National group critical of BLM, Bundy in Bunkerville standoff

A new report from a national organization dedicated to fighting hate groups and racism takes the government to task for mishandling the April 12 armed showdown with Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy.

The writers of the report, Mark Potok and Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center, were equally critical in a telephone news conference Thursday of Bundy and his militia supporters. They suggested the militia response to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management that day was a planned conspiracy that included placing snipers at strategic locations to aim high-powered rifles at federal agents.

“This was not a spur-of-the-moment thing,” said Lenz, who was at the site of the standoff and returned later to interview one of the key militia players. “It was planned out, and the militia and the Bundy family were in accord with each other.”

Potok urged federal authorities investigating the standoff to charge Bundy if it turns out he was part of a militia conspiracy.

“We cannot let people get away with these kinds of threats and so-called victories,” Potok said. “These were extremely serious laws that appeared to be flaunted.”

On Thursday, Bundy said he wasn’t part of any conspiracy and suggested the BLM did all of the planning.

“My part was all defense, no organized plan at all,” he said. “They had been organizing for a couple of years planning this thing. They had snipers out there around my ranch for a couple of weeks.”

The April 12 standoff, described by militia as the “Battle of Bunkerville,” occurred as the BLM, backed by federal court orders, was seizing Bundy’s cattle over his failure to pay the agency an estimated $1 million in grazing fees for two decades. The BLM abruptly abandoned the operation as tension mounted.

“What is puzzling is why the BLM allowed Bundy to get away for 20 years without paying grazing fees that all other ranchers pay,” the 26-page Southern Poverty Law Center report says. “And what is equally surprising is the almost amateurish way the BLM finally moved against Bundy.

“What both point to is a failure of the federal government to come to terms with the true nature of the war in the West.”

Potok told reporters the BLM, which brought helicopters and dogs and “a lot of weapons” to the site of the standoff, played into the militia’s view that the government is overbearing. Setting up special First Amendment areas where people could speak also inflamed the situation, he said.

“The battle lines have now been drawn,” the report says. “The anti-government movement has come to believe, due to the failed tactics of the BLM, that their guns trump the authority of federal law enforcement — a flat contradiction of the notion of a nation of laws.”

The report says the Bundy standoff has invigorated the growing anti-government extremist movement, leading to other clashes with the BLM in the West.

“For those harboring deep hatred of the federal government, the BLM pullout was seen as a dramatic victory — one instance where the armed radicals of the right stared through their own gunsights at the gun barrels of law enforcement officials and won,” the report says. “Cliven Bundy may have faded from public view, but the movement that spawned him is boiling.”

The June 8 shooting deaths in Las Vegas of two police officers and a Good Samaritan have magnified the Alabama-based Poverty Law Center’s concerns.

Jerad and Amanda Miller, who shot and killed officers Alyn Beck and Igor Soldo, then Joseph Robert Wilcox in a horrific anti-government protest, were among Bundy’s supporters at the ranch briefly, but were asked to leave. The Millers were killed in a shootout with police.

“I think you could say the Millers, doing what they did, came in an environment that was emboldened because of the success in Bunkerville,” Lenz told the Las Vegas Review-Journal after the deadly shootings.

The center’s report adds, “Government officials need to understand what motivates this movement because the Millers will not be the last to demonstrate their anti-government rage with bullets.”

Law enforcement authorities across the country also need additional training to better deal with radical right extremists, the report recommends.

Since 2009, there have been 17 shooting incidents between anti-government extremists and law enforcement in a resurgence of the movement in the aftermath of the election of President Barack Obama, according to the report.

In Bunkerville in April, hundreds of armed militia members had flocked to Bundy’s aid, creating a fierce debate that attracted national attention.

With rifles pointing toward each side and tensions reaching a critical level, federal land officials backed away and agreed to return Bundy’s cattle.

The BLM said it decided to halt the roundup out of fear for the safety of its agents and the public.

Since then, the FBI has launched a criminal investigation into the showdown. Agents are looking at allegations of threats and assaults on law enforcement officers who were at the scene of the confrontation.

Bundy became a hero to right-wing conservatives across the country as the debate raged over the cattle roundup, until he made what were perceived as racist remarks to a New York Times reporter and then to local reporters.

Potok criticized as “despicable” the actions of conservative political pundits and politicians, among them Republican Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, who publicly supported Bundy early in the confrontation.

“The hypocrisy is astounding here,” Potok said. “Cliven Bundy is no civil rights activist. He’s a racist extremist who refused to pay the same grazing fees that every other rancher pays.”

Bundy responded that the BLM has never billed him for any grazing fees. “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t owe them anything,” he said.

Sandoval’s chief of staff, Mike Willden, said the Southern Poverty Law Center is wrong about the governor and misstated his position in the Bunkerville showdown.

The governor did not support Bundy, but rather spoke out to protect public safety and the public’s rights, Willden explained.

“He didn’t want anybody to get hurt, and he wanted to make sure the BLM wasn’t violating anyone’s First Amendment rights,” Willden said.

BLM spokeswoman Erica Szlosek declined to comment on the center’s report.

“We haven’t fully read the report and aren’t in a position to comment,” she said.

The road ahead is not easy for federal officials, as they try to deal with Bundy and militia members still encamped at his ranch, the report explains.

“Having waited so long to move against Bundy, having underestimated the resistance they would encounter once they decided to move and now facing an entrenched and organized band of anti-government zealots, federal officials are in a very difficult position,” the report says.

“They have their work cut out for them.”

Contact Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-8135. Find him on Twitter: @JGermanRJ.