07/2014

War in the West: The Bundy Ranch Standoff and the American Radical Right

As officers of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department withdrew from Cliven Bundy’s Bunkerville, Nev., ranch on April 12, the question had to be asked: How could a scofflaw like Bundy, who owes more than $1 million in grazing fees but was backed up by hundreds of armed antigovernment zealots, manage to run off federal officials who clearly were in the right for seizing Bundy’s cows as payment for what he owes? The standoff very nearly ended in bloodshed, as large numbers of Bundy supporters pointed their weapons at law enforcement officials, a felony that is now under investigation by the FBI. The BLM wisely withdrew, avoiding possible violence.

The Bundy standoff has invigorated an extremist movement that exploded when President Obama was elected, going from some 150 groups in 2008 to more than 1,000 last year. Though the movement has waxed and waned over the last three decades, antigovernment extremists have long pushed, most fiercely during Democratic administrations, rabid conspiracy theories about a nefarious New World Order, a socialist, gun-grabbing federal government and the evils of federal law enforcement. Today’s disputes with federal authority, many long simmering, are an extension of the earlier right-wing Sagebrush Rebellion, Wise Use and “county supremacy” movements.


After the climbdown: Militiamen and other supporters of Cliven Bundy head for the corral where government agents were holding the Nevadan’s cattle. Minutes later, the animals were freed. (Ryan Lenz)

Since 2009, there have been 17 shooting incidents between antigovernment extremists and law enforcement. In 2010, a father-and-son team of sovereign citizens, who believe that the law doesn’t apply to them, executed two Arkansas police officers during a traffic stop, and a California extremist shot and injured two state troopers. Another extremist in Texas tried to kill two sheriff’s deputies. Similar incidents have happened since, some ending in loss of life.

For those harboring deep hatred of the federal government, the BLM pullout was seen as a dramatic victory, one instance where the armed radicals of the right stared through their own gunsights at the gun barrels of law enforcement officials and won. Rather than being condemned, their actions garnered the support of numerous politicians, including the governor of Nevada and commentators like Fox News’ Sean Hannity — a truly repulsive spectacle. This pandering to the far right by both politicians and media figures ended in a hurry, however, when Bundy engaged in racist blather about “the Negro.” Racism was crossing a line, apparently, but the calls from the ranch for revolution and outright defiance of federal law enforcement seemed to be just fine with the Hannitys of the world.

The fallout from the BLM stand down is very troubling: an even more emboldened antigovernment movement. Just in the months since the Bundy “victory,” tense standoffs between the BLM and antigovernment activists have taken place across the West — in Idaho, New Mexico, Texas and Utah. The scariest incident happened in Utah, where two men pointed a handgun at a BLM worker in a marked federal vehicle while holding up a sign that said, “You need to die.”

Although these situations have not yet led to violence, a recent encounter with two Bundy supporters ended with three dead.

In early June, two rabid government haters who spent time at the ranch, Jerad and Amanda Miller, strolled into a Las Vegas pizza parlor, walked past a pair of police officers eating lunch, turned and executed the two men. Leaving a Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, a note saying the revolution had begun and a swastika on the officers’ bodies, the couple went on to murder another man before dying in a shootout with police.


Jerad and Amanda Miller, who had a certain fondness for dressing up as comic villains, murdered three people, including two police officers, after briefly joining Bundy supporters during their standoff with authorities.

Not long after the shooting, we called Sheriff Richard Mack, a prominent anti-federal government activist who had been at the Bundy ranch, to ask him about Jerad Miller. Mack and Miller had been photographed together at a Feb. 8 debate for libertarian sheriff’s candidates held in Clark County, Nev. A surprised Mack told the SPLC, “Oh, no,” adding, “I was afraid that [Miller] might have been at the Bundy ranch. As soon as I heard about it, I was afraid of that.”

Why the surprise? Bogus political theories and conspiracy-mongering by the likes of Mack are clearly encouraging an increasingly enraged movement. That Miller would be drawn to the Bundy ranch — the movement’s latest flashpoint — should have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the movement’s tactics or its rhetoric.

What is puzzling is why the BLM allowed Bundy to get away for 20 years without paying grazing fees that all other ranchers pay. And what is equally surprising is the almost amateurish way the BLM finally moved against Bundy. What both point to is a failure of the federal government to come to terms with the true nature of the war in the West.

Cliven Bundy may have faded from public view, but the movement that spawned him is boiling. Government officials need to understand what motivates this movement because the Millers will not be the last to demonstrate their antigovernment rage with bullets. Law enforcement officials also need training on a movement that increasingly targets them. Two decades after the Waco debacle, federal officials continue to struggle with their approach to radical right extremists. What they learned from Waco was that a heavy-handed approach risks a major loss of life. Yet, allowing the antigovernment movement to flout the law at gunpoint is surely not the answer.

The recent announcement by Attorney General Eric Holder that the Justice Department is reviving its Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee is welcome news. The committee was established after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and was instrumental in bringing swift prosecutions that stemmed the tide of hardcore antigovernment activity; it should never have been allowed to become moribund after the 9/11 attacks. The militiamen and others who pointed their weapons at BLM and Las Vegas officers need to face criminal prosecution because the rule of law must be enforced or it will be challenged again.

But swift prosecutions are only part of the answer. The Justice Department is a law enforcement agency, not an intelligence-gathering one. To help law enforcement at all levels, the Department of Homeland Security must put more resources into assessing the threat of non-Islamic domestic terrorism. The unit with the primary responsibility for that task was allowed to wither in the face of conservative criticism following the leak of a 2009 report on the resurgent threat from the far right. That, too, should never have been allowed to happen.

Finally, politicians and media pundits need to be called out when they troll for votes or ratings with irresponsible rhetoric. The standoff at the Bundy ranch was news. But Cliven Bundy was certainly no hero. Treating him as such simply emboldens others like him.