In the Park City, Utah, home of a smoothie influencer, Ammon Bundy was telling an old story.
His father had been persecuted by the government over a land-use dispute, he said, as part of a plot to drive ranchers out of business.
For years, this has been the Bundy family’s account of a 2014 armed standoff between their supporters and the federal government. The government’s side of the story is somewhat different: Bundy’s father Cliven was avoiding more than $1 million in fines for keeping his cattle on public lands, and enlisted help from militia groups to remain on the property.
When Bundy gave the speech last week in the Utah home, however, he updated it for a COVID-era audience.
“If you look at what happened to my family, I can see a lot of similarity to what's happening to all of us right now,” Bundy told the crowd. “It's the same thing. It's the exact same thing that they did to the land-users and it's the exact same thing that they did to the ranchers.”
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In 2020, as COVID-19 was sweeping the nation, Ammon Bundy launched the People’s Rights network, a multi-state hub of activists ready to deploy against perceived government tyranny at a moment’s notice. Most of the group’s ire has been aimed at COVID-19 restrictions. The network was linked to a mask-burning on the steps of Idaho’s Capitol building last weekend, as well as the storming of an Idaho legislative session this summer and protests at the homes of Idaho health officials.
Now Bundy and People’s Rights are on a speaking tour in Utah, drawing audiences at anti-maskers’ homes and survivalist conferences—and potentially riling up new recruits for future anti-government violence, experts warn.
The tour comes as People’s Rights issues dark warnings about the future, and extremism-watchers warn that the group might return to its roots in public land battles. (The People’s Rights network did not return a request for comment.)
Michelle Galaria, founder of extremism-tracking Kanab Utah Right Watch, said she worried Bundy’s scheduled event in her longtime home of Kanab, Utah, on Thursday would recruit new members in an already-tense political climate.
“I agree with public officials that you can’t prevent one group and not another” from gathering, Galleria said. But she said she appealed to officials to postpone the event for at least a month, citing a Department of Homeland Security advisory about far-right violence “in the weeks following the successful Presidential Inauguration.”
So far, Galaria said, her appeals have not been successful. Although Kanab has a number of activists who support public lands (in contrast to the Bundys), Galaria said, organizing against the People’s Rights network could be challenging, especially after a Kanab Black Lives Matter march in 2020 was met with harassment. There is “reluctancy right now, because of the political atmosphere, because of the threats to the Black Lives Matter demonstrators,” she said. “I think that most people will absolutely shy away from it.”
Thursday night’s event in Kanab came at the tail end of Bundy’s Utah speaking tour, which began earlier this month and saw him take the stage at a disaster preparedness fair, a theater, and several private homes.
Footage from one of those home events shows the host—a health food social media personality—giving advice for what to do if police interrupted the unmasked gathering. She noted, however, that such a disturbance was unlikely.
“We had 40 of the Freedom Fighters here in Utah, we had 40 of us here last weekend and we didn't get the police called on us,” she told the crowd. “I almost want to call them on us myself.”
Conservative-leaning Utah is fertile ground for movements like the People’s Rights network. LaVoy Finicum, a rancher who was killed by law enforcement during a 2016 standoff with Bundy, was from Kanab. A report by the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights found that more than 1,500 Utahns had joined the People’s Rights network as of September.
That burgeoning membership worries some watchers of the far right. Stephen Piggott, a researcher with the left-leaning nonprofit Western States Center, recently told HuffPost that People’s Rights would likely retool its message as the pandemic shows signs of easing.
“I think it’s just a matter of time before some of these folks start to pivot away from COVID-19 organizing and focus their attention on the Bureau of Land Management yet again,” Piggot said. “I could see a lot of this stuff coming to a head in the near future.”
Cliven Bundy, the family patriarch, signalled earlier this year that he and supporters might once again stand off with the government if it attempts to collect his still-unpaid fines for keeping cattle on public land. “We're going to have to go forward,” he told a radio host in January. “If we have to walk forward towards guns, which we did at the Bundy ranch, we have to do that. And we have to have faith."
The People’s Rights network is based on a quick-response model that can deploy members to a demonstration in 15 minutes. That decentralized model has allowed the group to overlap with other far-right organizations. At least one People’s Rights protest outside the home of a Washington official was held in coordination with the street-fighting Patriot Prayer movement, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported.
Elsewhere, People’s Rights members have attended events alongside members of the paramilitary group the Proud Boys, as well as an Idaho militia and the conspiratorial John Birch Society.
Last month, the leader of the People’s Rights network’s Nevada chapter was arrested for alleged threats against an attorney and a police detective. The man had first come into contact with the pair after he was arrested for repeatedly trying to enter a courthouse while members of the Bundy family were on trial for a standoff.