As the sun went down in the tiny town of Paradise, Montana, the road winding up to the old schoolhouse was lined full with trucks, SUVs, and trailers. The overflow parking overflowed. Bumper stickers announced support for Trump, for Infowars, for minding your own business. “Politicians prefer unarmed peasants. Protect the 2nd Amendment,” read one. “THE CONSTITUTION: FRUSTRATING LIBERALS SINCE 1789,” declared another. An SUV with Nevada plates, driven by a man with a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, stopped to talk to a man wearing an orange security vest, then pulled forward. “The package has arrived,” the security man said into his radio. “I repeat, the package has arrived.”
“The package” is Cliven Bundy — the Nevada rancher who, earlier this month, was released from prison after a federal judge dismissed all charges against him for participating in an armed standoff at his family’s ranch near Bunkerville over unpaid grazing fees. Over the last decade, Bundy has become the figurehead for a growing movement of “constitutionalists” who believe the federal government has infringed upon states’ rights. In most cases, including Bundy’s, the issue comes down to the use of federally managed land — which makes up over half of all land in the West. Bundy has refused to pay grazing fees to the federal government since 1993, and engaged in a standoff with federal agents over that refusal in 2014. But he was not arrested until 2016, while en route to the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon, led by his son, Ammon.
Before Bundy’s release, he was already a folk hero — his last name had come to signify a bold refusal, a protest of the way the federal government has blasphemed the founding intents of its fathers. But after the judge’s dismissal of all charges — and the revelation that prosecutors had failed to turn over important evidence to defense attorneys and violated Bundy’s due process — he has been positioned as something of an oracle, primed to focus the loose, long-simmering anger into action. The hundreds who showed up in Paradise weren’t just there to hear him speak. They were waiting to be told what to do next.
Inside the Paradise schoolhouse, the mood was more like a tent revival than a city council meeting. Pocket Constitutions were handed out at the entrance like Bibles. Bundy sat on the stage, joined by his son, Ryan, and five other speakers, including Montana state Sen. Jennifer Fielder. The event was hosted by local resident Roxanne Ryan, whose son, Jake, was arrested at the Malheur standoff, and interspersed with musical breaks (one family sang “The Ballad of the Alamo”) and food offerings (a massive spread of sausage pizza, cookies, bananas, and hot chocolate).
The meeting began with a prayer from Ryan Bundy, who gave thanks to God for the Founding Fathers and for inspiring them: “Father in heaven, we ask thee for thy Holy Spirit to be here,” he prayed. “We ask thee that those who speak will speak with thy tongue.” Small children fidgeted in their seats; babies were taken to a “cry room” in the back.
God was invoked in every speech: for the Bundys and their followers, the Constitution is a divinely ordained document, and heeding what they view as its central tenets, including resisting federal forces, is akin to following the word of God. Malheur protester Shawna Cox told the crowd that the Lord had spoken to her and said that she wasn’t going to jail, and that she should defend herself in court. When Fielder finished her speech, she proclaimed “God bless you, God bless America, God bless the Bundys, God bless the Ryans.”
Ryan Bundy’s 40-minute opening was less speech than sermon, building a logical progression from God giving man dominion over the land to the drafting of the Constitution, from the Constitution to the sovereignty of states. “Is Montana a state?” he asked the crowd. “Are you sure? I’m not so sure. Does it own 100% of its resources? How does that make you feel?”
“Like a colony!” someone in the audience shouted.
(The Bundys and their followers are but the latest iteration of the radical movement known as the Sagebrush Rebellion, which has struggled to gain mainstream traction in part because of practical questions as to feasibility: Opponents argue that there is no way for individual states to effectively or safely manage the millions of acres of federal land that would be returned to them; the massive forest fires, like the ones that scorched Montana this summer, would exhaust the budgets of sparsely populated states within weeks. Public lands advocates, like the dozen or so Backcountry Hunters and Anglers who stood at the back of Saturday’s meetings, believe the Bundys are effectively stealing land that belongs to the public.)
Ryan Bundy periodically quoted passages from the Constitution — some well-known, others esoteric — from memory; he quizzed the audience on other portions and asked them to remember the specific sections from memory. The Constitution is scripture, as holy and righteous as any other biblical text. Bundy’s interpretation of it is solidified by his sacrifice to the cause: as Roxanne Ryan told the audience after Bundy left the microphone, “This man spent two years in prison, and half of that time was in solitary. So think about that.”
But religion benefits from martyrs — especially if it wants to convert others to the faith. For Bundy followers, that martyr is LaVoy Finicum, who was shot and killed by federal agents at a roadblock outside the Malheur Federal Wildlife Refuge. LaVoy’s name is emblazoned on shirts, hats, and bumper stickers; an elderly beagle had a LaVoy button pinned to its dog jacket. “It matters how you stand” — a phrase attributed to LaVoy — has become a rallying cry; his image has become one of the most popular memes in “liberty-minded” corners of the internet. Cox’s speech was a play-by-play testimony of what happened the day of his death: “LaVoy gave his life to defend us,” she said, amid cheers from the crowd. “He made that conscious decision that he needed to stand and protect the Constitution.”
If Saturday night’s gathering was a church service, it was a distinctly modern one. There was no Wi-Fi or cell service, but men dressed in muck boots and camo took photos and video of the speeches on their smartphones. At least five different camera setups filmed the gathering for viewers at home; a Redoubt News recording, posted on the Bundy Ranch Facebook page (which has over 205,000 followers) has been viewed 17,000 times and counting. One of the featured speakers was Andrea Parker, whose husband was arrested for involvement in the 2014 Bundy standoff, and has since become well-known for taping, streaming, and otherwise documenting the trial for the outside world. When describing the lead-up to Finicum’s death, Shawna Cox said that when she saw law enforcement, she “got out my very best weapon: my camera.” She taped the entire confrontation, which has since become a primary document in arguments concerning what supporters view as unwarranted overreach on the part of the federal government.
In their cowboy hats and wool vests, the Bundys can present as men of a bygone era. But the internet has been the Bundys’ greatest rallying tool: through Facebook groups, far-right news sites, blogs, bulletin boards, YouTube videos, and online radio broadcasts, they’ve rallied support around them, consolidated a narrative of persecution, and transformed LaVoy Finicum into a martyr. Even though their supporters are diffuse, their purpose, and anger, is consolidated: Many at Saturday’s meeting were from Northwest Montana, but many had also come from Northern Idaho and Oregon. One woman, wearing a shirt signed, in Sharpie, by Cliven, had driven all the way from the outskirts of Portland. She’d made earrings modeled after the Bundy Ranch cattle brand.
About 20% of the audience raised their hands when asked who identified as “cattlemen.” Many others identified as lifelong Montanans. But others had moved to Northwest Montana and Northern Idaho to be part of what’s become known as the American Redoubt: a loosely affiliated group, largely Christian but not entirely, who’ve moved to the rural expanses of the area so as to fully exercise their constitutional rights (see especially: the Second Amendment). Some, but certainly not all, are affiliated with militias; others are full-blown doomsday preppers; one couple told me that they’d quit their jobs and walked away from their Nevada home at the urging of their pastor to move near Kalispell, Montana, and prepare for end times. Many are fleeing areas like Southern California, which some Redoubters refer to as “the occupied zone,” whose politics have shifted to the left or where white people have become the minority.
Redoubters might not have the same life skills or experiences as the native Montanans, but they share something else. They were furious, for example, that two women were standing outside the schoolhouse with signs that read “Bundy = White Privilege,” intending to call attention to the way the Bundy’s armed action would have been treated if they were not white. “What do they know about white privilege?” the woman from outside Portland, asked me. “I live in a trailer — does that mean I have white privilege?”
At one point during the night, the audience was asked to shout out who they blamed for what had happened to their God- (and constitutionally) given rights. The answers were about what you’d expect: Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Fish and Wildlife, Harry Reid, Hillary Clinton. There’s just so much anger — at the way the world has changed, at the slow demise of their way of life, at a country that, to them, is no longer great. Now that Obama and Hillary Clinton are gone, there are few places to direct that abundant anger. What the Bundy’s have done, more than anything else, is give it shape, logic, purpose, and potency.
When Cliven Bundy rose to speak, his message felt like a culmination of the six speakers who had come before. But he told the crowd that their anger toward the federal government, and their desire for him to go confront the bureaucrats in Washington, DC, was misguided. “Good heavens, we have a Constitution,” he said. “This battle’s already been fought for us.” The next step, then, is to act like it: “Go read your Constitution and start acting like a sovereign state,” he said, not unlike a father scolding a frustrated child.
In other words: If you’re frustrated with the way that the federal government has been encroaching on your way of life, stop recognizing the government’s authority. At one point, he spoke directly to Montana ranchers: “You guys are still signing the contracts!” he said, referring to the agreements that allow ranchers to graze on Bureau of Land Management land. Then, when the rancher has a problem — with the BLM, or the Forest Service, or the Park Service, or Fish and Wildlife — and they go to the local sheriff for help, the sheriff’s hands are tied, because the rancher signed an agreement with the federal government, thereby acknowledging and acquiescing to its power.
“You guys gotta think about this,” Bundy said. “Remember what I said my 15-second defense was? I grazed my cattle on county land, and I have no contract with the federal government. I haven’t had a contract with the federal government for 25 years.” Which is why, when he goes to court, he doesn’t plead guilty — or innocent. “I don’t plea no thing,” he continued. “I don’t recognize this court has any jurisdiction over my land that I graze cattle on, over my rights over my home.”
“So what I ask you to do today here is to act like Montanans,” Bundy said. “Act like you have a county government. Act like you understand the Constitution.”
There was no explicit direction to stop signing the leases — just to think about the power scheme ranchers were ratifying when they did. There was no call to arms. No specific plans were laid. Cliven Bundy didn’t tell anyone what to do. Along with the other speakers, he restated and reaffirmed the cause. He was the lead pastor giving a version of the sermon he’s given several times before. But that’s the great utility of a church service: It’s very seldom about specific, direct action. Instead, it’s about creating a sense of community, and cementing the foundation of the belief system, so that when the time does come to act — in whatever way necessary — the faithful will follow. ●
The agency that shot LaVoy Finicum was misidentified in an earlier version of this post.
Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News. Petersen has a Ph.D. from the University Of Texas and wrote her dissertation on the gossip industry.
Contact Anne Helen Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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