We all know the story of Cliven Bundy by now. Sixty-eight-year-old Nevada rancher who carries a copy of the Constitution in his pocket, has accrued $1 million in debt to the U.S. government for refusing for over 20 years to pay the same fees all other ranchers pay to graze cattle on federal land. Last year, a U.S. District Court denied Bundy’s alleged ancestral claims to the land and this April, the Bureau of Land Management hired cowboys to round up the rancher’s cattle in exchange for the money he owes. Bundy refused to recognize the authority of the federal government and, instead, welcomed hundreds of armed supporters. Bundy’s militia turned their weapons on the BLM agents and, in an effort to avoid a bloody battle, the BLM agents stood down. The rest is TV news history.
Bundy may seem like nothing more than a flash in the pan—his 15 minutes of Fox News fame officially flaming out with a racist rant—but the Battle at Bunkerville was not the first or the last clash between anti-government extremists and federal law enforcement. A new report by the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center traces the roots of the movement from which Bundy was born, and the incidents his indigence may have sparked.
Though they agree that the BLM was wise to retreat from Bundy’s bunkerville ranch rather than risk a shootout, the authors of the SPLC report condemn the inflated sense of victory the move gave Bundy supporters.
“It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the victory won in the desert today,” the head of the anti-government III Percent Patriots Mike Vanderboegh wrote on his blog after the standoff. “The feds were routed—routed. There is no word that applies. Courage is contagious, defiance is contagious, victory is contagious. Yet the war is not over.”
Since 2009, there have been 17 shootings involving anti-government extremists and law enforcement. In just three months since Bundy’s “victory” over the BLM, there have been several standoffs. In April, a BLM worker driving a marked federal vehicle was accosted by two hooded men who pointed a handgun at him and held a sign that read, “You need to die.” The following month, a local Utah county commissioner and 50 others rode all-terrain vehicles across the 14-mile stretch of Recapture Canyon that the BLM has closed to motor vehicles, in protest of the federal government’s control over public lands. In mid-June a man named Brent Douglas Cole allegedly shot and wounded a BLM ranger and a California Highway Patrol officer while camping in Nevada City, California.
Then, of course, there were the Millers.
The Millers left a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and a swastika on the police officers’ bodies.
At the Bundy ranch, before he and his wife, Amanda, were reportedly asked to leave, Jerad Miller told a Las Vegas TV station, “I feel sorry for any federal agents that want to come in here and try to push us around, or anything like that. I really don’t want violence toward them, but if they’re gonna come bring violence to us, well, if that’s the language they want to speak, we’ll learn it.”
Less than two months later, the couple shot and killed two Las Vegas cops and another man and before dying in a shootout with police. The Millers left a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and a swastika on the police officers’ bodies.
“Government officials need to understand what motivates this movement because the Millers will not be the last to demonstrate their anti-government rage with bullets,” the SPLC report’s authors write. “Law enforcement officials also need training on a movement that increasingly targets them.”
Though Cliven Bundy may have rallied the first—at least the most publicized—armed standoff between anti-government activists and law enforcement, the SPLC notes that confrontations between “militant radical rightists and the government they believe has no authority over them” date back all the way to the 1791 Whiskey Rebellion. In fact, “conceived in a rebellion against imperial British authority and raised on a diet of rugged frontier individualism,” the authors write, the United States itself is a product of the anti-government movement. But each movement of resistance against government control has resulted in the expansion of centralized government, from the Civil War to the New Deal to the civil rights movement.
Though the popularity of Bundy-style extremism has risen and fallen over the past 30 years, usually rising in conjunction with Democratic administrations, the number of what the SPLC considers anti-government extremist groups have gone from 150 when President Obama was first elected in 2008 to more than 1,000 in the last year. The SPLC praises Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent announcement that the Justice Department plans to revive the Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee, which was created in response to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and hopes it means swift prosecutions for those who aimed loaded weapons at federal officers at Bundy’s ranch—a federal offense with a maximum 20-year prison sentence. Still, they urge the Department of Homeland Security to devote more resources to non-Islamic domestic terror threats and insist that politicians and media pundits be called out for glorifying dangerous characters like Bundy.
“As this ideology continues to spread in large and highly energized anti-government movement, it will certainly drive other, similar battles,” the SPLC concludes.