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Know the West

"Tiananmen Sid" shakes up a small town


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.