Wednesday, September 16, 2015


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.

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