When Cliven Bundy took to a stage this April near where armed militiamen a year before backed down agents from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), it seemed that his “Battle of Bunkerville” had truly been won. A year had passed and Bundy was still free, his cattle were still grazing on government lands, and his radical defenders remained unscathed.
BUNKERVILLE, Nev. — When Cliven Bundy took to a stage this April near where armed militiamen a year before backed down agents from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), it seemed that his “Battle of Bunkerville” had truly been won. A year had passed and Bundy was still free, his cattle were still grazing on government lands, and his radical defenders remained unscathed.
It was a profound moment in the history of the antigovernment movement, and for many across the West. Not one of the antigovernment radicals who came last year to “defend” Bundy against demands that he pay $1 million in grazing fees or see his cattle seized had faced a single legal charge, despite the well-known fact that many of them pointed their weapons at law enforcement officials with the BLM and the Las Vegas Police Department. Repeated assertions that some would face prosecution for their actions apparently had come to nothing.
Indeed, as Bundy took the microphone on a flatbed stage on a warm Sunday this spring, whirling one of his daughters as he danced exuberantly to “This Land is Your Land,” it seemed clear: Cliven Bundy, the nation’s best-known scofflaw, was now a certified hero of the antigovernment movement. He was the David who had faced down the government Goliath, and it appeared that he had won.
“We drove a line down the middle of this nation,” an exultant Bundy boasted to his adoring audience. “On one side of that line … we have federal agents, we have federal lawyers, we have federal judges, we have federal courts, we have federal jails. … So what do we have on the other side of the line? We have the United States Constitution guaranteeing us our rights.”
It was that claim that he was defending the Constitution against a tyrannical government — and his explicit call to the radical right for help — that brought hundreds of antigovernment “Patriots” from around the country last year to the Bundy ranch, about 80 miles north of Las Vegas. After years of litigation, a federal court had ruled that the government could seize Bundy’s herd of some 400 cattle in lieu of the more than $1 million debt he’d accrued over some 20 years.
To Bundy, who like many radicals denies the legitimacy of the federal government, it was robbery. For the antigovernment movement, it was the tyranny of the elites. But for the public at large, it was a confusing moment: A rancher who had freeloaded on his fellow citizens for some two decades had just said no, and the government, despite all the forces at its command, had caved.
Some politicians and many right-wing news outlets cheered Bundy as some kind of freedom fighter, at least initially. But not everyone was thrilled.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all make up our own laws? Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy has been doing that for 20 years,” USA Today said in an editorial published 10 days after the standoff. “The government obviously cannot let Bundy declare that he is above the law without inviting everyone else to do the same.”
But that is pretty much what happened.
Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a special investigative report that detailed how the events leading up to the April 12, 2014, standoff were the product of an orchestrated response led by militia activists who had come to help Bundy. The men planned the positions of snipers the night before that day’s confrontation, essentially setting up the armed standoff in advance. The report also noted how Bundy’s success, backed by an armed mob threatening law enforcement officials, had inspired similar acts of defiance across the West.
In fact, at Bundy’s anniversary celebration this spring — where cries of “Amen” replaced the assault rifles of 2014, and T-shirts printed for the occasion proclaimed “Victory Over Oppression” in Nevada — some of the same militiamen were now preparing a new war, this time over mining rights in Oregon.
How had it come to this point? How had Bundy, in blatant violation of a federal court order and a party to an effort to threaten the federal government with violence if it did not leave the lands it administers, become a hero?
The chorus of those demanding answers has only grown.
BLM ‘In The Fetal Position’
The federal government has repeatedly declined to discuss its decision, at least for the time being, to abandon efforts to enforce the court order that led to the standoff with Bundy. It has also declined to speak publicly about the fact that no case has been brought against Bundy or any of his armed henchmen.
But this April 10, just as Bundy was wrapping up his party in the desert, BLM officials did make what seemed to be another promise to act. In a statement, spokeswoman Celia Boddington said the BLM “remains resolute” about resolving the dispute through the courts. “Our primary goal remains, as it was a year ago, to resolve this matter safely and according to the rule of law,” she said.
But some advocacy groups are finding that hard to swallow.
Last July, for instance, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a national alliance of natural resource officials based in Washington, D.C., filed a federal lawsuit to force the BLM to respond to its Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to the standoff. The Intelligence Report filed a similar request. No documents have been forthcoming.
Then, days before the Bundy celebration began this spring, PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch publicly criticized the BLM. He pointed to intelligence threat assessments warning that continued inaction would be a “perceived victory” for the radical right that would be “likely to promote more violence.” “BLM acts as if ignoring the Bundy debacle will make it go away, but it only makes it worse,” he said. “As it stands now — a year later — no lessons were learned, no precautions were taken, and BLM remains tucked tightly in a fetal position.”
It wasn’t only critics on the left who were amazed at the outcome. Former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack, the head of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association and an unwavering supporter of Bundy, told the Intelligence Report he was surprised federal agents had not stormed onto the ranch.
“I view this as a huge victory, that the Bundys have survived a year,” Mack said at the anniversary event. “I predicted that the federal government was still going to come after them, surreptitiously.” “When you embarrass the federal government,” he added, “that’s the worst thing you can do to them.”
It’s clear that the “victory” of Bundy and his sympathizers has already encouraged a number of similar defiant stands against government authority, in particular having to do with land and mineral rights in the West. In the aftermath of the BLM’s stand-down, antigovernment radicals — including, in some cases, members of the Bundy family — have roared into a closed archaeological site on all-terrain vehicles, fought over access to water for livestock and, at press time, traveled to Josephine County, Ore., to “guard” a local miner’s claim.
Good, Evil and ‘the Negro’
Even Cliven Bundy, whose court filings over the years reveal a man with a set of radical and conspiratorial beliefs about the government, is sometimes confused by the theories of his hardline supporters. These range from the idea that federal officials secretly introduced a protected species of desert tortoise on to public lands in order to drive ranchers off them, to the claim that Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), then the Senate majority leader, had labeled Bundy and his backers as “domestic terrorists” to secretly help Chinese solar power business interests.
“I wasn’t trying to be a judge of their ideas,” Bundy told the Report this April during his anniversary event. “As far as I knew, they were here to support me in any way they could, and that’s what they did. I never quite knew what their thinking was. There’s no doubt, when I visited with some of them, there’s no doubt that I didn’t understand some of their theories and thoughts.” But he clearly has come to see the conflict as a battle between good and evil. Some at his “Liberty Celebration” claimed they’d seen demons in the clouds above Bunkerville on the prior April 12. And Bundy, talking about his experiences during religious services held on the banks of the Virgin River, sounded similar.
“Our heavenly father testified and told me what to do,” Bundy said of his decision to hold out against federal law enforcement. “And I thought that maybe I should call people to repent. But let me tell you what He told me to say. He told me to say, ‘Forgive each other, forgive your wives, forgive your children and forgive everybody in this world, and you will find happiness.’”
Shawna Cox, who wrote an authorized, hagiographic account of the standoff called Last Rancher Standing: The Cliven Bundy Saga, a Close-Up View, also found the climate before and after the standoff to be a testing ground for good and evil. Cox claimed that Daniel P. Love, who oversaw the BLM agents on the ground on the day of the standoff, was reviled and perhaps evil incarnate. Love, she wrote, “was the same man who three different people had told me that whenever they were in his presence and spoke with him they all had feelings of darkness and evil. Some said he was a very wicked man and others said he was the devil.”
The book — completed just in time for Cox to sell copies to some of the 100 or so people who came to Bundy’s anniversary event — also recapitulated a classic Patriot narrative: Had it not been for the militiamen, disaster loomed. “It could have been a blood bath if the militia had not been there,” it claimed. “Because of the prayers of the righteous, the Lord stepped in and protected us. … It is very scary to imagine what the outcome could have been. Another Waco?”
Shortly after the standoff ended, The New York Times reported on a speech Bundy gave to his followers pontificating about the problems of “the Negro” that suggested that African Americans were better off under slavery. Those comments caused most of Bundy’s “mainstream” supporters to flee for the hills. But they didn’t bother Cox, who offered a full-throated defense of his remarks.
“[Bundy] said that Blacks have been so oppressed by the government that the fathers can’t even live with the families because they get a welfare check. Now, there are many, many young people who have no influence from their fathers. Of every ten black men, nine will be jailed because they simply have nothing to do. The women are aborting their babies by the thousands,” Cox wrote. “Even though slavery was a terrible thing, it would almost be better for them to still be slaves and picking cotton. At least they would have something to do.”
Then and Now
A year ago, things looked rather different.
Speaking with National Public Radio a month after the standoff, BLM Director Neil Kornze promised the agency would work hard to serve justice. “I can’t say a lot because there’s an active investigation going on, but we are working hard to ensure that those who did break the law are held accountable,” he said. The Clark County, Nev., Sheriff’s Department announced that it had launched its own investigation. And the FBI said it was looking into possible federal charges.
A year into those investigations, there is no sign that any arrests or other actions are imminent. The BLM has repeatedly declined to comment on its progress or lack thereof. Indeed, the only arrest remotely connected to the standoff that once riveted the nation’s attention involved a man who was not there.
This April, Will Michael, a 24-year-old in Pennsylvania, pleaded guilty to charges related to leaving a threatening voicemail for Mike Roop, the chief BLM ranger for Washington and Oregon. “We’re going to find you: We’re going to kill you, you f------ BLM thug,” Michael said, according to federal court documents. That was only one of 500 hostile and harassing messages Roop received.
During the three-day anniversary celebration in April, where the family served “Bundy beef” and hot dogs to their supporters, there wasn’t any sign of the federal government or law enforcement. The sole exception was a police officer from Mesquite, Nev., who stopped by while on patrol to grab some food.
Meanwhile, with most of his Republican support up in smoke due to his comments about black people, Bundy has made a stab at becoming a real political player. Last year, he joined the Independent American Party, a small radical party that endorses many of the principles of the antigovernment Patriot movement. This February, its leaders announced plans to create an “IAP Sponsored Militia.”
For a time, it seemed that Bundy might actually have a real impact. He was a backer of a Nevada’s AB408, known across the state as the “Bundy Bill,” which would have required the federal government to obtain state permission to use its own land within the state’s borders. But Nevada’s Legislative Council Bureau, which evaluates the legality of legislation, called the original bill unconstitutional, and Nevada lawmakers subsequently rejected its passage by a vote of 34-8.
What now? With the standoff anniversary past and a decidedly more upbeat antigovernment movement taking the fight elsewhere, is it too late for justice to take its course? Has the moment gone by for the federal government to enforce the court order demanding that Bundy respect the law? Perhaps. One thing is certain: Bundy and his antigovernment supporters have shown no sign of turning back.
Last September, speaking at a gathering billed as “An Evening with Cliven Bundy” in Nevada, the rancher reiterated his defiance of the federal government.
And he predicted that the BLM would never bully an American again.
“I was really surprised that they would go this far to put their guns down we the people’s throat and try to show the public, the world, [that] the federal government has unlimited power over we the people of the state of Nevada,” Bundy told the gathering. Then he made a promise: “That isn’t right, and that’s not ever going to happen again in America or in the state of Nevada.