The image: an elderly man in jeans, a starched shirt and cowboy boots rides a horse across the bleached Nevada landscape; he holds a pole like a Roman spear, upright in salute, and from it a large flag flutters the American standard, the Stars and Bars.
It is an image that captured cable news and had pundits weighing in on government over-reach, the greed of the Obama administration as a whole and the cowardice of its impotent apparatus, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). That image seemed to simultaneously exonerate the values the righteous right stood for while underlining the dire warnings that those same values were under constant assault. It was the epitome of the beleaguered common man, fed up with the Federal government’s intrusion on his right to live by his own moral code – one that was, of course, built on a Christian foundation (also under assault). Finally, it stood as a shining example of the rugged individualism long touted by those “bootstrap” Republicans: there, on the screen, a living example of the durable pragmatism of the cowboy and a simpler, more honest time.
Except of course it wasn’t.
But as an image it worked and rhetorically it worked and it was further enhanced by the dramatic descent of an armed militia and suddenly we saw men perched on freeway overpasses taking aim at federal officers. And as bluster and swagger it worked because the BLM and the federal authorities wisely retreated rather than spark a war that only they seemed not to want. Emboldened, the militia made themselves at home and swore to protect their right, as Americans, to be shortchanged.
They didn’t know that was what they were doing but it was.“How beautiful it is and how easily it can be broken.” ― Tennessee Williams
Theft is sometimes discreet, sometimes overt. Often it is abrupt and immediately felt: we deploy the vulgar purse thief and rail against the intrusive burglar who raids our home. But sometimes theft takes the form of what is withheld over what is taken and occasionally, when theft is elusive and when it takes place over a longer period of time, we tend to overlook the ways we are cheated and even habitually robbed because what is stolen slips away unnoticed, like water dripping lightly from a leaking faucet.
Cliven Bundy isn’t a man of subtlety and his theft is neither passive nor light-fingered. But it has taken place over a substantial period of time – 20 years – and even when called out on the thievery (he’s been to court three times and lost three times) he’s not only refused to make restitution but he has continued to steal from all of us.
Yes, us. Cliven Bundy has illegally set his cows loose to feed on federal land – our land – and refused to pay grazing fees for 20 years. In doing so he managed to accrue over a million dollars in fees and fines, apparently with impunity, until the BLM decided to confiscate his cows and sell them at auction to repay a portion of the debt. Bundy responded with a call to the Tea Party calvary and an armed militia descended on Bunkerville, Nevada and declared a war on reason.
So how did Cliven Bundy manage to steal from us – methodically, even predictably – for over 20 years?
Bundy allowed his grazing permit to lapse so the BLM fined him and assessed a charge for the cattle he illegally allowed to chow on federal land. He was also fined for over-grazing (setting more cows loose than the BLM had determined the land could adequately sustain without damage to the range). The Bureau of Land Management, historically underfunded and undermanned, has a lot of responsibilities: allocation of federal grazing permits, protection of vulnerable species and habitats, regulation of wild horse and burro populations, and management of historical and cultural heritage sites, to name a few. That responsibility incorporates the supervision of a vast area of public land (approx. 260 million acres). While the debate over whether grazing fees are too high or too low is ongoing, the fee itself has been in effect since the early part of the 20th century, when Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act (1934) that allowed for grazing on public lands. Since 1946, grazing fees have been set and collected by the BLM but the current fee ($1.35 per animal per month) still does not represent a dramatic increase from the base value of $1.23 established in 1966. And it has rarely strayed far from that baseline. For example, from 1996 to 2012 that fee has been $1.35 for every year except 2002 and 2004 ($1.43), 2005 ($1.79), and 2006 ($1.56). The collected fees garner a not-insignificant amount of federal income that is split between the treasury and the states and allocated for the maintenance and preservation of the land for current and future use. But the BLM’s budget is stretched so thin that about 200 uniformed rangers are responsible for patrolling over a million acres each, which means that violators – vandals, poachers, and thieves (like Mr. Bundy) – are sometimes able to cheat the system.
Bundy claims a right to use the land based on historic precedent – his family, he says, helped settle the land. The courts dismissed this assertion; the area in question has never been private or state property but has been federal land since it was ceded by Mexico. Yet, as an excuse for his 20-year embezzlement, Bundy clings to his “prior use” explanation. That, coupled with his bizarre, contradictory position of recognizing Nevada State Law but not the validity of the Federal Government, quickly endeared him to Tea Party advocates and anti-Government agitators; in him they saw an example of the humble American struggling under the oppression of tyranny.
Bundy embraced the role, comparing his fight to that of the Founding Fathers, but contradictions of behavior and rhetoric exposed his hypocrisy: despite his rejection of the U.S. government’s authority, Bundy apparently wasn’t above using the trappings of patriotism steeped in adherence to that same government (notably the U.S. flag but also the Constitution, the Founding Fathers, the heroic rebellion against tyranny, etc.) in order to rally support for his cause.
And it worked. No one noted the contradiction of his flag-draped diatribe against the validity of the very government that flag represented.“The essence of tyranny is not iron law. It is capricious law.” – Christopher Hitchens
“Constitutional vigilantism“ is not new to this country, nor is the use of force. But rarely has the lunatic fringe had the sympathetic ear of a major media outlet or a megaphone of the sort extended by Sean Hannity. The conservative effort to portray Cliven Bundy as victim and his supporters as patriots despite the illegality of their actions is telling.The question was raised: if the Bundy Ranch was owned by black people would a militia have arrived in support? Would conservative pundits have rallied in outrage?
An historical precedent on the response to armed African Americans is telling: in 1967, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale led a group of Black Panthers outfitted with loaded rifles and shotguns into the California state capital to protest the Mulford Bill. At that time it was not illegal to carry a loaded gun in California as long as it was openly displayed and not used in an overtly threatening manner (i.e., pointed at someone). The Mulford Act (also known as the “Panther Bill”) was drafted in reaction to the Black Panther police patrols. The measure was quickly approved and then-governor Ronald Reagan moved to pass the bill into law: California citizens were thereafter prohibited from carrying loaded firearms in public. The Mulford Act represented an early gun control measure designed to effectively disarm the Black Panthers and it was heartily applauded by (white) lawmakers and constituents as an issue of civil safety and therefore a necessity.
What if Native Americans owned the Bundy ranch? Surely that group would qualify as having an historical claim to the land. What might the media make of an armed group of Southern Paiute in a stand-off with federal agents over land use – would the participants be considered heroes, or terrorists? Leonard Peltier’s decades in prison suggest what the response might have looked like instead.
Leonard Peltier sits in prison still, despite concerns by Amnesty International over the fairness of the trial he received. Yet people rush to support Cliven Bundy, a man who – at a million-plus in unpaid grazing fees and fines – easily eclipses Reagan’s “welfare queen,” accused of scamming a paltry $150,000 annually. Could Bundy’s privileged white skin have a role in his elevation to hero status (she asked rhetorically)? And although no one has been killed at the Bunkerville standoff it apparently isn’t for lack of effort by the protestors, one of whom bragged to local media that the group had “strategized” to place the women folk up front to take the first bullets from “rogue federal agents” – an image he seemed to relish a chance to display to the world.
Though the BLM was prudent to disengage and prevent a possible deadly escalation, unfortunately I fear it has fed a false image of justification to Cliven Bundy et al (which is how I’m hoping the name appears on the federal indictment). After Bundy’s impromptu lecture on the benefits of slavery for “the negro,” pundits and politicians were quick to temper their support and the Bunkerville standoff has since (mostly) faded from the news cycle. Meanwhile, the Bundy militia has made itself at home and taken the liberty of setting up “checkpoints” that require Bunkerville residents to provide identification before they are allowed through.
That the government is only now investigating charges against those participants militant enough to point weapons at federal officers (a federal offense) suggests that, consistent with the scales of justice in other areas, the color of these perpetrator’s skin impacts the perception of their criminality.