If the Southern Poverty Law Center got one thing right in the report it released last week about the standoff involving ranting racist rancher Cliven Bundy, it’s this: Those who broke the law need to be held to account.
That means Bundy, who not only put out the call for insurrectionists to come to his ranch to face off with the Bureau of Land Management, but who also directed those play-soldiers to free nearly 400 cattle that had been lawfully seized on public lands, where Bundy refused to pay for grazing permits for two decades.
Although some suggested the report was equally critical of the actions of the BLM as it was of the insurrectionists, that’s just not true: The BLM is criticized for allegedly mishandling the situation, but Bundy’s self-styled patriot army stands accused of nearly sparking a bloodbath. (To be sure, the report says, “the BLM wisely withdrew,” rather than risk armed confrontation.)
But the law center gets some of its criticism of the BLM wrong.
“What is puzzling is why the BLM allowed Bundy to get away for 20 years with paying grazing fees that all other ranchers pay,” the authors say, on Page 7. But deeper in the text, on Page 12, they answer their own question: Bundy waged a long and ultimately unsuccessful legal battle in federal courts to protest the conditions of the grazing permits. He may say now he doesn’t believe in the legitimacy of the federal government (or even its existence, notwithstanding his ever-present copy of the U.S. Constitution), but he certainly availed himself of his rights to challenge the government in court.
And while the Southern Poverty Law Center report doesn’t explicitly repeat the criticism that the BLM upped the level of tension by coming to the area near Bundy’s ranch wearing tactical gear, backed by helicopters, police dogs and snipers, it does provide something of an answer: Bundy had for years vowed to defend himself against what he called the aggression of the federal government, and what the rest of us call legal due process.
“I will stand and protect my rights, whatever it takes, to defend this valid ranch, the access for the public and the policing power of the Clark County sheriff,” Bundy said in a 2012 letter, the report reveals. (Later, he would criticize Metro Police Sheriff Doug Gillespie for refusing to disarm BLM officers.) A planned 2012 roundup of Bundy’s cattle was scrapped after threats of violence. Showing up armed was a wise precaution, especially after Bundy’s declaration in letters of a “range war emergency.”
But despite those details, the report’s main conclusion — that the BLM’s suspension of the operation has emboldened the insurrectionists, and that this will likely lead to more confrontations — is correct. As I wrote shortly after the incident, “Only now, Bundy and the legion of his supporters — some armed and claiming to belong to militia groups — have learned a new lesson: If you defy the federal government under threat of armed violence, there’s a chance the federal government will back off. And that’s a very dangerous message indeed.”
And, as the authors of the law center report correctly added: “The militiamen and others who pointed their weapons at BLM and Las Vegas [Metro Police] officers need to face criminal prosecution because the rule of law must be enforced or it will be challenged again.” Indeed.
Not only that, but members of the Bundy family who freed about 400 head of cattle from a BLM holding pen should face charges for that crime as well. (Although Gillespie said the BLM had nowhere to take those seized cows, the BLM insists that it had a valid contract with a Utah rancher to transport and care for the animals after they’d been gathered.)
The Southern Poverty Law Center report illustrates the long and occasionally tragic history of antigovernment land use movements in America, especially the west. When the next chapter is written, the insurrectionists should face some justice.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.