Street Corner Soapbox: The Cliven Bundy Saga Continues

Categories:      News & Politics    Opinion
Wednesday, April 30th, 2014 at 6:19 AM

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy didn't give a rat's ass about the federal government's orders not to graze his cattle on federal land. Hell, his parents and his parents' parents’ cattle all grazed that land, going back more than a hundred years, and he figured it was more his than the government's. And what for? A desert tortoise! The federal government cares more about a damn reptile than Cliven Bundy! So, screw 'em!

So started the Bundy saga back in 1989. Bundy let his cows graze on federal land, ignoring injunctions and court orders to move them, amassing fines and, eventually and obviously, resulting in the Bureau of Land Management rounding up his cattle this spring – 25 years later! Only Bundy had recruited militia and other rightwing groups to his side, who encamped near his land with their guns and pickup trucks, and who helped him take back his animals from the BLM at what they're calling the “Battle of Bunkerville” – a tense standoff between federal agents and armed militia groups. The government backed down, the cows were released, and freedom-loving patriots – Sean Hannity, Rand Paul – everywhere rejoiced!

Only this happened: “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” said the rancher during a videotaped press conference. “They abort their children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life, or are they better off under government subsidy?”

And the support vanished.

Fox News' Sean Hannity called Bundy's comments “racist” and “beyond despicable.”

“His remarks on race are offensive,” said Kentucky's Sen. Rand Paul, “and I wholeheartedly disagree with him.”

Other Nevada Republicans disowned the rancher, as did a number of conservative pundits and talk-show hosts and politicians.

Here's the thing. It's a shame Bundy's comments distract us from important issues.

Like this: There's nothing to rally around in Bundy's case. He took without paying. That's theft.

There are real issues around use of federal land in the west. Ranchers like Bundy are too often just getting by. The price they pay to graze federal lands often determines whether they survive, and in many cases we're talking about ranching families who've worked the land for generations. And sometimes federal environmental policies do endanger them. That is, sometimes they are driven out by the desert tortoise.

But that doesn't mean Bundy is admirable. Or right.

“You notice there's no cattlemen that are standing beside Bundy,” said former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, himself a rancher. “They support what the BLM does. This guy...he's a grifter.”

And the “freedom-loving patriots” who rallied to Bundy's side? Mostly militia groups and others, rightwing extremists who don't believe in the federal government's authority. Nevada's Sen. Harry Reid called them “domestic terrorists,” which isn't so far off, if you consider that they confronted federal agents with guns and prevented them from carrying out the law. Which isn't far off, either, if you consider the roots of the militia, its history, and the myriad conflicts with federal agents they've had over the years.

There's a lot of talk of Ruby Ridge and Waco, in which people were killed by federal agents in violent standoffs, often unnecessarily or even wrongfully. But there's also the Montana Freemen – militia extremists who declared themselves independent of federal authority, which they saw as freeing themselves from the laws against, say, passing bad checks and threatening public officials. And there's also Timothy McVeigh, who blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. What's talked about less often are the pipe bombs that exploded in Nevada federal offices in the 1990s, or the myriad and too-frequent threats against Forest Service and BLM and US Fish and Wildlife agents.

This is a dangerous, extralegal movement.

Not that Bundy's racism doesn't matter. There's a tradition of justifying slavery in the U.S., and Bundy's comments fall right into a too-familiar groove. The modern social state gives African-Americans less freedom than they had under slavery. But, as Charles Blow wrote in the New York Times, “there is no modern-day comparison in this country to the horrors of slavery. None!”

And as the Washington Post's Dana Milbank reminds us, Bundy's racial views are all-too familiar on the radical right. The militia's Posse Comitatus movement was birthed of anti-Semitism, and much of the criticism of President Obama from those groups circles around terms like “half-breed” or “mongrel.”

“Not all people who resist the authority of the federal government are motivated by race, of course,” wrote Milbank, “and not all racists are anti-government. But there is a long symbiosis between the two.”

Even the left-wing response tying early Republican support for Bundy to a pervasive racism in the GOP aren't all that far off. “[T]his liberal conflation is a sample of flawed logic,” wrote columnist Kathleen Parker. “That said, it is not baseless. The GOP is not a party of racists, but it is a party with racists.”

And it does beg the question, where are these so-called patriots when it comes to responding to real government attacks on Americans' rights? Why are they silent when states pass laws limiting the rights of minorities and the poor to vote?

But perhaps the biggest question revolves around the federal government's response – or lack of response to Bundy and his militia supporters. Contrast their treatment with, say, Occupy protesters, who were gassed and shot with rubber bullets in cities across the U.S. Or contrast how Bundy's militia was treated with the 1985 “eviction” of the group MOVE from a Philadelphia row house.  In that case, police first shot tear gas, then dropped explosives on the house. A fire broke out. The police let it burn. The result? Sixty homes destroyed and eleven dead, including five children. The difference? MOVE was an African-American group.

Bundy shouldn't be shot, of course. But he has yet to suffer any consequences from violating federal law and intimidating federal agents with arms. And that fits a disturbing pattern of government indifference to violence and intimidation by homegrown conservative extremists.

Jay Stevens can be contacted at, and you can follow him on Twitter @Snevets_Yaj. 

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