Ehmer says.

Ehmer tugs at my camouflage jacket and says he's sworn off camo forever — because, you know, all the war. He seems legitimately anguished about not being able to see his daughter while he is away from home.

Ammon Bundy; Oregon
Ammon Bundy after a January news conference at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Rob Kerr/Getty

During the 45 minutes I spend inside the occupied refuge, I experience a calm and acceptance that is utterly unlike the vibe back in Burns. The occupiers ask me to stay, and invite me to eat. I talk to several other people in addition to Ehmer, and at no point do I feel racial animus.

Still, I ask Ehmer the question: Dude. Come on. You know if it was me and my folks out here, doing some armed takeover, it would have been shut down in about 20 minutes, right?

Ehmer guffaws, then catches himself. Few of these people have struck me as smart, but they do know how to follow a set of guidelines (the Constitution, for example). So, once Ehmer settles down, he delivers the politically correct response. "We're all military in here," he says. "You should know that once you're military, none of that stuff matters." He doesn't understand the question, or is at least pretending not to.

Several people tell me about a black Bundy supporter who's apparently part of the occupation, but I never see him.

Eventually, Ehmer's tone drops its gregarious quality, and he points me toward Ryan Bundy. "He's at the center of it all, where strategy's concerned," Ehmer says. It's mostly Ammon who represents the Ranch gang in the media, perhaps because of Ryan's facial disability; he was run over by a car at age seven, and a bone spur sliced a nerve in his brain. He cannot be the face of the movement, but he may well be its melancholy soul.

As I explain to Ryan why I'm there, he sticks his hand out, and I take it. His handshake is powerful, more so than any of the many military men on the site. He's the size of a linebacker.

He takes my cell phone number, as well as the info for my room back at the motel, but he never calls. On Tuesday night, he and his brother are arrested, along with six other occupiers, most en route to a town hall meeting in nearby John Day. There's a shootout with law enforcement. Ryan Bundy suffers a minor wound. After reaching for a 9mm handgun tucked into his jacket pocket, spokesman and Arizona rancher LaVoy Finicum is shot and killed. Following Tuesday's incident, Ammon Bundy tells his followers to go home. But four remain, along with a stockpile of guns. On Saturday, the Pacific Patriot militia called on supporters to swarm Burns.

The standoff in Oregon is not yet over. Burns residents are still facing off with self-proclaimed patriots downtown. Harney County's fire chief resigned, and in neighboring Grant County the sheriff has urged releasing the Hammonds.

But in other ways Harney County's underpinnings grow less secure. Here is a movement reveling in chaos, embracing the uncertainty of battle. Before his arrest, Ehmer tells me there's a "wild element" to the Bundy-led undertaking. "I like that element."

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