PORTLAND — Peter Santilli, a self-styled “new-media” journalist and right-wing YouTube talk-show host, was named last week in a grand jury indictment involving the armed takeover of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Three of his 15 co-defendants were released to home confinement last week, but Santilli — a 50-year-old ex-Marine — remains in jail.
While his co-defendants like brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy took their place as leaders during the occupation, Santilli made a name for himself in Burns as the cameraman in military fatigues known for shouting down environmental protesters with a bullhorn.
Despite Santilli’s continued insistence that he was at the wildlife refuge as a journalist and activist, a judge kept him in jail after hearing clips of Santilli’s own radio show — proof, the government argued, of Santilli’s participation in the occupation and evidence of his potential danger to the community.
The prosecution played 20 minutes of clips from Santilli’s show for the court, dating as far back as June 2015, in which Santilli discusses burying illegal guns, dying a free man and shooting federal agents if they came through his door uninvited.
Santilli’s attorney, Thomas Coan, argued that his client was not to be taken seriously: His words were the bloviations of a “shock jock,” “an entertainer,” but also a “new-media journalist.”
U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman saw Santilli’s words differently: “When he says he will die a free man, I don’t take that as a man who is joking about it,” he said.
Despite Santilli’s extreme right-leaning views, his case has attracted the interest of First Amendment activists, including the ACLU of Oregon, which released a statement Tuesday questioning whether the court’s determination of Santilli’s danger based on his words is a violation of his First Amendment rights.
“We think the government is in an overreach position,” Mat dos Santos, legal director for ACLU of Oregon, said over the phone. The ACLU won’t be representing Santilli but plans to watch his case closely, dos Santos says. “If the government is allowed to cherry-pick our statements over the course of months or years to label us a danger, you really run the risk of silencing civil discourse.”
What is he?
To many, Santilli is a provocateur, mouthpiece and broadcaster for the anti-government Patriot movement, often screaming into a bullhorn while in Burns at any whiff of opposition. But to others, he’s a citizen journalist in military attire who had no knowledge of the conflict until the day it started.
Santilli started his YouTube channel in 2009, and his first videos show a starkly different person than the long-haired “ambush journalist” of today.
In his first YouTube dispatches, Santilli wears a suit and tie in videos he calls “Consumer Advocate TV,” pointing to bottles of Coca-Cola and telling viewers that high-fructose corn syrup is “destroying America.”
By early 2012, Santilli became a radio persona: hosting a new program, “The Overthrow Show,” where his voice took on a deeper, haughtier tone as he discussed conspiracy theories and lambasted American politicians.
“What he does is dangerous. He’s speaking out against the United States government, and he’s an activist,” said Deborah Jordan Reynolds, his girlfriend and co-host.
“It’s ambush journalism,” she says. It’s “this new in-your-face journalism.”
Santilli traveled from his home in Cincinnati to Burns on Jan. 2. In his own livestream videos, Santilli is seen speaking during a march with Ammon Bundy about taking a “hard stand” at a nearby wildlife refuge.
“Let everybody know that they’re to go to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,” Bundy says to Santilli on camera, who responds enthusiastically: “OK!”
Reynolds says that’s what new media is: taking a stand, aligning with a cause.
“His show is a form of his activism — his civil disobedience. He protests every day,” she says.
And she is sure that keeping Santilli in jail will only make his voice louder: “They’re creating a monster, as far as I’m concerned.”