The Oath Keepers Are Ready for War with the Federal Government
The heavily armed citizen militia joined Oregon gold miners in a land dispute with the federal government that could end in a bloodbath.
Volunteers return from patrolling the Sugar Pine mine near Grants Pass, Oregon. Photos by Shawn Records
This article appears in the September Issue of VICE
On a quiet Friday morning this past April, a crowd of concerned citizens gathered for a press conference on the steps of the Josephine County Courthouse, in Grants Pass, Oregon. Grants Pass, a town of 35,000 residents in a rural and notoriously violent corner of the state, was at the moment receiving a great deal of attention, the result of a "security operation" led by a man named Joseph Rice, the coordinator of a local group called the Josephine County Oath Keepers, at a small gold mine called the Sugar Pine in the wooded hills outside town.
The exact nature of the dispute was opaque even to most of the people who had seen fit to take sides, but it centered on an argument by the federal Bureau of Land Management that the two men holding title to the mine were running it without submitting to a federal oversight process they claimed the law exempted them from. Rice and the Oath Keepers had mobilized, and attracted volunteers from across the country, to ward off a possible incursion by the BLM. The security operation had by this point grown to encompass both a defensive encirclement of the mine itself, where dozens of heavily armed men and women were encamped, and a five-acre logistical staging area and basecamp on a very visible piece of real estate just off Interstate 5, where trucks were loaded with supplies, plans were made, and even more volunteers were being processed. The local BLM and Forest Service offices had been closed out of concern for "employee safety." "Please," one of the miners had been reported as saying, "stop calling the BLM and threatening their personnel."
About a dozen locals emerged from the courthouse. They, for the most part, addressed their comments to Rice, a quiet man of middling height with a graying beard, thick arms, and an ever-present Oath Keepers cap. As he stood at the back of the crowd, their message to him was simple: They wanted him and the Oath Keepers to stand down. A former dean of the local community college asked him to "let the legal process, rational discourse, and old-fashioned negotiation determine a nonviolent outcome—for the good of all of us." Some spoke more forcefully. A local sporting-goods dealer named Dave Strahan got up and called the Oath Keepers "nutty, tough-acting, gun-toting thugs."
Then a young activist named Alex Budd invited questions from the press. There were none of substance from the reporters in attendance, but Rice, who is an imposing man even if he wasn't at that moment wearing his customary sidearm, spoke up from the back. "Here's a question," he said. "Have any of you spoken to the miners about this?"
He was referring to Rick Barclay and George Backes, on whose behalf Rice and the Oath Keepers had mobilized. Strahan, no unimposing man himself, turned to Rice and bellowed: "I'm not here to answer your questions, Joseph!"
Rice repeated himself and took several steps toward the speakers. "So if I understand correctly," he said, "you haven't spoken to the miners." It looked like there would have to be a fight with all of the cameras watching. But suddenly the speakers turned, as though by an agreed-upon signal, and fled before Rice into the courthouse.
The breakdown in political communication could not have been more complete. The Oath Keepers had launched their operation out of concern that government agents would move in and burn the miners' equipment and the cabin where they slept before they ever got a chance to launch an appeal. The townspeople involved in the press conference, and the BLM itself, considered this concern to be somewhere between unfounded and ridiculous. The order of noncompliance that had started everything was to come due in 24 hours, and no one seemed to be able to say with confidence how it was all supposed to end.
Conflicts like the one in Grants Pass have become increasingly common in the American West. Old battles over the way public lands are managed in the region have found a mode of expression through the Patriot movement, a loose agglomeration of groups, some armed, some not, that tend to describe themselves as defenders of the Constitution. They have grown mightily since the election of Barack Obama, from around 150 organizations to more than a thousand by 2014, helping to create a new politics of armed civil disobedience.
Last October, months before the events in Oregon, the Colorado-based journal High Country News ran a series of linked reports on public land conflicts under the imperative headline "Defuse the West." Most Americans, insomuch as they were aware that anything in the West needed defusing, got their introduction by watching the conflict the previous April on the ranch of Cliven Bundy, where hundreds of armed volunteers, many of them Oath Keepers, answered a call for a "range war" with the BLM, and quite nearly got one: In the face of a full media crush, armed volunteers took direct aim at BLM and sheriff's personnel and eventually forced the agency to withdraw. No one involved has faced any serious penalties—a fact that becomes a little hard to process if you think what would happen to a black man who opted to express his views of tyranny by pointing a gun at a peace officer in any major city in this country. The next month, at the well-named Recapture Canyon, outside of Blanding, in rural southeastern Utah, armed protesters led by members of the Bundy family and a sympathetic county commissioner moved into a stretch of trail that the BLM had closed. The county commissioner, Phil Lyman, who by all accounts is not an extremist and contributed to HCN's "Defuse the West" project, reportedly said, "If things don't change, it's not long before shots will be fired."
The documents HCN received from the Forest Service and the BLM show 50 incidents of what they described as "serious confrontations with antigovernment overtones" in just the years between 2010 and 2014. The records they got are certainly very far from comprehensive, and a few seem to be relatively harmless expressions of anti-federal sentiment, like the one of a Colorado man allegedly found riding an ATV in a restricted zone, who told agents, "I will fuck your world up... fuckin' got a hard-on right now, I bet... queer-ass piece of shit... let me touch your wiener," after reportedly punching an agent in the head and attempting to grab his groin.
Many of the others seem to be more clearly politically motivated attempts at assassination: In 2013 a Cochise County, Arizona, man was convicted of two counts of attempted murder, after firing at two BLM agents near his house in Happy Camp Canyon. Just a couple months later, seven rifle shots were fired at a uniformed Forest Service employee driving a truck through the Tahoe National Forest, in the Sierra Nevada. Closer to Grants Pass, someone threw a series of firebombs at BLM campground personnel near Mount Hood in 2013. The quotes mentioned track toward a mean: "You have no right to close roads," a visitor to a Payette National Forest ranger station in Idaho announced. "This is going to go to war, and we'll start shooting if it keeps up."
The Federal Government—mostly through the BLM, the Forest Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service—manages about 20 percent of the American landscape. This land is concentrated in the West, so that between them the Forest Service and BLM manage 81 percent of the land in Nevada, 67 percent in Utah, 62 percent in Idaho, 53 percent in Oregon, and even 48 percent in California—more than a quarter of every Western state. It's not exactly the case that these lands were supposed to be public forever: The BLM is only one in a history of American offices dealing with unclaimed lands, dating back to the very beginning of the Republic, and for most of American history the purpose of federal land management was to facilitate the distribution of public property to private citizens and corporate interests. The lands that remain under Federal control mostly came into the system after Theodore Roosevelt created the Forest Service in 1905, because no one wanted them, or because of an accident of history: The only reason the BLM even manages land in Josephine County, for example, is that a massive conspiracy involving property given away for free by the state to the Oregon and California Railroad, and parceled fraudulently for the purposes of timber profiteering, was exposed in 1904, implicating most of Oregon's congressional delegation. To restore public trust and crush the conspiracy, the federal government seized the land.
There have been periodic attempts to hand Western lands back to the states. These went nowhere because of concerns that the states couldn't bear the financial burden of maintaining them. Instead, in 1946 Congress founded the BLM to manage them, creating an odd legacy in which two agencies both occupy two seemingly contradictory roles: The BLM and the Forest Service are not preservation agencies, like the Parks Service, and they are tasked with facilitating certain levels of ranching, mining, and logging while also securing the environment, protecting archaeological sites, and acting as law enforcement.
In 1976, Congress repealed the Homestead Act and replaced it with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which codified the role of the Forest Service and the BLM in preserving "multiple use" access to public lands. The law made it clear for the first time—or for the first time for anyone who hadn't been able to read the signs—that the federal government planned to keep the Western allotments forever.
This set off what's now known as the Sagebrush Rebellion, originally a legislative push in Western states to reclaim federal lands and designate many unsettled areas as roadless wilderness. The movement expressed a disconnect that has never really healed: Ranching, mining, and logging in the West are ways of making a living that have never gone away, and in places where the Forest Service or the BLM manage land, they enforce tens of thousands of rules that are seen by many people as being symbolic of a society that has come to be both hyper-regulated and run by an unaccountable federal government more interested in control than in engagement with citizens.
The result is that the two agencies occupy for many Westerners a role sort of like what New Yorkers would experience if you folded the NYPD, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Landmarks Commission, the Buildings Department, the FDNY, and some portions of the Department of Transportation into one hopelessly underfunded agency. This would be accountable not to a locally elected mayor and legislative body with law-making authority but to one of two federal departments (the Forest Service is part of the Department of Agriculture, the BLM part of the Department of the Interior) based in Washington and headed by unelected officials who make rules outside a legislative process but functionally with the full force of law—officials who were appointed in the age of Obama, a president whom few of the rural Westerners interacting with these agencies voted for or have a great deal of trust in.
And enforcement by these agencies has often been uneven or capricious, depending on how you look at it. There are credible recent stories of mining cabins being burned in and around Grants Pass without the notification you'd think human decency requires, and many miners view the torching of cabins as a punishment tactic to drive them out of the woods. Looking back to the 1970s, almost everyone in the local mining community knows someone who's had property burned, and a story published in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1990 investigated miners being smoked out in Klamath National Forest, near enough to be neighbors in this part of the world. "We started to burn obviously abandoned fire-hazard-type cabins with the permission of the owner," it quoted one Forest Service official. "Then it seemed to accelerate among the Forest Service guys. Who can burn more cabins? Then it turned into a race." The official went on. "Then we started to plan it. We started to kick people out, so we could burn the cabins. I burned down cabins myself. It felt awful."
The Sagebrush Rebellion has never truly died, and today it has inspired a very similar movement drawing strength from community-level anger and even being used to undermine the legitimacy and enforcement ability of BLM and the Forest Service in Congress. At least two House bills have been introduced in 2015 calling for the transfer of public lands to states where lawmakers and regulators are often quite intimate with large-scale ranching, mining, and oil and gas interests. At the state level, lawyers have repeatedly used anger over regulation to push bills pulled from the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that serves as a sort of mass-production facility for right-wing legislation, backed by companies like Exxon and Koch Industries that are just as bureaucratic and far less accountable than any government agency but that have a great interest in weakening federal environmental protections.
This anger has fueled the growth of groups like the Oath Keepers, founded in 2009 by a Yale Law graduate named Stewart Rhodes and now claiming a probably inflated membership of 30,000, mostly current or former law enforcement and military personnel. The Oath Keepers' anti-regulatory agenda ranges from the dark and insane elements of a deep strand of American thought to something that anyone with worries about civil liberties and the corporate welfare state can find common ground with. Liberal watchdogs call them right-wing extremists; they call themselves defenders of the Constitution. In many cases it has been hard to tell the difference.
In Grants Pass the issue had to do with both a specific regulatory dispute and a long history of distrust between the people who work and live on public lands and the people tasked with managing them. In March, the two miners in Grants Pass had been served with notices from the BLM stating that they were in violation of regulations requiring them to submit a plan of operations at their concession—things like the cutting of trees, disposal of mining waste, and building of structures to live in while they worked. The miners then argued two points: The first was that BLM agents had gone back on the word of its own agents, who, allegedly, had said the mine had a title exempting it from the processes of the 1955 Surface Minerals Act. This claim is currently being argued in front of the Department of Interior's appeals court. Their second point was that, in their view, the BLM and the Forest Service had a history of acting first and justifying later. "That's how all the cops are with miners," Rick Barclay told me. "You're like a second-class citizen. The whole thing is to get people out of the woods." Barclay brought the issue to Rice and the Oath Keepers, who reviewed the documents and felt the case presented a constitutional problem: If the BLM came in and burned the miners' equipment before they got a hearing, they'd violate the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unlawful search and seizure. If the agency acted before the miners had a chance to file an appeal, they'd violate the Fifth Amendment's right to due process. This is when the guns came out. "The only reason my stuff is still standing," Barclay said, "is that there's guys saying we'll shoot you if you fucking burn us down. If you don't want your nose broke, keep it out of my business."
The sign for the BLM/Forest Service interagency office is the first thing you see after you've pulled off Interstate 5 to enter Medford, a typically gray-green Oregon village at the northern end of the Siskiyou range and one of the very few sizable towns that dot the vast, still wild triangle of land between Eugene; Sacramento, California; and Reno, Nevada. The office was the first place I stopped when I arrived in Southern Oregon, a day before the Together for Josephine press conference. On that rainy Thursday afternoon it was closed and surrounded by about a hundred assembled protesters, only some of them armed. Joseph Rice was speaking from the bed of a white pickup. "I took an oath to uphold the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic," he said from his truck-bed podium, "and a domestic enemy is anyone who will abuse someone's rights within that Constitution."
After the speeches, I introduced myself to Rice. He was a former Army helicopter pilot, thickly muscled and walking with just a hint of a limp, and when I shook his hand he was rigorously polite, in the way of many military men who are at pains to be respectful even when they have no plans to say very much to you. I watched him as he dealt with a slightly batty, gray-bearded volunteer whose picture would later appear prominently in the Daily Mail. The man came up saying he'd do "anything at all to help—I just want to get involved."
"Can you cook?" Rice asked him.
The man said he could try. "And you know, if there was any chance for some of that more, you know, tactical training, I would be ready for that," he said. Rice said he'd let him know.
I then introduced myself to Barclay and Backes, the mine owners, and to another miner named David Everist, who told me an impossible-to-follow tale of seeing a cabin lit afire and being arrested for refusing to abandon his placer claim—the type of mining that involves sifting through riverbed sediment, associated in most people's minds with the Gold Rush—in the nearby national forest. He talked so long and in such detail about mining law that I had to invent a meeting to get away. This would become a recurring experience.
The protest ended as the rain picked up. I left and called my contact at the local BLM, a public information officer named Jim Whittington, with whom I'd spoken in New York before I left. He offered to talk with me in person, and I suggested we meet at the interagency office now that the protest was over. I was already in the office parking lot, having told Shawn, the photographer working with me on the story, to meet me there. Whittington paused and said vaguely that meeting there would be "ah... inconvenient." He asked if I knew anywhere else in the area. I'd seen a Starbucks down the road and suggested it as an option, and he said he knew the place: "We can meet you there in fifteen minutes," he said, as though he'd just been driving around waiting for a dispatch call.
Shawn and I drove over. It was still spitting rain, and chilly, but the Starbucks wouldn't let us photograph inside, so we set up under an umbrella at an outside table. Whittington, whom I recognized from photos I'd seen on some rather sinister antigovernment blog posts, approached with a man who surveyed the scene and pronounced it satisfactory. We said we were sorry about the rain and cold, but Whittington waved away the apology: "No, I was going to suggest that we talk out here anyway," he said. "Inside people could hear things that..." He trailed off. It felt very much like a drug deal.
The other man introduced himself as Tom Gorey, a higher-level public affairs official who'd been rushed in by Washington to run point on the events at the mine. This seemed reasonable—Whittington had sounded harried and exhausted both times I'd spoken with him. I had read vilifications of Whittington (representative title of a pro-miner blog post: "IS BLM SPOKESMAN JIM WHITTINGTON A COMPULSIVE LIAR? DOES HE NEED PROFESSIONAL HELP?") and would hear similar assessments of him and Gorey, coloring them as stooges or malign manipulators, depending on who was doing the describing. But they were more or less exactly what you'd expect from public affairs people working on environmental issues for a government agency: Whittington was soft-spoken and wore a dad-who-hikes sort of green fleece vest; Gorey, a squat man who was getting up in his years and had clearly dealt with his share of angry Westerners, was gruffer and slightly more officious, but only slightly. They were friendly and reasonable, but they were also the public representatives of a government facing a genuine challenge to its legitimacy, and they were unable to meet us in the offices of that government housed just half a mile down the road. The situation was beyond absurd.
They were resigned to the madness: "All that happened was that we made a finding of noncompliance," Gorey told me. If Backes and Barclay weren't contesting the surface rights, they would have to file a plan of operations or remove their cabin and equipment. "Since the situation we're in is they're saying, 'Oh, no, we do have surface,' then they can file an appeal." The miners had in fact done so that day, meaning their case was supposed to appear before the Interior Department's Board of Land Appeals. "There was never an issue of due process," he said. "Nothing is going to happen to their structures."
I asked what, then, had brought on the standoff. "Their line that they've been peddling is that the BLM was going to go in there and set fire to the cabin, take the equipment, and all this was going to happen before they went to the IBLA," Gorey said. The Oath Keepers and the miners said they would hold their positions until a judge issued a stay barring enforcement action by the BLM. And they were still preparing for a showdown on April 25, when the notice of noncompliance would come due. This was two days from when we were talking.
I asked Whittington about the burning of structures, which was an issue so raw in the town that the desk clerk at the Motel 6 where we were staying—a 30-ish woman who had never mined a day in her life—had brought it up to us unbidden. "That has happened in the past," he said. "If you look back in the 1970s, you had all these guys who were basically putting up a cabin and saying it was attached to a mine. They were basically homesteading." This doesn't necessarily go against the prevailing theory among miners that land managers want people out of the woods. "There were a lot of old rickety cabins out there, and we did burn cabins. We've maybe burned one in the last 15 years."
"Their narrative is that the BLM's a bully and federal thugs and strongmen are coming in to trample on their rights," Gorey said. "But it's just a false narrative." He knew that the resentment had come from somewhere, and he had been in the agency long enough to see how far it went: "The desire of many is, 'Hey, you're locking up the lands, and we can't use them the way we did,'" he said. "Wilderness designations and the success of the environmental movement have put restrictions, and there's been this resentment. You combine it with far-fetched constitutional interpretations, things like that coutry sheriffs are the major players in government—I mean that's what you're running up against." I asked whether the BLM might move in forcefully on April 25. "We're the government," Gorey said. "We're good at sending letters."
I asked Gorey what the future looked like for an agency that risked starting a revolution every time it tried to tell a camper to recycle his beer bottles. "Good luck to the militia movement to disestablish the federal government," he said. "We may have lost the battle of Bundyville, but we will win the war."
Here's a sign of the times in the West today: We knew the drill before we even got to the staging area, in the tiny town of Merlin, one exit up the highway from Grants Pass. You pull the 4x4 down the side road. Men with guns at the gate signal to you to slow, and they surround the vehicle. You roll down the window and state your business, and they direct you to park away from the entrance. If you're allowed to park inside the perimeter, they mirror-check under your chassis for bombs—someone waits with a mirror strapped to a long fir bough. You exit, and a humorless man with a pistol in a drop holster tells you to stay with him at all times. This is how it was at Bundy, and it's how it is at gatherings like this across the West. Our escort, who was at least in his 60s but tall and agile and lean, said to Shawn: "There will be no taking of photos. Clear?" Three bearded men, wearing full tactical gear and carrying rifles, gave us looks sort of like what you'd give a couple of college boys you found at your daughter's slumber party.
This was partly just an act. We passed the grim guardsmen, and as it began to rain again our escort turned to Shawn. "That thing about the photos," he said, smiling the first smile we'd seen on the base. "Was it intimidating enough for you?" He led us to the beat-up and musty old camper that the Oath Keepers were using as a "media center," marked by a handwritten cardboard sign. We spent nearly an hour and a half inside, during which time the rain never stopped. Our escort never left the door. "Nothing is going to happen," Mary Emerick, the group's public information officer and Rice's right hand, told us when we entered. "But in case something was going to happen, he's there. And you both know he's there. I think it's sweet."
The Oath Keepers are a national organization with a board of prominent constitutionalist activists, one of whom we met at the staging area, and local branches like the Josephine County chapter that operate with a great deal of independence. They have grown quickly since Rhodes founded the group after the election of Barack Obama, and their messaging has been much more effective than that of the 90s-era militia groups they're often associated with. They don't claim to oppose the federal government, for example. They are instead organized around a pledge to maintain the oath to uphold the Constitution sworn by peace officers and members of the military, and they also vow to disobey ten hypothetical orders they believe the federal government might issue. These include the relatively mild "We will not obey orders to conduct warrantless searches" but also vows with hints of the black-helicopters-and-race-war fears of older militia groups, like, "We will not obey any order to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps."
Rhodes polices their message aggressively, making sure members avoid racist comments, and he presents the movement as apolitical, though the group has helped to sponsor the mainstream conservative gathering CPAC and armed members have now twice appeared during disturbances on the streets of Ferguson, an action that many observers of the Patriot movement have seen as inflammatory. But the group has worked hard to present itself as community-oriented and responsive to, rather than wishing to provoke, confrontations. President Obama "would like nothing better than to see a race war," Rhodes told an audience recently, exhorting people to prepare themselves for actions like this one. "Picture Katrina," he continued, "but all over the country."
But the staging area was almost unsettlingly calm. There was a big fire pit where everyone hung out, a few camper vans that served as offices, and a chaotic cooking enclosure made from tarps and stakes covering card tables piled with camp stoves and mounds of food that looked to have been bought piece-by-piece: a package of hot dogs, a box of brownie mix, three cans of beans, a single bottle of Vitamin Water. A gnarled little man with a deep tan and a mess of greasy hair emerged from the kitchen and brought Emerick some fried potatoes. It was now the afternoon of April 24, a day before the order of noncompliance was supposed to come due, and the first of two days we spent more or less entirely with the Oath Keepers. Most of the volunteers seemed to be up on the mine itself, waiting.
Emerick looked, like everyone who'd been involved in the standoff, a little frayed. Her insurance agent called, and she wearily told him she'd call back. "I had an accident coming down the hill the other day," she said. "A coyote ran in front of my car, and now all the guys call me Coyote Down." She said that Rice had lost 14 pounds since things kicked off.
She was perhaps an unlikely antigovernment warrior, but her story is a good illustration of how so many people who are not anything at all close to nutjobs could get involved in the constitutionalist movement. She was from Southern California and had been an elementary-school administrator in a small city called Diamond Bar. She was a grandmother and acted like it toward us almost immediately. She was self-conscious about her age and weight when Shawn took out the camera, and she didn't begrudge us our politics or the fact that a 28-year-old in tattoos and aviators had shown up at the military operation she was helping to run. She came to Josephine County in 1989, following her husband: "Back then you could hear it called 'the Beirut of Oregon,'" she told me. "I said, 'Where are you taking me?'" If this comparison no longer stands it's because Beirut, not Josephine County, grew less violent.
She was in a good position to follow the deteriorating security situation because she worked for Gil Gilbertson, a former county sheriff we'd met that morning. Gilbertson's office—leaving aside his own stated sympathies for the Patriot movement—was a natural place for a budding constitutionalist to begin. The Forest Service or the BLM manages 60 percent of Josephine County. The federal government pays no taxes on this land, and for decades—as is still common in the West—the county received its compensation in the form of royalties from timber sales, which allowed it to avoid raising property taxes. But the BLM and the Forest Service slowed timber harvests over time, and by 2012 the government ended its programs of payment to the county. The sheriff's department nearly collapsed for lack of funds: The jail had largely closed down, reported thefts in Grants Pass increased 80 percent in just a year, and felony suspects arrested with stolen goods were sometimes issued tickets and released. Applications for concealed-carry permits increased by 49 percent, and many citizens took on the job of policing themselves, leading the New York Times to fret in 2013 that "balkanized camps of armed residents could create new tensions" in the county.
There's a way of looking at Josephine County's meltdown and thinking that if there had been local, not federal, control over all that land, then things would have turned out differently. Gilbertson, the former sheriff, even refused to support a ballot measure that would have raised taxes to fund his own department. Emerick supported this position. "It's not about us being antigovernment or anti–law enforcement," she said. "But people were saying, 'Give us these millions of dollars,' and it didn't add up." Gilbertson lost the election, and Emerick dived into her work with the Oath Keepers. Now she was Rice's chief operative and was in regular touch with Stewart Rhodes. "Even before this," she said, "Stewart was probably on the phone with Joseph once a week. He's trying to turn this group into a model nationally."
Rice sauntered in. "What are you talking to these guys for?" he asked, good-naturedly. He agreed, after something that approached begging on my part, to take us to the mine the next afternoon, the day the order would come due. I told him that I'd bought a topographical map and that I'd planned a way up, since they had long since been preventing other reporters from going to the mine. He looked slightly concerned for me. "Trust me," he said. "You wouldn't have made it very far."
They had been dealing with a horde of volunteers. "It's a tactical issue if I give you numbers," Emerick said, when I asked her how many had arrived since the start of the conflict. "But everyone has to fill out paperwork when they come—it's how we try to weed out the crazies. And there are two clipboards, each with big stacks of paperwork."
I asked what sort of thing they did when they weren't running a military operation, and she said they had community meetings, which is how the miners had found them, and did volunteer work, which is how Emerick had found them. "There was this project building a playground for disabled kids," she said. "Twelve of these guys came out, it was a hundred and three degrees, and then a wildfire started, so there was smoke they were breathing, and then it started to rain. And I remembered this one guy, an Army Ranger, he kept working—like, 'Well, at least it'll keep the temperature down.' Pretty much when there's an issue, they're the guys who stand up."
This was our first picture of something that was very hard to square with what you learn about these groups from afar. We spent two afternoons at the staging area, waiting to see what would happen on April 25, and we became friendly with the volunteers, joking around the fire, eating the food, running to the store to buy Clif Bars for the guys and Diet Coke for Emerick. They came from across the West, and as far away as Alaska, and were mostly identifiable—and, at least to me, relatable—as a sort of person in need of a purpose, who'd found it in constitutionalism on the one hand and in the feeling of simply being a part of a group on the other. "We're not toothless rednecks. We don't do the Aryan shit—that's the complete opposite of what we want," a young guy named Matt, from a group based in the Willamette Valley, sought me out to say. "That's not freedom. That's not equality. We've done classes on everything from small-animal butchering to sewing. We're just out to help each other out, help people out."
They were all also very resistant to the idea that they were antigovernment, and in fact we didn't meet a single person in any of the militias who would accept that term. At no point did anyone think to mention the name Barack Obama. A couple of guys from a group called the Idaho III% pulled us over so that one of them, who made sure we knew he was Hispanic, could say to us, "Man, don't you write that we're antigovernment or anti-fed—we believe in government that people have a say in. We have Democrats. We even had a guy in the group who wanted to have, you know, a sex change. And there were some people who weren't OK with it. And we had a meeting and eventually some people had to leave."
I asked who had had to leave. "The people who weren't OK with it!" he said. "We're constitutionalists, and what does the Constitution say about a sex change?"
The day the order was to come due, we loaded into Joseph Rice's green Toyota Tacoma and drove to the mine. "I don't believe they will come in here. I don't think that's in their best interest," he said as we left the staging area. "But that being said, today is the deadline. For us it's a security operation, and whatever it takes to maintain the security of the mine is what we're going to do."
Rice was intense to the degree that it was unnerving to share the cab of a pickup with him, but it was easy to see why scores of young military men who'd never met him before they drove in would follow him. He spoke with a firmness that made you think he wasn't used to being questioned back, but there was something earned about his self-assurance—he sometimes paused for half a minute while he searched for words, in the manner of someone who would rather say nothing at all than speak without first satisfying himself to the justice of what he was saying. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley, in Los Angeles County, but moved to Massachusetts as a teenager. He joined the Massachusetts National Guard out of high school and flew both rotary and fixed-wing aircraft before bouncing around the country working in aviation, search-and-rescue, and fire suppression in Hawaii, Florida, Montana, and Alabama. Then he did three rounds as a contractor in Afghanistan, he says. He was injured in combat there and hasn't been able to work as a pilot since. "I broke my ankle in two places and blew out my knee. I got home Christmas Eve, got to the doc, and he said it was pretty well busted. It's been two years, and I'm still trying to get back to flight status."
He was also one of the pilots involved in the search for the Kim family, a story that became a statewide media sensation in Oregon after a family of four, heading to the Oregon coast during Thanksgiving vacation, followed a shortcut down a remote BLM road and became stranded in the snow. Rice flew with a rescue operation for days and was one of the pilots who found the family freezing by their car. He also helped locate the body of James Kim, the father, who had frozen to death after leaving to try to get help. Bear Camp Road, where they'd become lost, is now maybe the most famous stretch of BLM road in the country—it has its own Wikipedia page—and James Kim wasn't the first traveler to die trying to use it to get to the coast. It also happened to be the road we turned down as we left the highway, heading into the woods.
I asked Rice how he'd come to politics. "I was very distressed about what I had seen happen in this country after September eleventh," he said. "And I think that if what has happened to our rights and civil liberties since then had happened overnight, there would have been rioting in the streets.
"I've traveled a lot internationally," he went on, "and I can always tell the American, and it's embarrassing—because they're the only ones who reach down and take off their shoes at the airport. And when the government starts spying on Americans and monitoring phone calls and keeping records on electronic traffic, and when you're keeping records on Americans just because they're Americans, and when you talk about warrantless wiretapping, when you talk about secret FISA courts, when you talk about assassination of American citizens overseas without trial, that's not what I took an oath to defend."
I pointed out that he was talking about issues that long predate the Obama administration. "I'm not political—I look at the world as morally right and morally wrong," he said, which was plain enough from his bearing. "And this situation here with the BLM is not a current administration issue. This was happening under Bush, this was happening under Clinton—this here is a long-term cultural issue." We turned down another dirt road and stopped to open a locked gate, barring the way ahead. He radioed to say we were in the vicinity. "You don't want to wander off now," he said. "You won't see us, but we will see you."
"...if what has happened to our rights and civil liberties since [September 11th] had happened overnight, there would have been rioting in the streets."
The radio came alive. "Break-break-break, all stations fire in the hole," someone said.
"They're blowing shit up," Rice said. He wouldn't say what they were blowing up, but it wasn't BLM trucks. All I could see were trees and forest.
"Gook's going to blow his load!" the voice on the radio said. "Gook," it turned out, was the call sign of the head of security at the mine, a giant, genial, part-Guamanian former Marine named Brandon Rapolla, who had been at the Bundy ranch. We drove on, under madrones and incense cedars. We came to a bend in the road, where three men armed with AR-15s and wearing tactical gear stood next to a bulldozer that had been set up, flanked by at least one foxhole, dug-in and hidden, making the road impassible.
"Hey, it's the boss!" someone called. They started the dozer, moved it off the road, and pulled it back into position when we'd passed.
We came to a huge clearing under pine trees where the cabin belonging to George Backes and Rick Barclay stood, unburned. The entrance to the mine was out of sight, up a steep one-lane track cut in the hillside. There were dozens of guys standing around, most of them armed and kitted out. It looked like they were massing to invade Yosemite. "And you can't even see most of the people who are up here," Rapallo told us.
Backes, a soft-spoken part-Indian man with a long criminal record, walked over. Rice had brought a gigantic card signed by well-wishers from the area, made out to the volunteers at the mine. Backes studied it. "It'll take me a while to read all this, and I'll probably get emotional as hell," he said. "I'd write something in there, but they probably won't be able to read it."
We spent four hours at the mine—which, for all the fuss, was just a four-by-six-foot hole in the ground, dug into a sheer wall at the geologically auspicious meeting point between a greenstone band and a beautiful, dark block of uplifted serpentine intruding into soft saprolite. The tension, the waiting to see if something would happen, cleared as soon as we stepped out of the truck. It was a credit to Rice that the guys in the operation had maintained a sense of discipline at all, because once up there it was impossible to imagine the BLM trying to send so much as a carrier pigeon up Bear Camp Road. The Oath Keepers, whether they were an antigovernment militia or not, had created a zone of militia rule, where no government had writ. I had come expecting to see a showdown. This was like a noontime duel that ended when one party caught the 11 o'clock train out of town.
On my last morning I drove to meet Barclay, the other mine owner. He had a thick beard and was a ball of muscle, even at 58, and had, like all the miners we met, fingernails as thick as nickels. We shook hands and took a corner table at the general store—the only place of business of any kind—near his home, in the tiny town of Applegate. "You have a GPS?" he asked when he set the meeting. I said I did. "Good," he said. "You can get lost like all the rest of the tourists." I heard his story of growing up wandering the West while his father followed gas strikes—moving from Kansas to Texas to Utah and back—and how he'd come to Josephine County as a teenager and discovered mining. "We went up, the first time I did hard rock, and hell, there was gold just laying on the rocks," he said.
We talked about the frustrations all the miners in the area seemed to share. In the end it was anger that had brought the guns out, and the degree of political disconnect between everyone involved—the miners, Oath Keepers, and their supporters on the one side and the federal agents, activists, and their local supporters on the other—was sort of hard to believe. They were talking past one another in a way that becomes true in any insurgency, from Northern Ireland to Iraq. "These people are thugs," he said, referring to the BLM and the Forest Service, which was exactly the word used to described the Oath Keepers at the press conference. "It's a cultural arrogance," he said. "'Our administrative rulings trump your rights.'"
A legal scholar might fairly say that the BLM's administrative rulings are an expression of a broader democratic right, to establish enforcement agencies to ensure the collective good. But perhaps liberal watchdogs, acting out of a very fair concern about the political intimidation and possibility of violence that actions like this bring with them, have been too quick to dismiss the anger of people like Barclay. Any insurgent politics is born out of a disconnect between the governing and the governed, the feeling among some organizable section of the populace that it is, for whatever reason, impossible to wield political influence without bringing guns into the discussion.
Something has happened in the West over the past 40 years to create that attitude among certain people, particularly people like Barclay who depend on the land for a living. Groups like the Oath Keepers have been able to reach out and give people a sense of taking back a country so entangled with rules, surveillance, and control—from the NSA to the cardholder agreement for your Amex to the tens of thousands of rules governing what you can do in what seems like an untouched and untamed forest—that you don't have to be a militia member to think that the basic idea of what it means to be a free citizen has been reimagined in this country, without either political party offering much of a voice to those who might find that reimagining troubling.
You might think, as I do, that these people's frustrations have been co-opted by a corporatist ideology that has done as much as any government action to bureaucratize and regulate our lives. You might think, as they do, that my own environmentalism and belief in social welfare serves as an excuse for government regulations that have changed what the nature of having access to public land or being a free American ever meant. But these are points that, at least in this particular case, we were able to discuss like reasonable people. There are a great many people involved, or attempting to be involved, in operations like the one at the Sugar Pine mine who seem to be genuinely dangerous, and it's an inevitability that someone will eventually be killed if these actions go on with the frequency that they have been.
(At the time of this writing, the Oath Keepers are mobilizing for another action at a mine, this time over a dispute in Lincoln, Montana, with the Forest Service.) There is no easy answer, but it couldn't possibly hurt to try to hear these groups out before assuming they're all crazies and fascists. "There's lots of those folks who think that we should erupt into some kind of, I don't know what, guerrilla war," Barclay said. "And that's very counterproductive. But they run people over all the time."
As I finished my interview with Barclay, a beautiful gray-haired woman, wearing elaborate jewelry and a linen dress, came up and introduced herself. He had clearly become a hero in town. "I just wanted to say good luck," she said. "I used to work the mines with my dad. Do you remember the Lost Blue Empress?" referring to a local mine. Barclay said he did. She pressed his hand.
We went out to his truck to look over some documents, and a guy in a flashy jacked-up Chevy pulled up. "Can I have your autograph?" he asked Barclay, joshingly. "No, seriously, you're giving 'em hell, Rick." We all talked a while, leaning on Barclay's beat-up little truck and playing with his brown mutt, named Brown. "Brown's picture was in the Daily Mail of England!" Barclay said in wonder. "Can you believe that shit?"
I asked him again how he felt about setting loose all the craziness. I brought up a video made by one activist who'd shown up after having been at the Bundy ranch, and who'd made a video in which he talked about "heavy hitters" coming in and announced grandly that "we are standing off" with the BLM. It was hard to see it as anything but a call to violence. "We can't let the Chinese or the government have the gold," he went on. "It belongs to the people."
"Well, I don't know about that," Barclay said, and smiled. "The gold doesn't belong to the people. The gold belongs to me."