Sunday, 13 April 2014

Showdown at the Bundy Ranch

If you follow Twitter, you'll have seen tweets about the Bundy Ranch. Lost in the fog of war, deliberate misinformation, propaganda and conspiracy theories is the story of actually what has been going on and came to a head this week.

Cliven Bundy runs the last free-range cattle ranch in south eastern Nevada. The ranch is his but in the same way his family has done since the 1870's, he grazes his thousand head of cattle on the open range, not prairie but desert scrub - which is technically Federal land (let's forget Native American claims for the time being - further complicates the issue). 

In 1993, ostensibly to protect a species of tortoise, local ranchers lost their grazing rights and had to pay the government for the privilege, and one by one they shut down and moved out, apart from Bundy who withheld the tax payments (now over $1m owed). Court orders have been ignored and this week, the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) decided to take action and confiscate his herd.

So far, so good. Apart from the fact that the legality of the confiscation is under question, and the BLM showed up with a bunch of cowboys to take the herd, and over a hundred heavily armed agents, helicopters and armoured vehicles. The ranch was surrounded, the cattle rounded up and taken to a compound, apparently for sale to recover the owed grazing fees. They managed to get about a third of the herd.

What we know is that when one of Bundy's sons was attacked by a K9 unit and tasered, it was captured on video and it went viral.

Suddenly Twitter was alive with all kinds of wingnuts - white supremacists, Tea Party supporters, NRA members and local militias ready to ride in and defend Bundy from the Feds. The Feds didn't help. They reinforced, set up of all things a 'First Amendment Area',

deactivated local cell towers and on Friday the FAA declared the area a no-fly zone. The state governor became involved, and the story was covered by Fox and RT (both taking the same position on the story!).

At this point it looked like the whole thing was going to be a repeat of Waco and Ruby Ridge
but in this case armed supporters of the Bundys from local states showed up - some as heavily armed as the Feds - and today the BLM stood down and released the cattle. Some amazing pictures here (click on one of the pictures to open the slide show, the source text is unsurprisingly inaccurate).

The way the whole issue was handled by the government was flawed, as if nothing had been learned from the past. But there is something else at the core of this story which is why it peaked my interest. The Federal government had no chance of winning this dispute as they had decided to take on the most evocative cultural myth at the heart of their own national identity - the cowboy.

At this point, the facts of the story are as lost and as pointless as the historical truth of the cowboys of the American West. Whilst the varied extremist groups wanted to exploit this case for their own questionable causes, when a cattle rancher takes on the government and talks about freedoms enshrined in the US Constitution, and that government has undeniably sought to curtail those freedoms (a first amendment area?), it immediately summons up the plots of a hundred B-movie westerns and TV shows. Bundy becomes an iconic representation of the very concept of freedom in the American sense without even trying. 

UPDATE: In the past week, Mr. Bundy has shared his views on African Americans. These proved to be racist in the extreme, and so the myth is shattered and reality is restored. Bundy lost his support, was denounced by nearly all who supported him. The dream was nice while it lasted. But thinking about it again, is he really just a man out of time? Those views were probably not much different from those his by his ancestors who built his ranch back in the era of the cowboy. And as those days are gone and the world turns away from the views he holds, perhaps time to bury the myth too.


  1. Just as some more comments.
    The fees are fees, not taxes. They're about $1.30 per head of cattle (which covers about 20 acres) per month.
    All the other ranchers pay the fees, and have for decades.
    Also, the court documents and records make it clear that Bundy hasn't been grazing since the 1870s. His parents moved there from Arizona when Cliven was 2 years old, back in the 40s and didn't graze cattle until the 50s.
    Oh, and the BLM's just enforcing a bunch of court ordered obtained over the last 20 years (bundy's lost every single time). And the reason for the heavily armed officcers? Because in the past Bundy has threatened to shoot BLM officials if they tried to enforce court orders.

  2. Bundy is what would be called a "moocher" if he was a poor person needing assistance. The facts are that he has money, that he owes the Government a bit over $1 million, has been to court and lost several times, now has his out of state "militia" (not the other ranchers, mind you) camping out, stopping people on the highway and looking at their papers!, I believe the BLM backed off because they didn't want an incident as one of the militia leaders stated that women and children were going to be put in front as "human shields" to be shot first if the BLM and/or police or any officials did have to start shooting: that tasing video is not complete, it doesn't show what led to the tasing, and now this: ... Bundy and his supporters are no heroes, period.

  3. "First Amendment Areas" are actually a pretty common thing. They're typically done for a few reasons, often the safety of the protesters. In the case of an event like this, where you have people actively and openly saying "we're putting the women in front of us so that if it comes to shooting, and the news shows it, it'll be women being gunned down by federal agents" it's pretty obvious that there's a significant degree of "unsafe" space in and around the site of conflict. So the area is set aside as somewhere protesters and activist who want to have their voice heard, be seen by the news, but not actually stand between two heavily armed forces can attend. It's much like your first amendment rights don't allow you to interfere with a crime scene, they also don't allow you to interfere with an active operation of law enforcement agencies in other cases either. Rather than saying "none of you can legally be here" they at least make an attempt to have an area for them.

    It's not great, and it gets abused a lot (such as first amendment areas being set aside during presidential parades that are off the path of the parade, and selectively only sending those with negative signs there while leaving supportive people) but in the case of a situation where a firefight was probably narrowly avoided, having an area for people who aren't participants in the actual standoff makes some degree of sense.

  4. All paid in blood by the Native Americans... Just as the Aboriginies have been treated in Australia. Oh, England, My Lionheart, you have so much TO ANSWER FOR.