The long road back to Malheur.
Below are a few photos from a project I am working on, a small limited edition publication of what I witnessed and lengthy discussions with those who seized the Malheur wildlife refuge. This follows my contribution for filming part of No Man’s Land, a documentary released last year. I’m not sure anyone can explain the Malheur takeover to me. I’m going to take a crack at it as best I can. For those unfamiliar, a group of people led by Ammond Bundy and Lavoy Finnicum came to a remote federal wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon seizing it in protest for two local ranchers who had been sentenced to prison (twice) for “arson on federal lands.”
In 2001 they were managing a controlled burn on their property, which when in danger of escaping, they set a backfire on adjacent federal land (they leased for cattle grazing) and in the process 60 acres of grass burned. Convicted in 2012, they pled guilty, never agued their innocence and agreed not to appeal the case in exchange for a sentence and to pay a $600,000 fine. Dwight the father was sentenced to a year and a day and his son his son Steven sentenced to three months. Both then served these sentences and after they had been released the U.S. Attorney intervened and appealed the sentence to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and imposed the harsh sentencing guideline of five years. I’m not a lawyer but its clear why many in the community felt this was a sign of federal over reach and judicial abuse. Key to that claim is the U.S. Attorney sought to impose a five year sentence that the previous judge ruled was “cruel and unusual punishment” and break the deal the Court made. The Hammonds returned to prison.
Whats difficult to understand for those not involved in ranching the Hammonds admitted to setting a fire and purposely burning government property - grass which they leased grazing rights upon. But unfortunately the federal government viewed this violation of a law that is particularly harsh if one maliciously damages or destroys government property by means of fire and, or, explosive devices. Reminder… the Hammonds set a back fire which stopped a larger grass fire on their property from spreading to the government land they had leased. A law for terrorism was used to prosecute ranchers for burning grass they leased. This was the flashpoint for what caused Ammon Bundy and Lavoy Finnicum to seize the Malheur refuge and demand clemency for the Hammonds.It also does not help calm fears when a state judge declares it “cruel and unusual punishment” and the law not really applicable to the offense but a federal judge uses a terrorist law to prosecute ranchers. The president eventually pardoned them. Without question if these men and women had not brought attention to the issue of the Hammonds, they would still be in prison serving time twice for the same crime.
So pause a moment, this in no way justifies taking up weapons and seizing a bird sanctuary in one of the most remote parts of Oregon as a political protest, which sounds nuts even as I write it. One thing I can say though is the media appears to have understood what exactly happened in the first place. I would assert a little proactive education by the court explaining the conflict in state and federal law to the public and less aggressiveness by a U.S. Attorney in a federal courtroom might have helped prevent this from happening.
I’m going to share a few photos of the people I met while there observing this spectacle. The Oregonian newspaper probably has the best coverage of what happened and shows both sides of the argument, a timeline of their reporting is online.
What remains in my memory and drives the idea for a small photo book is group of people standing around a campfire arguing over the Constitution and reading it out loud for hours on end. The point of contention was does the federal government have the right to make citizens serve time in prison twice for the same conviction (arson - grass burning). And then who owns the rights to the grass if the grazing rights are leased. Which led to a heated debate by Bundy on who should control those decisions made about public lands, the state or federal government, in the first place. Watching a newspaper editor read the constitution aloud and debate this issue of grazing rights with ranchers surrounded by armed militia members while the FBI surrounded the refuge with snipers and drones were flying overhead was interesting. Democracy (or rebellion) in action is an understatement.
Still, I am unsure what to think about what I witnessed. One of the men I came to know was shot to death after running a roadblock, Lavoy Finnicum. The FBI says he was a terrorist, the local ranchers a patriot, the Mormon church a Bishop. A federal judge found an FBI agent lied about shooting at him which has created more distrust in the region. However misled these men were to take over a bird refuge, they did not hurt anyone nor did they desire to. The past few days have made me think about how they were characterized. We know what domestic terrorists are and these men were not that. What they were apart from being misguided I am unsure.
One of the men who viewed the occupation as a constitutional issue and characterized it as “tyranny” was a roofing contractor from Georgia named Jason Patrick. In Patrick’s sentencing hearing he quoted Civil Right’s activist John Lewis: “ If you see something that is not right, then you have to speak up and speak out and find a way to get in the way.” He was sentenced to 21 months.
Another issue I can’t explain is why Pete Santelli was kept jailed and denied bail. Established media outlets like the Oregonian and national news described him as anything but a journalist but Santelli, however unusual, had independently built a site and had a loyal following in the tens of thousands more than many small town newspapers.
The debate on whether he actually was a journalist was debated by mainstream journalists. Per the University of Missouri’s thinking “journalism is the activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information”. I view people like Santelli as “advocacy journalists”. News presented in a manner to push a particular ideological point. Bizarrely this argument led to the media reporting on the media as I witnessed cameras pointed at cameras as coverage of Santelli and advocacy journalists became the subject and not actually the men who were the occupiers of the refuge. One strange sight I will not easily forget is a line of national media outlets focusing their cameras and questions on independent journalists like Santelli that were pointing cameras back at the media, each side covering each other while a dozen yards away there were armed men who had taken over a federal wildlife refuge.
The federal court used statements that Santelli made years previous on his radio show to characterize him as dangerous and thus should be kept jailed and denied bail. My opinion is people with bombs and hate for others are dangerous not radio station DJ’s.Probably most of us could be quoted out of context and seem unreasonable. I never saw Pete Santelli armed during my time spent at the occupation. He humorously encouraged people to put flowers in the gun barrels of the FBI. Approaching armed FBI agents with flowers sounds cute but to an agent of course, a whole different story. These were not hippie flower children of the sixties but men with assault weapons wearing bulletproof vests. Santelli’s soundbite ( see film clip below) was colorful.
And it epitomized the experience of Malheur which was one moment comedy and in another deadly serious.
The issue for me with Santelli was one of free speech and to what limit will we will allow acts like his cloaked as journalism. Civil discourse and first amendment rights are critical for democracy to survive in this country. To the extent, we allow radical beliefs such free expression is a test. Santelli underscores this as does the entire takeover of the refuge.These are just thoughts aloud in my journal, and a reminder … I was just a guy with a camera that witnessed this spectacle. What I tried to do was find candid moments with my camera that captured who these people were.
In one of the copies of the Constitution argued around the campfire at Malheur a quote by Jefferson stood out.
“ Say whether peace is best preserved by giving energy to the goverment, or information to the people. This last is the most certain and the most legitimate engine of government. Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them”.At Malheur I saw this argument fail. Pete Santelli’s angry brand of advocacy journalism was not any worse than the Southern Poverty Law Center’s characterizing the group as members of a white supremacist militia. In many ways it illustrates an alarming disconnect in the country where truth is not definable nor events understood but used simply for poltical purposes of those media outlets represent. Jefferson never anticipated such insanity. The bottom line is the occupiers of Malheur, however misguided, were protesting against a father and son (ranchers) having to serve time in prison twice for the same crime. The unexpected result was citizens from all regions of the country stood around campfires in near zero temperatures arguing what the Constitution says.
And…Bishop Lavoy Finnicum lost his life over it.