I pulled the Subaru past the orange temporary fencing next to a trash-strewn Interstate 15 overpass Saturday morning and into a government-issued “First Amendment Area.”
You know, just to get a sense of what such a place would feel like. At the risk of grabbing for easy irony, I suppose it was a little like being one of hardheaded rancher Cliven Bundy’s wayward steers.
Perhaps I’ve led a sheltered life, but until that moment, I had never set foot in a First Amendment Area. On Saturday, the lot was otherwise empty. There were no fiery voices of libertarian protest, no throng of angry Nevada ranchers with rifles in their pickups, not even a gaggle of curious tourists or a covey of head-scratching reporters.
Of course, the fact the free-speech pen was located several miles from Bundy’s ranch and even farther from the federal government’s corral of “trespass cattle,” the lack of attendance was understandable. (By Monday, the voices of peaceful protest would increase considerably a few miles up the road near the banks of the Virgin River.)
When you’re using the full weight of the federal government to overcome the boot heel dragging of one recalcitrant Nevada rancher, it’s probably best that not too many taxpayers watch it happen. I wasn’t out there to prosecute or defend Bundy — in large part because a federal court has already spoken, and I don’t think he has the law on his side. Instead, I drove through the area to see whether the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service could manage to round up a few hundred head of cattle without looking like they were invading a small country.
Nearly every federal official I saw — and there were many dozens of them — wore a semi-automatic pistol on his hip. Some cruised the area in unmarked SUVs with tinted windows. Given the lack of attention Saturday from even other members of Bundy’s large extended family, the crush of security gave the quiet area a surreal feel.
The cow cops were out in force. Those steers were getting a more secure escort than the president. Folks who believe in the government’s “black helicopter” mystique were no doubt having their suspicions and paranoias reinforced by all the personnel and firepower.
Later Saturday, the federal agencies attempted a phone news conference and couldn’t quite pull it off. The public information officers neglected to give out more than a scrap of actual information about the start of the roundup that, by my observation, included at least 100 armed federal buckaroos. The PIOs made it clear they had the law on their side and were practicing safety and security first.
They were happy to mention that fewer than a dozen protesters had been observed but declined to tell us how many cows they had caught. They also noted that at least some costs of the roundup were being charged to the trespass cattle rancher Bundy.
For the record, Bundy is 67 years old. If they charge him full price for the roundup, which includes two helicopters and many privately contracted wranglers, he probably would spend the next 67 years paying for the cow cops alone.
Bundy likes to talk and, at times, has said a few things that might be considered threatening, especially to folks with some major control issues. It should be noted that I never saw a single civilian with a weapon, not even a rifle in a pickup gun rack.
I was, however, followed by three government SUVs on the way to Bundy’s ranch. At least two visitors to the area I spoke with had similar experiences.
The visit with Bundy was cordial. He is no stranger to reporters and is more than glad to hold forth on his case, his cause and the Constitution. With “Ron Paul” and “Bundy Melons” signs nearby, the rancher, whose family has run cattle in the area for many generations, went on at length about state sovereignty, the power of local government and the Founding Fathers granting limited power to the U.S. government.
What he didn’t dwell on was the fact that he has been thoroughly shellacked in the federal courts, where judges have consistently ruled against him. His argument wasn’t realistic, in my assessment. He wasn’t a revolutionary, I decided, just a good-old-boy rancher on the wrong side of changing times.
But as I left Bundy’s ranch and pulled back onto the nearly empty county road, a strange thing happened. Two white, unmarked SUVs were parked sideways across the asphalt. A federal officer, dressed in green fatigues and wearing a sidearm, was out of one vehicle. The way the SUVs were parked forced me to detour onto the edge of the road.
“You can go around,” the officer said.
Yes, I thought, I suppose I can. But I would be more comfortable traveling on the right side of the road. I didn’t say that, of course. I don’t argue with armed federal officers who think nothing of blocking a county road. I suspect they probably wouldn’t appreciate constructive criticism.
On Sunday, authorities managed to take one of the rancher’s sons, David Bundy, into custody. The family claimed his offense was attempting to take pictures of the semi-secret cow confiscation. Not surprisingly, the arrest led to a much larger protest turnout Monday morning, when more than 100 people — many of them named Bundy — waved flags and signs and quoted the Constitution.
Although most of the action Monday was near the Virgin River, Bundy family friend Eric Farnsworth of Las Vegas decided to unload his pickup next to the official First Amendment area. He had hand-drawn a stack of signs and unfurled the American flag.
One of the placards read, “The First Amendment is Not an Area.”
He was right, even if no one cared to listen.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 702-383-0295.