Perturbed by the influx of armed militiamen bristling with guns and angry rhetoric into their normally quiet little town, residents of rural Josephine County, Oregon, are fighting back, asking the assorted “Oath Keepers” and other “Patriots” who have arrived recently to ostensibly defend a local miner to pack their bags and leave.
As if to prove their point, a number of Oath Keepers showed up on the scene last week and heckled local residents, intimidating them into retreating through the courthouse where they had stood to hold a news conference on Friday.
The community residents – who included a sporting-goods business owner, a former dean at the local community college, and several local church leaders, each of whom read a prepared statement – spoke to reporters outside the Josephine County Courthouse in Grants Pass.
"Certainly the miners are entitled to get their fair day in court and not have anything done to them until after the legal process, but they don't need gun toting people coming around, threatening the whole community," said Jerry Reid, a former dean of Rogue Community College.
The news conference, held in response to the rally organized by the mine’s supporters outside Bureau of Land Management offices in nearby Medford on Thursday, was organized by a local man named Alex Budd, who told Hatewatch he simply was concerned about what he was observing in the community and on the conspiracy theory corners of the Internet, where the hopes of another Bundy Ranch-style armed standoff run high.
“I want to acknowledge that it takes courage to be here today,” Budd said in introductory remarks to the press. “I think we all know that here in Josephine County, we’re very diverse folks, and you can find people of just about every stripe. One thing I think we all agree on is that we should not be afraid or intimidated within our own communities to speak to our neighbors.
“But that’s where we find ourselves today. And that in itself tells you that what’s happening here is wrong.”
"Over the last few years, I've gotten more and more questions from my customers about the safety of coming to Josephine County to recreate," sporting goods business owners Dave Strahan said, describing how his work required him to travel the region widely. What he called the presence of "nutty, tough-acting, gun-toting thugs" is driving away visitors by reinforcing the perception that southwestern Oregon is a dangerous place.
Joseph Rice, coordinator of the county’s Oath Keepers chapter and one of the leaders of the Patriot encampment outside of Grants Pass, near the road leading to the disputed mine, began heckling the speakers as they took questions from reporters.
“Have any of you ever talked to the miners?” he demanded to know. When Strahan retorted: “I’m not here to answer your questions, Joseph,” Rice nonetheless persisted. “If I understand correctly, you've never spoken to the miners?"
According to Budd, at that point others in the small crowd joined in. He said that Brandon Curtiss of the local III Percent chapter “came up to me right afterwards with Joseph Rice and was filming me on his cell phone, and they were trying to heckle.” He said another local Patriot started ranting at him, at which point Budd and the rest of the group retreated back through the courthouse, because “we didn't want to let it turn into a shouting match.” He said another Patriot kept sticking a camera into his face as he tried to conduct an interview with a local TV reporter.
“It was blatantly clear they were there to try and intimidate people,” Budd said. “They were shouting that we were wrong and sticking cameras in the faces of community members to record them. It was definitely meant to be intimidating; our group went back inside the courthouse and everyone left out a back door because they didn't want to have to walk through them again.”
Afterwards, Rice and his fellow Oath Keepers held court with the press. “These groups coming in or not pushing any national agenda, the mining owners came directly to us and asked for assistance. Here's the fact of the reality: if the BLM was following constitutional due process this never would have occurred,” Rice told reporters.
Former Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson – a longtime leading member of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, the “Patriot” law-officers group led by former Sheriff Richard Mack – was among the faces in the crowd. He told reporters he had made several trips to the mine.
"Nobody's talking about violence. They're not here for violence. They're here to make a point and that point is the federal government has overstepped some of its bounds," said Gilbertson.
At the center of the dispute is the Sugar Pine Mine, whose owners – Rick Barclay and George Backes – received in March a “letter of noncompliance” from the BLM informing them they needed get their operation into compliance with federal regulations for mining on federal land. The letter gave the owners three options: to cease operations and clean up and leave; to bring their operation into compliance; or to file an appeal of the BLM’s finding with either its regional chief or with a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit of Appeals.
The mine’s owners filed the paperwork for the latter option on Wednesday, and then on Thursday told the assembled supporters and the press that they were being denied their rights to due process. Barclay in particular has been adamant in claiming that the BLM would come in and remove his equipment and destroy his cabin even while the process was being adjudicated.
“Just because I turned in my paperwork doesn’t mean the BLM won’t come up there tomorrow and set everything on fire,” he told Hatewatch.
Mary Emerick, the Josephine County Oath Keepers’ spokeswoman, issued a statement decrying the press conference: “We are not seeing armed men with long guns in our city. We are not bringing demonstrators into the city. In fact, we carefully screen our volunteers. We have asked that if you come with a different agenda or to stir up trouble, DO NOT COME, we do not want you. We are keeping the peace. We are protecting the mine from a specific threat and we are assuring that due process takes place.”
In the meantime, the “III Percenters” from Idaho responded to the conference by compiling a video of support from locals who say they are happy the Oath Keepers are present.
Indeed, southern Oregon has been a hotbed of “Patriot” organizing for many years, dating back to the Klamath water dispute of 2001, and more recently of Oath Keepers-based organizing. If the Oath Keepers follow the mine owners’ wishes and keep up their encampment until the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals hears his case – an event likely to occur more than a year from now – then they will be there a good long time.