Dispatch from Cliven Bundy’s latest gathering
High Country News
A pleasant breeze flipped the American flags perched in highway guard rails and floated on through the desert hills outside Bunkerville, Nevada. In an ad hoc campsite alongside the road, a few older men sat in lawn chairs next to RVs and trucks, bantering about Constitutional rights. It was a placid scene, not at all like the tense one that unfolded here a year ago, when armed Bureau of Land Management officers showed up to get rancher Cliven Bundy’s cows off federal land only to back down when met by an equally gunned-up group of right-wing radicals and self-professed militia members.
By last Friday, a rag-tag collection of militia, Constitutionalists, Patriots and other Bundyites from as far away as Florida and Oregon had camped themselves on the side of the highway that leads to the Bundy Ranch in Clark County. A large “Info” sign hung on a trailer parked beside a table of schedules, “We Made a Difference at Bundy Ranch” t-shirts and “Bye Bye BLM” stickers. A couple of organizers shuffled about, answering questions and greeting the occasional arrival. An event was brewing.
The three-day “liberty celebration,” as the Bundys call it on their Facebook page and in emails, didn’t draw the estimated 300-plus supporters that descended last April when BLM-contractors began rounding up Bundy cattle from unpermitted federal rangeland. But over 100 supporters showed up to mark the anniversary of the tentative victory over the feds; Bundy has yet to be charged for grazing his cattle illegally on federal land on and off for decades, nor have his armed defenders been taken to account for aiming weapons at federal agents.
Speakers included Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, who has introduced a bill with Bundy’s support, to transfer federal administration of public lands in Nevada to the state. Former Arizona sheriff and states’ rights advocate Richard Mack, militia leaders and members of the Bundy family also spoke to the crowd.
The one-year anniversary event was, on the surface, a celebration of ranchers standing up not only to the government, but also to the other forces that conspire to wipe out this traditional livelihood. But there weren’t many ranchers in attendance. Really, it was the one-year birthday of a rekindled anti-federal government movement, one that is gaining strength Westwide. Over three days of milling in the sagebrush expanse between tourist-town Mesquite to the northeast and Las Vegas to the southwest, I met ex-cops, ex-firefighters, ex-military, a real estate agent, roofer, tattoo artist, general contractor, mom-turned Constitutionalist activist, retired San Diego fisherman, and others. Some of Bundy’s fellow livestock producers did in fact show up — and maybe more would have, had the county fair and rodeo down the road not have been the same weekend — but the demographics were telling.
When I broached the subject of Bundy with former bull rider and current Clark County commissioner Tom Collins, over the phone, he said “(Bundy’s) not real popular except with wing-nuts and gun nuts.” Collins is good friends with the Bundys and says they’re generous contributors to the local community, but he doesn’t support the rancher’s beliefs that the federal government has no place in Clark County or anywhere else.
While Bundy’s influence has ebbed since he catapulted into the national spotlight, last year’s standoff with the BLM, or “stand-down” as supporters call it because the feds backed off, has galvanized a lasting following irate about federal government overreach.
Joe O’Shaughnessy, leader of an Arizona militia, told me that last April’s events “basically woke people up.” O’Shaughnessy drove from Phoenix to the standoff last year as part of a “security detail to protect the Bundy family.” Within a week after the BLM released the cattle, he was inundated with 600 applications from people wanting to be active members. In the past year, he claims, Arizona militia email lists and Facebook followers have skyrocketed to tens of thousands of fans: “It’s out of control.” He’s got a growing army of followers now, but many of those are active military and law enforcement, so aren’t legally able to participate in militia activities, though they support the group’s particular brand of ultra-right politics and stated purpose: defending the U.S. Constitution.
O’Shaughnessy, who was sporting a t-shirt that read, “Hello my name is America,” pointed to the progressive advocacy and research organization Southern Poverty Law Center’s recent reports that militias — groups likes his, and others attending the liberty celebration — have grown in recent years to be a more urgent domestic threat than Islamic terrorism. And O’Shaughnessy insists he’s seen that growth on the ground, in response to the standoff.
A recent Department of Homeland Security report echoed these findings that domestic terrorism and groups like sovereign citizens and Patriots are of utmost concern to law enforcement and the federal government.
Meanwhile, the authorities are tight-lipped as to whether they’ll leave Bundy standing. The Bureau of Land Management continues to defer to the Department of Justice on this issue. And the DOJ declines to confirm whether or not there is a case. “I don’t know whether they’re going to act or not,” Bundy said last Saturday. “The question here is who’s the criminal. Is Cliven Bundy the criminal or is the federal government and their bureaucrats the criminal?” (Bundy often speaks of himself in the third person.)
On Sunday, after many of the three-percenters, Minutemen, Mountain Minutemen, Oath Keepers, Guardians of the Oath, Agenda-21-ers and others had left to go back to their respective states, Ryan Bundy, son of Cliven, held a Christian service for those who remained. A small flock of birds spiraled and fluttered for several moments behind the stage where Ryan stood, facing his dedicated congregants. They sat in folding chairs in the bright sun, listening for what he was going to say next.
Tay Wiles is the online editor of High Country News.
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