This is the second part of a two-part interview with Anthony McCann, whose Shadowlands tells the story of the 2016 occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by Ammon Bundy and a group of armed followers. In part 1 of the interview, available here, Anthony and I spoke about various American ideas of time, and about the Bundys’ deep roots in Mormon messianism. In part 2, below, Anthony reflects on the tense relationship between occupiers like Lavoy Finicum and the local Paiute tribe, on Ammon and Ryan Bundy’s federal trial in Portland, and on the Malheur occupation’s relationship to our current politics.
Corley Miller: During the occupation, it seemed like the occupiers were so oriented towards their own big overarching time and history that they couldn’t pay any attention to the local history, or to what was happening in Harney County.
Anthony McCann: Ammon took very little of the history of Harney County into account—they just needed the Hammond story—for readers, the Hammonds were the ranchers whose legal troubles brought the Bundys to Oregon—and their own, and they soldered them together. There are ways in which that story worked—it was a story about how ranching, which is always difficult, became more difficult, which spoke to people. But he certainly didn’t know anything about the Paiute, and I don’t think he cared terribly strongly. LaVoy Finicum clearly cared more—but he had a different relationship. He grew up on the Navajo reservation and claimed Native ancestry.
It seems like Finicum’s attempt to create sympathy with the Paiutes ended up being a turning point for the whole occupation.
He really did try, even if his efforts looked pretty ham-fisted from the Paiute perspective. They were certainly different from Ryan Bundy’s who said something like, ‘Yeah, they had a claim on the land, but they lost it.’ Yeah, they lost it, because people with guns took it from them—in a moment of history that Ryan and friends were restaging for the internet.
Lavoy, on other hand, was trying to create a bond. He was saying, ‘You’re persecuted by the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs), we’re persecuted by the BLM, we must forge an alliance. It’s time for you to stand up.’ He was a very seemingly sincere person, the only rancher besides the Bundys to be involved in the occupation in a meaningful way. He’d become radicalized by the showdown at Bundy Ranch in 2014 and it had even turned him into a novelist. He has this cowboy-end-of-the-world novel called Only By Blood and Suffering. The protagonist is clearly an avatar of sorts, and the love interest is a Navajo woman, an outspokenly libertarian Navajo woman. Their first romantic scene is in a secret pueblo on the hero’s ranch that happens to be where he has his prepper cache. I think Finicum really wanted to see some natural solidarity with the tribes.
Which is just incredibly bold.
It fits into this cowboy melancholy—‘we drove them off their land, we brought their way of life to an end, and now our way of life is being brought to an end.’ And maybe that leads to some thinking that’s a basis for solidarity. There are other, more concrete reasons as well. Before he died, Russell Means—the most famous leader of the American Indian Movement’s Wounded Knee standoff of 1973, who was also a hardcore libertarian—made this fascinating video, for InfoWars of all venues, in which he basically taunts all Non-Natives with his own Constitutionalism. Now you’re living on the reservation too he says, now you’re learning what it’s like because you’ve failed to defend your precious founding document, etc.
In some others ways, strategically, I think Lavoy’s idea was keener than it seemed. I remember talking to one of the tribal cops out there, and I brought up the notion that if the tribe had taken over the refuge the FBI would have gone in right away. And he said something to this effect: ‘What are you talking about? We’d still be there. If the tribe had gone out and joined we’d still be there. Because you guys love us. You love us now–until we come to you and say: your beautiful yard? That’s ours, too.’ It’s impossible to measure how exactly true that would have been, but I’d say there’s certainly some truth in it, and it seems like an important thing to consider. And you can see in Finicum’s videos that he understood the authority the tribe had, and when the tribe rejected the occupation he understood how that mattered as well. And the FBI was all over that. It gave them a moral authority that was useful. A bunch of white government dudes in bear cats and ballistic vests don’t have much unquestioned moral authority in America today—but once the tribe came forward in opposing Ammon and friends and started demanding action, suddenly the FBI were representing the True Original People, the real rightful owners.
The book thinks so deeply about how the role of Youtube and Facebook as political spaces.
The first time I was in Burns, during the second half of the occupation, a librarian showed me her Facebook feed. She told me that in a previous year they’d been fighting about the feral cats on Facebook. People were furious at each other about that, it had been very ugly. But now it had gotten a lot heavier. People were now seeing their neighbors posting these crazy sovereign citizen documents, saying the FBI is a secret private force from France run by the International Monetary Fund. And that’s your neighbor! To the librarian’s mind this was all somehow about Facebook, and from that point on pretty much I knew that had to be part of the book too—which felt a little strange to me: remember this was in early 2016, before the role of social media in the election had been revealed.
What is it about Facebook that makes it so fertile for this kind of thing?
When we get new ways of connecting we get new ways of circulating, and new things that can circulate. One thing about social media is that it feels nonfictive. You say this in real time, or you’re angry in real time, or you’re misunderstood in real time. That creates an intimacy that feels like immediacy, but it somehow also feels like a new form of alienation, and I think that connects to the messianic time of the occupation. Everything circulates. And on the internet everything is gathered in the Now. Everything that was in the past is now in the present as feeling.
There’s ways in which Facebook also feels like a new frontier, a West of some kind.
So much of the occupation was a reenactment. Whether that was a reenactment of the high of the Bundy Ranch standoff, or the space of the frontier. The Paiute got that immediately, that this was a Wild West reenactment thing. But where was this reenactment taking place? At least partly, these guys were recreating settlement as an affective territory for Facebook. So, Facebook becomes this kind of second chance at a frontier, a place where these broken-down feelings in the society, in the Intermountain West in particular, could get channeled back into Manifest Destiny. And it did have that messianic feel—’if we do the right ritual it will return.’
Can it actually return?
There’s a scene at the very end of the book, in Vegas, where Cliven gives a sentimental speech about how he just wants to turn desert forage into good food for people to eat and that that’s what it’s all about for him. It was in his lawyer’s office after the Vegas ‘mistrial with prejudice’ ruling. Feeling that room full of people, none of whom or hardly any of whom live that life, getting to live vicariously that rural life of meaning, in this shabby law office on Charleston Boulevard, across from the pawn and liquor shops—it became extra clear why that fantasy life is appealing to so many people. But the Bundys aren’t really offering that life as a possibility, because they can’t. That’s how a lot of reactionary politics works—it comes in at a point when something is gone and it’s not returning. And it’s not actually conservative, because it isn’t conserving anything—it’s offering the possibility of living something that is gone, as a political feeling. This is a version of the same kind of argument Corey Robin also makes in The Reactionary Mind— I personally came to that book at the end of my time in this story, but it was still helpful in confirming that this was indeed what I was seeing. I think it’s very germane to both Reaganism and the Bundy revolution. They offer a fantasy of a life that is gone.
Does it feel like the Bundys are offering a different fantasy of not-goneness than Trump, for example?
Trump is reactionary about American sovereignty—in the sense that in the way that he’s offering it, it can’t possibly exist anymore. If we need to build a wall, then that sovereignty is not what he’s claiming it is. So it’s not sovereignty exactly that he’s offering, but an embodied feeling of sovereignty. Not the wall, but the chance to chant about the wall and in that way become the wall, become that geography, through Trump, the Great Leader.
In the Bundy vision, which maybe LaVoy articulated most colorfully, you govern yourself, and you have your land, and everybody’s pistol stays holstered, and everybody’s kind and neighborly. So there’s a fantasy sovereignty, but it’s really yours, not lived vicariously through the power of the state and the big leader. In LaVoy’s ideal world, nobody tells you what to do. And you’re certainly not working in an office or a factory. I think that is pretty distinct from ‘build the wall.’ Maybe it’s a difference between a libertarian fantasy and what Trump is doing, which is proto—fascist, or whatever you want to call it. Trump’s invested in a modern version of the hyper-militarized nation, a 20th-century version of the nation—the Twitter, reality TV version of that. The Bundyites, on the other hand, are nostalgic for the frontier, which is a version of the 19th-century nation, or one of that nation’s idealizations of itself, with a minimal presence of the State with a capital S. That’s also a white fantasy, as Trump’s is, and it’s a Jacksonian one—but it’s a different one.
Last year Ammon came out against Trump’s treatment and detention of immigrants, and he’s now out of the patriot movement entirely. What do you think of that?
What’s surprising about the break that Ammon made in November—it was during the height of all the hateful Trumpian rhetoric about the caravans— isn’t that he thought the things that he said, but that he said them. For Ammon there’s a conflict: obviously he likes the Trump Department of Interior Policy, though he thinks it’s not radical enough—but as the kind of Mormons that he and his family are, caring for refugees is also important. And he seems to be very earnest about this. He’s taken down the video now, but he was saying things like this more or less, ‘Well, I did my research, and it seems that things are very bad down there in Honduras, etc.’ And offering to set up tents in his yard for refugees from the caravans to live in. All that seems consistent with how he’d think. At the same time, he seems to be a shrewd person, so perhaps there were some calculations in there too—is this an alliance I want to have any more? But it was obviously risky for him to make that public break, and to actively scold people in his sphere for being un-Christian; he lost a lot of support. People who had helped save the family ranch were telling him—’I wish we hadn’t done that.’ Or worse. And he still went all the way. He said that the anti-refugee talk, and the talk of unconditional support for the leader, reminded him of Nazi Germany. That it all sounded like “war-mongering” to him, that was one term he used.
After Lavoy’s death most of the occupiers are arrested, and there’s this trial in Portland. It seems like the trial scrambles everyone’s political assumptions.
They were such strange operators in that system—so sure that they would somehow win. Which was impressive to see, but complicated, because an incredibly important concern for so many of us today is how the justice system operates for people who aren’t white. And it does feel like it’s not possible—or that it’s much harder—for people who aren’t white to create the kind of courtroom performance Ammon and his brother and Ammon’s attorney and the rest of the crew were able to put on. Their being white likely made it more possible for them. As did the supernatural confidence that they brought to bear on the system. It was incredible to watch them operate, especially how they engaged with the jury and its role. Through the whole story they’re wrong about so many elements of how our government works, and they have these terrible ideas about public land, but to see that they’ve so clearly understood how the justice system is actually part of the political system, and that the jury’s meant (if you are thinking like the 18th century framers of the Revolution and the Constitution) to be a final check on possible excesses of the legislature, or of prosecutors— it was impressive to watch them engage that dynamic and sow chaos in the courtroom. They were able to do that because of the charges that were brought against them. They weren’t being charged with occupying a refuge with guns, they were being charged with conspiracy to intimidate federal workers, so it all came down to their intentions. What they meant by what they were doing.
It seems like all the tools of theirs that were not quite the right fit for Malheur—the certainty and the speech magic and even the messianic time—were just the right set of tools for federal court.
That’s how it seemed. Malheur was too particular a place for them. It was a locality, with texture, and history—with the Paiute, and all these relationships to the land that they didn’t understand. But once they got to court they were home. They were always living in abstractions. Once they got to court they were inside a reified abstraction, and so they were home.
In the end they were acquitted, largely because the prosecutors did some things wrong. What happened?
Part of it—I think—might be that prosecutors just don’t have to go to court in a full-on trial like that very often—certainly not a chaotic political trial. I was talking to Matt Schindler, one of the defense attorneys, and he said—you know, they usually don’t have to go to court, or certainly not this fast. Most people take deals. And here the defendants decided to go to court extremely fast, and in some ways they (the prosecutors) probably weren’t ready. Specifically they weren’t ready for the disruptive capacity of Ammon’s attorney and Ammon and the rest of the crew. And they made some big mistakes, including one, in retrospect, that was catastrophic to their case, I’d say. That was not being open about the informant who ran the weapons training on the refuge, video of which they had used as a principal piece of evidence in the case—maybe the key piece. It turned out it was their informant running that training, and this was uncovered very dramatically by the defense in the very last moment of testimony. That was huge.
What filled me with personal conflict was this: I liked seeing that prosecutorial machine disrupted, because I know how it can operate when it is allowed to operate unchecked. But you also have to wonder if these folks—the Ammonites– are the only people who are ever going to get away with this kind of disruption and challenge of that seamless conviction machine. Are they really disrupting it for everybody, or just for themselves? On the other hand, in the territory of the law, it’s all about precedent, and in terms of precedent the charge they were facing was terrifying—the idea that it could become something routinely trotted out for protest kind of cases was really troubling. Because immediately after that first Malheur trial, Trump gets elected, and the charge they brought against the occupiers is exactly what federal prosecutors could bring against you if you go and try to block off an ICE facility, or form a human chain and stop an ICE detention or what have you—any kind of direct action tactic against ICE can totally be charged under that federal felony conspiracy statute, we may yet see it happen. You wouldn’t even have to actually block off a facility, you’d just have to plan to do it with one other person—that’s a “conspiracy”. So on that level it felt like a relief to see that particular charge not work, despite the awful threat to public land I think the ideas of the Bundys pose, and the tremendous historical offense of their Armed Settler Reenactment out there in the Harney Basin.
Even so, it was still shocking to see them acquitted—and it outraged so many understandably, especially folks who’d followed the tale minimally—because, you know, these guys took over a federal wildlife refuge, they were armed when they did it, they said they were never giving it back, and they basically livestreamed or you-tubed the whole thing. How do you get off when you do that?
Some of the most troubling things about the protest were things that were not necessarily illegal.
A lot of what was happening on the refuge was offensive, and hugely so in some cases, but it was unclear if it was anything more than a misdemeanor trespassing offense, which was Ammon’s theory—he claims he wanted all along to get arrested for trespassing so he could challenge the federal government’s right to hold land and charge him with trespassing. At the same time some of the folks who engaged in behavior, threatening behavior that most seemed to fall under the conspiracy to intimidate charge, did plead guilty. And I think that had a big impact on the trial as well—you would have had a different trial with some of those folks in the courtroom.
It was understandable that people on the outside looking in via Twitter or glimpses of news stories saw this as another case of white impunity, but I think the historical offense the Bundyites gave was a different kind of troubling manifestation of white privilege. There was a piece in the New Yorker by Jedediah Purdy, that pointed out that it’s not necessarily that there’s total white impunity out there—see Waco—but there was another problem, a historical one, with what the crew was doing. It was their ability to come to the decision with such ease to do this with guns, which is a more complicated offense. It’s their not understanding that there is a historical precedent for doing what they were doing, taking land with guns, a precedent for doing something that looked like this in that very same place, and that that precedent is pure horror, murder, terror. He says it’s “obtuse to ignore the special comfort that certain white men have using guns as props in their acts of not-quite-civil disobedience. After all, guns were how they acquired their special sense of entitlement to public lands in the first place.” And that makes total sense to me, it’s just a little harder to prosecute precisely without veering into setting some dangerous precedents.
One of the big current conversations is about the degree to which racism is incidental to the modern right, as opposed to fundamental. Do you get a sense of where the Bundys lie on that axis?
I think that their worldview is governed, like so much of American life, by a racist ontology and psychology. Maybe they’re more governed by it than some, because of their refusal to be conscious of it, and because of their faith that they’re always speaking about universal humanity. A phrase that Ryan Bundy used to me once was, ‘I’m not a racial person.’ Certainly a politics that’s largely about white priority doesn’t have to be consciously so. It can always cloak itself in other issues. Lots of people whose politics may be governed by sustaining white priority are not fully aware of it—there are certainly viewpoints that would say all white people are involved in sustaining white priority in one way or another, and maybe there is truth to that if we think about the whole thing ontologically, that whiteness is always a priority and that only its abolition would abolish that priority.
Anyway, it becomes hard to talk about—because there can be this compulsion to locate racism in an individual body and then cast it out. Because we want to get rid of it. But you can’t get rid of it by isolating it in individual offenders; it’s fluid, racism traverses everything— and it’s an ontology. I think that’s where the very austere thinking of contemporary Afro-pessimism has something to say about the Malheur occupation. Because it lays out that we’re in a racialized order of being. And in that ontology whiteness has the fullness of being, a being which simultaneously, is wholly unethical—while blackness is, in a sense, excluded from being. It doesn’t matter how much you understand racism, if you don’t destroy the whole system of being, you’re still in the ontology. It’s like what Marx says about Capitalism, it doesn’t matter how well you understand it, it’s still the air you breathe. For me, within this framework, the Bundys are very clearly operating in an effort to reinvigorate white being. Certainly this is not their language at all. But it does look a lot like an effort to reinvigorate some kind of white claim to ethical being, by keeping the cowboy at the forefront of the earthly sojourn along with the whole human story of freedom that has, in their cosmogony, its apotheosis in America. Obviously that project looks a lot different from the outside than the inside—and from the outside it looks pretty darn white.
They have the sense that within cowboyhood there’s a chance to rediscover white ethical being.
I don’t know if they have that sense in a conscious way. But that’s what it looks like. I also hope looking at it this way doesn’t alleviate anyone of personal responsibility. (Certainly the Bundys think everyone’s responsible for their choices.) But also everyone’s involved in something bigger than themselves, that’s being articulated through them. A critical moment for me in the book happens during the trials in Portland, when occupier Jason Patrick makes an attempt to reach out to Don’t Shoot Portland, the Portland Black Lives Matter group, who are regularly demonstrating nearby. It shows, I think, a lot about this movement: both the sincerity of his effort, and at the same time his basic error, that Teressa Raiford from Don’t Shoot Portland points out. She told me that while she appreciated his support for her positions regarding policing that the trouble with Jason, for her, was that “his views are who he thinks he is.”
Which is something that comes up again and again.
Yeah. Your abstractions aren’t who you are. It’s gonna be harder than that.
Corley Miller is a writer living in Los Angeles. His fiction, nonfiction, and criticism has appeared or is forthcoming in The Guardian, The New Republic, Vice, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and n+1, among others.
This post may contain affiliate links.