"A much larger and more dangerous movement": Right-wing militias thrive post-Bundy -- and the media won't talk about it

Cliven Bundy wasn't a one-off. New report shows far-right militias are growing, and more fear of home-grown terror

Published July 22, 2014 1:15PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Chris Keane/AP/Reuters/Jim Urquhart)
(Reuters/Chris Keane/AP/Reuters/Jim Urquhart)

Three months after the standoff at the Cliven Bundy ranch, the Southern Poverty Law Center has issued a report—"War in the West: The Bundy Ranch Standoff and the American Radical Right"—stating what should have been obvious at the time, but which most media coverage utterly obscured: The standoff was not some quirky, standalone event that spontaneously just happened out of the blue. Rather, it was a highly coordinated event reflecting the threat of a larger militia movement, which in turn has drawn together multiple threads of far-right ideology over the course of the last 40 years.

On the purely tactical level, the report notes that Bundy's armed supporters had “overwhelming tactical superiority” due to their pre-positioning on the high ground above the confrontation—under the direction of a Montana militia member and Iraq War veteran—which is a primary reason why the Bureau of Land Management wisely withdrew. On a somewhat broader level, the report warns of the events' ripple effect. “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.”

That's in addition to the violent Las Vegas rampage of Bundy supporters Jerad and Amanda Miller, which left three innocents dead along with the two shooters. And it places these events in a larger context. First in the Obama era—“Since 2009, there have been 17 shooting incidents between antigovernment extremists and law enforcement”—but also beyond. It stretches as far back as the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s, but gaining much more organizational coherence with the confluence of the racist, anti-Semitic Posse Comitatus, starting in the 1970s, and two more mainstream movements, "the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 1980s and the Wise Use movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s."

“The Bundy ranch standoff wasn’t a spontaneous response to Cliven Bundy’s predicament but rather a well-organized, military-type action that reflects the potential for violence from a much larger and more dangerous movement,” said Mark Potok, senior fellow in the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, and lead author of the report, in a statement accompanying the report. “This incident may have faded from public view, but if our government doesn’t pay attention, we will be caught off guard as much as the Bureau of Land Management was that day.”

“SPLC's piece is focused on the need for law enforcement to be ready in light of the apparent military-style planning of the Bundy protest. They are arguing that the Bundy ranch was a trap, and that it worked,” said veteran researcher Frederick Clarkson, author of "Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy," co-founder of the group researchers blog Talk To Action, and a senior fellow at Political Research Associates. “Indeed, given the involvement of former military and police officers in the Oath Keepers, one of the groups involved in the stand off, that far right figures would apply their knowledge to such situations is to be expected.”

“Mark Potok observes that the episode suggests that there is potential for 'violence from a much larger and more dangerous movement.' It's a good point and one all sectors of society need to take seriously,” Clarkson said.

Speaking to Salon, Potok himself made it clear it was the government as a whole, rather than BLM specifically, that bore the brunt of the blame. “The BLM certainly could have gone in in a better way. the optics were obviously terrible.... It was not the best approach,” Potok said. “On the other hand, at the end of the day, they did the right thing. They didn't try to tough it out.... As for the BLM itself, I actually feel sorry for them. This is not a law enforcement agency. Mostly, people who work for BLM go to college and study land-use issues.”

The problem is much more one of inter-agency coordination, leadership and simple recognition of the widespread threat of right-wing violence—a failure epitomized by the Obama administration's knee-jerk disavowal of a Department of Homeland Security report on right-wing extremism, leaked to right-wing media in April 2009. As Potok noted, this disavowal came despite two basic facts: first, that a similar report on the virtually nonexistent radical left had been issued six months earlier, and second, the fact the report itself was “a fair, sober and prescient analysis of what was going on.” In fact “virtually everything that was written in that report came to pass in one way or another.”

But it's not just the government that's been caught flat-footed. The media's sensationalist approach obscured as much or more than it revealed, “aided” as it were by its slavish devotion to “balanced coverage.” And the conservative establishment that first embraced, then fled from Bundy has long had a symbiotic partnership with the farthest fringes whose bottomless paranoia it regards as a natural resource without end. Neither the corporate media nor the establishment right shows any signs of having learned anything lasting from the Bundy ranch standoff. Some future sequel, spinoff or copycat seems virtually inevitable, above and beyond what we've already seen.

The Bundy ranch standoff may have been unique in one respect, the report admits, “in terms of its utter brazenness”:

Rarely have even the most militant of members of the antigovernment “Patriot” movement been photographed aiming sniper rifles at the heads of law enforcement officials. Almost never has a group of heavily armed right-wing radicals, facing large numbers of equally heavily armed law enforcement, forced the government to back down.

But it belongs on a spectrum of similar confrontations over the decades, and was clearly less lethal than many of them, including, of course the Oklahoma City bombing, which left 168 people dead, including 19 babies and children.

Part of what distinguished the Bundy ranch confrontation, the report suggests, was the role of Ryan Payne, a 30-year-old militia man from Anaconda, Montana, who had deployed twice to Iraq, and who played a key role in recruiting hundreds of other militia members to support Bundy, and in positioning the snipers, leading the BLM to withdraw. Payne is a member of small local militia group, the West Mountain Rangers, but he also “sits atop a little-known militia organization called Operation Mutual Aid, a group that he hoped could coordinate militias across the country to respond to federal aggressions,” according to the report. SPLC interviewed Payne weeks after the confrontation.

After a Bundy family video of their initial confrontations went viral, Payne jumped into action, first talking with Bundy, then driving through the night with another member of his militia, Jim Lardy, “a few sleeping bags in tow, burning up cell phones hoping to bring every militia member they could. On April 9, he sent out an urgent call for the militias to mobilize,” saying that 150 members had already responded, “but that number is growing by the hour.” Once he arrived, he took on the role of a battlefield planner—a role that payed off, big time, when the BLM decided to retreat, rather than precipitate a bloody confrontation:

Recounting the day several weeks later from the Bundy compound, Payne smiled. In the days before the standoff, he and Cliven Bundy had toured the public lands Bundy was using, looking for ways to defend them if necessary. He knew the battlefield, planned the response by Bundy supporters, and made sure snipers were in position. In his telling, his planning could not have gone more perfectly.

“Not only did they take up the very best position to overwatch everything, they also had the high ground, they were fortified with concrete and pavement barriers,” Payne said. “They had great lines of fire and then, when I sent in that other team, for counter sniper positions, [the BLM agents] were completely locked down. They had no choice but to retreat.”

The reason, he boasted, was “overwhelming tactical superiority.”

But a good case can be made that the real reason was strategic and political, not tactical. Contrary to all the right-wing paranoia, the American government has never seriously focused on the militia movement, its antecedents and allies in a sustained manner commensurate with the threats that it poses, although it has handled some specific incidents in an exemplary manner. (Ironically, in contrast, Potok told Salon that local, on-the-ground law enforcement has been keenly aware of the right-wing militia threat ever since the Oklahoma City bombing—though, tellingly, not before it.) The fact that Bundy was decades in arrears in the money he owed for grazing his cattle on public lands was just one more piece of evidence of how the government's lax attitude toward conservative lawbreakers breeds a sense of impunity and entitlement, which is also strongly supported by mainstream conservative voices, as well as media figures who straddle the ever-shrinking divide between mainstream conservatism and the lawless, violence-prone fringe.

The report not only provides a broad overview of how violence-prone right-wing anti-government conspiracism and broader land use grievances have interacted since the 1970s, it also provides direct evidence of how Bundy himself has espoused such fringe views throughout his decades-long period of refusing to pay the minimal grazing fees he owes.

But as far-reaching as it is, it is still remarkably focused, Clarkson points out. “The issue in the case of the Bundy grazing fees, is a long standing issue of federal lands in the West.  But there are many such potential rallying points for the Patriot movement and its prospective allies, informed by a volatile range of beliefs, many of them religious.”

While the report does mention religion in passing, as Clarkson suggests, there's a great deal more out there that lies beyond its scope. “In 2001, for example, there was an analogous situation when the Indianapolis Baptist Temple, which had refused to withhold taxes from their employee paychecks, faced the seizure of their assets. Militia groups also turned out to defend the church,” Clarkson said. In a post-Hobby Lobby world, who's to say what would happen with similar situation today? In that case, however, “law enforcement simply waited until almost everyone had gone home and three months later seized the church without violence,” Clarkson noted. “Not every such standoff need end in violence. But ideological shifts in elements of the Christian Right in recent years, also point to a growing potential if not actual preparation for violence.”

With this broader range of threats in mind, let's refocus on what "The War in the West" does tell us. Most broadly, it takes up the modern history of the militia movement and its kin with William Potter Gale's creation of the Posse Comitatus:

[H]istoric resistance to federal authority grew far sharper and more ideologically refined with the emergence of the modern radical right in the 1970s and 1980s, in particular the racist and anti-Semitic Posse Comitatus. The Posse, whose name is Latin for “power of the county,” pushed an especially radical localism, originating the doctrine of “county supremacy” even as it married elements of the tax protest movement to Christian Identity—a heretical reading of the Bible that depicts Jews as biologically satanic and people of color as subhuman.

In common law, posse comitatus means “the authority of a law officer to conscript any able-bodied males to assist him.” In American history it refers to the the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, a federal law prohibiting the military from policing non-federal property, which was intended specifically to cripple enforcement of the Civil War Amendments, which granted full citizenship and legal protections to former slaves and their descendants. At its core, Gale's Posse Comitatus seeks to elevate a mere statute to the level of a core constitutional principle—and not just any law, but a law passed specifically for the purpose of effectively nullifying three separate constitutional amendments, and reducing African-Americans back to the de facto level of slaves.

As the report notes, “In his 'Guide for Volunteer Christian Posses,' Gale says the Posse should deal with government officials who 'disobey' the Constitution by taking them 'to a populated intersection of streets… at high noon [to] be hung there by the neck.'” This is nothing more than a manifesto for mob rule—a blatant call for organized lynching. At best, one might call it a thinly veiled racist manifesto for white mob rule. But for anyone who knows U.S. history, there's really no veil at all. There was absolutely nothing accidental about Bundy's comments “about the negro.” Anti-black animus is coded into the very DNA of the movement Bundy and his militia allies come out of.

Concerning the beginnings of how the Posse insinuated itself into land-use disputes, the report notes:

The Posse also was one of the first modern radical groups to take up issues of land use--the same kind of issues exploited by Bundy and the armed militias that supported him in Nevada this spring. It disrupted environmental regulatory hearings, fought farm unionization, and intervened in land disputes. Most importantly, it took advantage of the serious agricultural crisis then forcing hundreds of thousands of farmers off the land, infiltrating what had originally been a progressive movement seeking better price supports and injecting its anti-Semitism and race hate.

In the end, that hatred, coupled with the violence of the Posse, helped wreck the movement to save American farmers being battered by heavy debt, high interest rates and the Soviet grain embargo. Any sympathy for farmers was swept away as the Posse’s infiltration of their movement and its aims were publicized.

Of course, the radical right frequently wins by losing this way—blaming others for the negative outcomes it does so much to bring about. And so, despite the collapse of the farmers movement, the Posse's influence only spread over time. The report notes:

[T]he Posse left an ideological legacy that lives on in the radical right today, including among the militia members and other radicals who came to defend Bundy and his theft of more than $1 million from the American people. A key part of that legacy is the Posse’s rejection of federal and even state government in favor of the county and the county sheriff, who are seen as the highest legitimate authorities in the nation. The Posse also was the first to create citizen grand juries and “common-law courts” that had no legal authority but still “indicted” various enemies.

The militia movement of the 1990s and beyond was animated by this kind of localism, which also involved furious opposition to any kind of global power (the United Nations, other transnational bodies and the “New World Order,” described as a cabal of global elites intent on creating a one-world government).

The report goes on to describe how two subsequent land-use movements—somewhat more mainstream conservative in origins—also came to be cross-fertilized with Posse-based ideology, identity-based hatred and conspiracism, laying the groundwork for the militia movement that emerged in the 1990s, “the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 1980s and the Wise Use movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s.” The report explains:

The Sagebrush Rebellion was set off by the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act that ended the longstanding practice of homesteading, effectively meaning that the federal government would retain control of huge swaths of western public lands, mostly dominated by sagebrush.... The movement, which gained the enthusiastic support of Ronald Reagan, among others, explicitly sought state or local control of the federal public lands and reductions in the same cattle grazing permit fees that Bundy more recently has refused to pay. These fees, far lower than those charged on the private market, are already a direct government subsidy to ranchers.

The Wise Use movement was essentially an extension of the Sagebrush Rebellion, which was more or less shut down by court rulings finding management of the lands in question was the responsibility of the federal government. It was kicked off by a 1988 conference hosted by anti-environmentalist timber activist Ron Arnold, and it was supported financially by resource extraction industries. Although its primary aim was to expand private property rights and reduce environmental regulation of public lands, the movement in many places essentially melded into the county supremacy movement first popularized by the Posse Comitatus.

The report cites an unfortunately forgotten incident from this past history that's eerily similar to the Bundy ranch confrontation in terms of its underlying themes:

The most dramatic example of that [melding of ideologies] came in Catron County, N.M., where radical local officials passed a total of 21 ordinances between 1990 and 1992 that attempted to supersede federal authority on public lands. The ordinances asserted that all Forest Service roads in the county were “public property,” made it a felony for citizens to alter the terms of grazing permits, and gave the county the right to condemn and manage public property for county use, among other things. The county’s 1992 land use plan declared that “federal agents threaten the life, liberty and happiness” of county residents and promised to defend “private property rights and protectable interests held by individuals in federal and state lands.”

The Catron County rebellion brought with it numerous threats against federal officials and environmentalists. Hugh McKeen, a county commissioner at the time, put it like this to an Albuquerque Tribune reporter: “This rebellion this time—we’ve had the Sagebrush Rebellion in the past, we’ve had many skirmishes, but this one will go to the end. It will go to civil war if things don’t change.”

Such was a good part of the thinking that fed into the militia movement, along with copious doses of conspiracism from the Posse Comitatus and others:

This is the ideology that has informed much of the radical right for the last three decades, and it is also the set of ideas that was behind the radicals who nearly created a massacre when they faced down law enforcement officials on the Bundy ranch this spring. And as this ideology continues to spread in a large and highly energized antigovernment movement, it will certainly drive other, similar battles.

Bundy's connection is not an accidental one. Although his father was a scofflaw before him, Bundy had the good fortune of a growing movement around him, whose language and postures he readily adopted as his own. Concerning the family's history of delinquency, the report notes:

The Bundy family had been at odds with the BLM for almost half of the 20th century, dating back to 1953, when Cliven Bundy’s father, David Bundy, applied for his first permit to graze 95 cattle on the BLM’s Gold Butte allotment, about 600,000 acres of low-lying desert.

According to a detailed timeline prepared by High Country News, David Bundy immediately went into arrears on payments for his permit.

By the time Bundy took over his father's claim, there was a pre-fab language of BS tailor-made for him to use:

In 1994, the BLM took Bundy to federal court in order to force him to pay what then amounted to about $25,000 in grazing fees. Even then, Bundy disavowed the federal government. He attempted to pay his fees to Clark County, a government body he recognized, but was turned away. On his own accord, as he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal, he “fired the BLM.”

“[T]hey’ve never proven to me they own that land, and I’m willing to do whatever’s necessary to defend my land,” Bundy told the Rocky Mountain News.

Over the next four years, “Bundy began filing sovereign citizen-like filings with the court, acknowledging only a 'sovereign state of Nevada,' not the federal government,” the report notes. One example suffices to reveal his state of mind:

In one letter to the authorities, dated Nov. 27, 1998, Bundy lectured state and federal officials about how they had no authority to restrict these lands. “Nevada officials are hereby given constructive notice that an unconstitutional jurisdiction without limitations is being imposed upon me and my family’s life, liberty and property. … I have been a rancher and steward of the range in this area for many more years than there has been a BLM…. I hereby give notice to all above named persons and entities that this order is coming from a foreign court,” he wrote.

There's so much BS in this letter, one hardly knows where to begin. So keeping it ultra-simple is perhaps the best tactic: In fact, Bundy's father purchased their ranch in 1948, two years after the BLM was formed in 1946, from a merger of the U.S. Grazing Service (established 1934) and the General Land Office (established 1812). Thus it is simply a bald-faced lie when Bundy claims “I have been a rancher and steward of the range in this area for many more years than there has been a BLM.” The land itself has been continuously owned by the U.S. government since its purchase from Mexico in 1848, as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Virtually all of the far right's conspiracist beliefs are equally transparent lies, if you can trace them back far enough. But that assumes a truth-seeking function on somebody's part—an assumption that's clearly unwarranted. In our age of savagely decimated newsrooms, fact-free “he said/she said” journalism appears to be the only kind that most organizations can manage—a style that naturally gives the advantage to those like Bundy who just make things up, carefully tailored to bolster their arguments.

“The vast majority of reporters have little or no background in covering movements,” Potok told Salon.

This is not a criticism of individual reports, but a reflection on “what has happened over 20 years collapse of the news media and the rise of opinion journalism.” With the collapse of newspapers, there are “very few people who are really knowledgeable about the far right,” he said. The Southern Poverty Law Center saw this trend coming 17 years ago, when Potok first joined the organization. “We realized this movement was being covered more and more by people who didn't know much about it. That's in part why we're organized the way we are.... There's a lack of that knowledge in the world, and we're trying to fill in the gap.... The bottom line is the radical right is very complicated, with multiple facets and multiple layers,” which make it quite difficult for reporters not familiar with it to make sense of things on the fly.

But the problem isn't simply lack of information—it's the presence of disinformation as well, which was on full display with the widespread embrace of Bundy as a folk hero, until he started spewing unvarnished racist hate speech.

“I think that the right wing of the Republican Party and figures on talk radio acted despicably during the standoff. And I think that has been true for large sections of the Republican Party for many years now,” Potok said. “Sean Hannity and others lionized Cliven Bundy as some kind of great hero, standing up for the Constitution. He was no hero, he was a thief, a man who stole over $1 million from you and I, his fellow Americans. And yet these people who supposedly represent law and order were out there cheering him on, until he made his unfortunate remarks about 'the negro', and then they ran—out of pure political cowardice.”

But this was hardly an isolated example, Potok noted. “The right wing of the Republican party has done a hell of a lot to help move completely fringe conspiracy theories and propaganda from far right of our society into the political mainstream.” He cited as an example an entry from the report's Timeline section, primarily focused on land use and the militia movement, but with some telling entries documenting their wider influence, and related conspiracist tendencies. Here's the example:

January 2012: The Republican National Committee passes a resolution denouncing Agenda 21 as a “destructive and insidious scheme” to impose a “socialist/communist redistribution of wealth” on America, a completely unfounded view of the voluntary UN sustainability plan. The resolution reflects how deeply Patriot conspiracy theories about environmentalism have penetrated the political mainstream.

In the real world, Agenda 21 is a non-binding plan to guide sustainable development—economic development along the lines pre-supposed by Lockean theory, in which the development of some land leaves as much opportunity for future developers and future generations. But in the eyes of right-wing extremists, there's no difference at all between John Locke and Vladimir Lenin. Also in the real world, George H.W. Bush was an original signatory of Agenda 21 at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, along with 186 other heads of state.

“It is a completely innocent, feel-good document that cannot force anyone to do anything,” Potok remarked. “And yet the RNC denounced it as a 'destructive and insidious scheme' and goes on to say it's an attempt to destroy all property rights in the U.S. These things are completely and utterly false.”

But what's even more astonishing is how this came about, Potok explained. “The John Birch Society, which infamously attacked President Eisenhower as a communist agent has been running around the country for years telling this lie,” Potok said. “Ten years ago, nobody on the right or the left gave a damn what the John Birch Society said. But now we have the RNC signing on to their conspiracy theory.”

Indeed, when William F. Buckley was struggling to make the conservative movement respectable, he officially condemned the John Birch Society, with a show of support from other conservative leaders as they rallied around the cause of Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign. Of course Bircher-style conspiracism never went away—conspiracist tracts such as "None Dare Call It Treason" and "A Choice, Not An Echo"—both wildly popular during Goldwater's campaign and beyond—sold far more copies than Buckley ever dreamed of. But at least there was a conservative establishment that officially disowned that sort of thinking. Today, Buckley is dead—and so is that establishment ethos.

Of course, it's not just the conservative establishment that's now legitimized the Birchers. The Southern Poverty Law Center is perhaps best known for its annual report “The Year in Hate and Extremism” which reports on the number of active hate groups and other extremists. The report is, as Potok suggested above, a form of journalistic endeavor. But in reporting on SPLC's 2013 report, some confusion slipped in at USA Today, which treated it almost as a matter of opinion, “balanced” by none other than the John Birch Society!

At least the BLM can see when it's made a mistake. But USA Today? I wouldn't bet on it. “Balance” is such an unquestionable virtue, you see. And that's arguably the biggest reason why we can expect future Bundy ranch incidents, with even bloodier outcomes ahead.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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