One of the many, many surprises to come out of the 41-day occupation by armed extremists that just ended at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is this: A mild-mannered university professor from Eugene has turned out to be one of the most interesting voices covering the strange events in Harney County.
Peter Walker is a professor of geography at the University of Oregon. He specializes in “the social and political dimensions of human uses of the physical environment,” his staff page on the UO website notes.
As soon as he heard about the occupation, which began Jan. 2, he knew he was headed for Burns.
“My area of interest is land-use politics,” he said by phone one night from the Silver Spur motel in Burns, where virtually every other room was rented by out-of-town militia members. “And I think this counts. When the Bundy thing happened, I though, this was meant for me. There was no way I could pass that up.”
Walker is on sabbatical from the university and paid for his own travel. During several extended trips to Burns, including visiting refuge headquarters while it was in the hands of the militants, Walker made numerous Facebook posts describing his experiences. His online writing about the occupation is neither academic nor traditionally journalistic; instead, he combines personal observation with his own knowledge of the people of Harney County – as in this February 1 post describing a demonstration by local people, surrounded by armed out of town militants, at the Harney County courthouse:
Tense face-off in front of the Harney County Court House today. A few hundred mostly-local people protested the ongoing presence of anti-government militia – they chanted, “WE are Harney County, you are NOT our voice.” A few hundred outsider militia (they call themselves “patriots”) protested mainly against the “murder” of LaVoy Finicum and demanded that the FBI leave the county.
I saw a news article that said the community is divided, but I didn’t see that – virtually all local people I saw are calling for the militia to leave.
Meanwhile, from the comfort of southern Nevada, Cliven Bundy (speaking for “We the People of Harney County”!) helpfully declared that he would retain possession of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and called for the four remaining occupiers to stand their ground. Great. No indication that the militia are leaving soon, either. Today’s face-off finally ended when someone (I’m not sure who, anybody know?) handed out free pizza. Maybe that’s the answer. I propose to send lots of free snacks to Idaho.
“My impression was, and is, that the Bundy militia never had much local support, and don’t have much local support,” Walker said.
Charles Goodrich, head of Oregon State University’s Spring Creek Project, which tries to raise environmental awareness through good writing, had this to say – again on Facebook – about Walker’s Malheur posts:
Peter Walker has been spending a lot of time witnessing and reporting from Harney County, and has been a source of solid, compassionate reporting on the situation, especially how the locals have been handling this invasion.
Walker attended a meeting January 18 in Crane, a tiny town northeast of Burns, at which refuge occupiers Ammon and Ryan Bundy and LaVoy Finicum and Ryan Payne talked to local ranchers and tried to enlist them in their cause.
“They told the assembled ranchers and reporters and me that the United States government has no authority to own land outside of Washington, D.C.,” he said. “And Ryan Payne was saying you don’t have to have a driver’s license, because it’s not in the Constitution.”
Payne also tried to convince the ranchers – who Walker said remained unmoved – that they were obligated to resist arrest by federal agents. “Which is interesting,” Walker added, “because when Ryan Payne was stopped (in the arrest of the occupiers’ leaders on January 26) he was the first to surrender.”
At the Crane meeting, Walker went up, a little uncomfortably, and introduced himself to the Bundy brothers. “It was a small room. I stood out, because I clearly wasn’t a rancher and didn’t look like a TV reporter. And those are some rough-looking guys.”
Walker said he didn’t find either of the Bundy brothers to be very articulate or clear in their thinking. “Their story about what they were doing just kept evolving,” he said.
On the other hand, he said, Ryan Payne was smart and well spoken. “And yet the things he said in the presentation were out to lunch.”
“The word that comes to me first is ‘arrogant,’” Walker said. “They came a long distance to tell people in Harney County how to interpret the Constitution. That’s a jaw-dropping level of arrogance.”
Walker was most personally impressed by Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, the Arizona rancher who was shot dead by Oregon state police after, they said, he reached for a weapon while being arrested on January 26. Walker had previously met Finicum at the refuge headquarters – they were photographed together by another of the militants, Jason Patrick – and brought home a copy, signed by Finicum, of the annotated version of the US Constitution the occupiers prefer.
“He was a smart guy,” Walker said of the dead militant. “He knew what he was doing. He was the one person in that group who, if someone were to ask me who in that group wouldn’t surrender, I would have unhesitatingly said Finicum. He was deeply passionate and, in my impression, true to his convictions. He knew exactly what kind of situation he was in (during his arrest) and he had said many times he would rather die than be caged.”
In a Facebook post today, Walker said he was headed back to Burns to join in the local celebration about the end of the occupation. Walker marked the end of the occupation with this wry line:
“At about 10:57 a.m. David Fry had a cigarette and ate a cookie and surrendered. It ends with snacks.”