A little more than three years ago, the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge came to a gripping, disturbing conclusion.
Ammon Bundy and most of the gang had given up. Bundy acolyte LaVoy Finicum had been shot and killed by FBI agents as he reached for his gun, shouting “Go ahead and shoot me.”
A final holdout was inside the refuge, communicating by phone with people on the outside in conversations that were streamed online. In his confused, desperate comments were all the slogans, all the attitudes, all the virile braggadocio, end-times grandiosity and dreams of violent glory that characterize the rhetoric of the people whose ideas had led him there.
“Unless my grievances are heard, I will not come out!” that man, David Fry, screamed at federal agents.
He told negotiators by phone, “It’s liberty or death!”
He said he had to stand his ground. He insisted he would die a free man. He talked about the evil government, about his taxes, about abortion. He talked about suicide. He said, “Kill me. Get it over with.”
He said, “If they attack me, I have to defend myself. I’m a man, I’m taking a stand. … A stand means you’re willing to risk your life.” He said, “Man wasn’t made to be put behind bars for standing up for his own rights.”
It felt very possible that Fry would die, believing himself a martyr to some incoherent cause.
And he sounded for all the world as if he had taken his words straight from a Matt Shea podcast.
He was 27 years old at time, a young man from Ohio who was angry about being ticketed for pot-smoking among other personal problems, and he became radicalized online by people play-acting as revolutionary cowboys. Shea was not, so far as I know, directly involved with Fry, but he is a high priest in that cowboy church.
In the grandiose talk of anti-government extremism, Fry found an outlet for his anger and his grievances. And it came pretty close to costing him or others their lives.
Fry wound up surrendering. But he was a stark example of the way that the rhetoric of those like Shea, the Spokane Valley legislator who feeds and fosters extremist views for a living, can evolve toward tragic ends when followers begin to take all that vigorous blather seriously.
This is a crucial dynamic in light of the newest revelations about Shea, which appeared in the Guardian over the weekend. The Guardian reported on text messages among Shea and two other far-right figures – Jack Robertson, who uses the name John Jacob Schmidt to host the far-right radio show Radio Free Redoubt, and Anthony Bosworth, a gun-rights zealot who participated in the Malheur travesty.
The texts detail militant, angry preparations for an “antifa” event that never occurred in November 2017, including discussions of violence against protesters.
According to the Guardian, Robertson wrote of one particular Spokane woman, who was not identified: “Fist full of hair, and face slam, to a Jersey barrier. Treat em like communist revolutionaries. Then shave her bald with a K-Bar USMC field knife.”
Bosworth wrote, “When we locate antifa members we can confront their parents their workplaces their landlords. We can hit them in there (sic) safe spaces.”
He also wrote, “Another useful tactic is locating the provocateurs leaders in the mouth pieces and then targeting there (sic) safe spaces while they’re out on the streets rioting.”
Robertson responded, “Yes. Homes, cars, workplaces, etc.” and “Child’s daycare location.”
Shea did not make any such threats himself, and the Guardian’s report does not place the text messages in a thread that shows how the people responded to one another. The newspaper reported Shea did not express any reservations about the face-slamming or day-care surveillance tactics under discussion.
He did text comments about doing background checks on protesters, and asked them for a list. The idea that an elected state representative is engaging uncritically in those kinds of conversations is disturbing in the extreme, another example of how Shea’s script of guns, God and violent self-defense can be jet fuel for those who are willing to do more than just talk.
It’s past time for the state and local GOP to disinvite Shea. The list of reasons is long and not remotely recent – whether it’s his gun-grabbing road rage, or his creepy stalking of a political opponent, or his lying slander of the sheriff, or “Biblical basis for war” discussions that seem to express relish for violent consequences for those who flout “biblical law.”
It’s past time for the GOP to push Shea off the plank. Past time for the local protectors of the party brand to hold another press conference – as they tried to do when disassociating themselves from white nationalist and Charlottesville marcher James Allsup after he was invited to speak at a gathering by the county GOP chairwoman – and clarify how connected or unconnected they are to this man, his ideas, his associations and his actions.
Because Shea and lawmakers like him link the mainstream to the zealot fringe as surely as that fringe links Shea to people like David Fry.
And that can become the final link between vigorous, virile talk and real violence.
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