Those who have been anticipating a Boston Tea Party type event likely got what they were expecting last Saturday in Bunkerville, Nevada. The impasse between Rancher Cliven Bundy and federal Bureau of Land Management officials has been going on for a long time. After 20 years of Bundy defying edicts to remove his cattle from hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands, the BLM recently began impounding his herd. The impoundment operation involved bringing in hundreds of heavily armed agents to enforce the shutdown of nearly 6,000 square miles of public lands. They also provided security for the cowboys and helicopter pilots who were contracted to carry out the roundup and removal of Bundy’s cattle . . .
The heavy-handedness of the agents became an issue almost immediately. Bundy family members were threatened at gunpoint and Cliven’s son Dave was beaten and arrested after taking video outside of a “designated free speech zone.” Other clashes in the following days took place whenever protesters and BLM personnel met up.
Protestors and supporters began to arrive throughout the week, as did a number of militia groups. When I visited their ranch on Thursday, there were roughly 300 people on site. By Saturday morning, there were 500-600 protesters in attendance with dozens of uniformed militiamen providing security at Cliven’s home.
There is a serious question of whether this militia presence has helped or hurt the Bundys in the court of public opinion. That’s not surprising.
The very word ‘militia’ has been vilified ever since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Americans have been conditioned to view militia members as angry, disgruntled versions of Walter Mitty with a rifle.
The militia members I encountered on Saturday were polite, well disciplined, and down to earth. At the Bundy’s request, they were kept away from the main protest area and stayed around the ranch house. The reasoning here is pretty straightforward; the American public responds far more sympathetically to images of Cliven Bundy bottle feeding an emaciated calf separated from its mother than it would to camouflage-wearing men carrying rifles.
This wish was also reflected in a memo from the group Oath Keepers asking its members to avoid the camo and leave their long guns in their vehicles.
Prior to the rally on Saturday morning, I met with Ryan and Ammon Bundy and they both spoke in a surprisingly peaceful tone about how to approach the day’s events.
The tension had been growing all week in proportion to the number of protestors that were arriving from near and far. Both Bundy brothers acknowledged that belligerence was likely to cause more harm than a reasoned, humble approach.
Their rally began at 9am with a prayer and the pledge of allegiance. Ammon was the first speaker and, true to his word, he maintained a peaceful demeanor throughout his remarks. His uncle Steve spoke next and struck a similar tone.
Next, the crowd sang the Star Spangled Banner led by a Vegas entertainer. The mood of the crowd was positive and determined. That changed a few minutes later.
The first shift in mood was felt when Cliven arrived surrounded by a detail of militia. Only a couple of them carried long arms but the group walked Mr. Bundy through the crowd and up to the podium where they formed a protective line at the front of the stage.
Cliven spoke for a few moments and then introduced Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie. The sheriff had been noticeably absent for most of the past week and was highly unpopular with the crowd. Cliven asked for the crowd to be respectful and handed the microphone to Gillespie.
The sheriff announced that a deal had been struck with BLM officials where they would cease their impoundment of cattle, reopen the closed public lands, and withdraw their assets from the Bundy’s ranch. The crowd predictably went wild at this news and a great many of us breathed a sigh of relief that a peaceful solution had been found. But then things got tense.
Cliven took the mic back from the sheriff and began issuing a list of demands that included disarming and arresting all BLM and National Park Service personnel in the county, tearing down various NPS tollbooths and barricades within the county, and delivering his cows back to him within the hour. Bundy told the sheriff that he had an hour to get to work and that if the demands were not met that the gathered crowd would decide at that time what action to take. The formerly peaceful crowd was getting fired up.
What happened next was equal parts inspiring and surreal.
As the clearly unhappy sheriff left, dozens of Bundy family members came riding over the hill on horseback with flags. When the horsemen had lined up facing the crowd, a young cowboy rode his horse at a full gallop to the top of the hill with an American Flag and waved it proudly.
Just a few miles away, a large number of Las Vegas Metro officers and SWAT had been staged presumably as a back up in case the crowd got out of control.
At the end of Cliven’s hour deadline, the sheriff had not returned and the decision was made to take the protest to nearby I-15 where they would stop traffic and go directly to the BLM compound where the cattle were being held.
As roughly 250 protesters and mounted cowboys approached the gates for the BLM compound the agents inside pointed rifles at them and warned them over loudspeakers to get back or they would be shot. Meanwhile, militia members and other armed citizens took up positions opposite the BLM personnel with their rifles trained on the feds.
Now it was an honest to goodness standoff.
The tension was unbelievable. Hundreds of spectators and members of Las Vegas Metro and Nevada Highway Patrol lined the interstate above the wash where the Bundy family members and BLM agents were yelling back and forth at one another. Finally Ammon and a few protesters were able to approach the fence and speak to the agent in charge.
It took nearly two hours, but eventually the protesters gave the feds a chance to back off and open the gates and soon the cattle were on their way home.
Now comes the hard part. The end result seems pretty satisfactory with the BLM standing down and the Bundys recovering their property. Thankfully, both sides showed remarkable restraint. But could it have been accomplished without the armed confrontation? Or did the Second Amendment work as intended without a shot having to be fired?
A peaceful deal had already been reached. Upping the ante put a great many people at risk including innocent bystanders. It’s sobering to think that the spark that could ignite a national conflagration was a single trigger pull away.
If history is any indicator, the feds are not particularly good sports when they don’t get their way. Remember how FBI and ATF agents triumphantly planted an American flag on the ashes of the Branch Davidians? That was a vivid reminder that retribution is always a possibility.
At this writing, friends in local law enforcement are telling me that even more federal agents and even some military assets are being moved into nearby Mesquite. It’s a safe assumption that this modern equivalent of the Boston Tea Party could still end in a shot heard ‘round the world.