Bundyville

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Most of the American West is owned by the federal government. About 85% of Nevada, 61% of Alaska, and 53% of Oregon. The list goes on, and there have always been questions about how this immense swath of land should be used. Should we allow ranchers to graze cattle or should the Western land be a place where wild animals can roam free and be protected, or is it land we want to reserve for recreation?

Roman Mars:
As you can imagine, there is no consensus on the answers to those questions, but there are a lot of strong feelings, and over the years those strong feelings have sometimes bubbled up to the surface and manifested in protests and even violence. In 2016, a group of armed militants occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon*. There were led by a cattle rancher by the name of Ammon Bundy, the son of Cliven Bundy.

Roman Mars:
Perhaps you heard about it, but never really understood exactly what it was all about. Well, today we bring you a story from Longreads and Oregon Public Broadcasting reported by Leah Sottile, and it’s the first in the series they put together that looks deeply into the fascinating, and even sometimes wonky, details of how the American West is managed, why the Bundys are so angry about it, and the religious ideology that undergirds their fight against the federal government. It’s an amazing series that spins a good yarn, but also resonates with so many aspects of current U.S. politics. It’s also about land management, which is really exciting for me personally. This is episode one of “Bundyville”. Here’s Leah Sottile.

Leah Sottile:
By his own account, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy never wanted to start a war with the federal government. He says that if they’d just left him alone out here in the desert, none of this would’ve ever started, and if you want to see him as the folksy hero of a Western, you can choose to see him that way.

Leah Sottile:
Here’s a good starting point. It’s a random YouTube video and it shows a blonde-haired little boy, toddler. He’s wearing a dusty red polo shirt, blue jeans. He lays stunned in the dirt, having just been knocked down, and he’s considering whether or not he wants to cry.

Cliven Bundy:
Want Grampy help you up? Oh, hope that leg’s not broke.

Leah Sottile:
The boy shakes off his cowboy hat-wearing grandpa and putters away.

Cliven Bundy:
That’s what life’s all about, raising cowboys. He’s tough. See how tough he is? He got run over by a horse and he’s out there and going already. Nothing to it, he says.

Leah Sottile:
The toddler looks back at his grandpa. He points to the west and the camera follows. Patch of bright green grass comes into view against the Nevada desert. It’s the color of life. It stands out in a place where everything else looks dead.

Cliven Bundy:
This land our land. This land is a free land. This land is a place that we can enjoy and use.

Leah Sottile:
That’s Cliven Bundy as he’d like to be seen. Peaceful farmer homesteading on his 160-acre ranch near Bunkerville, Nevada. But in 2014, just a few weeks after this video was shot, on the same piece of land, Cliven Bundy and his sons were anything but peaceful. They’d raised a militia that was pointing guns at federal agents of what the Bundys called a tyrannical government. Here he is on stage in Bunkerville whipping the crowd into a frenzy, demanding that the local sheriff bulldoze the buildings at a nearby national park so that the surrounding community might have free reign of the land.

Cliven Bundy:
“You get the county…”

Leah Sottile:
He says, get the county equipment out there and tear those things down this morning. The sheriff just stands quietly on stage. He’s got his thumbs hitched in his belt, and the mob heckles him.

Crowd:
“Do your job, sheriff. Do your job.”

Leah Sottile:
Bundy has more demands.

Cliven Bundy:
“We want those arms delivered right here…”

Leah Sottile:
He says the sheriff also has to disarm the park service rangers. Bring me those guns in one hour he says, or else.

Cliven Bundy:
“If they’re not done, then we’ll decide what we’re going to do from this point on.”

Leah Sottile:
Depending on how you look at the way this is all played out, Cliven Bundy is either a prophet is leading his people to salvation or a cult leader, who’s led his followers straight to jail, even death. How you see Cliven may say just as much about you as it does about the Bundys. From Longreads and Oregon Public Broadcasting, this is “Bundyville”, a seven-part series about the Bundy family and how they’re changing the American West.

Leah Sottile:
I’m Leah Sottile, and in 2016 I set out to write a single breaking news story about the Bundys, but one story turned into several because every time I learned something new, it would just bring up more questions, things that seemed unbelievable, but turned out to be real. Even when I wasn’t writing, I couldn’t stop finding new pieces in this really complicated puzzle. Most people know roughly what happened in Nevada and Oregon. If not, this first episode is going to bring you up to speed, and then we’re going to dive into all the weird stuff that didn’t make it on the nightly news, and the things that have only come to light months and years after most people stopped paying attention. Because the Bundy story is bigger and stranger than I expected.

Leah Sottile:
Forget about facts and laws. More than anything else, the story of the Bundys is about belief and truth and figuring out which one of those things has more power. If you believe the Bundys, then you believe the federal government is trying to enslave the American people. If you believe the feds, then you believe a remote cattle rancher is a domestic terrorist. So did the Bundys own the truth or is that the property of the U.S. government? That’s what I set out to find.

Leah Sottile:
Let’s think for a second about all the things in history that have started armed revolts against the government. Food shortages, dictatorships, widespread corruption. Where do reptiles fit on that list? For Cliven, right at the top. Here’s Aaron Weiss from the conservation advocacy group, The Center for Western Priorities.

Aaron Weiss:
The whole reason that Cliven Bundy has been breaking the law and running his cows illegally is because his cows posed a danger to the desert tortoise. It was an endangered species problem to begin with.

Leah Sottile:
In the early 1990s, populations of desert tortoise were plummeting in the American Southwest. The tortoises have been around for 15 to 20 million years in the desert, but they compete with cattle for what little grass there is to eat out there and the cattle usually win. In the 90’s, that landed the tortoise on the endangered species list. It’s a common story in the West, an endangered species is threatened by ranching or logging or mining, regulators and environmentalist step in to preserve the animal. The groups go to court and fight over this one central question. Are the wide-open spaces in the West meant to support rural communities or should they be kept pristine? Historically, the people working the land have had to back off, give up resources and old ways of life, change with the times, but at a certain point, the Bundys decided they just weren’t going to change. They were done with federal rules.

Cliven Bundy:
We run cattle here, graze this natural resource off this public land, and I abide by all of Nevada state law, but I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.

Leah Sottile:
Since 1948, the Bundys have been growing melons and raising cattle on their 160 acres, and for decades the family also paid the federal government for a grazing permit so they could legally ranch on the public land that surrounds the property.

Leah Sottile:
For Nevada ranchers, the tortoise listing meant three fewer months each year that they could graze their herds, but Cliven Bundy? In 1993, he started simply ignoring the ruling and kept his cows on the land. You should know that the rates ranchers pay for grazing are a dollar per cow each year. Ranchers buy the permits because land is expensive, and the majority of land in the West is actually federally owned, but Aaron Weiss says that’s one of the things that’s up for debate in the eyes of the Bundys, whether or not grazing your cattle on a piece of public land gives you any rights to that property.

Aaron Weiss:
Cliven Bundy believes he is grazing his cows on his land and he’s going to claim it’s not federal government land, it’s actually county land, but it’s not.

Leah Sottile:
Ranchers in Clark County, Nevada were eventually offered buyouts for their grazing permits to help save the desert tortoise. Nearly all of them took the money and their permits were retired. Everyone except Cliven Bundy.

Leah Sottile:
For more than 20 years, Bundy fought in and out of court with the Federal Bureau of Land Management. You’ll hear about the BLM a lot in this podcast. It’s the agency that President Truman created after World War II to manage millions of acres owned by the U.S. government, most of it in Western States, but Bundy said that was unconstitutional. If you’re around the Bundys and their supporters for any amount of time, they’ll hand you a pocket-size copy of the Constitution and they’ll tell you about their favorite part, Article one, section eight, clause 17.

Crowd:
“Let me read that clause to you. Again, this is Article one, section eight, clause 17. Now it starts out that says, ‘Congress shall have power to…’.”

Leah Sottile:
Legal scholars call it the Enclave Clause and it basically says the government needs to get state permission to use land outside of Washington, DC. The Bundys claim, even when they have that permission, the feds can only build things like forts and military dockyards. The problem with this interpretation is that it completely ignores the rest of the Constitution. There are other clauses in long-settled Supreme Court cases that say the government definitely can own land. We’ll get into that later, but it’s also important to know that the other ingredient here is sovereign citizen ideology. Sovereign citizens believe they are independent nations unto themselves, and when you’re your own nation, you don’t have to abide by the country’s laws. Federal courts aren’t valid. Federal judges aren’t real judges. Things like taxes and grazing fees to federal agencies don’t apply to you.

Leah Sottile:
Cliven, and his son Ryan, they flirt with these ideas, saying they don’t recognize the U.S. justice system. Still, Cliven spent two decades in court fighting over his interpretation of this clause few people have even heard of, all the while his cattle grazed far, far beyond his property on public lands, which belonged to everyone. The cattle were grazing so far from the ranch that when BLM officials surveyed his cows, they found lots of them were feral. Some didn’t even have a brand, meaning they were probably born wild. These fights over endangered species and land use have been going on for a long time. For two decades, Bundy fought about those things in court and he just kept losing. By 2014, the government said Cliven had racked up more than a million dollars in fees. Bundy saw differently.

Cliven Bundy:
I would be happy to pay my grazing fees if I owed grazing fees to the proper government. That brings us to the point of who does own this land? How does the federal government own 90% of the state of Nevada? I thought we were a sovereign state. I am the manager of this land because of my rights. The court says Cliven Bundy is trespassing on United States property.

Leah Sottile:
Just an aside, Cliven often refers to himself in the third person, and it’s this idea of trespassing that really sets him off, because, as he was giving this interview in 2014, federal agents were indeed staffing up to take his cattle as payment for his backlog of fees.

Cliven Bundy:
Who is the trespasser here? Who is the one out here with 200 armed agency surrounding my home and my ranch and parts of Clark County? Is Cliven Bundy doing those things or is the United States government doing these things?

Leah Sottile:
That was his breaking point. He refused to give them the cows.

Cliven Bundy:
I have spent 20 years legally, politically, and the media, and now it’s time to get on our boots and I guess make our stand.

Leah Sottile:
Though Bundy never publicly calls for an armed standoff, he implies that’s his only option.

Cliven Bundy:
It seemed like it’s down to we the people if we’re going to get it done. The things like militia’s, I haven’t called no militia or anything like that, but hey, it looks like that’s where we’re at.

Leah Sottile:
By this point, it was April 2014, and the Bureau of Land Management was coming to get Cliven’s cattle off the land once and for all. Meanwhile, people from across the country with all kinds of gripes with the government had picked up on the Bundy story through right-wing media. Many of them didn’t know the first thing about raising livestock. They were just looking for a fight.

James Yeager:
Hi, this is Jim Yeager from Tactical Response, and I’m kind of mad right now.

Leah Sottile:
One of them is James Yeager. About a year earlier, a video he posted got a lot of attention. He was angry at the Obama administration over proposed ban on assault rifles.

James Yeager:
… to impose stricter gun control. (Bleep) that. I’m telling you that if that happens, it’s going to spark a civil war and I’ll be glad to fire the first shot. I’m not letting anybody take my guns. If it goes one inch further, I’m going to start killing people.

Leah Sottile:
These are the type of people who start flocking to Bunkerville. Yeager became one of Cliven’s personal bodyguards. About five days after BLM agents showed up on clients’ ranch, there was this really chaotic scene. There are protestors yelling at BLM agents. The agents have dogs. They’re trying to let some trucks through the crowd when all hell breaks.

BLM Agent:
“Get back! Police! Get back! Get back now!”

Leah Sottile:
One agent tosses an older woman on the ground and then all of a sudden Cliven’s son Ammon speeds up on an ATV and stops it in front of the truck.

Crowd:
“There’s a woman on the ground.”

Leah Sottile:
He gets out, trades words with the agents. The dog snaps at him and he kicks it. The agents tase him, he rips out the taser prongs and keeps yelling.

Ammon Bundy:
“BLM, go away! BLM, go away! BLM, go away!”

Leah Sottile:
That video goes viral and it brings even more protesters to Bundy Ranch. It’s helped along by this network of right-wing YouTubers and bloggers. They’re inciting their followers and in some cases telling them, bring even more guns to the desert.

Video Clip:
“Again, I’m going to say it again. Anyone in the general vicinity, if you can get to Clark County, Nevada and show some support for our U.S. Constitution, our sovereignty, and stand in the face of tyranny and this BLM.”

Leah Sottile:
The pressure mounts on the government to avoid a potential shootout, but for other people, the fact that there could be a shootout, that gets them driving toward Nevada. Militia’s, like the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers, assemble at the ranch. Two days after that video is shot, BLM agents corral Bundys’ cows in a pen underneath Interstate 15 a few miles from the ranch. Cliven tells the crowd to go get the cows. People hop in their trucks and speed a couple of miles away toward the cattle. Another of Cliven’s sons, Mel Bundy, is there on horseback and he says, we’re getting the cows back.

Mel Bundy:
“We didn’t come for one or two. We’re getting them all.”

Leah Sottile:
All of a sudden, this handful of BLM agents holding the animals are surrounded. Up on the overpass, there are people pointing sniper rifles at them. Bunch of Cliven’s sons, Ammon, Mel, Ryan, they’re there too. They’re telling the agents to let the cows go and they do.

BLM Agent:
“I want every person off the bridges and down along the bank to the right. Stay wide. Allow the cattle to come through.”

Leah Sottile:
There’s videos showing a group of people riding horses, carrying the American flag and herding Cliven’s cattle back to the ranch. Ryan Bundy climbs a light pole and lifts his hat to the sky.

Ryan Bundy:
“The west has now been won!”

Leah Sottile:
You might think the feds would bring charges in the days and weeks after the standoff. The Bundys had defied a court order and pointed guns at federal agents. But the government doesn’t. They just leave and the Bundys get what they wanted, not by court rulings or by compromising. They won by playing cowboy, bringing bigger and more guns to a shoot out at the corral. It was like the old West, but where the outlaws told everyone they were the heroes, and soon in the desert of eastern Oregon, they tried again. But this time the feds would be the ones pointing the weapons.

Leah Sottile:
Burns, Oregon is a rural, sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it, town in the remote southeastern part of the state. There’s a grocery store, some restaurants, a motel or two. People who live there drive two hours to go to the mall, to Costco. Everybody knows everybody in Burns and they notice when outsiders are in town. So when the Bundys appeared in late 2015, people took notice. They came because Ammon Bundy had taken an interest in a local ranching family.

Ammon Bundy:
The Hammonds are wonderful people. They are salt of the earth.

Leah Sottile:
He’s talking about Dwight and Steven Hammond, father and son ranchers who were convicted of setting fire to public lands in the early 2000s. Prosecutors tried to get them sent away for destroying government property, meaning the land, which carries a mandatory jail sentence of five years. But the judge said no. Combined, the Hammonds served 15 months. Prosecutors weren’t happy. They appealed the ruling, and in January 2016, sent the Hammonds back to jail for the full five years. Hundreds of people in Burns were upset and held a march through town in support of the Hammonds. They saw the burn as an effort to protect their property from the wildfires that rage across the West each summer. The feds said one of the fires was actually started to cover up an illegal deer hunt.

Leah Sottile:
Either way, Ammon Bundy saw a federal government persecuting a ranching family in order to take their land.

Ammon Bundy:
It’s crucial that you understand what’s going on here. What this issue is truly about. It’s about our federal government taking over private properties adversely or using the taxpayers’ dollars after they ruined the ranchers to buy it.

Leah Sottile:
It was part of a broader conspiracy, he said, government run amuck, a cabal of oppressors.

Ammon Bundy:
If they can get control of the land and resources, if they can control, for example, the water, then they can have full control over the people.

Leah Sottile:
To Ammon Bundy and his brother Ryan, the case was a chance to get control of the land back from the feds. It was an opportunity to take a seed of discontent over the Hammonds and nurture it. After the protest march in Burns, Ammon Bundy climbed a snowbank in the parking lot of the town’s grocery store and he started making a speech.

Ammon Bundy:
Those that know what’s going on here and have seen it for many, many, many, many years, those who are ready to actually do something about it, I’m asking you to follow me and go to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and we’re going to make a hard stand.

Leah Sottile:
That’s what they do. Ammon Bundy picks up where his father Cliven had left off.

Leah Sottile:
Under the cover of darkness, the Bundys marched a group of men to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a federal bird sanctuary, 30 miles from town. They broke into locked buildings that were closed for the winter, and they quickly started to tell the media their version of events. They claimed the refuge was unlocked and they waltzed right in. They said they had more than 150 armed men ready to defend the refuge if law enforcement came. In reality, they only had a couple dozen at most, but within a few days, the militia’s showed up. Again, people from out-of-state flooded the wildlife refuge and dug in. The band was back together. It was Bunkerville in the snow.

Leah Sottile:
The Bundys dared the federal government to try to stop them. They held daily press conferences to talk about how the government can’t own land, but there were differences from the standoff in Nevada two years earlier. Many townspeople didn’t buy the Bundy story this time. They posted signs across Burns that said, “Militia, Go Home”. They held meetings asking the sheriff to turn off the power to the refuge and let the Bundys freeze. When the occupiers called for supplies, people from around the world sent boxes of sex toys.

Ammon Bundy:
“This one was really funny. A bag of dicks.”

Leah Sottile:
They called them “Y’all Qaeda” on social media, “Vanilla ISIS”.

Ammon Bundy:
“They spend and waste their money on all this hateful stuff to send out here to us.”

Leah Sottile:
But the biggest difference between Oregon and Nevada is that this time, shots are fired.

Leah Sottile:
It happens on a remote Oregon highway 26 days after the occupation started. An informant tips off the feds that the Bundys and other leaders of the takeover are driving in two cars to a nearby town. They plan to hold a meeting in the next county over and see the sheriff who supported their cause. But on the way, federal and state law enforcement sets up roadblocks. Ammon Bundy gives up immediately. He gets out, hands up, as Oregon State Police close in, but the people in the other truck don’t give up. Occupation spokesman Robert “LaVoy” Finicum is behind the wheel. He was once a model rancher, paid his grazing fees to the federal government, but he converted to Bundys’ way of seeing things during Bunkerville.

Robert Finicum:
“I’m going to meet the sheriff. The sheriff is waiting for us, so you do as you damn well please, but I’m not going anywhere. Here I am, right there. You back down or you kill me now. Go ahead, put the bullet through me.”

Leah Sottile:
What you’re hearing is a video taken from inside Finicum’s truck during that stop. Inside the truck with Finicum was Ryan Bundy, an 18-year-old girl named Victoria Sharp, and the person shooting the video, Shawna Cox. Depending on who you ask, what happens next is either an assassination attempt or a justified police shooting.

Ryan Bundy:
“You should never have stopped. Should they never have stopped.”

Leah Sottile:
Ryan Bundy says they shouldn’t have stopped. Lasers from rifles flash inside the truck. Officers shout to get out. It doesn’t take long before Finicum hits a breaking point.

Robert Finicum:
“I’m going to go. You guys ready?”

Ryan Bundy:
“Get down.”

Shawna Cox:
“Then you duck down.”

Leah Sottile:
He steps on the gas.

Shawna Cox:
“Are they shooting?”

Leah Sottile:
He barrels around the curved road and when he gets to the roadblock, he swerves at the last minute. The vehicle narrowly misses an FBI agent.

Robert Finicum:
“Hang on.”

Shawna Cox:
“Okay, they’re shooting.”

Leah Sottile:
The truck crashes in the snow. (truck crashes)

Leah Sottile:
Before the truck is fully stopped, Finicum leaps out.

Robert Finicum:
“Go ahead, shoot me.”

Leah Sottile:
Someone fires two shots that hit the truck. (shots fired, a woman screams)

Leah Sottile:
He stumbles through knee-deep snow. He keeps shouting.

Robert Finicum:
“Shoot me. You’re going to have to shoot me.”

Leah Sottile:
His hands are up at first. Then he reaches for his jacket pocket. Inside is a loaded handgun. He puts his hands up again and he reaches. Hands up. Reach. Finally, police do shoot him. He never managed to grab the gun.

Shawna Cox:
“Did they shoot him?”

Ryan Bundy:
“I think they did.”

Shawna Cox:
“You assholes. Oh, sh*t.”

Ryan Bundy:
“I think they just killed LaVoy.”

Victoria Sharp:
“Did they kill him?”

Ryan Bundy:
“Got too damn relaxed.”

Shawna Cox:
“Yeah. (shot fired) Damn. Why do they keep shooting?”

Ryan Bundy:
“They’re trying to take my head is what they’re trying to do.”

Shawna Cox:
“I know, but all of us? Stop!”

Victoria Sharp:
“Please!

Shawna Cox:
“Stop! (shots fired) This ridiculous, this is stupid.”

Leah Sottile:
Police were shooting balls of pepper spray. LaVoy was bleeding out in a snowbank on the side of the road. Law enforcement had been trying hard to avoid a shootout. They waited 26 days for the Bundys to leave the compound and the roadblock was on an isolated road where the Bundys couldn’t call for backup.

Leah Sottile:
Within days a memorial popped up where LaVoy had died and the Bundy crew were talking about it like an assassination. It was the ultimate example of a tyrannical government.

Leah Sottile:
Ammon and Ryan Bundy were arrested at the roadblock and went to jail in Oregon.

Leah Sottile:
Cliven Bundy was arrested days later, as he got off a flight in Portland. He was coming to help his sons. Instead, he was indicted on the litany of charges stemming from the Bunkerville standoff in Nevada. Prosecutors had been waiting two years to spring this trap.

Leah Sottile:
It wasn’t looking good for the Bundys. The Malheur occupation had led to a man’s death, and they were about to have to argue in front of a federal judge that the standoffs were justified because the federal government couldn’t own state land, but then in court, things did not go as expected.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
Here again, is Leah Sottile.

Leah Sottile:
The Bundys legal fight took years to play out across Oregon and Nevada, and I was there for most of it in both States. Don’t worry, I’ll spare you the monotony of actually sitting through a federal trial. It’s not nearly as exciting as the movies make it out to be. Still, the trials are when I really started to understand the power of the Bundys’ belief in their own story. For years, they talked about fighting for freedom in some of America’s wildest places, places few people in this country have been to. Then for two months in Oregon in 2016, and a month in Nevada in late 2017, the Bundys were forced to argue their case in the urban areas they despised, Las Vegas and Portland. Liberal enclaves the Bundys said we’re ruining the lives of rural Americans.

Leah Sottile:
It’s worth talking for a second about the Las Vegas federal courthouse itself. It’s set far back from a long palm tree-lined road. To reach its front doors you’ve got to walk across this massive concrete plaza. Later I found out that’s because this is the first building to comply with blast-resistant codes put in place after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. That was the work of an anti-government extremist named Timothy McVeigh, and it left 168 people dead. Many of them were kids. The Bundys too, have been labeled as anti-government extremists. People have called the Oregon occupation “domestic terrorism”, and within their ranks of followers, you will find people who agree with what Timothy McVeigh did back in 1995. One Bundy supporter, a guy named Gary Hunt, talks about McVeigh like this.

Gary Hunt:
He’s the first one to actually take an active action against the United States government. It was a government building, and in that respect, he is the first patriot of the second American revolution. Not that I agree with it, but from an objective observation, I give him credit for doing what other people had talked about.

Leah Sottile:
McVeigh murdered 168 people, 19 of them kids, and some people within this movement see him as something of a hero. I think about that when I’m standing in this long line of people waiting to get into the courtroom. At both trials in Oregon and Nevada, there are Homeland Security officers with dogs walking around looking for threats. Before they walk through the metal detectors, all these Bundy supporters huddle together in a circle, take off their hats, and pray. Then I wonder why it is I’m afraid of them, because the government is telling me to be, or because they’re actually violent? Once I make my way into the courtroom and the trial starts, I’m surprised. I thought the Bundys would flounder in the city. Instead, they thrive.

Leah Sottile:
In downtown Las Vegas the Bundys come alive with the atmosphere. From the lobby outside the courtroom, a neon cowboy flickers on the corner of Fremont Street. He’s in the saddle atop a giant rearing bronco. The family seems like they feel right at home in Vegas. They revel in having an audience. On the first day of the trial, Ryan Bundy pulls up to the courthouse in a white stretch limo. During the trial in Portland, riders on horseback gallop down busy city streets. A tailgate party with hot dogs and burgers fills the sidewalk. They create a circus everywhere they go, even in court. As the trial starts, prosecutors and the Bundys only agree on a few things. First, what happened at Bundy ranch was important. Second, Cliven Bundy owes a lot of grazing fees. They just disagree on who he owes them to.

Leah Sottile:
Third, Cliven’s sons Ammon and Ryan brought armed men to Oregon two years later to take over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. But was it a protest, or an armed occupation? Beyond those points, it was like I was watching the national debate over alternative facts and fake news play out in a courtroom. First in Oregon and then in Nevada, attorneys for the government would tell the jury, “These cases were simple.” They described the Bundys as “a menace”. They said Cliven and his sons trespassed on federal land, stole from the American people, used intimidation to stop federal workers from doing their jobs. It was all there in the evidence they said. “We have Ammon and the other’s on video,” and they did.

Ammon Bundy:
“We have basically taken over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and we’re planning on staying here for several years.”

Leah Sottile:
Prosecutors talked about the main charge in both cases. This idea of the Bundys and their followers conspiring to impede federal officers from doing their jobs. They showed a lot of maps. They talked about things most urbanites probably don’t care much about, grazing permits, water rights. For a whole day, the FBI described how they picked up evidence at the refuge, how they put it in baggies and sent it to lab technicians. Then the technicians would log it, and ugh, why did I come to court today? The jurors looked bored. In the front row, I watched this one woman nod off, and not just for a second. The judge’s clerk had to nudge her awake. She giggled to herself. The prosecution had presented its case as if the details were going to be picked apart by other lawyers, but they weren’t up against lawyers.

Leah Sottile:
Ryan Bundy was acting as his own attorney, and when he stood up to present his case he painted a very compelling picture about life out West. He talked about him and his brothers as children wading in the waters of the Virgin River, sunrises, moonrises, chasing frogs, hunting rabbits, running across the desert with dogs at their heels. Ryan talked about a family living in an unforgiving land, finding beauty and solace among the desert shadows, finding life in a place where so many things can’t survive. Then he talked about jackbooted agents armed for war, federal snipers surrounding the Nevada ranch. Cliven Bundy said the FBI mounted cameras to record his every move. It was a story about a terrified family – cornered and needing to defend its way of life. For his side of things. The woman in the jury box was wide awake.

Kevin Sali:
” I start by saying, I certainly did not see this result coming. I think it…”

Leah Sottile:
Kevin Sali is a Portland-based defense attorney who watched the Oregon trial play out in 2016. He says prosecutors had to decide how to deal with the Bundy version of events.

Kevin Sali:
One of the choices you always have to make as a lawyer when you’re facing a counter-argument is, how much do you want to engage, and thereby dignify that argument, as opposed to dismissing it?

Leah Sottile:
Oregon prosecutors didn’t engage the Bundy version of the story. Even after Ammon talked for days in court about the Constitution, about how he believes it’s illegal for the federal government to own land, a belief legal scholars laugh at, prosecutors didn’t touch it.

Kevin Sali:
Yes. I mean, I may well have done the same thing because if you think that your opponent’s argument is just really, really weak, then you’re arguably doing a disservice to your case by bringing it up, and elevating it, and discussing it.

Leah Sottile:
So they hid it away. They didn’t want to talk about the Bundys’ disproven views on the Constitution, or how many years they’d been working the land. Ammon Bundy sat on the stand for three days talking, telling jurors his family’s way of life was under attack. When it came time for the prosecutors to cross-examine him, they questioned him for less than 15 minutes. In Nevada, prosecutors hid away other things too. They didn’t tell defense attorneys that Cliven was right about guys with guns camping out near his property, and his family was being recorded.

Leah Sottile:
At one point, FBI agents disguised as a film crew actually infiltrated the Bundy family home. All of these government missteps, the dismissive tones, the evidence they hid because they said it was irrelevant, it all came across as arrogant. You could hear in the prosecutors’ voices that they felt like they had a slam dunk case. They were right. The Bundys were not, and that couldn’t be clearer. In the end, Sali says, that seemed to be the government’s downfall.

Kevin Sali:
But the more I thought about it, it also to some degree presupposes the answer to what a lot of this case was about in at least some people’s mind, which is, “Do citizens have a right to object and to disagree with what the government does with land that it considers to be its own?”

Leah Sottile:
Here’s how one Oregon juror, who asked to remain anonymous, phrased the defense’s message.

Oregon Juror:
“This case is about the death of rural America. That has got me thinking, if your farmers don’t have the ability necessarily to prosper in those venues in which they’re going to raise, whether it’s logging or animal stuff … It’s just got me thinking a lot about that.”

Leah Sottile:
That message about the death of rural America. It worked. At Malheur, there were armed men patrolling a government facility. They took their guns up a fire tower and dug battle trenches in case the FBI tried to come in. But in court, the fact that all those things are illegal, that didn’t matter. The Bundys won. In Oregon, Ammon, and Ryan Bundy were acquitted by a jury. In Nevada, the case never even got to the jury. The judge declared a mistrial because prosecutors withheld evidence from the defense. Evidence that actually might’ve made the Bundys look good in the eyes of the jury, like how it really was surveilling the Bundys.

Leah Sottile:
Prosecutors didn’t mention that FBI threat assessments determined the Bundys themselves were unlikely to be violent. I came into the trial skeptical of the Bundy worldview, but after listening to expert after expert explain why Cliven and his sons were wrong in their actions, wrong for their beliefs, I can tell you at times it’s tough to tell which side of the courtroom is actually telling the truth about what the family did. Because the truth about this family, about the movement they’ve sparked, just isn’t that simple.

Cliven Bundy:
“It’s a steak. That’s what’s for dinner. That’s where I’m headed.”

Woman:
Amen, and God blessed America today.

Leah Sottile:
After having been arrested two years earlier, Cliven Bundy walked out of jail in the first days of 2018. His cowboy hat was back on his head, his legs free of shackles. He raised a fist in victory.

Cliven Bundy:
“We never had a standoff with the federal government. We had a protest of our county sheriff.”

Leah Sottile:
Even the question of whether it was a standoff was still up for debate. Everything was in Bundy’s eyes.

Cliven Bundy:
“… and I have no contract with the federal government. This court has no jurisdiction over this matter. When since is the federal government supposed to have an army that comes against we the people?”

Leah Sottile:
He called out, as he had in 2014, for people to stand up to the government.

Cliven Bundy:
It happened on Bundy ranch. They stuck their guns down our throats.

Leah Sottile:
Within days of getting out of jail. Cliven was on the steps of the Sheriff’s office on a loudspeaker, making demands just as he had done in 2014 that’s when I realized the Bundys’ story is hardly over.

Cliven Bundy:
“We’re not done with this. If the federal government comes after us again, we will definitely tell them the truth.”

Leah Sottile:
The truth. After the trials, it felt like the truth was even more difficult to figure out. People traveled from around the country to see the Nevada trial, journalists, critics, Bundy sympathizers, environmentalists. They came to see the wheels of justice turn out long-desired answers about what this has all meant, to understand what the Bundys’ actions mean about the future of protest, about the future of the American West, to say something definitive about the movement the family tapped into three years prior. But a mistrial doesn’t settle any of those questions. If anything, the proceedings raise new questions for people on the fence about the Bundys, everything they stand for. If the Bundys had lost, their occupations would be a footnote to the fight over public lands in the West. Their story would be about a fringe uprising that fizzled out.

Leah Sottile:
But because of the government’s missteps, and the Bundys’ court victory, their views on who owns the West have been legitimized, at least in the eyes of their followers. So if you want to know what the fight over public lands in the West is going to look like going forward, you have to understand the Bundys, how they think, and how that thinking seduces their followers. To understand the Bundys, you have to trace their long and twisted family tree, and understand the history of backroom deals by politicians trying to undermine the federal government. It’s a story of white supremacists and nuclear weapons and a little-known book that explains the fringe religious beliefs behind Cliven Bundy’s whole movement. Next time on “Bundyville” I dig into Cliven’s past, and I find some answers.

Roman Mars:
Bundyville is a joint effort by OPB and Longreads and hosted and reported by award-winning freelance journalist Leah Sottile. It is produced by Peter Frick-Wright and Robert Carver of 30 Minutes West Productions, and OPB’s Ryan Haas. I highly recommend you subscribe to the rest of “Bundyville” and read the print pieces by Leah on Longreads, they are brilliant. You can find it all www.longreads.com/bundyville or search for “Bundyville” in your favorite podcast app.

* Correction: In the audio, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is referred to as being in western Oregon rather than eastern Oregon, where it is in fact located.

Credits

Production

Bundyville is a joint effort by OPB and Longreads and hosted and reported by award-winning freelance journalist Leah Sottile. It is produced by Peter Frick-Wright and Robert Carver of 30 Minutes West Productions, and OPB’s Ryan Haas. Subscribe to “Bundyville on NPR OneApple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts.

Correction: In the audio, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is referred to as being in western Oregon rather than eastern Oregon, where it is in fact located.

Comments (20)

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  1. Lyric Kinard

    Thank you for this.

    Now do an episode about the difference between the governments doft reaction to armed white insurrectionists, and the peaceful, unarmed protestors st the Dakota Access pipeline.

  2. Grimstod

    This was a very insightful episode. I learned a lot about this event. I remember seeing it on TV but the new is so insanely biased now it was hard to know what was going on. The Feds really screwed up to. I miss Walter Cronkite and his mater of fact reporting on the news.

    There is do doubt in my mind that the Feds miss manage our land especially out west. They are ignorant of the needs of nature and the people out there. For example while I was in Alaska the natives told me how some species of sea lions in Alaska are so over populated they are eating to extinction many other species. Yet the feds do not want to remove their protected status.

  3. hazy

    Liberal media and NPR being way too soft on conservative jerks that want to exploit lands and natural resources. I know you want to get a story and that behooves you to be gentle while news gathering but I’m personally sick of babying these uneducated twits.

    The left needs to really start telling it how it is. These Trump voters are not doctors, engineers and the ones that are lawyers have such lousy interpretations of the law that it’s just self serving. They are not interested in working hard to build a better future. These are not people that care about helping the poor or keeping animal populations plentiful. They want to TAKE TAKE TAKE. They have little to no benefit to the society they live in and parasitize.

    Cliven Bundy is a a law breaker who is grazing cattle in one of the most water starved states in USA. Does that sound like the actions of an intelligent man? And when confronted by BLM he demands a sheriff to DISARM the feds? Unbelievable. No deference to authority whatsoever.

    You know who else denied federal power over their perceived sovereignty? Confederate states. State rights was convenient for the south, but if slaves fled to the north, they demanded the slaves be returned, even though there were state laws protecting slaves that had fled to the north.

    “States rights” is just dog whistling for maintaining racist institutions. Bundy is just one faction of the white supremacy backlash but he is no defender of democracy or freedom. He’s a lazy jerk with no real skills or values in the very country he festers in.

    1. Grimstod

      I would advise you to edit or delete you own comment. What you are wishing for would eliminate a states ability to make SANCTUARY cities.

    2. Jayden

      This comment absolutely nails it. Couldn’t have put it better.

  4. Johannes

    i disagree with the analysis that the going to jail would have ended the story and them winning made them more credible. i think its the other way round! if they went to jail it would have just prooven their story making them martyrs to the people of their cause.
    the fact that a federal court decides against the fbi and federal government is proof that their conspracy stuff about tyranny ect. is wrong.
    it shows that the judicial system works and is not controlled by politics but by that all the decisions by the courts about government owning land get extra credibility.

  5. Chris

    As a European watching from afar, this is just ludicrous. Imagine if these people had been anything but white, how many bodies would we be counting at this point? 30? 50?

  6. Jescowa

    This may have been the first bad 99pi episode ever. The coverage was way too apologetic for the Bundys (and where is the design hook?).

    The Bundys and their ilk seem to forget that public lands belong not to some remote “government” but to the American people collectively. How arrogant to assume that they should be able to consume public resources for private gain without reimbursing the rest of us. This is a simple matter of property rights that they should understand. It these lands were in private hands, do they think their neighbors would just let them freely graze (and log and mine)? Of course not. This is white, rural entitlement run amok.

    1. Jeff

      Completely agree. I went ahead and listened to the other 6 episodes in the series just to give it a shot to see how much it would turn around, but every attempt it made to talk honestly about the Bundys it came back around and gave them an undeserved benefit of the doubt. In refusing to make any stance they ended up making a stance that was worse.

    2. Sarah

      Jeff, how have you already listened to other six episodes? I thought they hadn’t been released yet.

  7. Rachel Goffe

    This was interesting until it became apologist for armed white supremacists. In what way is the truth complicated? Since the Trump election there has been a trend in liberal media to “learn” about radical right wing racists. Unfortunately most of this trend seems to think it’s aim should be to humanize people who are violent, have hateful beliefs and are out of touch with reality – in this case the reality of the Constitution. What is the point of allowing these nuts to drag the public discussion towards legitimizing their fringe views? That’s not learning, that’s sticking your head in the sand.

  8. Shawn

    Ugh. This brings up a lot of resentment in me … how can individuals feel that they are so far superior to ever in else? For some reason they feel that sovereignty begins at the individual. That sounds good but it ultimately feels good but ends up in lawlessness, all-for-one. We need a set of laws to protect all of our rights. They have a weird sense that the Constitution only benefits them. That their reading of one provision in the some How trumps all of the others (pun intended). It reminds me how they reading a certain good Book.

    As a tax paying citizen of these United States I empower the federal government to manage lands that it owns and to follow the laws that the legislature passes. Pay the damn grazing fees and don’t kill the turtles.

    I will listen to the rest of series. I want to understand the mentality that creates this sovereignty under the Constitution irony.

  9. Scott Petrovits

    This episode was well-produced, as expected, and I’m sure the remainder was similarly well-researched and covered. But I won’t be listening. I know who Cliven Bundy was, because he’s the same as every other paranoid, right-wing, god-bothering, gun-humping armchair Constitutionalist ruining everything that progressive people are trying to accomplish in modern society. And he raised his sons to be the same. He only cared about the Constitution so far as it benefitted his wallet, even at the expense of the American people who were footing the bill for his selfish arrogance. Which is, again, typical. And the reason they succeeded at all is because they knew they didn’t have a case, because the people who actually know about the Constitution kept telling them that in court. So to get their way, they relied on emotional manipulation, first to get ignorant people sympathetic with their selfish, misguided cause to support them in their domestic terrorism, and then again in court, to appeal to jurors who were more interested in melodrama than in the truth. The Bundys are concerned rural America is dying. I say, let it die, if what we get from that part of the country as represented by the Bundys is any indication of its merit. I feel sorry for that blonde-haired boy at the start of the episode, doubtless another poor male Bundy soon to be indoctrinated into the toxic environment that consumed Cliven and his sons.

  10. Margaret

    I’m not sure why this is being played on 99 PI. It doesn’t have anything to do with design. If I wanted to listen to podcasts about the breakdown of law and society in the US, I’d do that. I am not an American, so I’d rather hear about issues in my country.

  11. David Milhous

    I am very glad that you broadcasted this story. When I was younger, I held views that were very similar to the Bundys. I have since moved away from those views, and having seen both sides makes me glad that someone is telling this story. I think that a great takeaway from this story is, “If your worldview causes you to point guns at people, you are wrong.”

  12. a. grey

    this is the first time i’ve ever commented here after listening for years, but i’d have to say that this episode has no reason to be here on 99pi.

    as a oregonian, i followed the bundys cases closely. soft handling racist insurrectionists has absolutely nothing to do with design, and i’m curious as to the reasoning why it was felt that this was a proper venue to air this.

  13. Elle

    The richest part about the Bundy’s self righteous behavior is that all that land was stolen from the Native peoples that were there first. But now it is their land? Those people have no business touting their “rights.” We are a nation of laws. If he doesn’t like it, he can leave and go to elsewhere.
    He does not recognize the United States government?! Anyone else would be in prison. As should he and his sons be.
    I believe this piece was far too apologetic to Bundy and his family. If he was a brown person, forget it.. he’d be dead.

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