"Tiananmen Sid" shakes up a small town

  • Paonia hairdresser Sid Lewis protests in front of a tank owned by local millionaire and land swap proponent Bill Koch

    Jim Brett
  • Paonia hairdresser Sid Lewis shows the other side of his sign as he protests Bill Koch's tank in the town's Independence Day parade

    Jim Brett
 

A version of this essay originally appeared on the science blog, the Last Word on Nothing.

My rural western Colorado town of Paonia, population 1,500 on a good day, is in many ways a laboratory-scale model of the USA. We worship both community ties and unfettered independence from the federal government. We’re gossipy and private, inclusive and provincial, divided by class and dogma even as we gather under our purple mountains majesty. Our community stew comes to a boil at Cherry Days, the annual Fourth of July celebration, and this year’s version -- heated by wildfires and record summer temperatures -- was extra hot and spicy.

The Cherry Days parade was notable for its lead vehicle, a well-preserved Korean-War-era tank complete with a pair of anti-aircraft guns. Even more notable was the tank’s owner: billionaire Bill Koch, brother to the liberal bêtes noires Charles and David Koch. Bill Koch, whose interests in sailing, fine wines and antiques are less political than his brothers’ though probably just as expensive, is the founder and CEO of Oxbow Group, whose holdings include a local coal mine. Its affiliate Gunnison Energy Corp. is active in local natural-gas development.

In recent years, Bill Koch has also become a part-time neighbor, acquiring a couple of ranches in the mountains and a long list of Paonia-area properties. He’s commissioned the construction of a private “Western town,” furnished with his collection of frontier memorabilia. He’s aroused local suspicion and resentment by pushing for Congressional approval of a public-private land swap that would benefit his ranch and close off access to 40 square miles of wilderness. And for the community activists fighting fast-moving natural-gas development, Bill Koch and Gunnison Energy have become symbols of unwelcome change.

So when Koch’s collectible tank creaked down Grand Avenue last week, Sid Lewis — hairdresser, cycling enthusiast and former town councilman — stepped in front of it holding a handwritten cardboard sign about money and democracy and the corruption of the latter by the former. Lewis and his sign were soon escorted off the street, but the story of “Tiananmen Sid” quickly landed on Facebook. By Friday morning, news of the encounter was in The Denver Post, and that night the tale of the hairdresser versus the tank was told onThe Rachel Maddow Show. By the time you read this, local online arguments about the incident will probably have invoked the First Amendment at least 1,098 times (and, if Godwin’s Law holds, mentioned Nazis at least once).

To some in town, it turns out, Bill Koch is the benevolent rich guy who buys the groceries, and Sid Lewis is the outsider poking his disrespectful outsider-y nose into a pretty good deal. To others, Koch is the dastardly outsider trying to buy the town and invaluable public land for cheap, and Sid represents the community standing heroically against him. These stories, with different characters in the lead roles and varying degrees of truth, have been told and retold here for generations. Neither is likely to change anyone’s mind.

But I was happy that Tiananmen Sid shook up the town’s 66th annual Cherry Days celebration, and not only because I happen to prefer beauticians to billionaires. Sid Lewis made the parade a more accurate reflection of my small complicated town and big complicated nation. Most of us, after all, are in a testy, confrontational mood these days.

I was even happier, though, when the parade continued its march, unrolling its humble column of Constitutionalists and conservationists, Republicans and Democrats, Shriners and dancing librarians, organic farmers and volunteer ambulance drivers and the Class of 1982. They straggled slowly along the long, crowded route in pickups and flatbeds and sometimes under their own steam, waving and grinning, separate but more or less on the same path. That’s the part of the procession where most of us live our daily lives. When we’re lucky, its story is the truest one of all.

Watch a video of Sid Lewis's protest.

Michelle Nijhuis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a contributing editor of the magazine and lives in Paonia, Colorado.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.