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In Oregon, from real frustration to potential violence

Photo: Fabien Deglise Le Devoir At the beginning of May, the film “Civil War” by Alex Garland was showing in the small town of Burns, in the heart of Oregon. Ironically, it was in this city that in 2016, a group of armed and insurgent militia sowed terror for 40 days to oppose federal laws applied to surrounding rural lands.

Fabien Deglise to Burns

Published at 0:00 Updated at 12:06 a.m.

  • United States

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At the beginning of May, the film Civil War, a journalistic-political dystopia by Alex Garland and set in an America torn apart by civil war, was released the poster in the small town of Burns, seat of Harney County, in rural Oregon. And the title, inscribed on the marquee of the Desert Historic Theater on Broadway Avenue, necessarily had a particular resonance there.

“We already had an insurgent movement here that turned violent,” said Susan Lowe, a former teacher in the area who now runs a small antique store across the street from the small cinema. It was in early 2016. For 40 days, 25 armed militiamen sowed terror in this quiet corner of Oregon by occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, in the protected area located a stone's throw from the center -town of Burns. They claimed the right of local residents to use federal lands as they see fit, without rules or restrictions.

“Gun ownership is widespread in the region, said the octogenarian. And in recent years, with this separation movement which calls for us to leave Oregon to cling to Idaho, it is no longer rare to hear people say that they are ready to do so. used to get what governments would not give them. »

Then she added, “If you come across any who talk like that, tell them for me that it’s not right, what they’re doing. »

In 2021, Harney County voted 63% to move the borders of rural Oregon and thus expand the territory of neighboring Idaho. The Greater Idaho movement thus seeks to shield the Republican majorities living in these agricultural and desert territories from policies that are too urban, liberal and progressive, they judge, dictated by the predominantly Democratic politicians of Salem, the capital. .

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This week, Crook County, located northwest of Burns, voted 53 percent in favor of separation, becoming the 13th county to call for talks between Oregon and Oregon. Idaho in order to allow its inhabitants to live under the more conservative and rigorous governance of the Potato State.

A scenario supported by mostly conservative and Trumpist voters living east of the Cascade Mountain range, but also by several militia and white supremacist groups in rural Oregon counties and neighboring states, including the group Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, led by Ammon Bundy, the famous insurrectionist who orchestrated the rebellion against the federal government in 2016 and the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

“God does not allow us to be violent”

“It is not by force that we want to achieve our objective, but through legislative and legal channels,” assures Mike McCarter, 77, founder of the Greater Idaho movement, whom Le Devoir met in a Bend café. “We are not a heavy-handed organization. Our faith in God does not allow us to be violent. »

Nevertheless, faced with the complexity of the process, and especially the deaf ear that Oregon's Democratic elected officials have been turning a deaf ear to it for months, frustration continues to grow, believes Mike Marshall, from Lakeview, a central town in the Lake County, where 74 percent of voters supported the Greater Idaho concept in a referendum two years ago. “A favorable vote in Crook County should encourage legislators to take the movement even more seriously and move forward,” said the man, retired from the local sheriff's office, met at a gun show a few days before this last referendum was held. “We are stuck with a serious problem of representation, with policies that crush our lives [on environmental, fiscal, security and children's education issues, among others], without the possibility of defending ourselves by voting. How far this can go ? I don’t know. But what I know is that I must and I will do everything to defend and protect my family. »

Domestic terrorism by right-wing groups

In a tense American election year, at the heart of which the Republican candidate and former president, Donald Trump, takes pleasure in fueling divisions, blowing on the embers of distrust and regularly discrediting the country's democratic institutions, the secessionist movement in rural Oregon could easily become a powder keg, says Megan A. Stewart, a specialist in separatist ideological and political currents in the United States from the University of Michigan.

“A recent report from the National Institute of Justice found that domestic terrorism is largely fueled by right-wing extremist groups,” she said in an interview. These groups have many grievances with government policies. They feed on intentional lies about the integrity of the electoral process spread by members of the Republican Party and they also have easy access to guns due to lax regulations, which inevitably creates a dangerous environment. »

Since 2020, Oregon is, along with Iowa, one of the two US states with the highest annual growth in gun sales , according to recent FBI data. Nearly half of households now own at least one firearm, and there is an overrepresentation of gun owners in rural counties, where they are used for self-defense or recreational activities.

A recent report from the National Institute of Justice found that domestic terrorism is largely fueled by right-wing extremist groups. These groups have many grievances with government policies.

—Megan A. Stewart

“Based on the facts we have, a violent, organized insurrection would be a surprise,” says Charlotte Cavaillé, a political scientist at the University of Michigan who closely follows radical movements in the United States. “But the more affected counties approve of the idea of ​​moving borders, the more it activates the “majority norm” within the movement against elites they believe are unrepresentative. Radicalization, mobilization and violence therefore remain possible, especially if the activists of this movement believe they are prisoners of a status quo and are treated unfairly within a set of rules and procedures that they consider illegitimate. »

What a benefit ?

« It all seems a bit mad. It’s a waste of time,” said Deryl Malvern a few days ago, met in a grocery store in Beatty, in the heart of Klamath County, who approved the move to Idaho in 2022 by 57%. There are much bigger problems to solve in the world before we hit Oregon's borders. In addition, I don't really see the benefit that would be gained from it, if that were to happen. »

For Mike McCarter, founder of the movement, redrawing the borders around rural Oregon, which votes 77% Republican, unlike the state's more urban Pacific coast, which mostly supports Democrats, is especially bring your political environment into line with the values ​​and beliefs that govern your daily life. A prospect which, he believes, is more likely to happen if the country decides to vote massively next November for Donald Trump. What our interlocutor is preparing to do.

“I don’t know what he thinks of our project,” said this Vietnam War veteran. But I know, having followed his presidency closely, that he knows how to demonstrate great common sense in matters of management. If he is re-elected, I will certainly approach him to intervene on our behalf. »

An improbable intervention, unless the country sinks into an authoritarian regime that flouts the country's Constitution: the move from rural Oregon must in fact be decided in parallel by elected officials from the progressive state and Idaho before that the movement of borders be submitted to a final vote before the Washington Congress, according to the founding text of American democracy.

This report was financed thanks to the support of the International Journalism Fund Transat-Le Devoir.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116