“Shadowlands,” Anthony McCann’s account of the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, offers fascinating insights and poses interesting questions.
The occupation was led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who had a run-in of his own with the feds over grazing rights on federal land.
The Bundys are members of the Sovereign Citizen or Patriot movement; like their father, they “don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.” Ammon, for example, thought of himself as “the expression of God’s feelings, God’s feelings about America.”
Brother Ryan “declared himself in court documents a ‘citizen of heaven.’ ”
They had come to rural Haneu County, Ore., with a small group of similarly minded zealots to support Dwight and Steve Hammond, local ranchers who had been convicted of setting fires on federal lands. The Hammonds had served brief amounts of time but were ordered returned to jail because their sentences were below the five-year minimum mandated by their crimes.
From the beginning, though, no one wanted the Bundys there. Not the Hammonds. Not local residents, who asked them to leave. Even some of the fanatics who had originally joined the brothers abandoned the cause when the Bundys moved from mere protest to occupying the federal facility.
McCann conducted extensive interviews with locals, area American Indians and, of course, Bundyites; each offered perspectives on the occupation. In fact, McCann interviewed everyone except federal law enforcement.
We never learn why the Bundys adopted the tactics they did, tactics that led to the death of follower LaVoy Finicum in a roadside shooting.
McCann seems to believe there is some merit to the Patriot movement, that the state has too much power. He also asks what constitutes a proper protest. Is it OK to block traffic and create chaos in a city, as the Black Lives Matter movement has? If yes — and McCann seems to think so — is that different from what the Bundyites did?
Not giving the government an opportunity to respond makes the book appear unbalanced. McCann’s theses are further undercut by statements that make him look as out of touch as the Sovereign Citizens. For instance, he expresses horror when watching on television “Boston’s police deploy martial law-like armored assault vehicles … on the street of an American city in the search for one immigrant teenager.”
The immigrant teen McCann referred to was Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who with his brother had exploded two bombs at the Boston Marathon, killing three people there, injuring hundreds of others, subsequently killing a police officer and getting into a firefight that resulted in the death of still another.
You may not agree with everything McCann says — and there were times he really ticked me off — but he does offer a valuable glimpse at a group of often overlooked people contributing to the great divide in American life.
Curt Schleier is a longtime book critic in New Jersey and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
By: Anthony McCann.
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 423 pages, $30.