For POLITICO Magazine, I dove into the dreams of the state of Jefferson, and what a tale of Oregon-California secession can tell us about the current standoff in Malheur:
Blockading the highway, guns pointed skyward, the men began demanding tolls from the stopped cars. A California Highway Patrolman arrived; the rebels, according to Jefferson Public Radio, barked at him to “get back down the road to California.” They then thrust a pamphlet at the drivers they’d stopped: “You are now entering Jefferson, the 49th State of the Union,” it read. “Jefferson is now in patriotic rebellion against the states of California and Oregon.”
The “combination of natural capital, independence, and idealism have made Oregon a stronghold in secessionist imaginings,” Kathleen Holt, editor of Oregon Humanities magazine, would later write about Jefferson. While Dixie dominates domestic discussion of secession, the Pacific Northwest carries its own history of sedition. But for all its talk of white nationalism or a slave-based Pacific empire, Oregon has witnessed just two instances of actual armed pushback. The first came some 75 years ago, in the form of Jefferson. The second—now splattered in hashtags of #YallQaeda and #OregonUnderAttack—has come over the past two weeks, south of Burns, at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Between their calls for toppling tyranny and restoring local governance, the Bundy militia hasn’t yet cited the Jefferson precedent, although at least one militant has been seen sporting a Jefferson hat. But with their anti-government screeds, their ability to tap into simmering grievance and their claims that they are ready to “kill or be killed,” the Bundy rebels have stamped the latest chapter in a regional history that is often overlooked. It’s a history that includes flipping local protests—against a government ignoring the demands of rural locals—into extreme measures, either via secession or standoff. And it’s also a history of outright media manipulation—and what can happen when the rhetoric begins to take a life of its own.