They gathered on a sandy wash not far from the site of where an angry standoff took place one year ago when the radical right came to the aid of Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy in his fight with the federal government. Bundy’s supporters, militiamen and antigovernment “Patriots,” spent this past weekend near his ranch celebrating, as their T-shirts printed for the occasion proclaimed, "Victory Over Oppression."
Designed to be a “Liberty Celebration,” cowboy poets, musicians and speakers from as far away as Florida spent the weekend playing in the Virgin River, eating hamburgers made with Bundy beef and camping on public lands once heavily patrolled by Bureau of Land Management (BLM) agents.
But not anymore.
Last year, a tense standoff threatened to erupt with gunfire between antigovernment extremists and law enforcement officials. Events calmed down when the BLM abandoned its effort to enforce a federal court decision that ordered the Bundy herd held in payment for more than $1 million he owes in overdue grazing fees. This year, the mood at Cliven Bundy’s ranch was much less tense.
Gone were the big guns, and gone was the BLM. A lone policeman who stopped on his patrol to grab some food on Saturday night was the only reminder of what happened last year, when a heavily armed mob gathered, threatening bloodshed over the government’s supposed usurpation of the Constitution.
The Bundy standoff has come to be seen as a watershed moment in the antigovernment movement, and for many across the West, as the 68-year-old Bundy has transformed from a scofflaw who won’t pay his bills into a symbol of Western resistance against the federal government. As he took the microphone on a flatbed stage on Saturday, dancing with one of his daughters to "This Land Is Your Land" piping in over a PA, it was clear: Bundy had become a hero.
“We drove a line down the middle of this nation. And 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,” he told the audience. “So what do have on the other side of the line? We have the United States Constitution guaranteeing us we have rights. Isn’t our government supposed to protect our life, liberty and property?”
It is that question of state’s rights that inspired hundreds of armed antigovernment “Patriots” to respond to the Bundy’s impassioned call for help in 2014, with hundreds flooding into the family’s ranch near Bunkerville, Nev., about 80 miles north of Las Vegas. BLM agents had shot one of Bundy’s sons, Ammon Bundy, with a Taser after he refused to leave the site of the cattle roundup, and Bundy was angry.
“They have my cattle and now they have one of my boys. … Range War begins tomorrow at Bundy ranch,” he wrote on the family website.
This weekend, the atmosphere seemed quite different than last year’s declaration of war –– at least on the surface.
Assault rifles were replaced with cries of “Amen,” especially during religious services held on Sunday. But the speakers still conveyed a white hot rage at the federal government. Typical of the antigovernment movement, there was talk of sovereignty and guns, of Ruby Ridge and Waco, conspiracy theories and revolution.
“I’m a proud angry white man. But we’ve also got a Muslim terrorist in the White House who also happens to be a black supremacist. I have every right to be angry,” Bobby Florentz, a former Oath Keeper who leads a breakaway faction of that group called Guardians of the Oath, howled into the microphone.
Someone in the audience echoed his anger and screamed, “F--- him!”
To mark the occasion, several antigovernment luminaries made an appearance. Bo Gritz, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran who has dedicated his life to fighting the “New World Order,” was in the audience, as was former Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack, who drove through the night from Texas to celebrate the anniversary of the Bundy standoff on Sunday.
“I view this as a huge victory that the Bundy’s have survived a year. I predicted that the federal government was still going to come after them, surreptitiously,” Mack told Hatewatch. “When you embarrass the federal government, that’s the worst thing you can do to them.”
But to everyone’s surprise, including Mack’s, the federal government has not apparently done anything, in spite of the widespread public demand and evidence of criminal behavior the day of the standoff.
Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a special investigative report called "War in the West," that detailed how the events leading up to the April 12, 2014, standoff were the product of an orchestrated response led by militia leaders who had come to Bundy's aid. The report also noted that Bundy’s defiance had inspired others to take similar acts across the West.
But there have been no arrests, and seemingly no movement towards resolving what happened last year when weapons were pointed at federal agents. Instead, the anniversary has come with growing criticism of an inability, or an unwillingness, to hold someone accountable for the standoff. And the federal government has repeatedly declined to discuss its decision to abandon efforts to enforce the court order that led to the standoff with Bundy last April. In other words, Bundy has yet to pay his grazing fees and the government doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it.
On Friday, BLM spokeswoman Celia Boddington released a statement saying the agency “remains resolute” in resolving the Bundy cattle 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,” her statement said.
Several public groups, however, seem intent on reminding the government of one thing: that goal has been unmet.
Last July, a group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a national alliance of state and federal natural resource officials based in Washington, D.C., filed a federal lawsuit after the BLM failed to respond to a Freedom of Information request for documents related to the standoff. (Hatewatch filed a similar FOIA request and has received no response.)
On Friday, just days before the Bundy celebration was to begin, PEER executive director Jeff Ruch criticized the BLM for withholding documents about the standoff, and he pointed to government intelligence threat assessments that warned continued inaction would be a “perceived victory” for the antigovernment right and “likely to promote more violence.”
“BLM acts as if ignoring the Bundy debacle will make it go away, but it only makes it worse,” Ruch said in his statement. “As it stands now –– a year later –– no lessons were learned, no precautions were taken, and BLM remains tucked tightly in a fetal position.”
But back on the ranch, none of that seemed to matter. It was Bundy beef and business as usual. The Battle of Bunkerville seemed to be over.