We Talked to the Former Sumo Wrestler Who Joined the Oregon Militia Occupation
Are the occupation’s viral videos a fluke or part of a strategy?
A small group of armed ranchers—"militiamen" to some, and "terrorists" to others—have been holed up at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon for the better part of a month, turning the preserve into a destination for fellow travellers like some kind of anti-government update to the Summer of Love.
One of those freedom-minded visitors was Kelly Gneiting, a former US champion sumo wrestler and former chairman of the far-right Independent American Party who goes by "The Man of Fat Steel." He also set the Guinness world record in 2011 for being the heaviest man to complete a marathon. Gneiting left his home in New Mexico to visit Malheur two weeks ago and created one of the strangest videos to come from an occupation that's well on its way to counting them as its trademark.
Remember the video of occupation leader John Ritzheimer flipping out over all the dildos people have been mailing them? The Guardian called it part of a "bizarre PR tactic," but t's got nothing on Gneiting's contribution to the canon.
"It showed that we're regular people and we like to have fun—we just don't like government tyranny"
In a YouTube video that was picked up by Gawker and other sites, Gneiting pretends to be presidential hopeful Governor Chris Christie's older brother and challenges the politician to a sumo match. He stands outside in the mud and the grass, wearing the sumo's mawashi, and thunders, "I want to see who the real sissy is."
Beyond the video's novelty value, I wondered if Gneiting had some insight into what the mood at Malheur was like in the days leading up to the killing of leader Robert LaVoy Finicum by authorities, and why anyone thought this was a good idea. I also wondered what the method to the viral internet madness at Malheur was, or if there was any to begin with. Are the baffling videos coming out of Malheur occupation content, or the ill-advised postings of internet amateurs?
I called him up and asked.
Motherboard: How did you get to the preserve, and what was it like?
Kelly Gneiting: I took a flight from Las Vegas to Boise and hooked up with my Independent American Party friend. We went and visited the refuge, and arrived on Monday night, the 18th. We immediately went in, saw Ammon Bundy, also Shawna Cox, and all of the main leadership that are now in custody. We just said "Hi" and went over to where the bulk of the people were staying to help out and have breakfast or do whatever they wanted us to do. The next day, all day, we were there. We helped them talk to a lot of people, and we had a big sign that said "rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God." All we did was bring the sign, we were going to paint it to preserve it, and drill it into the back of a big piece of wood.
We also saw a lecture from KrisAnne Hall—she's on the Independent American Party website—she's an attorney, a radio host, and really good. Coming back from Burns [a town near the preserve] to the occupation, we brought some supplies in our truck and dumped them where the supplies were going. We woke up the next day, and that's when we did the sumo video. And then shortly after that we left.
What's the story behind the Chris Christie call out video?
My friend, my Independent American Party friend again, he's like, hey, we in the Independent American Party want peaceful solutions, but when you petition your representative a million times and then nothing happens… When something like this happens, you get a little bit excited, like, wow, you're doing more than petitioning the government now.
He said, hey, you look a lot like Chris Christie. This wasn't even my idea. It was his. He said, you look a lot like Chris Christie, you should go there and do a little skit, and kind of described it. He told me that on Saturday, a couple of days before I arrived at Boise, so I had just been pondering that the whole time, like, wow, that would be really cool. It would show that we're just jokesters, and who wants to attack jokesters?
Basically, it worked, in my opinion. It showed that we're regular people and we like to have fun—we just don't like government tyranny.
And this was a media person from the Independent American Party?
This was a media person from Emmett, Idaho, who just happened to be there. He just happened to be there, and he said hey, can you come take a video? I had never met him before.
"We want to stand strong, and we want to stand with many people. And when that happens, then I believe there will be blood"
In an email you said you wanted to bring a little light-heartedness to the situation in Oregon, but many might say that the occupation is anything but a joke, especially since Robert LaVoy Finicum's death. Did anybody say to you that this might not be a good idea? Did the occupiers sign off on it?
No, they didn't sign off on it. This was before LaVoy's death, and I'm going to his funeral this Friday. It's very, very serious to me, too. There's probably occupiers who wouldn't like that, but I was there, and there were a few people standing there who watched the whole thing. They weren't the leadership or anything, but they saw it, and we just closed shop and left. We went back to the occupation, did a few things, and we were just doing our own thing. Some people probably wouldn't like it, but the people there thought it was funny.
Can you tell me how the occupiers feel about videos like yours and the infamous dildo unboxing video as being some of the most shared and arguably memorable things about the occupation?
That's a good question. I don't know. We did the sumo video, and the military people, the people who were there that were occupying, there were four or five people there. They thought it was funny, and then we just left. There was someone who didn't like it that came up at the end and said, "Hey, you guys need to check with Ammon and we want the best light on us as possible."
But when you're opening a box of dildos, having a few cracks and telling people you're going to sell them on eBay, I don't think that's appropriate. I thought what I did was really funny and appropriate, but I guess everyone has their own sense of humor.
Did you get the sense that there was any sort of viral media strategy at play among the occupiers?
No, I just got the sense that these guys were honest, and some of them wanted to be, I don't know, in my opinion, a little bit too far. Some of them didn't approach the situation correctly. But by and large, the people that I was there, I identified with. They were handing out free Bibles, little mini Bibles, they were having prayer, and they were the kind of people that I would identify with.
Will you go back to the preserve?
I don't know. I don't know what the future has. There's still people occupying the preserve there. But I'm going to do what I know in my heart is the right thing. There's a lesson to be learned from the Bible, where Jesus says to agree with your adversary or else you'll be in jail. You can't do anything for the freedom battle when you're in jail, is basically what it's saying. You don't come out of jail until you pay the uttermost farthing, and while you're in jail you can't pay anything.
I want to handle this in the right way: with love for my fellow man, but with a strong presence. We're not going to take their tyranny, but we also don't want to end up in jail. It's like advice a dad would give his son: if something isn't right, stand up.
Let me read a quote that you sent me in an email: "I say to you that the price of liberty is and always has been blood, human blood, and if our liberties are lost, we shall never regain them except at the price of blood. They must not be lost." But you prefer a non-violent solution?
No, I believe that quote. We've seen it last week. It's just that, there's a way to go about doing it—there's a petitioning, and there's an asking, and then there's a warning. I think it's appropriate to warn—you'd better stop, in the name of almighty God, you'd better stop. Because God wants us to be free.
Do we want to just go in and start killing people? No, because that's bloodshed. But we want to stand in defense of life, liberty, and property. And we want to stand strong, and we want to stand with many people. And when that happens, then I believe there will be blood.