From April 5 to April 12, people around the country watched as Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, backed by often armed supporters, stood in defiance of federal court orders to remove cattle he had illegally grazed on federal lands since the 1990s. Bundy supporters cast the drama a David versus Goliath clash between a Constitutionally-minded rancher and an out-of-control federal government. A closer look reveals a more complex story, offering insights in to the ability of the far right to engage in armed mobilizations on behalf of activists whose federal law violations get them into legal trouble. When the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) backed off from enforcing Bundy’s long-standing grazing violations, far-rightists claimed victory for their ideas and paramilitary tactics, threatening to embolden those would use violence to advance far right political goals.
The confrontation took place in Southern Nevada in Clark County and has its roots in a long-standing conflict between Cliven Bundy and federal agencies. In 1993 Bundy rejected the terms of a federal permit modified to protect the desert tortoise under the Endangered Species Act and quit paying required grazing fees. The BLM revoked the permit to graze cattle on some 600,000 acres (the Bunkerville allotment) managed by the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and Bureau of Reclamation. To date, Bundy has amassed some $1 million in back fees, according to the BLM. In 1998 a U.S. District Court barred Bundy from grazing livestock on these lands. Bundy continued grazing cattle illegally and federal authorities later closed the Bunkerville allotment to protect the desert tortoise. In July 2013, the court extended the initial ban beyond to the Bunkerville Allotment to Gold Butte-area lands where Bundy had also begun grazing cattle. Bundy continued to legally graze cattle on his own private land. As the court summed, “Bundy has produce no valid law or specific facts raising a genuine issue of fact regarding federal ownership or management of public lands in Nevada.”
Tensions mounted in late March 2014 when the BLM issued an impound notice. The BLM announced plans to round up some 500 “trespass cattle,” restrict access to some 600,000 acres in northeast Clark County and close access to some parts of the land. The agency marked off two “First Amendment Areas” to control potential protests and Bundy issued letters declaring a “range war emergency,” demanding protection from local officials, including Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie. Bundy told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “I’ll do whatever it takes…They’re not going to get a hair of my cattle or any of my property.” Gillespie would later report telling Bundy that “These are federal lands. They can do what they want to do.”[2 ]
On Saturday April 5, the federal government launched an operation to enforce the court rulings and roundup Bundy’s cattle. Press accounts placed the number of livestock at between 400 and 900. Soon some 200 federal agents, complete with helicopters, were at the ranch. By April 7, Bundy’s supporters were gathering in protest. Across the weeklong standoff, press accounts estimated the number of people present near the ranch between several hundred and a thousand. As protestors arrived, tensions escalated, leading to confrontations with federal agents and the arrest of Bundy’s son, Dave, for refusal to disperse and resisting arrest. Bundy’s son Ammon was reported struck with a stun gun during a confrontation with federal agents, though no serious injuries were reported. Tea Party legislators, such as Arizona Representative Kelly Townsend, and groups such as Oath Keepers were reported in route to the ranch.[ 3]
Public officials and players in state resource politics positioned themselves as the situation unfolded. Nevada’s Republican Governor Brian Sandoval accused the federal government of creating an “atmosphere of intimidation,” in particular criticizing the BLM’s “First Amendment Areas.” Republican U.S. Senator Dean Heller accused the BLM of “overreaching.” The Nevada Cattlemen’s Association distanced itself from Bundy, stating that it is not “in our best interest to interfere in the process of adjudication in this matter.”
As tensions mounted, the federal government showed signs of backing off. The BLM dismantled the “First Amendment Areas” and, by April 12, BLM operations were being halted. Sheriff Gillespie, a mediator between federal agents and Bundy, announced that the “BLM will be removing their assets here in Clark County.” BLM director Neil Kornze issued a statement that “we have made a decision to conclude the cattle gather because of our serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public.” The Las Vegas Review-Journal further reported that about 100 head of Bundy’s cattle were released by the BLM “after angry ranchers and Tea Party members, some of them armed, descended on the pen [where they were being held] Saturday [April 12] afternoon.” CBS News relater reported that some 400 cattle had been returned to Bundy. As this article goes to press, the BLM claims that it will continue to pursue judicial and administrative solutions to the situation. 
Following the BLM back-down, Cliven Bundy began demanding that National Park Service employees be disarmed, while Bundy’s son Ammon told reporters, “The people have the power when they unite…The war has just begun…We sent them packing.”
Anatomy of an Armed Mobilization
The dynamics that played out in Bunkerville have been seen before. The pattern begins when an activist, animated by a far right ideology, rejects federal authority and violates federal law. The federal government moves to enforce the law and like-minded activists rush to the scene, espousing conspiracy theories and radical notions of state and county government power. While not all those expressing concern hold such views, the far right represents the most organized component of the mobilization. When the confrontation ends, the protagonists are made movement heroes whose stories are told and retold to inspire movement activists.
As the conflict unfolded, far right leaders compared the situation to the 1992 confrontation between white supremacist Randy Weaver and the 1993 Waco conflagration. Randy Weaver, after selling illegal firearms to federal agents, failing to appear in court, and refusing to help federal agents infiltrate the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations, became the target of a federal operation that led to the death of his wife Vicki. In Waco, the Branch Davidian cult came under investigation for weapons violations and child sexual abuse. Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents stormed the group’s compound, leading to a shootout and fire resulting in the deaths of four federal agents and more than 80 members of the cult, including many children. Both events became iconic examples of federal government tyranny among far rightists, helping to spur the growth of militias and common law courts in the mid-1990s.
Also seen before, the land use and environmental issues central to the Bundy conflict show the ability to bring together activists across the far right spectrum, bound by radical notions of state and county government power and versions of nationalism that privilege property rights over other community concerns. Bundy’s refusal to pay grazing fees, for instance, has roots in state’s rights and county supremacy arguments that have long animated the property rights movement, including its Sagebrush Rebellion, County Supremacy and Wise Use permutations. Bundy claims to have been involved in such activity for many years, stating that “I’ve been through the Catron County fight, the Nye County fight, the federal land fight…I’ve been involved a little bit in all of those.”
The Catron County, New Mexico and Nye County, Nevada conflicts were key events in the development of the property rights movement in the 1990s. In 1991 Catron County, Commissioners sparked a “county supremacy movement” when they passed a land use ordinance asserting county control of some federal lands. The measures required that county land uses protect private property as well as the “custom and culture” of the area – customs and culture that rejected paying land use fees on publicly owned lands. Nye County, Nevada gained notoriety in the mid-1990s when County Commissioner Dick Carver led the passage of resolutions claiming control of public lands in the county and bulldozed open a closed National Forest Service road. Carver would ally his cause with the Christian Identity Jubilee publication, including speaking at the racist tabloid’s 1994 conference.” Identity believers hold that Jews are satanic and people of color sub-human.
Cliven Bundy’s legal arguments have also echoed long-standing movement claims, including that the United States does not own the property in question, that the Disclaimer Clause in the Nevada Constitution does not apply to these lands and that federal ownership of lands in Nevada violates the Equal Footing Doctrine. Disclaimer Clauses were commonly placed in the Constitutions of western states as a condition of entry into the union. Nevada’s own version states that the state’s citizens “forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States.”
Sagebrush Rebels of the 1970s and 1980s argued that the “equal footing doctrine” – a legal doctrine holding that newly admitted states would enter the union on Constitutionally equal footing with existing states – precluded permanent federal ownership of property. This view stands in contrast to U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause and Article 4, Section 3, Clause 2 stating that “Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.” In Sagebrush Rebellion hands, these arguments support transferring control of federal lands to state and/or county governments, an action that would undermine the ability of the federal government to enforce environmental protections and carry out its trust responsibility to Indian Nations.
Bundy has echoed state’s rights sentiments as well as ideas of government at the core of the County Supremacy Movement. Bundy told the Desert Valley Times, for instance, that “It’s not the seizure of Bundy cattle that’s important here…It’s the seizure of state sovereignty; it’s the seizure of state law; it’s the seizure of the land; it’s the seizure of the (Clark County) sheriff’s police power.” Bundy declared, “For 20 years I have not paid any grazing fees and far as I’m concerned the BLM don’t exist.” Directing his words at the County Commission and County Sheriff, Bundy stated before a Wyoming audience,
Ideas such have these have animated both far-right property rights activists and the Posse Comitatus.
The Movement Responds
National and regional far right groups were quick to respond. Bundy case became a cause celebre on Fox News and national Tea Party factions offered their version of events. Judson Phillips of Tea Party Nation assailed the federal government response, criticizing the use of “free speech zones” and using the conflict to promote TPN’s goal of curtailing government capacity. In the process, Phillips raised issues that divided property rights advocates during the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1980s. While Sagebrush opponents of federal environmental policies tended to favor transferring federal lands to state control, some libertarian-minded activists advocated privatization. Phillips came down for privatization:
TeaPary.org posted articles from the InfoWars site, including one describing Cliven Bundy’s call for Sheriff Doug Gillespie to arrest BLM agents. The Patriot Action Network posted a video of Cliven Bundy and warned that the “dispute could turn into a Ruby Ridge-style violent standoff because Bundy has said he is prepared to become a martyr for what he perceives as a constitutional stance against tyranny.” Patriot Action Network member Larry Holland declared that “Hitler is alive and well today and proud of his fellow commie travellers (sic).” The New Hampshire Tea Party implied that U.S. Senator Harry Reid was seeking to confiscate land on behalf of a Chinese company. A search of the Tea Party Patriots website, however, indicated that the organization had remained silent on the Nevada conflict as of April 11.
Like TPN’s Judson Phillips, libertarian leader Ron Paul used the conflict to press for eventual privatization. Paul told Fox News, “I think land should be in the states and the states should sell it to the people.” Ron’s son, Rand Paul, took a middle ground, arguing that there is “definitely a philosophic debate over who should own this land…I hope it will go to a court. But if it were in a court, I would be siding and wanting to say, that look the states, and the individuals in the states, should own these lands. Eighty percent of Nevada is owned by the federal government and we need to get it back to the State of Nevada.” Conversely, media personality Glenn Beck attacked some of Bundy’s supporters as the “right’s version of Occupy Wall Street,” stating that “there’s about 10 to 15 percent of the people who are talking about this online that are truly frightening. They don’t care what the facts are—they just want a fight.”
Militia advocate and former Graham County, Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack quickly jumped into the fray. In an interview on the online NEXT News Network, Mack assailed Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval for making a statement criticizing the federal government “instead of taking some action…It’s time for doing, and Governor Sandoval needs to get people there and put an end to this.” Known for boosting county supremacy ideas and courting law officers, Mack directed his most biting disparagement at Sheriff Gillespie:
Queried by the NEXT News reporter about whether “Sheriff Gillespie…could put an end to this right away and tell the Feds to turn around?,” Mack responded,
Mack announced plans to come to the ranch with members of his Constitutional Sheriffs and Police Officers Association (CSPOA). The paramilitary group Oath Keepers elaborated on these plans, stating that CSPOA and Oath Keepers “are assisting Washington State Representative Matt Shea in organizing a delegation serving Western state legislators and Sheriffs” to travel to the Bundy ranch. Matt Shea (R-Spokane) is known in Washington State for telling a Tea Party gathering to stockpile ammunition in preparation for societal collapse. The delegation, Oath Keepers continued, would travel to the state to “support a coalition of current serving Nevada legislators being organized by Nevada State Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, of Las Vegas.” They aimed to prevent “another Ruby Ridge or Waco type incident” and “prompt” Sheriff Gillespie and Governor Sandoval to “honor their oaths of office by taking real action to defend the rights of the Bundy family…and the sovereignty of the State of Nevada.” Oath Keepers issued a call for “all other patriotic Americans to join the vigil at the Bundy ranch.” The group called on the Governor to “order the Nevada Highway Patrol to actively interpose and stand between the people and an out of control BLM.” In Sagebrush Rebellion form, Oath Keepers cited the equal footing doctrine as a legal basis for its actions.
While Oath Keepers voiced support for a “peaceful resolution to this situation,” the group in fact promotes paramilitary organizing. With E. Stewart Rhodes and Richard Mack on its board, the group touts itself as a “non-partisan association” of former military personnel and police “who pledge to fulfill the oath…to ‘defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” In October 2013 Oath Keepers called on its members to go “operational,” including plans “eventually to assist in forming and training town and county militias.” As the groups described, “We are basing this on the Special Forces model, which has a twelve man ‘A team’ of specially trained soldiers who are inserted into a community to train and lead that community in resistance to oppressive regimes.” The “Teams” are to include two “precision shooting experts…two close combat and small unit tactics experts” and all members of the “field team” are to learn “basic light infantry skills.” Each chapter is recommended to have a “Peace Officer Liaison and Sheriff/posse Team” for the purpose “making sure the local Sheriff is a ‘constitutional Sheriff,’…and making sure there is a posse to back the sheriff up.”
Other pro-militia groups joined the mobilization. Based in Oak Hills, California, Pete Santilli’s Guerilla Media Network quickly began promoting Bundy’s cause. Santilli is best known for declaring that Hillary Clinton needs to be “shot in the vagina” following the attack on the Bengazi, Libya consulate.  Santilli is a conspiracy theorist who pledges “resistance to the latest trend of forming a ‘New World Order’ (NWO), new currency, Agenda 21, or United Nations control.” Agenda 21 refers to a far right conspiracy theory alleging that domestically-driven land use and environmental regulations are the product of a demonic United Nations plot. The NWO Santilli continues, “have control over elections, corporations, media, military’s (sic), industry, economies, and the entire banking system.” Says Santilli, “I hate LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Ron & Rand Paul and Obama – especially the drug and gun trafficking cartels that they’ve all built to keep them in power.”
As the Bundy conflict developed, Santilli’s GMN posted an “urgent alert” to
The Southern Nevada Militia declared a “condition red,” telling followers to “travel with 72 hour kits in your vehicles” and stating, “This is what we have trained for, for almost two years. Time to fish or cut bait.” Shortly after midnight on April 10, however, the SNM discussion moderator “Col. Paris” announced,
Despite the downgrade, Bob Diehl and Brand Thornton of the Southern Nevada Militia were reported present at the site, the latter appearing in a Reuters photo carrying what appears to be an AK-47. The Guerilla Media Network shot back at the Southern Nevada Militia’s “yellow-code” downgrade, declaring on April 10:
Cliven Bundy appeared on the Pete Santilli show several times during the standoff, an interview early as April 8. In a show rebroadcast on April 13, Bundy echoed the movement themes that the BLM had “seized the sovereignty of the state of Nevada. They’ve seized Nevada state laws, and they’ve seized Nevada Clark County public land, by locking us out from access. And… the worse thing of all… they have seized Nevada, Clark County’s policing power.” In the course of this interview, Bundy gave directions to his ranch for potential supporters, while Santilli called on “every single militia member” to “get out to Clark County and show support” for Bundy. “And I say militia member,” Santilli continued, because “we need to show an equal and opposite, I say force, defensive force, in defense of our nation, in defense of our sovereignty.” In another show, Santilli-substitute Patrick Henningsen assailed Sheriff Doug Gillespie for inaction and declared that a sheriff “can just deputize a posse, put a posse together of 100 men together in a day…That’s what a Sheriff should do.”
The Guerilla Media Network provides a direct to the white nationalist movement, providing an online radio outlet for neo-Nazi David Duke. Immediately after an April 10 edition of the Pete Santilli show dedicated to the Bundy conflict, the former Knights of the Ku Klux Klan leader hit the airwaves to rail against “Jewish extremists” who, the rabid anti-Semite says, seek advantage over others by alleging anti-Semitism and promoting colorblindness. Duke decried the “inundation of the Holocaust” in movies that “tries to prevent Europeans from seeing and understanding Jewish supremacism” and gives Jews a “free pass” on “what they do in terms of the international banking rip-offs they do, like in the Federal Reserve.” Duke continued, that “International globalism, or Zionism, or Zio-globalism is a better way to put it, is basically something that is destructive of every people on the planet.” Duke announced that he is working on a new book titled the “Illustrated Protocols of Zion, which brings the Protocols to the 21st century.” This anti-Semitic tract was used by the Russian Czar and Russian fascists to promote pogroms against Jews, later serving as an important propaganda tool of the German Nazis.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported on April 9 that other militia members had begun showing up near the ranch, including militia members from Montana and Utah. Ryan Payne and Jim Lardy of the West Mountain Rangers in western Montana were reported armed and at the site. “Expect to see a band of soldiers,” Payne told the Review-Journal.
The Lessons Learned
In the wake the of the BLM retreat, far right activists quickly claimed victory. The tenor of the response indicates that the BLM’s actions have encouraged those in the movement who support armed opposition to federal policies that clash with far right ideology and goals. Casting their forces as pitted against “a one-world government called the United Nations and its programs referred to generally as ‘Agenda 21,’ Oath Keepers declared, “The cowboys work the land, live on the land, love the land, and, as we clearly saw on April 12, 2014, they will stand for the land. And so will their good neighbors and militia…After all the Fedgov huff and bluff, a posses of ranchers on horses showed enough popular support and old-fashioned American manhood to stand their ground and by God they ran the damned-by-God BLM out of there. They mounted up and rode into the face of the BLM’s guns, and by their determination and courage, the cows came home…Be of good cheer. The Bundy Ranch resistance movement has planted good seed in good earth and will bear much fruit in coming times.”
Tea Party Nation cast the BLM retreat as a victory for the movement’s Second Amendment ideas. TPN’s Judson Phillips wrote that the lesson to be learned is “there is a reason why our founding fathers put the 2ndAmendment in the Constitution and there is a reason why real Americans refuse to compromise on it.” Phillips continued that,
Militia advocate Larry Pratt’s Gun Owners of America did not take an official position on the issue, linking instead to an article from InfoWars declaring that,
Showing its ability to inspire other regionally-based mobilizations, the Bundy story became fodder for far right activists promoting the so-called State of Jefferson, a campaign to create a new state out of some eleven northern California Counties. JeffersonDeclaration.net, a website set up by State of Jefferson leaders Mark Baird and Liz Bowen, posted a statement titled “Tea Party Mark (sic) Harris explains Bigger picture on BLM taking of Nevada rancher Bundy’s property.” Marc Harris is a coordinator of the Tea Party of Northern Orange County and 9-12 West . A Tea Party Patriots page promoting Harris as a member of a California Speakers Bureau describes him as an “active member of Tea Party Patriots since March 2008. He became involved after learning about Agenda 21 and the significant degree to which the UN, Marxists, and other socialist/globalist forces have infiltrated American government.” In mid-2012 Harris penned support for prominent birther Orly Taitz and accused President Obama of “obstruction of justice” and “sedition” for not releasing his birth certificate.
In his piece posted on the State of Jefferson website, Harris links the Bundy standoff to recent drought-related water shutoffs in Northern California, declaring that both amount Democratic Party efforts at “lining their pockets” and selling lands to the “Chinese at pennies on the dollar.” Drawing direct lessons for California organizing, Harris wrote,
A second lesson from the conflict is the double standard employed by the federal government in enforcing its grazing laws. The treatment of Bundy stands in stark contrast to the human rights violations committed against Carrie and Mary Dann (Mary Dann passed in 2005) by the U.S. government. The Dann sisters, members of the Western Shoshone tribe, grazed cattle on their ancestral lands in what is now central Nevada. In contrast to the Bundy incident, where the federal government had clear jurisdiction over the lands, the Dann sisters exercised reserved rights to use the land under the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley – a treaty that ceded no lands to the United States, only granting the U.S. certain access rights to lands. The Indian Claims Commission – created in 1946 to “compensate” tribes for unfairly taken lands (but not return the lands) – decided that U.S. title to Western Shoshone lands had been obtained through gradual encroachment by whites – that is, United State’s title to the land was based on simply taking it!
In 1993 the Montana-based Indian Law Resource Center filed complaints on behalf of the Danns before the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In 2002 the body ruled that the United States had violated the Dann’s property and due process rights and called on the U.S. to review tenets of Federal Indian Law (specifically, the so-called Discovery Doctrine) that discriminate against indigenous people. Also in contrast to the Bundy conflict, BLM followed its allegations of grazing violations by confiscating the Dann’s livestock and horses, ultimately auctioning off 232 of their cattle.
The take home from this comparison is clear. If you are white and far right, have no legal basis for your claims, and mobilize armed opposition, the Bureau of Land Management may allow you to continue to graze your cattle on public lands. If you are indigenous, have land rights that extend back eons, work through the legal system, and face a U.S. government willing to fabricate legal claims to your lands, you may lose your cattle and horses.
The armed wing of the far right has been emboldened by their victory at the Bundy ranch. This could affect land use struggles led by property rights, militia and Tea Party groups around the country.