Everybody, welcome to Don Snow's history. I was very pleased in this episode to interview Lisa Tilley. She is a freelance journalist in Oregon and her stories, our investigations essays have now been featured all over the world. And she become famous for our podcasts two minutes past 9:00 and Bunday Vill about domestic terrorism in the U.S. from anti-government groups. She's witnessed this, as you'll hear it firsthand, as a group of ranchers tried to take over public land in pursuit of their version of the American dream.
It's so fascinating. She's been talking about this stuff for years, telling us about it. And as a result, the events of January the 6th at the Capitol came as no surprise at all to her. It's wonderful to talk to her at this time about what is it about the history of the U.S. that motivates these groups. If you wish to find out more about U.S. history, a lot of podcasts about U.S. history, many of them only available exclusively on history at Dot TV, if you want to go back into the archives, the distant archives of this podcast, you've got to go and subscribe to history at Dot TV.
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And in the autumn tour it's going to be so fun. History hit dotcom slash toy. You're going to love it. In the meantime, everyone here is Leya. Totally enjoy. Leah, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Yeah, thanks for having me. You talk to me from Portland, Oregon. So we're a very different time zone. So thank you very much for getting up so early this morning.
Yeah, no problem. You got national awareness now with what you've been working on. Tell me how this story begins.
It began for me in January of twenty sixteen when a group of armed men took over a wildlife refuge in Oregon where I live and I'm a freelance journalist. I didn't have an assignment to work on that story, but reporters from all over the world were coming to Oregon, coming to this very, very remote part of Oregon that I had never even been to and were reporting on what was going on there. And what it was, was that some people with some pretty radical ideas about what the federal government can and can't do had come to Oregon to stage what they called a protest.
Other people would call it an armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in the American West. Most of the land is actually owned and managed by the federal government. And this group in particular had a set of grievances that goes back pretty far in American history about whether or not the federal government should run that land, should dictate how that land is used and what could be done with it. So that's when it began for me and it's pretty much taken over my life for the past five years.
Yeah, well, that's what I want to talk to about the history of this, because it just feels like we need to understand exactly what's motivating this movement, I guess you'd call it. And as you say, love. The land in the West is administered by the federal government. That's approach to history, I guess. So tell me how that process happened. Why is the less private ownership that would be entailed the East Coast? Well, so a lot of the West is unsettled, I should say, that when white people came over here, they decided to use it for their own uses.
And you have things like the Homestead Act that a lot of people land that previously was under the longtime ownership and management of indigenous tribal people. The federal government comes in in a big way in the early nineteen hundreds and starts managing that land for a lot of reasons that I'm not sure I'm most expert person to talk about. But the thing of it is, is in the 1970s, there's this kind of real inflection point when they come in and they start managing the land.
But also you have the Wilderness Act passes. So this is when environmentalists start having a little bit more of a seat at the table for how land is used, what it's used for. And then you also start to get outdoor recreationists involved. So whereas previously this was like white ranchers were saying the land in the West is ours. We can do whatever we want with it. We can mine it, we can ranch it, we can farm it.
In the nineteen seventies, you start to have a little bit more of a diverse conversation about, well, that's maybe not the best thing for the land and it's not the only use for the land. So that is where the people who took over the wildlife refuge in twenty sixteen, they've still got that kind of stuck in their craw a little bit like we didn't want that to happen. We still don't want it to happen and that some ranchers believe that they are the ultimate use of the land, that if the land is there, it should be used to make money by then.
That's not all ranchers in this case, the people in twenty sixteen had pretty extreme ideas and a lot of ranchers would say the federal government actually helps us. They help pay for our land and they help pay us to ranch. But this group of individuals have had long standing grievances about their ability to access the land, their ability to access the government and have a conversation about it. It's being pretty generous. I mean, this particular group in twenty sixteen was led by a couple of brothers who had participated two years prior in an armed standoff with federal officials on their ranch lands in Nevada.
It's a long story, but that's kind of how it got started.
And so were these guys provocateurs. They want to be homesteaders and ranchers, or are they just looking for a fight?
I think it's they're looking for a fight. Very few ranchers came out in twenty sixteen to here in Oregon to support them. They called the ranchers from around the west, come here to Oregon. Let's all tear up our grazing contracts with the federal government and go rogue. Very, very few people, less than probably six came and did that. I mean, it was also January. It was very cold. And so I think a lot of people are really excited to come out to rural Oregon and make a stand against the federal government.
Who you did see show up in vast numbers were people who'd been protesting outside of mosques for many years. What do they have to do with ranching? Nothing. You have some militia men from around the country as far as New Hampshire on the East Coast, drive three thousand miles to come to this very odd place in America. So I think for me and for other Western reporters who covered that standoff in the aftermath, the trial, which was a whole thing, we saw that this had actually very little to do with ranching and one hundred percent to do with anti government ideologies, ostensibly.
What is the history of that movement? I mean, what were they trying to achieve? Were they literally saying we should just be allowed to graze our animals wherever the hell we want? This is the American dream, this Western land bequeathed to us. By God, we can do what we like with it. Exactly.
That's a great distillation of what they would say. I think in a way, you can answer that question by looking at the 2014 standoff in Bunkerville, Nevada, where Cliveden Bundy, for more than 20 years, he'd been grazing his cattle on public land that truly belongs to all Americans to use and procreate and hike and camp and enjoy and preserve. For 20 plus years, he'd been allowing his cattle to just roam freely through these public lands, and he refused to pay his grazing fees to allow them to do that and had really bucked every opportunity to pay those fees.
And in twenty fourteen, when the federal government came to roundup his cattle, he said, I need militias from all over the country to come here and help me defend my rights, or else we're going to have another Waco or Ruby Ridge on our hands, which if you know anything about the anti-government movement in America, those are key points to make when you want to get a bunch of people very angry and upset and to rally at your side. And sure enough, people came from around the country to help him do that.
So I answer your question with that example, because in that case, it wasn't about finding a solution that worked for everyone. It was about getting one man's own way and sort of force feeding this way of life that he believed that he was entitled to. You have indigenous people in that same area saying, what is it about you that makes you be able to abuse and destroy this land when in reality the man only owns a very small square of land, but believes that he should be able to graze and do anything he wants in that area.
A lot of people, including myself, are saying if you look at what happened in twenty sixteen, if you look at what happened in twenty fourteen and both of those incidents, then what happened on January six would make a lot more sense.
Well, let's draw a line from one to the other in a second. But how did the January 20 16 stand off? And it's a very interesting story.
It went on for forty one days. There were a pretty large group of people that was there during that time, led by the Bundy brothers, to stay there and seize this property. And they tried to set up shop there and tried to take it over. They changed the signs and said this was a new place. It was a new thing representing state management of land and ranchers taking over again and things like that. A little over twenty five days into the standoff, a group of the leaders tried to leave the wildlife refuge to go to another county in this part of Oregon.
Another county is several hours away. They tried to leave in a caravan to go to another county and were basically surrounded by the FBI and police and pulled over. And they were caught, but they didn't get. Up that easy, there was one man who basically blew away from police and tried to run through a roadblock set up by the FBI and jumped out of his truck because it's kind of crashing into a snowbank and tried to pull a gun on police and they shot and killed him.
That man, his name is LaVoy Vinnicombe, has become a martyr for the anti-government movement. People believe that he was executed, that this was one more example of a government taking over America in this tyrannical fashion. And his name is now listed up there with Waco and Ruby Ridge. And now you've got LaVoy Vinnicombe. So it ended shortly thereafter with tons of arrests. All of those people went to trial in the vast majority of them, including the Bundy brothers who led the stand off, were acquitted of all charges by a jury.
So they they did serve time while they were awaiting trial, but they were ultimately found not guilty of all of their charges. So this went on to really embolden the movement that what they did was right and it was supported by their own American peers.
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Don't miss this out people this is special offer get involved. Hello Fresh America's number one meal kit. I don't make a clumsy parallel here, but it is interesting in the context of the anti-government violence, the intimidation that we've seen over the last year, I think you have armed groups entering state houses to intimidate lawmakers. Seemingly they get less of a penalty than, say, a person of color stopped for possession of marijuana or bust taillight. Why do you think these men were let off?
Well, I think there's a couple of things. I mean, I reported on the whole trial. It was fascinating. Six week trial. And on one hand, the charges that they were facing was conspiracy to impede federal employees from doing their job. So conspiracy charges are very are notoriously difficult to prove. And attorneys on the case would say the government failed to prove that there was a conspiracy. What the folks involved said was that they got a notion and they just went and took over this refuge one day and that was that.
And it was a protest and that's all it was. And the jury bought that. On the other hand, as somebody who watched the trial and watched jury selection, the people who were selected as jurors were typically people who did not know for forty one days that there was a armed takeover of a federal property happening in their state. So there were people who maybe weren't very engaged with the news who were kind of rejected politics. And when you got there, you had the government's attorneys being very by the book, you know, as they are.
But you had incredibly charismatic defense attorneys defending these people, telling a story about what was happening. There was a takeover that spoke to the soul of the American West. And they told this sort of romantic story about ranching and farming and intergenerational working of the land and this lifestyle attached to the land. And the jurors really bought that. And I think that that says a lot about Oregon. I think it's also a lot about the West that those are still very, very powerful narratives, this idea of the cowboy, John Wayne and that kind of thing.
So I think it's a couple of things. I mean, I don't think that the jurors themselves were anti-government people likely, but I think that they were willing to listen to this very charismatic story being told by the defendant's attorneys.
Sounds to me like these guys, Christian Bale, you can get out in the old three 10 to Yuma.
Mm hmm. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Because, I mean, at the end of the day, the key defendants in that case were not ranchers. They were cowboy hats. They looked like ranchers, but they were not ranchers.
What is it about Oregon? What is it about your state that's, I guess, making a bit of a bellwether for the rest of the nation?
I think Oregon is a very interesting place among the 50 states. It has a very unique identity in that is a very large state with one very, very liberal, progressive city with a very big culture of activism and protesting. You got a lot of land with very few people in it and the rest of the state. So we talk a lot in the West about this thing called the rural urban divide. And that is felt very, very strongly here in Oregon.
And I think especially after twenty sixteen after that trial went off the way it did.
And those folks, what it really amped up people who are upset about progressive politics in Oregon to take to the streets.
And when liberals were going to have a protest over Donald Trump in Portland, all of a sudden you see these groups of people who maybe weren't at the refuge standoff, but kind of agreed with the sentiment of it or who saw the voice vinnicombe. In retrospect, as a martyr, those people started showing up in the city and physically clashing with thousands of progressive protesters upset about what was going on in the country. You'd have these groups of people coming out and saying, we are patriots and we want America to go back to the way it was and we love Donald Trump.
And that in itself, the protests that have happened since then, they weren't directly associated with the refuge. But I think that they were sort of spun off from it. And what was interesting about it is that the law enforcement in Portland continued to really come to the aid of that small group of patriot conservative Trumpy protesters and sort of protect them while unleashing tear gas, rubber bullets, things like that on the vast majority of progressive protesters. And this has gone on for the entire time.
Trump was president. So that created this really tense atmosphere in Oregon that when the insurrection happened on January six, I think Oregon people, Oregon protesters, Oregon journalists, any Oregonian that was watching the news was like, yeah, this is what we've been seeing here.
We're three thousand miles away from Washington, D.C. thought of is. Fairly inconsequential state on the national stage of politics, but I think people here thought, yeah, you know, if people had been watching what had been going on in Oregon and really paying attention to what was going on from the refugee standoff through the protests into January six, it would have been a surprise.
So what are the other lessons then from Oregon? If Oregon turns out to be the canary in the mine, what are the other lessons? What is the answer to this? And is it going to get worse? And you're obviously in public service broadcasting there. What role do you have to play or are those anti-government folks so far from your information landscape that they're impossible to reach?
When I started the Barnesville podcast project a few years back, I think at the heart of it, I did really think, you know, if I put out this factual information and really dig deep into the history of the anti-government movement and where these ideas come from and things, Trump is saying how that has origins in history and in the West, that undoubtedly people would hear it and it would change their minds. I couldn't have been more wrong about that.
Number one, if somebody who is a Trump supporter listens to it, I'd be shocked. Number two, I think that we're living in this alternative facts era. Kuhnen is something that is extremely hard to believe. Yet lots of people believe it. So I think what that has done, this is allowed people who have seen folks in their families or friends who have maybe kind of gone in this Q direction or started spouting anti-government ideas or have become increasingly radicalized by what's going on on social media.
It's given them something to understand that and maybe start to have a conversation with those people, because I think at the end of the day, it's not my job as a journalist to convert people away from different schools of thought. What it is, is to present the facts and present what's happening and how it fits into history. I mean, that's my approach at least. But where it goes from here, I have no idea. I think that is a big question that I've had.
It's January six was the beginning of something or the end of something. In some ways, I think it probably is the end of a few things. The Trump administration ending, but could be the beginning of a whole new wing of the Republican Party. What we know is that anti-government extremism and extremist groups thrive under Democratic administrations. So we are at the very beginning of a new Democratic administration. So if we look to history for a guide that would say that we're at the beginning of a new era of extremism, that's a cheerful place to end on.
Thank you very much. And it says something about the modern world that are you and I talking on the other side of the planet from each other. And the audience you are hoping to reach is probably living 200 meters down the road from you. But instead, this liberal idiot in England sitting surrounded by his books is like obsessed with your podcast and knows more about it than anybody. So, yeah, it tells you something about the modern world, doesn't it?
But, you know, that's the thing. This extremism is not unique to America. It's happening there. It's happening everywhere. So as long as we're all talking about it, I think that's a good thing.
That's a very elegant way of putting it. Well, thank you very much. Thank you very much for coming on. How do people follow your work and listen and read and do a lot kind of stuff?
Probably the easiest ways. I'm on Twitter. That's where I post of my work. And right now I'm working with the BBC on a podcast called Two Minutes Past Nine, which is about a lot of the same stuff. It looks into the history of the Oklahoma City bombing twenty five years ago and how understanding that will help us understand today. So, yeah, Twitter is probably the best place to follow my work.
Right. Well, please come back on when that new podcast is ready. We'd love to talk to you about that. Yeah. Thanks a lot. Thank you very much indeed.
Produced quick message at the end of this podcast, I'm currently sheltering in a small, windswept building on a piece of rock in the Bristol Channel called Lundie. I'm here to make a podcast. I'm here enduring weather that frankly, is apocalyptic because I want to get some great podcast material for you guys in return. Got a little tiny favor to ask if you could go to get your podcasts, if you could give it a five star rating, if you could share it, if you could give it a review.
I really appreciate that. From the comfort of your own homes, you'll be doing me a massive favor. Then more people list the podcast. We can do more and more ambitious things and I can spend more of my time getting pummeled. Thank you.