On Assignment: Covering the Oregon standoff

By Rebecca Boone

I first heard that protesters had taken over a national wildlife refuge in Oregon the way many of us did: On Twitter.

My Christmas vacation was winding down just as the situation in Burns, Ore. was winding up, and as I tried to catch up on the local news that I’d missed while out of town, I kept running across references to a federal building takeover.

Boise is the closest AP bureau to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and so I exchanged emails with AP’s news editors in Seattle and Portland on Jan. 2, telling them I was ready to head to Burns if needed.

I was dispatched the next morning, told to head straight to the refuge and call in a story as soon as possible.

I grabbed enough clothes for a two-day stay and drove directly to the refuge, happy that a colleague had offered to call around and find a hotel room for me. The town of Burns was nearly sold out, thanks to the influx of law enforcement and news crews, and I got one of the last rooms at a $40-a-night motel.

Ammon Bundy had promised an 11 a.m. press conference for local media, but I missed it, arriving after noon. By that time there were no other reporters at the site, as far as I could tell, and some of the protesters were working security, blocking anyone from entering the area surrounding refuge headquarters.

I was able to convince the protesters to let me past the perimeter so I could interview the group’s leaders. I interviewed Ryan Bundy and LaVoy Finicum, along with a few other protesters, and snapped a few photos on my iPhone. My photo of Ryan Bundy became the main news photo of the day, in part because the other major media outlets hadn’t yet gotten their own photographers to the site. (NOTE: Becky didn’t include this detail, but the photo ran on the front page of the New York Times.) Luckily AP’s photographer (Rick Bowmer from Salt Lake City) and videographer (Manuel Valdes from Seattle) arrived the next day, taking over the visual storytelling duties.

The assignment was difficult logistically: Cell phone service at the refuge was spotty, and anything with too high of a data load was impossible to get through. That meant text messaging worked intermittently, but I was largely unable to access or send emails, much less use my internet browser or transmit pictures. My motel and a few restaurants in town had free wifi, but as more news crews arrived, the bandwidth of many local systems became overwhelmed by reporters trying to file stories.

The weather was unforgiving as well, so I eventually picked up a few extra pairs of socks to layer underneath my boots. I was glad I had grabbed a handful of pencils on my way out of Boise, because the 20-degree weather meant my pen ink would sometimes flow slowly or freeze.

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Ryan Bundy at Oregon Standoff / AP photo by Rebecca Boone

I worked in tandem with AP reporters in Seattle and Portland. My colleague would work the phones, watch social media and do other reporting from the desk as I interviewed people and gathered audio, photos and color from the scene. My late night and early morning hours were spent in the motel room, catching up on any social media developments I’d missed while I was at the refuge and setting up on-air interviews with AP member news organizations like CSPAN and FOX News.

The protesters were obviously tense, but generally polite and welcoming to the news media. They also seemed fairly media-savvy, holding regular press conferences and giving news crews ample time to set up equipment and live feeds. The first day I arrived there were lots of visible weapons, but by the second and third day the weapons were harder to spot, and some of the protesters told me they hoped to send a visual message that they were seeking a peaceful resolution. Many of the group members also began pulling out small pocket Constitution booklets when they were interviewed, making it a point to have them visible when they expected to be photographed.

All this made any deviations fairly noticeable. A colleague and I had just wrapped up a video shoot near the headquarters buildings when a federal truck driven by a protester came barreling past from the headquarters to the entrance area. We watched, running up behind it, as the truck slammed to a halt and LaVoy Finicum sat in the middle of the driveway with his rifle resting across his knees. He said he expected to be arrested and wanted the FBI to know exactly where to find him, vowing to die rather than spend his days in jail. About three weeks later he did, shot by law enforcement officers at a roadblock on a remote stretch of highway.

But that night — when Finicum was still alive, huddled under a blue tarp in the frigid rain — the tense atmosphere at the refuge became almost frantic. The protesters began moving heavy equipment to create “defensible positions,” and one of the leaders began coaching the younger protesters on where they could take cover if gunfire erupted. As Bowmer and I tried to walk down to the headquarters buildings to get a sense of the scene there, we were stopped by a protester and initially denied entry. After a short conversation and some 2-way radio traffic between the protester and group leaders, we were allowed down to the buildings. They were dark and quiet, and it was clear that most of the group was at the driveway entrance ready for a possible confrontation with police.

Like any breaking news assignment, my time in Burns was two parts frenzied work and one part hurry-up-and-wait. The standoff lasted 41 days, so we began rotating reporters in and out of Burns so no one was away from home too long. In addition to myself, Bowmer and Valdes, Keith Ridler in Boise and Nick Geranios in Spokane made trips to Burns to cover the story. I made a second trip to Burns when the FBI moved in to clear the refuge, and was there when they arrested the final four protesters at the site and ended the 41-day standoff. It was remarkable to watch as the mood of the town changed from worry and stress to weary relief.

Rebecca Boone is the supervising correspondent for the Associated Press bureau in Boise, and is a member of the Idaho Press Club’s board, for which she chairs our First Amendment Committee.
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