Armed with assault hand mixers, tactical rolling pins, and signs with all the words spelled correctly, the old broads gathered outside the bike shop with a message that could tuck the tail of even the most camo’d up militiaman.
“Mama is angry!” boomed a so-called “training broad” named Gena, who read a letter on behalf of her 91-year-old grandmother, Sue, before a bank of cameras. “Any smart man knows that an angry mother is the most dangerous creature alive!”
The crowd hooted in support.
“Enough is enough!” a woman in a brown jacket shouted, strands of white hair spilling from under a knitted beanie.
“It’s time for the bullies to go home!” shouted another, holding a wooden spoon.
“Don’t go home,” a third corrected. “Go to jail!”
It was Friday afternoon in the heart of downtown Bend, Oregon, the sky an ultimate blue, and the local chapter of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness were holding a rally to protest the militant January 2 takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, 150 miles southeast of town. Founded in 1989, the group’s “wrinkled ranks” fight to protect the country’s public lands on behalf of the elderly and not-so-able.
On Monday, Martin Luther King Day, wildlife refuges around the country will waive their fees to allow the public in for free. But not Malheur, which remains closed. On Tuesday pro-public lands rallies organized by the Great Old Broads, the Audubon Society, and other advocacy groups are slated to unfold across the Pacific Northwest, from Eugene to Seattle and beyond, in protest of the occupation. But the Bend chapter of the broads, called the Bitterbrush Broadband, held their own rally earlier in the day to get ahead of a town hall meeting that Ammon Bundy and his hate-mail wary band of bandits had planned to hold that evening in Burns, the ranching community 30 miles north of the refuge. Too much attention has been paid to those hooligans, the broads said. Time for the people to push back.
And so the grannies and protestors gathered on a brick paver plaza behind a rack stacked with fat bikes at Crows Feet Commons off Northwest Brooks Street. They spoke about how Malheur had been the poster child for collaboration between locals and the feds and how hypocritical and racist the militants are. One told about the time last weekend when he drove to the refuge to see it all for himself and how a man with a large assault rifle turned him away.
The crowd carried American flags or dressed as old birds, quite literally. One was clad in an outfit made of pink, white, and black fabric triangle cut-outs made to look like a bird. A trumpeter led a peppy sing-along of “This Land Is Your Land,” while another, Duncan Evered, a “bro,” as male broads are called, took the mic to urge patience and respect, even for the Bundys. The crowd didn’t know what to make of that.
“No one here has any firearms on them, do they?” Evered joked, sort of. After all, it’d been less than two weeks that he’d been “harassed” out of his residence at the Malheur Field Station, a research facility on the refuge.
“OK, it’s time to take to the streets and we all know how to do that at our age!” said Rynda Clark, a co-founder of the Bitterbrush Broadband, who took the mic next. She wore a green apron that said, “I like birds, forests, and cookies.” “Oh, and stick to the sidewalks,” she added.
The crowd filed down a narrow alleyway between a gallery and coffee shop where buskers often come to play guitars poorly. Everyone turned left down Wall Street past a souvenir shop and gathered at a busy intersection next to a Bank of America sign. A few cars honked in support.
“How many people do you think are here?” one bro asked another.
“I’d say 300.”
“No way,” interrupted a nosy reporter standing next to them. “More like 150.”
The bros shook their heads.
“That’s one thing we birders are really good at,” said bro No. 2, a guy named David Vick. “We can count large numbers quickly. Two-fifty at least.”
The crowd obeyed the crosswalk signal and marched a few hundred feet east on Greenwood Avenue and hooked a right on Bond Street to pass the Deschutes Brewery. Surely they all knew Bend’s flagship brewery had its rare Abyss beer on tap right now, but the crowd stayed focused. The promise of a fine, cognac-barrel aged stout would have to come later.
Everyone continued south on Bond Street but the line was cut in half as a light changed. Cars backed up in the intersection until everyone cleared out of the way. Shoppers stood aside and read the parade of signs. “We are we the people,” read one. “Malheur is for the birds, not bullies!” read another. A 68-year-old lady named Donna Harris held a mixer in one mitten and a sign in the other advertising “Granny’s Recipe for Making Bully Turnovers.”
“Sprinkle with science,” it read in part. “And watch them quickly disappear!”
“I think this is great,” said Cloyd Robinson, owner of Great Harvest bakery, flour dusting his T-shirt as he stood outside his shop watching the line move by. “I wish I had known about it. I would have joined you.” A young man in a black hoodie didn’t seem so amused and mumbled something about “shit.” No one paid him any attention.
After about a half an hour the crowd made its way back to the plaza next to the bike. Most of the broads and bros and training broads had left by then but a few hangers-on milled about. Two of them, Kieran Suckling and Taylor McKinnon with the Center for Biological Diversity, had flown up from Arizona and Colorado, respectively, with a plan to attend Friday night’s meeting in Burns and then to go confront the Bundys in a more direct nature.
“We are going to retake Malheur,” Suckling said, optimistically.
And what if they shoot you?
“I’ll respond with peace.”