'We want Cliven free!': Protesters converge on Bundy court hearing in Las Vegas
Cliven Bundy speaking at a forum hosted by the American Academy for Constitutional Education (AAFCE) at the Burke Basic School in Mesa, Arizona (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

By John M Glionna and Sam Levin

Protesters, some wearing cowboy hats and carrying handguns, rallied outside the arraignment of incarcerated anti-government rancher Cliven Bundy

The infamous cattle rancher Cliven Bundy was arraigned on a slew of felony charges in a federal court in Las Vegas on Thursday as around 100 protesters, some of whom were armed, rallied outside in support of his anti-government cause.

Bundy, who spearheaded an armed conflict with the federal government in 2014 when officials attempted to seize his cattle, refused to enter a plea on all of the charges, which include armed assault, threats against law enforcement, conspiracy against the government and using firearms to commit violence.

US judge Bill Hoffman entered a “not guilty” plea on Bundy’s behalf.

Bundy, 69, who evaded charges for nearly two years until his arrest in February, had long refused to pay grazing fees to the government to allow his cattle to use public lands – a dispute that escalated into a standoff that drew hundreds of anti-government supporters to his ranch in Bunkerville.

His head-to-head with the government inspired another standoff at a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon earlier this year, orchestrated by Cliven Bundy’s sons.

A total of 19 people are now facing serious charges in connection with the 2014 fight in Nevada following a round of arrests last week across the US.

The defendants in the Nevada case include Cliven’s sons Ammon and Ryan Bundy, who are also charged with a number of offenses in federal court in Oregon for leading their armed militia takeover of the wildlife refuge in January

In a rally that began Thursday morning and continued for hours, protesters gathered waving signs and US flags to protest the jailing of the man who has become the poster child in the west of the fight against alleged abuses by the federal government.

Some protesters were wearing cowboy hats and had handguns on their belts. Many carried signs promoting the first amendment to passing cars and cheered when they honked in support. One sign read: “It is Simple: The Land Belongs to the People.”

Nearby a woman with a megaphone shouted: “We want Cliven free! When do we want it?”

“Now!” the crowd responded.

Federal prosecutors, however, disagree. Authorities have argued that the rancher, whose home is 90 miles north of Las Vegas, is a flight risk and should remain behind bars.

In recent days, law enforcement officers have prepared for the onslaught of protesters in an open-carry state, reasoning that flaring tempers between Bundy supporters and their detractors could take a violent turn.

But outside the courthouse before the hearing, there wasn’t a single Bundy critic in sight.

Still, officials hung a set of mobile cameras atop a 20-foot pole just north of the courthouse steps, enabling police to identify individuals in the event of a confrontation occurring.

For days, Bundy’s family used social media to publicize the protest for the incarcerated rancher.

Appearing in court last Friday, Bundy said he wasn’t prepared to make a plea and hadn’t read the 63-page indictment, which outlines extensive allegations surrounding the planning and execution of his protest against the government and the involvement of his sons and other activists.

On Thursday, one protester refused to give his name and pointed to the .45 caliber on this belt. He said he had taken part in the 2014 standoff with federal officers but that he wasn’t afraid that agents would mark him from surveillance cameras.

“I don’t care,” he said. “I’m not doing anything wrong. This is public property.”

Nearby, Bundy’s 24-year-old daughter, Bailey Bundy Logue, stood among two other women hand-printing protest signs.

“What do you want?” one woman asked an activist.

“Write ‘Whatever It Takes’ on there,” she said, referencing a slogan that prosecutors have cited in their assertions that Cliven Bundy made threats against the government.

Bundy’s daughter saw a reporter taking notes and expanded on her argument.

“The government is coming after us,” she said. “It’s not just the cattle grazers. It’s the hikers and the bikers and the hunters. They just came for the ranchers first. Everybody’s next.”

Bailey said she had a video meeting with her father over the weekend, and that his spirits remained high. He was anxious for protesters to “make some noise” before his federal hearing, his daughter said.

“He was wearing one of those red jumpsuits, but he said red was his favorite color, so he was happy,” she added.

At the opposite end of the protest, Las Vegas roofer Rick Pollard said he skipped work to attend the rally.

“America doesn’t get it. It doesn’t know what’s going on,” he said, waving a large American flag. “These blacks can throw bricks in Ferguson and get away scott-free and an honest man like Cliven Bundy can’t even protect his own property from the federal wolves.”

He added: “It’s open season on common sense in this country.”

Then he stepped forward, waving a flag, shouting about Bundy supporter and Oregon militia leader LaVoy Finicum killed last month in Oregon.

“Wake up America? The FBI lied, and a man died! Wake up!” he said.

Cliven Bundy’s trial is set for 2 May.

Watch a report on the protest, as aired by KTNV-TV, below.