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Anthony McCann Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Anthony McCann

Anthony McCann

An interview with Anthony McCann

A conversation with Anthony McCann about the Bundy standoff, the history of inequality in America, and the impact of social media on politics and protest today.

What do you think makes the story you tell in Shadowlands important for understanding where we find ourselves in America today?

First off the story of the so-called "Oregon Standoff" came at the very start of 2016, the year that gave us the Trump presidency and announced to so many Americans that we'd entered into a very different political moment—the one we are still in. It was on the very first day of that year that Ammon Bundy, inspired, he claimed, by the Spirit of God, used social media to call his libertarian and "patriot movement" Facebook friends to come from across the west to remote Harney County, Oregon (size of Massachusetts, population 7,000) for an event he described as something "the lord was about to accomplish."

The very next day, January 2nd, he and his "dear friends" as he called them, took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (which wasn't so hard, because there was nobody there) in the name of restoring the rule of the People. The occupiers, who were armed, were able to instantly, due to the remoteness of the high desert location and the power of their social media network, mount a credible challenge to the sovereignty of federal and local government in the region. And that's how 2016 began, with that extreme populist story—an insurrection really. It was instantly all over the news. In many ways it announced the arrival of a new stage in what I think we can agree is a populist political moment, both on the right and left.

Do you think some of the standard causes we hear for the surge of populism in our politics—massive economic disparity, for example—apply to this story?

Certainly. Though there are important historical causes and regional causes as well, the occupation can be seen partly as an action of disenfranchised, left-behind feeling folks, mostly white men, from a region suffering from long term serious economic decline, from communities hollowed out by population loss and lack of opportunity—the Intermountain West has most of the highest suicide rates in the nation, especially among middle aged white men, the demographic that provided many of the occupiers.

In offering a dramatic, heroic way to directly remedy this situation—by reclaiming the federal public land of the west for the People—Ammon Bundy also brought the aura of Divine Providence, God-ordained purpose. Bundy is a very devout Mormon, an earnest, and charismatic figure, from a family of Mormon ranchers. He easily and fluidly mixes the language of prophecy, high minded-talk of the Constitution and the American Revolution, and a kind of Cowboy legalism, the ornate jargon of property rights, water rights, etc. It made him a very compelling figure for many: a Holy Cowboy on a mission from God, a mission one was invited—via social media—to join as an equal.

In Shadowlands, there's a lot of attention to the role of social media. Do you see the occupation as something that could have happened without social media?

Certainly not, not in the form it did. The occupation was a kind of western settler reenactment, a wild west show staged by and for the internet. It made a place, "virtual" and "real", where feelings of 'left-behindness', largely male and white (and both justified and unjustified) could be channeled into old Manifest Destiny versions of the American dream. It was a back-to-the-future, neo-homesteader spectacle ready made for Facebook Live and YouTube. And it was all happening on what turned out to be, fittingly, perhaps inevitably—and totally unbeknownst to the main actors—especially sacred Native Land.

About that Native Land. Shadowlands gives a lot of attention to the role of the Burns Paiute tribe in the occupation drama—what was the tribe's part in the opposition to the Bundy Rebels?

Well, first off, the tribe insisted immediately, with real clarity and persistent messaging, that all of us understand that the occupation was basically the thing I just described: A Neo-Homesteader reenactment. From the tribe's perspective, here was a group of armed white men, amped up on nostalgia for the era of the white men who'd wrested the tribes' land from them in the first place, taking over territory that had been absolutely central to the tribe and their ancestors for thousands of years.

The tribe's entrance into the conflict made it easy for many to see immediately how much history lay underneath the whole drama. It made it easy to see how that that history—including millennia of continual Native occupation and use—was underlying the story both figuratively and literally. Thousands and thousands of Native people had likely lived out parts of each year on the land of the contemporary refuge; thousands had died there, been buried there. This was something that was confirmed when the presence of so many artifacts on the land of the occupied refuge came to play a key role in the conflict.

The occupier who became most involved in the issue of that history and those artifacts was also the one casualty of the occupation, correct?

Yes, LaVoy Finicum. He was a Mormon rancher and therapeutic foster care specialist—as well as a militant property rights activist and a novelist. He quickly became the group's main spokesman, until he was shot and killed by the Oregon State police when Federal and State authorities took the occupation's leadership into custody. Finicum had taken the opposition of the tribe very seriously. He devoted considerable effort in the last week of his life to attempts to convince the tribe to engage in dialog about the artifacts stored on the Malheur refuge, and about a possible anti-federal alliance.

It was all to no avail—to his own personal disaster, according to traditionalist members of the Burns-Paiute tribe who hold that engaging uncarefully with objects crafted or used by the dead (as Finicum did in his video messages to the tribe) can occasion great misfortune. Which brings up another historical fact the occupiers seem never to have noticed, Malheur actually means misfortune, or calamity in French—very bad luck basically.

So they'd occupied a place called the Bad Luck National Wildlife Refuge?

Exactly. They'd captured the Hard Luck National Refuge and then claimed they were holding that land for the People, all while quoting from the Constitution whenever they found someone who'd listen. The whole thing quickly took on a very heightened, allegorical or mythic aspect. At one point a guy even showed up dressed completely like George Washington, and, evidently, according to some of the occupiers, stayed in character the whole time, till he vanished back to wherever it was that he'd come from. And this was all happening in that mythic western landscape: the windswept distance, the jutting basalt buttes, and that big 'ole sky. When you add to that the tragedy and violence and sweep of all the history that took place in this zone, you've got a big tale on your hands about the American past and its troubling presence in the American Now.

The second major part of the book follows the occupiers to their trial in Portland, where they seem to have made a somewhat different impression on you? Why was that?

There were a number of reasons, but the very first one would be the charges, the only felony ones federal prosecutors found that would apply: conspiracy to intimidate federal officers in order to impede them from doing their duty through threats, violence or intimidation. Those charges quickly turned the court room drama into a battle about what kinds of protest were legitimate and not. Whether or not you believe bringing guns to a protest is legitimate, that change of framing totally alters the conversation. And into that conversation the Bundyites brought a compelling measure of determination, and some real critiques of our justice system, which both they and many folks across the political spectrum, have likened to a conviction and incarceration machine, hopelessly distant from the people it is meant to serve. Along the way they and their attorneys offered a great deal of dramatic courtroom theater—really challenging the justice system quite effectively on its own terrain and with its own terms and history.

Outside the courthouse, as you describe, the occupiers came in contact with other groups, like Black Lives Matter protestors. What was significant about those encounters?

It was in those conversations (and non-conversations) that you could really see how the historical naivety of the occupiers continued to undermine their better intentions. One of the more thoughtful of the Bundyites, Jason Patrick, had come to the movement through his work protesting police shootings and the militarization of law enforcement. Outside the trial, he sought common cause with Don't Shoot Portland, a Black Lives Matter group which was protesting against police violence regularly in the streets and parks and government buildings near the federal courthouse at the same time that the first Occupation trial was going on. The failure of Patrick's efforts is maybe best summed up by Don't Shoot Portland leader (and current Portland mayoral candidate) Teressa Raiford, who told me that while she appreciated Patrick's ongoing support for her struggle against police abuse of her community, there was something basic that prevented a stronger alliance, or any alliance really: that for Jason "his ideas are who he thinks he is." Which is really just a way of saying, among other things, that he's failing to understand all the historical currents that make each of us up and have brought us to this place. Big beautiful ideas are just never enough.

Can you explain more about why you think big ideas aren't enough?

In Jason Patrick's case, I'd say that includes not fully acknowledging the implications of some of the historical provenance of many of his ideas, which despite Jason's anti-racism and anti-police militarization bear the signature of the basic 'States Rights' position of the Confederacy, and of the anti-Reconstruction rhetoric of the Jim Crow south. That position has passed, laundered through Goldwater and Reagan conservatism, into the right wing anti-Federal rhetoric of the present era, where it takes its place alongside the rhetoric of 1776. So maybe to add on to Teressa's insight, big beautiful ideas aren't enough when you don't always acknowledge the full and often ugly history of those ideas.

You draw attention throughout the book to the legacy of slavery and of the Reconstruction era—why is this history important to a story about public land in the west?

I'd say the legacy of the failure of Reconstruction, which is the failure of America to really face and resolve the history and implications of slavery, is the reason why it's basically impossible to have a meaningful conversation about the proper domains and uses of local, state and federal power—in a time when we really need to be able to have pragmatic discussions on these issues.

When you think about it, it's not really all that surprising that a country that can't even agree on who matters also can't have a good conversation about its shared inheritances, including its public land. It's not shocking that a country that can't even agree on who belongs here, a country where some people in the White House still don't accept the most basic provisions of the 14th amendment —the Reconstruction-era amendment that created birthright citizenship—has a hard time having meaningful conversations about much at all. It's not surprising that that should be true even when what we're talking about is something so many Americans (including myself) see as probably our greatest common legacy: the stunning and precious public land of the west.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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