The Raw Story went to the Bundy occupation five years ago and warned the impunity would "blaze into another firestorm." That's exactly what happened on the US Capitol -- and could happen again.
In January 2016 a heavily armed militia led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon. For 41 days the two brothers used it as a base to carry out their fantasy of sparking a revolt against the U.S. government. They failed, but the impunity the Bundys enjoyed — before, during, and after their insurrection — proved to be a model and a source of inspiration for Trump's self-coup on January 6.
The lesson of the Bundy occupation was white conservatives with guns could threaten violence to further their political goals and face minimal consequences. That led to the deadly unrest of the Trump era: Charlottesville, Portland, Proud Boys, and Atomwaffen. Despite this, conservative white extremists were still able to incite violence. Before January 6, there were so many attacks on state capitols one expert on the extreme right asked, "how many times do they have to storm a capitol before it's taken seriously?"
Armed hordes storming the Capitol finally shocked the feds into action, and they have arrested 155 insurrectionists and counting. But the impunity remains. Just as the government went easy on the Bundys despite their blatant lawlessness, the government may go easy on a mob that wanted to put "heads on pikes" and came within a minute of carrying out their wish to "Hang Mike Pence."
Taking a bite out of violent white nationalism will fall to the incoming Biden administration. The last thing needed is new domestic terrorism laws that "will inevitably be used … against Black and brown people," says the ACLU. The government has plenty of powers to prosecute the extremists. While that won't end the threat of far-right terrorism, punishing insurrectionists with something to lose, the lawyers, doctors, executives, cops, politicians, military, entrepreneurs, Beverley Hill salon owners in Chanel boots and Louis Vutton sweaters, and most of all Trump and his accomplices in Congress, will isolate the most violent elements from broader public support.
The road to insurrection began in Nevada where rancher and family patriarch Cliven Bundy launched an anti-government crusade in 2014. After decades of illegally grazing cattle on public land, Bundy was ordered to pay $1.1 million in fees and fines. Bundy, who boasts, "I abide by almost zero federal laws," refused and after three court orders, the government began seizing his 500 cattle. Bundy called for a "range war," and hundreds of heavily armed "patriots" and militiamen answered. The feds' tepid response backfired. Surrounded and outgunned, federal police retreated, returned the cattle, and allowed Bundy to continue his criminal activities.
The right was galvanized, particularly by the image of a sniper on a highway overpass aiming his rifle at the feds. It was a model for the social media violence the right used to recruit new extremists during the Trump years. The sense of impunity the imagery conferred was likely why so many of the QAnon mob provided evidence of their guilt with selfies and videos inside the Capitol. Like the Bundys, like Trump, they thought documenting their crimes would allow them to get away with it.
The Bundy standoff also foreshadowed Trump by drawing extremists with white supremacist sympathies. Cliven Bundy, who mused that Blacks "were better off as slaves," attracted the Three Percent militia, which faced off against clergy protesting at the deadly Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville in 2017, and the Oath Keepers which promotes racist conspiracy theories. Both militias were on the frontlines of the battle of the Capitol.
Treated with kid gloves, the Bundy gang were emboldened to stoke more conflicts with the first Black president. Ryan Bundy led an illegal ATV foray into a canyon in Utah in May 2014, weeks after the feds stood down in Nevada. Then the Oathkeepers tried to turn a minor legal dispute over a gold mine in Southern Oregon into an armed confrontation. In August 2015, militias rallied at a mine in Montana hoping to ignite another anti-government conflict.
In the fall of 2015 Ammon and Ryan set their sights on Malheur. They arrived in Eastern Oregon championing two ranchers, Dwight and Steve Hammond, convicted of setting fires in Malheur. The Bundys and their supporters warned the local sheriff if he didn't stop the ranchers from being imprisoned, they would return with hundreds of armed men and "do the sheriff's job for him." One supporter talked of killing the sheriff.
Despite the clear threat the Bundys posed, it's never been explained why they were allowed to operate freely, just as all the forewarnings of violence on Capitol Hill went unheeded. On January 2, 2016, the Bundys and a dozen armed men took the refuge unopposed. That impunity extended to the father-son ranchers who were little more than criminals. As The Raw Story reported at the time, the Hammonds had for decades allegedly destroyed Malheur's delicate ecosystem with cattle, damaged government vehicles and property, hunted animals by air in the refuge, and threatened to kill Fish and Wildlife employees and their families.
The Raw Story went inside the Bundy occupation. Nearly every occupier was armed, some with multiple guns, despite a prohibition of firearms. They used government equipment, buildings, and vehicles as if they were their own. They built fortifications that damaged "an archaeological site sacred to the Burns Paiute Tribe."
By flaunting their lawlessness, the Bundys believed they could get away with it. Trump used the same playbook, planning his crimes in the open, culminating in the insurrection. The Bundys' plotted to ignite a sagebrush revolt against Washington. To that end they set up a shadow government with their own legislative and judicial bodies to displace the real one.
The Bundy's cast included a self-appointed judge running secret grand juries to indict county commissioners and the sheriff and remove them from office. How they planned to do that without violence they couldn't say. When asked by reporters for the names of the grand jurors, the "judge" threatened to charge the reporters with felonies. When a reporter told Ryan Bundy, during a two-hour lecture on the Constitution conducted from inside his pick-up truck, "You want to overthrow the government," he went silent. It wasn't a secret. From the start of the occupation, the sheriff accused the Bundys of wanting to "overthrow the county and federal government."
They wanted to spark a revolution. Their followers knew it. But they never said it outright because their strategy was to pose for the cameras as homespun cowboys defending the flag and freedoms. And the media lapped it up. Trump used the same strategy on January 6. He told the MAGA crowd, "If you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore." He never told the mob to storm the Capitol, so he can play innocent. But his followers knew exactly what he meant as many of those arrested are now claiming in self-defense, "Trump said to do so."
In the name of freedom, the Bundys and the hundreds of malcontents who flocked to the nearby town of Burns terrorized local residents. Federal employees were stalked and eventually fled with their families. The Bundys showed up to town meetings and surrounded the room with armed men. Supporters drove around town waving guns and Confederate flags. Police disappeared from the streets and hunkered down in the courthouse behind concrete barriers and earthen berms used to fend off car bombers. This set a pattern for the Trump years. The Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer have invaded cities such as Portland, Washington, D.C., and Charlottesville, marching under the banner of freedom, while attacking and terrorizing locals with little police interference and few legal consequences.
America has shown a fidelity to white supremacy we can't dismiss -- regardless of the election's final outcome White supremacists march on Charlottesville, VA during the August 2017 "Unite the Right" rally that left a woman dead. Image via Karla Cote/Creative Commons.
The feds ambushed the Bundys after 41 days, gunning down their spokesman LaVoy Finnicum. But they got away with it. Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five defendants were acquitted in 2016, days before Trump's election. The prosecution botched the case. They were accused of undercharging, sloppy legal work, and the defense was allowed to stack the jury with rural gun owners sympathetic to the Bundy's weepy Western tale of rugged individualism. The Bundys caused $6 million in damage to the refuge and the bill for law enforcement was another $12 million. They agreed in principle — but not actuality, — to pay back $78,000 and were freed from further prosecution. To top it off, Cliven Bundy and his followers walked free after a judge threw their case out of court, citing flagrant prosecutorial misconduct by Department of Justice lawyers in Nevada.
The Bundy acquittal was proof of racial double standards and forms a straight line to January 6. The danger for Biden is going easy on the Capitol Hill rioters as juries and judges will look on them sympathetically because they are conservative and white. Unless the punishment fits the crime of insurrection, the right will take it as a license to use more violence.
Disturbingly, prosecutors are already raising the evidentiary bar far higher for MAGA rioters than against Black Lives Matter and anti-fascist protesters. After claiming insurrectionists were planning to "capture and assassinate" politicians, prosecutors walked it back in court, saying, "There is no direct evidence at this point of kill-capture teams and assassination."
Except the world can see and hear all the evidence of individuals vowing to kill elected officials, coming equipped with weapons and zip ties to do so, and fighting their way into the Capitol to do so. Compare that to more than 300 federal prosecutions of George Floyd protesters that is unprecedented in its harshness. It includes such absurdities as charging a defendant for a federal crime because the bottle allegedly used to make a molotov cocktail came from Mexico and hauling defendants into federal court for trifling offenses such as "failing to obey a lawful order."
The threat of violence will remain high as Trump and FOX News gain from stoking conflict, while the thousands of extremists he inspired will see violence as the answer now that they believe they are out of power. Unless the Biden White House acts decisively to douse the fire of right-wing terrorism, the next time it may consume us all.